Monday, November 14, 2011

The Scourge of Wine Bloggers

I've been thinking about this for a while now, my frustration growing at times, receding at other times. In the hopes of creating dialogue, I'm posting my feelings openly and honestly for everyone (all nine of you) to read.

Should wine bloggers be nice?

Yes, by all means we collectively should be nice to people, and of course, about the wines we review. However, should we be nice at the expense of our integrity as bloggers and responsibility to accurately report/blog about the wines we're drinking? The answer to that is a resounding NO. There's a line to be drawn between being polite, gracious, and nice, and being a jerk, insulting, and rude. Staying within the accepted societal norms of behavior is easy, unless you're the WAWineMan guy, but that's a "special" case.

With that out of the way...

If I'm sent a bottle of wine by a winery, PR group, or trade group with the understanding that I'll review it, whomever sent the wine must understand that I'll review that (and every) wine according to my tastes and based off of my own experiences. In other words, my life experience plus my accumulated wine training. Expanding that concept, wine bloggers shouldn't be expected to sugarcoat their reviews, and disliking some wines is a good thing, even if you got it for free. When you write about a wine you don't like, any smart PR agency or other wine-related group will read the review and understand that perhaps you aren't the best person to review a certain style or type in the future. Readers too will benefit by gaining a sense of where your palate lies in relation to theirs.

This all stems from me being sent a lot of inexpensive, budget-oriented wine to sample. In what context do I place those wines? Confession: I place them near the bottom, qualitatively, of my wine-consciousness because they are not as good as the more expensive wines I've been fortunate to taste in my career. Without any pretension, that is a fact. There are occasional exceptions which never fail to bring joy and a smile (and a positive review), but generally, wines that are inexpensive are also of lower quality and "score" lower on my (and other's) scale.

How do I convey that fact to my readers without coming across as a snob? 

I strive to balance the positives and negatives of every wine while remaining careful not to endorse something that I myself wouldn't drink. In my firm opinion, readers can see through the bullshit, especially from Wine Bloggers. What's required is a deft grammatical touch, correct phraseology, and being nice. I've spoken before of accepting all wine drinkers from the neophyte to the gurus. Inclusiveness is obviously vital to expanding the reach and influence of the wine blogging community.

 Though I always take self-appointed "wine gurus" (or divas, gods, goddesses, etc) with a grain of salt...

Now, about those Wine Bloggers...

Wine bloggers are under an obligation, which more and more of us seem to forget or dismiss, to write about what we're sent. So then, why do wine bloggers forget that obligation or dismiss it? That's easy; the main reason is that they don't want to cut of the flow of free wine. I'll be polite and refrain from naming any names, but when you gush over every single wine you're sent, without fail, in every public forum you can get into, something is wrong.

The word disingenuous comes to mind when I think of these bloggers, and quite a few of them are very "famous" in the insular wine blogging community. When I read their reviews, I grimace and understand why people like WAWineMan and the HoseMaster of Wine love to insult and demean wine bloggers. Perhaps those two have a point. If ever a small group within a large group harmed the collective image, those disingenuous bloggers are it.

Another point must be made: what is often forgotten is that someone took the time to reach out and send us a product that was made (by someone else) and is now on store shelves. Refraining from writing about that wine is basically ripping off the producer and entity that sent you the free bottle. By accepting samples we accept the mantle or responsibility to write honestly about those samples, not ignore the ones we don't like or gush about every single free bottle that ends up in our kitchen.

Backtracking just a bit to the consumers, i.e. our target audience..

Consumers want an accurate, non-sugar-coated wine review to assist them in their buying decisions. The only way to get more wine lovers to read wine blogs is to gain their trust while encouraging them to keep expanding their drinking boundaries. Bringing an element of personal evaluation into your review is critical, so long as you can do so without the rancor or rudeness of a cad. By showing a human side, one that likes some wines and dislikes others, without pretension, the average Googler will read your blog and might actually take away something useful.




