When does a wine critic cross the line and become a brand advocate?
I’m always faintly amused, but bothered, when someone representing a winery thanks me for being a “supporter.” It happens with some frequency. I’ll give a wine a good review, or mention it favorably in an article, and next thing you know I’m getting a signed “thank you” card in the mail, or an email, or a phone call, telling me how much they appreciate my support, often “over the years.”
I say this amuses me, because it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the wine critic. We’re not here to “support” anyone, we’re here to say what we think of any given wine. But I also say this thankfulness bothers me, because I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was consciously “supporting” any particular winery. That could lead to serious misreadings of situations. For instance, what if I give high scores to a winery that advertises in Wine Enthusiast? I don’t ever consider whether or not a winery advertises when I conduct my reviews (which are single blind in any case), but I am aware that the wine industry sees my reviews and may arrive at different conclusions–especially if a representative of that winery (owner, winemaker, P.R. person) is going around saying what a great supporter Steve is of their winery.
I can understand the instinct to thank someone for a good deed. It’s part of etiquette and politeness, so I don’t want to tell people to never thank me. When others have written something nice about me, I’ll often thank them. But the difference between someone writing something nice about me, and me reviewing a wine, is stark. In the former case, the person went out of his way to single me out for praise. He didn’t have to, but he took the time to give me a compliment. That’s deserving of thanks.
In the latter case, I’m not singling anyone out for praise nor am I going out of my way. I’m just reviewing their wine because they sent it to me. If it happens to score 95 points, it’s not because I have any warm, personal feelings toward that winery or winemaker (although I might). It’s because the wine is excellent. It speaks for itself; I, as the critic, am simply there to recognize its excellence. Therefore, when somebody calls me up to thank me, I have a standard response: Don’t thank me, thank your winemaker, or your viticulturalist; preferably both. Thank yourself! You’re the ones who did something worthy of thanks. I’m just the messenger.
There is a subtle but profound difference between a genuine supporter and a messenger who happens to give the wine a glowing review. A genuine supporter can be a consumer with nothing to gain by praising the wine–he or she simply loves it and wants to let their friends know. That is the purest form of support: grass roots word-of-mouth.
Then there are paid genuine supporters. This may be a P.R. or marketing person. She’s a “genuine” supporter in that she really does want the winery to do well, but there are agendas here that are not as transparent as they ought to be. This type of supporter is known as an “internal source.” [See these graphics for more explanation of brand advocacy and sourcing.
We wine writers have to be extremely wary about firewalls. In one of the graphics in the article I just cited, they talk about “external sources,” people not employed by the winery, but “Domaine experts with authority, reputation and social rank.” The best external source for brand promotion is the wine critic. This is the old “argument from authority,” and there’s nothing new about it; humankind always has turned to recognized experts in any field (knowledge of God, of healing plants, of books and, yes, of wine). Just because the technology nowadays of computers, the Internet and social media has changed doesn’t mean that the basic form and content of the argument from authority is any different from what it’s ever been.
The wariness we critics have to maintain stems from statements like this one: “With 90 percent of purchases subject to social influence, it’s no surprise that savvy marketers are looking to leverage social influencers to increase sales and awareness.” It’s fine if a savvy marketer (I am starting to hate that word “savvy”) wants to “leverage” a Heimoff review in any way she truthfully can to boost the brand’s reputation and sales. That’s her job. Mine is to protect my reputation for integrity by thwarting any and all efforts to make it look like I personally am endorsing any brand. I’m not.