The ethical limits of tasting? In the eye of the beholder
A Facebook correspondent wrote me over the weekend: “You are probably the only person I can ask this question. Can journalists in the U.S. review wines with world renowned wine experts without the prior knowledge of the winery? I am asking this because of a recent wine video put out in Quebec that had Michel Rolland taste our wines against some of our competitors. I can send you the video link if you prefer. All in all, is this lack of professionalism?”
He did send the link. Here it is.
Unfortunately, I don’t speak French, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the question: “Can journalists in the U.S. review wines with world renowned wine experts without the prior knowledge of the winery?”
It could have meant several things, all of which are food for thought.
1. Is it legal for U.S. journalists to review wine under such circumstances? Of course it is.
2. The question might have meant: is it okay for a journalist to sit with a famous personality like Rolland and taste wines without the winery’s permission. (The use of the words “prior knowledge,” vague in this case, could be so interpreted.) The answer again would be “yes.” At my Pritchard Hill tasting, for example, I didn’t have Colgin’s or Bryant Family’s permission to include their wines. I’d asked them, and they both refused (why, is another question!). So we went out and bought them. I don’t think that showed a “lack of professionalism,” at least on my part.
3. The question might have concerned a variation of the blind tasting issue. What’s the difference between a wine of which the taster has no prior knowledge, and a wine in a paper bag? The obvious thing is that, in the former case, the taster would presumably see the label and know that (for instance) the wine is from Quebec.
That’s precious knowledge. It might easily be the case that the taster knew little or nothing of the wines of Quebec, but made an assumption about them. For example, he might have assumed that fine dry vinifera table wine cannot come from such a chilly climate (as opposed to ice wine). So the question could be reframed as, Is it unprofessional for a taster to come to conclusions about wines about which he knows little or nothing?
As it turned out, that was the case. I emailed the correspondent and asked him to explain, and he did. Here’s his reply:
In a nutshell, [Rolland] is tasting whites and reds from this region for the first time. He is cryptic and extremely cautious with his wording, not to throw too much praise.
His overall impression is that the wines are all good, but that he would prefer and suggest that [Quebec] focus on whites and not reds as the basis of our industry.
How can a man, who claims he has never tasted [Quebec] wines before, come to such a conclusion?
We are in the red wine business, and comments like those can hurt our business, especially from a high caliber man as this.
There was a little more, and then my correspondent finished with this question:
So, did MR overstep some ethical boundary? I think he very much did.
I’d have to say that Michel Rolland did not overstep some ethical boundary. He apparently was asked his opinion of some regional wines, and he gave it. There’s nothing unethical about that.
Since I don’t know exactly what Michel Rolland said concerning the wines of Quebec as a whole, I can only surmise. From the correspondent’s comments to me, Rolland seems to have written off Quebec’s capacity to make decent red wine based on this single tasting. If he did (and, again, I don’t know), that would have been a premature and unfair statement. The Europeans used to write California Pinot Noir off, claiming it was undrinkable and always would be because of California’s climate. We proved them wrong, didn’t we? Lessons should be learned from that episode. A wine critic, tasting wines from a region new to him, might not care for them, but he should never say the region is hopeless. Years ago, I tasted a lot of Front Range Colorado vinifera wines I thought were dreadful. (Their fruit wines, on the other hand, were great.) If the Coloradans had asked me for my opinion, I would not have said, “Forget about it. Stick to fruit wine and beer.” I would have said, “You’re not succeeding right now. But keep at it!” I think part of the wine critic’s duty is to encourage winemakers, give them hope for the future.