My point is that every wine deserves a fair chance, and going back to what I wrote before, I personally do give every single wine I taste a fair shake before taking notes and writing up the review. After that fair shake, all bets are off, and that's how it should be, right? MY blog reflects the sum of MY wine experience. Is that unreasonable, or should we all strive for a similar philosophy?

Wine bloggers already have a bit of a bad reputation, and generally speaking, it might just be deserved.

Beau Carufel

25 comments:

  1. From the very first day I started stalking you on Twitter to reading your blog I liked what I saw. You are honest, you don't beat about the bush, you have never come across as a snob and are gracious, even in a low review. I trust your opinion and you have guided me to some great wines, even the low priced ones. You deserve more recognition for your honesty. I, as a newbie to American wines, certainly do appreciate it.

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  2. Beau-
    A great piece (as usual) and spot on. The wine blogger as critic is NO different to the much celebrated newspaper restaurant critic, the movie critic or the automobile critic, in that, you're merely espousing YOUR opinion giving YOUR experience and style preference. Granted, the autombile critic may site 0-60 mph and MPG features, etc., but everything beyond technical spec's is solely personal preference. As is the case in wine. There is a significant need for the wine newcomer and professional alike to access much needed information on wines they may not have the luxury of tasting due to time & money. Turning to a "trusted source" is a valuable time saver and you are definitely such a source. Keep up the great work.

    Cheers,
    Martin Cody
    President
    Cellar Angels

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  3. Not to be contrarian, but as a wine blogger - I disagree that we are under an obligation to review EVERY wine we are sent. Simply put, I receive unsolicited samples every week. I MUST blog about these?
    Horse Hockey, to quote Col Potter.

    Additionally, while I agree with your premise, how do you KNOW that bloggers are reviewing every wine they are sent with a positive spin? Personally, if I don't drink three sips of wine, I don't blog about it. End of story.

    That means, that overwhelmingly, what I choose to blog about - are wines that I enjoy. If there is a wine that I think you should avoid, yes I will put that in my post, but I will not go out of my way to negatively impact a wine, because - yes. It's MY view.

    As Martin stated above, if we are held to the same standards as professional critics, then we are NOT and CAN not review every item sent to us, positively or negatively.

    You are correct however, in that we must keep our voices clear; we cannot get lost in the sample gravy train and review everything witha smile and chirp so we can continue the free wine.

    As a blogger, I hope that MY readers will try a few things that I have reviewed; if they like those wines, they are apt to like other wines I post about. Because in the end, when you are writing about wines, you are writing about what YOU are enjoying - which is 100% subjective and impossible to replicate.

    Your respectful reader

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  4. dammit. I had written something very poignant (and dissenting, at that). Went to copy it, just a "c" went into the comment field, and you have a crap comment from me.

    I'm not typing all that out again. Let's just say "agree to disagree".

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  5. Joe, more than happy to "agree to disagree" with you, hopefully we can discuss our views in more detail over a few beers or bottles of vino at next year's WBC. :)

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  6. Portrait of the artist as a young man. Take time to breathe deeply and dismiss those that work against you. Most people will assume you are working honestly with the wine you review.

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  7. Thank you for being honest in every single wine you write about, Beau!

    When you hype something up, whether it be a wine or how exciting it is to watch paint dry, there's an expectation set by the reader/consumer/paint drying watcher (it's been a long day...forgive me). And when those products don't live up to the hype in the mind of the consumer, there's a feeling of, "And this is great...why? What's their basis for this being the 'must-have' product?"

    When you're honest about something, don't sugar coat the flaws and admit that it's not to *your* liking, but encourage them to not take your opinion as the driving force behind *THEIR* decision, then it gives the consumer a chance to take a risk and discover whether they like it or not.

    I would rather read someone who is honest about something than someone that tells you "This wine is the best of the best of the best because...", hypes the holy living sh!t out of it and then when you go to look into purchasing the wine that so-and-so declared as the holy grail of wine, you find out that the wine they're drooling over is only available to the elite few that are on that wineries ultra-selective, there's-a-waiting-list-to-just-be-on-the-waiting-list distribution list.

