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When does a wine critic cross the line and become a brand advocate?

20 comments

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.

  1. Steve,
    or is it Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, this essay well exceeds the utility of the one where you revealed that a distraught winemaker attacked you for a supposed low score (Elicited a great # of responses though); with well thought-out statements like: “There is a subtle but profound difference between a genuine supporter and a messenger who happens to give the wine a glowing review.” and “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.” . Do you believe that some critics don’t score wines because they fail to understand that subtle difference?
    I believe that there are lessons worth their weight in gold here.
    Now I understand that we’re not pals, but in the end I don’t represent a winery, WE, or any advertisers. So hopefully you don’t interpret my high score for this bottled report as anything more than admitting the truth.

    Since some wineries consistently produce great wines, is “Go-to winery” a pejorative phrase to the wine critic’s integrity?

  2. Dennis, you pose an interesting question. There are go-to wineries (for value, consistency, prestige, etc.) and part of my job is to let consumers know what they are. I just have to be careful to not mention anyone in particular too often.

  3. Excellent!

    Beautifully written clarity of purpose.
    It’s not going to be the same for each journalist, writer or reviewer, but it’s something each person who puts words to paper should think about and struggle with.

    Kudos,

    Nannette Eaton

  4. “I just have to be careful to not mention anyone in particular too often.” That doesn’t make any sense to me, Steve. If you are a critic, your “job” is to promote good wine and not promote mediocre/bad wine. If in your criticisms you find that a winery consistently fits with what you are recommending to your audience, would you consciously, intentionally, excise that winery from mention because you felt it might be perceived (by someone) as you promoting that winery?

    So you’re punishing them because of your perceived integrity? So it has become more about you (and how you are perceived) than about how good the wines from the winery are? So do you look through all the articles you’ve written and then eliminate the wineries you’ve said good things about in fear of being perceived wrongly. That’s…I’m sorry, that’s faintly ridiculous if not dishonest.

  5. Hoke, I’m not talking about “excising a winery from mention”!! I’m talking about refraining from repeatedly bringing special attention to it. Big difference.

  6. doug wilder says:

    I like that you have a standard response, Steve. When I receive similar communications my standard response to the sender is “great wine sells itself”. We are just the messengers.

  7. I can see why all wine critics want to appear to be as objective as possible, especially in the wake of the Campo affair.

    However, I don’t see why someone can’t be a supporter of a particular winery or region or style, whether they are paid for their opinions or not. I also disagree with the statement that a wine scores 95 points. The critic scores a wine 95 points, not the wine. It’s not an attribute of the wine, it’s the opinion of an individual critic.

    Both these comments are, to me, examples that the professional critic’s opinion is a hard fact and not, as is really the case, a subjective feeling.

  8. Michael Christian says:

    Some wineries deserve the outright support of critics, not with high praise but with special attention if they are doing something of special value–innovation, transparency, revival or establishment of a region, etc.

  9. Kurt Burris says:

    There is an inherent conflict in any publication, reviewing any product, that accepts advertising from that industry. I don’t care how thick The Wine Spectator claims their firewall is between editorial content and ad sales, there is an appearance of impropriety. And I have heard anecdotal evidence (from the old winemaker) of the scores for a pricey Oregon Pinot going up by 5 points on average after the purchase of the back cover. Accepting thanks is not over the line. Perhaps you could just state, “Maybe we have similar tastes in what a high score wine is. Keep up the good work.”

  10. Thomas Matthews says:

    Dear Kurt Burris,

    The New York Times is full of advertisements for films, plays and books that are also reviewed by the paper’s critics. Do you believe the Times suffers from “an inherent conflict” and “an appearance of impropriety”? As for your “anecdotal evidence” that buying ads in Wine Spectator increases the scores, I can tell you that is false. I’m sorry to hijack Steve’s blog post to defend Wine Spectator, but lies must be refuted or they may be believed.

    Back on topic, I agree with Steve’s point about the difference between critics and supporters. A critics’ role is to respond directly and honestly to the wine in the glass, no matter who produced it. That is the beauty of blind tasting — we can’t “favor” or “punish” even if we wanted to, because in any given instance we don’t know the producer who is being evaluated.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  11. Jonathan H., I disagree that wine does not score 95 points. A wine does score 95 points on a test where Steve is the proctor. How is this any different than a high school student receiving a 95% on his mid-term essay? Both “tests” have a rubric which is created and applied by an individual qualified and knowledgeable enough to make such judgements. In both instances there is an inherent subjectivism, but these are the accepted methods by which we have agreed to abide.

