A Peek Behind The Curtain

Getting Free Wine Is Awesome.  Or is it?

Writing this blog has provided an embarrassment of riches. Over the last 10 years, free wine has showed up on my doorstep periodically. Invitations to tastings and other exclusive events also arrive in my inbox with regularity.  As a result, my eyes have been opened to varieties, regions, and people I otherwise wouldn't have a reason or the opportunity to discover. And merely mentioning that I am a wine blogger has opened doors that I wouldn't have even known existed.

All of these are a extraordinary privileges, none of which I take for granted, and it’s worth pausing for a moment to note that this stuff doesn’t materialize out of thin air.  Someone is putting money, effort, or usually both to make these things happen. Because free wine (aka samples) seems to get the most attention from people outside the industry, I wanted to offer a peek behind the curtain to explain how all this really works. 

It's not all rainbows and unicorns.  Sure, there are those bottles that arrive and speak for themselves; honest wines that tell a story.  Inspirational vintages make the writing process easy; the words just spill out of the bottles as easy as red wine onto a white shirt. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. You see, great wines need little promotion, which means they are less likely to show up on my doorstep. On the other hand, products with less notoriety and/or track record do need some marketing. There is also a lot of overlap of wineries that need a publicity shove and those which are still developing talent in the cellar and/or vineyard, which is just a polite way of saying that the wines aren’t that good. I’m not complaining- it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

If that were the end of the story, it'd be fine; not every bottle can be a home run.  But beyond having to hold my nose at a lot of the stuff FedEx drops off, there is an implicit expectation of reciprocity. To understand what that means, you first need to appreciate that there's a producer who has worked hard to bring their product to market, a multi-year, capital-intensive process not for the faint of heart.  (As the joke goes, if you want to be a millionaire vintner, best to start with ten million.)  Wineries also often retain public relations representation.  These are the good folks I interact with the most, as it falls to them to get the wines in front of those likely to write about it.  Finally, there's the not-so-insignificant component of shipping, which itself can have regulatory implications.  All of this costs time and money, neither of which is plentiful. So, it's natural that those on the risk-taking side of the seesaw have hopes - and even expectations - that there will be some return on their investment.

Thankfully, very few of the professionals I have dealt with over the years have explicitly demanded such a return, but the message is always there: We've just sent you some free wine, and not for the first time, either. Surely you can find something nice to say about it.

That message is delivered most clearly in the silent absence of future shipments after I've published an unflattering review. This site contains many honest, if critical, reviews, which make for a comprehensive list of wineries and publicists who no longer do business with me.  Writing those reviews used to be entertaining, but the fatigue of judgement has caught up with me.  Besides, drawing readers' attention to the weaknesses of a fledgling winery they otherwise would not come across is merciless sport of questionable value.  Today I aspire to draw into focus undiscovered gems worth celebrating. This explains why, out of the last 24 samples I've received, fewer than 6 have made it onto this blog.

It's the process of separating the song from the noise, but every one of those shitty bottles gives me a pang of heartache.  I want to find something redeeming in each of them, but you just can't conjure what isn't there, and I know that's a let down for everyone up the supply chain.  There's also the question of purpose: who am I serving with the endeavor of my writing?  Myself?  Readers?  Producers?  An increasingly uncomfortable question as the writing gets harder.

So, if you're one of my friends and neighbors who give me a wistful look that tells me you think getting free wine is the con of the century, please forgive my sigh in response.

Is getting free wine awesome? It sure is. Just maybe not for the reasons you might have thought.