At Once Eye-Popping and Not the Least Bit Surprising

Once upon a time at a wine writer's conference, I met Jason Wilson, author of Boozehound (among other books), countless columns, articles, and the newsletter Everyday Drinking. It was 2010, we were in Napa Valley, and I remember him as a solid, brass tacks kids of guy. Unlike many of those in attendance, he did not seem to be under the spell of Meadowood's posh surroundings and the steady stream of cabernets that flowed every waking moment. We commiserated over our shared disbelief at the region's pricing audacity, and how wineries there seemed to disregard the idea that millennials view wine, beer, and spirits as interchangeable beverage options. (Of course, my prediction of a pending comeuppance was either flatly wrong or way, way ahead of its time as today's pricing proves.) 

As the years since have ticked by, I've kept an eye out for his writing, and this week was rewarded with what I consider to be an important, thought-provoking piece titled, "Wine Media Is Broken: A Case Study." If you ever read wine criticism (and you obviously do,) it is absolutely worth your time.

Jason's case study brings up some uncomfortable allegations about wine scores, advertising, and money changing hands between public relations firms and at least one wine publication. If what he alleges is even halfway true, then it appears that receiving payments for inflating scores and withholding poor reviews is a real thing. It is at once eye-popping and not the least bit surprising. (Again, it is very much worth your time.) 

His piece resurfaced some semi-dormant concerns I've had for years about this writing gig, which I gave voice to most recently a few years ago. And the scandalous idea of pay-to-play does breathe new life into the age old question of where the ethical line should be drawn for critics.

Should reviewers be expected to remain objective when their travel costs to a region/producer are picked up by that entity's PR arm? No more than they should be expected to pay their own travel costs. And there are many examples of ethical/practical complexities along that very slippery slope, including all the way down to getting free booze to review. 

While no one has ever paid me money for writing a review, there is, at minimum, the implicit expectation of reciprocity: "We've just sent you some free bottles, and not for the first time, either. Surely you can find something nice to say about them, right?" Proof of that expectation is most clear in the silent absence of future shipments after I've published an unflattering review. I've written many honest, if critical, reviews, which now serve as a list of wineries and publicists who no longer send samples.

Earlier this year, I completed a course on behavioral economics at the University of Chicago. For anyone who isn't a regular consumer of Freakonomics, behavioral econ is really the psychology of decision-making; a science built on systemic biases that explain how predictable we are in making choices, many of which are faulty.

When someone parts with their own hard-earned money to purchase a good or service, the act of paying introduces a set of biases that absolutely influence their evaluation of that good or service. The paying (or owning) part is intrinsically intertwined with cognitive forces that may cause us to be either more demanding of the quality/value we've bought, more forgiving thereof, or both.

So, where does that leave criticism? At the end of the day, there's only one thing that pays the rent. (Hint: free drinks and travel to fabulous places is definitely not it.) So, anything you read for free (and even some you pay for) is under the influence.