  12. 1:21 between the time a commenter makes a very oblique statement about Wine Spectator and Thomas Matthews coming on to defend the magazine. An hour 21 minutes! You can’t watch a Hollywood movie in that time!

    I remember the good ole’ days, when letters from the Spectator complaining about anything remotely negative arrived by snail mail.

  13. I have heard this Wine Spectator/ Advertising allegation from some people, but they always seemed to be people who had no first hand contact or knowledge of the people at the W.S. The most idle of gossip.

    Speaking from direct experience I could never detect any effect of advertising on wine scores or editorial content in the Wine Spectator. Advertising and editorial are separate departments and the people that I know there who judge wines would have a fit if anyone pressured them to favor anyone. People come and go, and if this actually did happen, it would eventually come out.

    I have a couple of times caught sight of tastings being set up in the WS Napa office and the wines were bagged and numbered. It’s my belief that most routine comparative tastings, where we send them samples, are blind.

    However, this comment should not be interpreted that I have in any way changed my opinion that the way 100 point scoring is applied there and elsewhere is anything other than bullshit.

  14. Oh, God, are we here again? Me standing up for the rights of Wine Spectator…? But I will, because this thought process that ads CAN buy favors in WS is proven by my story.

    I had a client. I spent about $100,000 a year on advertising in Wine Spectator (for about 6 or 7 years). If what Kurt Burris is saying is true, I ask, “Why then did my client get a “published” 68 score.

    That surely wasn’t a “bought” score.

  15. raley roger says:

    Comment of the day goes to…..Blake Gray.

  16. Thomas Matthews says:

    Blake Gray: That’s because Wine Spectator is omnipresent and ever vigilant to correct misinformation. Besides, I prefer Steve’s blog to most Hollywood movies.

    Jo and Morton, thank you for your testimony regarding our integrity. Morton, I respect your opinion even if we disagree about tasting methodology.

    Steve, once again, apologies for the digressions; thanks for the forum.

    Thomas Matthews

  17. Tom Matthews, thanks for the compliment! I will read Wine Spectator if you send me a free subscription.

  18. Kurt Burris says:

    Mr. Matthews: If the NY Times got as much advertising revenue from the books, plays and restaurants they review as your publication does from the wines it reviews, I would take those reviews with a large flake of artisianal fleur de sel. I don’t take Car and Driver reviews very seriously either. And as to the “published 68″ score, maybe it was only a “63″. (Just kidding)

  19. As a (dreaded here, perhaps) social media wine marketer person, this was quite the educational read. Generally I thank everyone for any public interaction with the winery—including reviews—as a matter of course. In regard to wine reviews, I thank the reviewer (and broadcast the review, if favorable) … but I thank them, primarily, for the time it took to do the review itself. Yes, I realize that’s the reviewer’s job, but isn’t thanking someone for their time simply polite?

    I can see why you wouldn’t want to be associated as a brand advocate with wineries due to a favorable review, but I don’t think that should preclude a winery from thanking you for time (well) spent and a job well done (hopefully).

    So far as print reviews and advertising discussion … it’s the same old thing. I also happen to work in print media (on the design end; I’m everywhere), and this comes up in all things for sale, not just wine. Print media is always dealing with balancing advertiser interests and editorial/reviews. I actually think that Spectator, etc, do it better than many others.

  20. As Steve has written about before and a few comments allude to, a corollary to this topic is when wineries complain about poor reviews. It should be these instances that wineries should actually thank critics. Wineries ought to want to improve their wines’ quality and what better way to do that than when critical qualitative (albeit not scientific) analyses determine problems and avenues for improvement in a wine. While it may sting a winemaker a little bit, I’ve found that some (not many) actually prefer hearing what needs improvement.

    As for the non-issue of advertising for points, has anyone every thought that maybe wineries that score well actually like to publicize that notion? I’m sure Mr. Matthews can weigh in on this, but I bet most wineries that advertise in WS do so after scoring well. And you don’t see the scores falling for the many more wineries that score just as well if not better and don’t advertise.

    Kurt, you could also argue that critics that don’t accept advertising revenue as having to pander to their subscribers by keeping scores high as well. If WA had a score ceiling of 93, I doubt they would sell many issues.

    High scores keep everyone happy but I am sure that the WE and WS reviewers are now way influenced by advertising revenue. The WS reviewers don’t even know which producers are in their blind lineups. I assume that their tastings are more accurately single blind because a tasting coordinator has set them up.

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