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NorCal Wine Blog

Free Samples, Blah, Blah, Blog

There seems to be another brouhaha brewing about whether or not wine writers should accept free wine samples and what effect said samples have on the subsequent reviews. Some argue that receiving free samples biases the reviewer. In an article entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Wine Writers,” Winethropology states “that anyone reviewing something they did not shell out their hard-earned shekels for is going to be less demanding and more generous.” Tom Johnson of Louisville Juice, the site that brought this topic to my eyes today, does not accept free wines for review. Still, he is less concerned about bottles of wine here and there than the whole wine country lifestyle issue where one does lunches, visits wineries, gets to know proprietors, etc. That is prudent and a more valid concern. He also contributed a lot of interesting points about the world of political reportage about which he knows a great deal.

Clearly, a reviewer of any product who is in some way biased may not write an even-handed review. Whether this bias is due to a free sample or because the winemaker’s wife is the reviewers’ childrens’ math teacher, writing a review which is not genuine is a bad thing. That is why I, and most responsible reviewers of wine, do their evaluations based on blind tastings. You cannot be biased if you don’t know which wine you’re tasting.

Those reviewers who think they are unbiased because they paid for their samples are kidding themselves. They are biased by knowing the price point of the wine, seeing the label on the bottle, having experienced the wine in the past or having read someone else’s review. And, except for a small handful of people, reviewing wines is not a well-paying gig. Very few reviewers could afford to buy the number of bottles necessary to put together blind flights of six wines on a regular basis so as to provide a usefully large compendium of reviews for their readers.

Frankly, I don’t understand why this issue keeps coming up for wine. Aside from Consumer Reports, very few reviewers of products pay for all of the items they review. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael didn’t pay for all the movies they saw. Computer magazines typically receive their samples from manufacturers for free. Video games and CDs are sent to reviewers by the pallet. Why are wine writers more corruptible than anyone else?

I would argue that the careful wine writers’ reviews might be less biased. You can’t review a CD without figuring out who the artist is. You can’t review a car without seeing the car. But I can have someone pour five wines in a glass while I’m out of the room and then come in, taste them, write notes and score them without knowing whose wines they are.

Part of this new uprising seems to have been spurred by Winethropology having asked some questions of wine writers at a trade event. The first question was “Which of these wines do you like?” The second was “Which of these wines would you spend your own money on?” Winethropology reports that the second question got some dirty looks and uncomfortable silences. The article implies this is because writers say good things about wines just because they got them for free – or because they want to continue getting them for free.

On the contrary, I believe that the questions caused discomfort because they were personal questions and did not call on the reviewers to act as reviewers. A reviewer puts aside “what they like.” Their job is to provide an unbiased evaluation of the quality of a wine. Is it well made? What are it’s aromas, flavors and texture? Is it representative of it’s region and constituent grapes?

You don’t ask the sommelier to find you a wine he likes. You want him to characterize wines and guide you in finding something you will like. The same is true for reviewers. Furthermore, if a reviewer answers the question, he is then inviting future suggestions of bias. “Of course he gave that wine a high score, he likes wines that such and such.”

The question of what the reviewer would pay for is also inappropriate. Had the question been, “which wines here present especially good values?,” then there might have been some quick and useful answers. On the other hand, asking what they would buy is essentially asking “how much money do you make?”

The whole discussion at Winethropology may have been an exercise in getting people exercised since the writer admitted early in the article that they themselves receive about 60% of their wine samples for free. I do agree with their assertion that “casual bloggers are undervalued.” However, I don’t think that value lies in them being less biased because they paid for their wine. I think it’s because of the unique and refreshing perspectives they may offer, the energy of their blogs,  and the personal experiences they share.

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This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.


Tom Johnson
#1 Tom Johnson 2010-06-29 19:41
Ultimately, it comes down to the integrity of the writer, and that can only be determined over time. The writer/reader relationship develops slowly.

And you're right: the best defense is blind tasting.

The whole argument is also a powerful case for CellarTracker and other, similar aggregators of mass opinion. Though I've got to tell you: I'd rather go with the opinion of an individual I trust and who, over time, has demonstrated a consistent palate similar to my own.
#2 Winethropology 2010-07-01 20:45
Hi Fred,

Your approach using blind tasting is something I haven't considered outside the occasional theme tasting with multiple wines, which we do only occasionally. But you bring up a salient argument in favor of doing it with even one bottle. I'm certainly going to give it more than just thought.

Three things, if I may: You suggest that my piece implies that writers say good things about wines just because they got them for free. In some respects you're right, but the question I was (feebly) trying to raise is that if assessment of value is any part of opinion (and, granted, it isn't always with wine reviews), how can someone represent that accurately without participating in the transaction?

For example, a distributor hands you a glass of something red. You taste it, you shrug, you like it. You give it a "Recommended" rating. That night you head out for dinner. You spot something different on the list and you go for it. $50. You taste it, you shrug, you like it, but Jesus H. Christ, you're not too thrilled that you just paid $50 for it. Does it still get the same rating it did when the distributor handed it to you?

The part about wanting to continue getting samples for free is a whole other can of worms. Corruption and ethics aren't a part of my question or point at all. That horse can't possibly be any more beaten.

You pose a theory of your own, "The whole discussion at Winethropology may have been an exercise in getting people exercised." Fair enough. I am completely guilty of using a controversial title to draw the reader in. In retrospect, this is perhaps more revealing of my own wrangling with occasional detachment from consumers' perspectives than throwing stones or trying to incite frenzy. (I'm not even sure I could if I needed to!)

I disagree with you with regards to your point on "casual bloggers" - which I should have phrased as "anyone writing about something they paid for". Without discounting the energy, personal experiences, and unique and refreshing perspectives they share, their value lies in them being MORE biased BECAUSE they paid for their wine. And if the intended audience is people who might go out and buy - or avoid - a wine, then that bias is a good thing.

Finally, I love the title you gave this piece. The more I read my own writing the more I feel the same way.

Hope to see you again at next year's symposium.


Fred Swan
#3 Fred Swan 2010-07-01 22:56
Hi Steve,

Thank you for your excellent comments. They add a lot to the conversation and I appreciate your clarification of anything I may have misinterpreted in your article. I started writing a response to your question regarding value, but decided they would be better placed in an article. I've published that here:


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