by Jo Burzynska
Should wine writers be certified? Insane perhaps, I have pondered after a tooth-tingling tasting of a hundred-plus wines in one sitting or a peek at my bank balance. But seriously, I wouldn’t trade my job for any other: the real question being raised here relates to the wine writing community’s commitment to excellence and integrity. These are qualities which form the cornerstones of Wine Writers of New Zealand (WWNZ), an organisation initiated this month to raise the bar in the country’s wine communication.
Setting standards in wine writing has been a hot topic in the US of late, where one scribe’s frustration with inaccuracies in reporting made him prompt a debate over whether wine writers should have appropriate qualifications. It’s a tricky area. I happen to hold qualifications in both wine and journalism, but industry experience is also valid in our field.
Here in New Zealand, most high-profile wine commentators boast vinous letters after our names; have an industry background or both, with competition for coveted columns ensuring the vignoramuses have largely been weeded out.
A little more critical comment would certainly be welcome, but what’s been causing most concern of late is the issue of actual or perceived conflicts of interest arising from a minority of critics who accept fees for so-called “independent” reviews.
No one ever got rich from wine writing alone. In a small country like New Zealand, few make a living out of it and those of us who do often have to supplement our incomes with activities such as wine education and corporate tastings. But it’s when writers receive payments from the wineries that they are meant to be critiquing for work that could be construed as promotion that the independence crucial to any critic comes under question.
There are those who argue that accepting money from wineries for reviews is no different from receiving wine samples or attending winery-sponsored events or trips. In an ideal world we’d buy all the wines we need to taste and fund all our own travel. In reality these form an important part of most wine writers’ research and if used as such, pose far less of an ethical problem.
One of the most time-consuming parts of my job is to taste through the hundreds of largely unsolicited samples I receive each year in order to select the best bottles for this column. This is something I try to do blind, in order to remain as impartial as possible.
When it comes to wine events and trips, these often provide invaluable opportunities taste wines with their makers, conduct interviews and search out stories. And if no story emerges, then I’m clear that I feel no obligation to provide coverage.
Myself and the fellow founders of WWNZ have been troubled by the growing perception that wine critics are in the pay of the wineries.
When money has changed hands between a winery and a writer, readers need to be made aware of this by the publications and the promotional material that features these reviews, while we in WWNZ have signed a declaration pledging: “We are committed to the interests of the public and to protecting the reputation for integrity of wine writers in New Zealand. As such, we will not accept any direct payments from wine producers for published reviews.”
It’s hoped that as well as encouraging quality in the country’s wine writing, that the establishment of WWNZ reinforces who we are responsible to. That’s not to individual producers or the New Zealand wine industry in general, but to you, our readers.
Originally published in the New Zealand Herald (June 2011)