    Yeah. Sorry. If they're that exclusive, then they've lost any potential business I'll give them. (Honest truth...then again I'm not all that patient sometimes. Of course, I also don't have the disposable income to afford such "exclusive" luxuries).

    Then again, I also prefer the smaller, more boutique wineries that aren't driven by exclusivity of what they *could* produce...they just want to share their passion.

    Same with bloggers...I want to read someone who's sharing their passion. Not someone who is pretentious and trying to show that they are a know-it-all who's trying to skew their readers palates, when in reality, they're forgetting that everyone's palate isn't the same as theirs. What tastes like heaven on a stick (or in a glass) to me may taste like dog crap to you.

    Now that I've written a book...I think I'll go find something with alcohol in it to help soothe the rough-around-the-edges kind of day I had. ;)

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  8. I have to agree with winebratsf. I feel I am under no obligation to review every wine I receive...as a matter of fact, I state that clearly on my blog. I chose from day one to only write about wines I enjoy and to make my blog a place people can come to find good wines(or at least the wines I like). I understand that some bloggers don't like this approach (and they have every right not to) but I really don't care. I created my blog for fun and because I enjoy wine. I am ok with people not liking my blog as long as I enjoy writing it.

    This being said, I did enjoy reading your perspective and I am a consistent reader of your blog. I think it takes all types of bloggers because there are clearly different types of people who love wine with vastly different preferences of the wines they like and the blogs they choose to read.

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  9. I rarely blog about wines that don't float my boat.

    I do try to blog about as many samples as I can that I think are a good value for the price. I have sent apologetic emails to reps to say that in good conscience I couldn't say anything nice and so would not be writing about their wine. But when I get busy it is hard to compell myself to find the time to write about a wine that is ho-hum.

    I do at times write about awful wine. This is mostly wine that I paid for and that are so bad that I take them back to the store.

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  10. I'm a new blogger and don't (yet) receive wine samples, but when (if) I do, I plan to review all of them, positive or negative, both as a response to the producer and as information for the consumer. I think it just has to be done in a fair manner.

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  11. I get dozens upon dozens of unsolicited e-mails from all kinds of PR companies asking me if I want samples. Most of the time, I say no or don't respond. If they send a sample because they somehow got my mailing address, they sent it at their own risk. I enjoy writing about wines that make me happy, that evoke a memory or that I clearly feel the general public will like and trust my opinion. Most of my blogging is about people I've met in the industry because I've taken the time, on my own dime by the way, to venture to the west coast to meet with them, sit down with them, and experience what they have to offer. Everyone has a different blogging style and that's what makes the world go around. I don't critically review wines as I have stated before. If somebody wants the tasting notes, they can go to that winery's website. I'm a writer, a storyteller, and I enjoy the experience of it all. If that makes what I'm doing wrong, then there's something wrong with this entire industry.

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  12. I tend to agree with your points but bloggers do not need to go through this catharsis process. We need to get rid of this circular discussion: should I ask or refuse samples? I'm compelled to smooth the tasting note if I'm drinking a bottle sent by a producer/distributor?

    We need to be ethic, to be true, to be close to our beliefs.

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  13. What do you feel is the source of the ethical obligation you claim wine bloggers have to review every sample they receive? I strongly disagree any such obligation exists, and to maintain our independence and integrity, we should not agree to review every sample we receive. Print wine writers do not write about every sample they receive so why should a wine blogger be any different? Every time I have heard someone say they should review all wine samples, it has always been a blogger. Wineries never state writers must review all samples they send out. PR people also understand bloggers won't review all samples, and the PR people don't complain of ethical violations.

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  14. I do agree with most of everything else you said, that we should be honest in our reviews and not afraid to post negative comments. Some bloggers do seem like cheerleaders, praising every sample their receive.

