Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wine Critics & Credibility

What makes a wine critic credible? What can potentially bias a critic? How does a critic avoid conflict of interests?

For some answers, check out the article "Wine Critics and Their Discontents" on the blog of the American Association of Wine Economists. The article, written by Michael Veseth, discusses the different strategies used by several prominent wine critics for dealing with issues of credibility. He concludes that all of the critics he references are effective though their strategies differ.

Veseth begins by discussing Robert Parker, how he refuses all advertising, and noting that despite the many criticisms of Parker they do not include allegations of an economic conflict of interest. I would have to disagree with the later only because I have seen some allege that Parker has charged people in the past for reviews. So, though allegations of conflict of interest have been low, they still exist.

Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV is then mentioned, how he has a financial interest in some of the wine he reviews. He avoids many allegations of conflicts of interest by being quite transparent about everything as well as trying to depict himself as an objective critic. Veseth believes Gary has been very successful in this regard.

Next, Veseth addresses how the major wine magazines handle reviews and the bottle images that sometimes accompany those reviews. Obviously, a review with a photo is more memorable. Some of the magazines garner income, advertising revenue, for these bottle images while others do not. Neither Decanter nor Wine Spectator magazine charges for bottle images in their reviews. But both Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast do charge for bottle images, though only have the reviews have already been completed. Once the reviews are written, they request whether the wineries wish to purchase bottle images or not. This policy is clearly explained in the magazines so there is transparency.

I was unaware of the bottle image issue, obviously as I did not closely read the editorial policies of these magazines. I am sure most people are in the same situation as well, failing to read such policies. I think the policy of Decanter and Wine Spectator provides credibility, especially as they could easily charge for the bottle images but choose not to do so.

I would have liked Veseth though to address the issue of regular advertising in the wine magazines, and whether there is any evidence of a conflict of interest there. For example, some allege the magazines do not give poor reviews to their primary advertisers. Yet no actual proof is ever offered for these allegations.


Taster B said...

Interesting post, Richard. I also would be interested in seeing the issue of advertising in magazines addressed since the allegation has floated around about not giving advertiser's negative reviews. I have to assume it's false because it would be such a blatant conflict of interest...

Mike Veseth said...

I didn't discuss the advertising issue because there isn't any evidence that the critics are influenced by advertising and it would be impossible to prove that they are not. Personally, I think advertising has no effects on the ratings. A "pay for points" scandal that linked advertising to favorable reviews would be very damaging to a wine critic's reputation and reputation is the most valuable asset a critic has! Just my personal opinion.

Richard A. said...

Thanks very much Mike for your comments. I enjoyed your article and it certainly made me think a bit more about the subject.

Bob said...

Richard- thanks for picking up on this article. I enjoyed it and the thoughts you added very much.

My current must trusted source of wine ratings is Wine Spectator because they are very clear that their tasting is done blind. I'm not sure whether the other magazines listed are as explicit about this as Spectator. I believe they state something like "we taste blind whenever possible" but they don't state when it was or wasn't possible. Do you know?

I believe the impact of tasting blind vs. not is more first order than the conflict of interest associated with advertising dollars because it influences *every* wine rated whereas a "pay for ratings" scheme would only benefit those who paid for the ratings and presumably be a non-factor for those who didn't pay. Unless of a course a winery fell our of favor because they stopped advertising. Maybe I'm just too trusting of people, but I can't imagine these publications rigging their ratings systems like this. There's too much at stake.

I'd be interested in hearing what your thoughts (and Mike's and anyone else's) are on this, as well as the double-impact of rating wine tasted non-blind where a relationship is also in place. I believe Gary Varynerchuk has stated that one of the hardest things he has to do is rate wines made by people he's friendly with.