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NorCal Wine Blog
Free Samples, Blah, Blah, Blog
- Wine Reviews
- Written by Fred Swan
- Tuesday, 29 June 2010 05:12
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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