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  15. Richard: I might be naive in thinking this, but if someone (winery, PR, etc) takes the time to contact us, then send a sample, we're obligated to review it whether we liked the bottle or not. It seems that if we just ignore it or consign the bottle to a dumpster and say "I didn't like this bottle so I won't devote any time to writing about it", we're showing a lack of respect for that person who reached out to us.

    What I see from a lot (not all) of wine bloggers is this sense of entitlement, the thinking going that just because they have a wine blog, they should be sent samples. There's no thought that every sample bottle sent is one less to be sold, and that someone is actively working on the winery's behalf to help that winery stay in business.

    That and I feel that beyond the bravado of "I don't have to review a wine if I don't want to" lies the fact that a lot of bloggers simply don't have the balls to say "I did not like this wine". It goes back to them not having the ethics to communicate honestly with their readers, telling the WHOLE STORY instead of just the glittery bits.

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  16. Hi Beau:
    1. You failed to answer a very important question I raised: "Print wine writers do not have to write about every sample they receive so why should a wine blogger be any different?"

    2. You also did not state the basis of your ethical position on samples. I understand your reasons, and it may be part of your own personal ethical code, but there is no universal wine blogger ethical code. There is no set of rules you can point to and say this or that is a violation. And the various journalist ethical codes that do exist, would not require a blogger to write about all samples.

    3. There are probably bloggers who don't review all wines because they don't want to provide negative reviews. That is their choice, but again there is no ethical code that states they must provide negative reviews. Maybe they should be honest, but if they are not, their readership will ultimately decline.

    4. I don't believe you really mean bloggers should tell their readers the "whole story." You did not tell the whole story in this post, refraining from naming names of the bloggers you feel are offenders. You said you would be "polite" and not name names, but then that means you are not telling the "whole story." Bloggers who fail to write negative reviews might just be "polite," which is their perogative.

    Take care.

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  17. Hi Beau,

    I'm a recent (since March) wine blogger from Portugal and for the website I put up with a couple of friends we took on a different approach, we do not accept free wines! It was something we decided from day one and although we receive a lot of mails offering samples we haven't changed our minds.

    We choose to do so because we're not professional wine tasters but we still want to tell our readers what we like and dislike. In my opinion it doesn't make much sense to have a website where all wines are good as it does not reflect on real life.

    Sure we could accept the wines and write a bad review when the wine is bad but whether we want it or not people tend to be bias in a positive way towards what's offered and as stated above we are not professionals.

    We pay our bottles and we write exactly what we think of them. For me, it's the honest way to go about it.

    Cheers,
    Nuno Vieira

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  18. Beau, I appreciate your honesty in writing this piece. I think as wine writer/bloggers, if we choose to accept wine samples, a fair tasting is in order.

    I like to think of receiving wine samples similarly to trying on clothes. Not every item of clothing is going to fit, that's why we try it on, see what works and what doesn't. If an item doesn’t work and the sales rep asks us why, we politely say, "the colour isn't right for me" or "it didn't fit right." No matter what, there is always a reason WHY something does or doesn't work. The same applies to wine. We won't like every sample sent. Liking wine is personal preference. Just because one sample doesn't suit our palate doesn't mean it won't work for our readers. That is why as a writer we need to find our voice and share in our experience, be it good or bad, and explain WHY, politely. The colour orange doesn’t look good on me but looks great on my best friend. The focus needs to be on empowering readers to make their own decisions about what they drink.

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  20. "I taste a lot of wine. Most of it, about 85% is rejected here at the Wine of the Month Club
    usually because it is just overpriced compared to its competitors. Sometimes they are outright undrinkable…
    Who knows why they bring me this stuff…I am sure they can't drink, why do they think I would have my members drink it.

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  21. Beau-

    Meant to respond earlier and just got caught up in other things. I also fall on the side of 'not obligated' to review everything that is sent to me. I do feel obligated to taste in a controlled environment and give it some respect to show its true self, but beyond that... I have always tried to represent my blog for exactly what it is, an amateur (with growing knowledge and experience) commenting and observing on wines, at my discretion, and for other consumers. If PR folks, importers, winery owners, choose to send some wine into that space I feel obligated to be upfront about my intentions. This does not translate into a required post for me.

    I completely agree that there is a place for negative feedback on wines in the online world. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not know what they are missing in terms of quality, because they don't understand what makes a wine less than pleasant. I generally find that morality in this whole space is really about trying to be respectful, and I think you nail that, so keep on my friend.

    Scott

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  22. Damn, I was actually the 1st to post, but it never went. Reposting:
    A good, interesting piece Beau.

    I generally refrain from commenting on posts about bloggers, and the overdone trend of sensationalism posts I detest, that is all to rampant in the bloggersphere.
    Even with (or especially with) some of the bigger and print names. (Which bravo, you if you got 30 comments when you posted that hype, guess how many were consumers....zero.)

    I know you, and your demeanor, you aren't posting with intent of garnering comments or press. Seems something struck a nerve, I'd be curious off the record what. :)

    I agree people can be nice and cordial; why be an asshole? Some of the behavior and comments I have witnessed in forums, live and group tastings, has been deplorable, and one of several reason why I wonder what do call myself, and cringe when saying 'blogger.'

    There are no gurus, experts, and anyone claiming to be is suspect. If I had 2 more lifetimes, I wouldn't master 1/4 of what I'd like to learn. (There are also unfortunately too many who blog about wine, who really have limited exposure and knowledge, yet are incredibly vocal. Thank Bacchus the Wine Whore retired. )

    I am mixed on our obligation to write. First, I generally don't write negative reviews. Its a personal preference I have been called out on, but stand by it. I also rarely publish negative Yelp reviews any more. There are a variety of reasons, one (and not the main one) having to obtain counsel to defend myself against an industry business with ridiculous accusations, and themselves defaming me - as a result of the many hundreds of pro bono marketing hours I have done. If I don't like your wine, I just don't write about it. In wine country, its a tiny world.

    We can agree to disagree on this one :) - I totally understand the logic, and respect/support any who feel this way.


    The bigger issue now is I am just backlogged, in a big way. Wine comes in that I don't want to sample, or just isn't worth writing about.

    Now when asked if I wish to receive a sample, I do advise it may be a few months, and I won't publish if I don't think it merits it. I do commit at a minimum a cellartracker note which is widely viewed via social media.

    Many wineries that have professional in House or outsourced PR understand and don't require a more established blogger to write an article, they are ok with the fact you may just try it. Of course ideally you would review it, but they understand, and will settle for at least being on radar.

    I sit on both sides, and assist a PR firm with sample selections for brands, and they are consistent in this approach as well.

    I also think its ok for a PR firm/Winery to expect, especially if they are sending out something pricey/rare for a review of feedback - but they MUST be clear up front.

    So far, when I share the possible delay or lack of publication, they choose to send the wine anyway.

    On your 'confession' of inexpensive vs expensive wines. Kudos, you are just calling the elephant in the room. Are there good wines under $10, yes. Are their crappy wines over $40, yes. But anyone who thinks there isn't (to a point) some correlation between price, production level and quality, is self deluded.

    We only have so many hours in a day to this non paying labor of love we do - who WOULDN"T prefer to spent the 1-3 hours it takes to do a proper review, over a hard to find hand crafted Sonoma Coast pinot instead of a 250,000 case $7 made import made in the equivalent of an oil refinery.

    When I find inexpensive gems I will write about them somewhere, but I don't have time to spend on the stuff I pour down the drain.

    Now I am erring on the side of caution to reduce the backlog - and simply saying thanks, but no, to some sample requests, even if there is no expectation I write. Free wine or not, just keep it.

    Keep writing, I read a minimal amount of wine blogs, and yours is right up there. Cheers!

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  23. Well morally i have to say that you are right about all that what would be but practically it's just impossible for a blogger to review all that stuff.

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