People living in competition

There’s an interesting debate going on at my favorite wine blog, New York Cork Report, over the value of wine competitions. These are the things that where all those wines are always winning golds and double golds, and silvers, and best in class and so on. The editors of NYCR are saying that they think these things are too numerous, too confusing to consumers, and that they therefore will not participate in them anymore. I tend to agree with them; I spend a lot of time researching wine, and I never pay any attention to these medals.

A couple of so-called experts — a New York Times wine writer and a California wine judge — wrote in to say, essentially, “you guys are nobodies, who cares what you think, we won’t miss you”.

Something similar happened when the blogger Dr. Vino called out wine critics for taking accommodations and free shipments of wine from producers whose wines they later reviewed (he didn’t call it bribery, but I would). A big name wine writer, Tony Blue, then wrote that Dr. Vino was just a nobody who was angry because he didn’t get free wine too. This might be a good place for me to say that I like free wine, too, if anybody wants to send me some.

It would be grossly unfair to compare the wine judge or NYT wine writer to the elite media whores who sell themselves at salons and take ponies from neocon sugar-daddies, all while impugning the motives of shrill, angry political bloggers, let alone to compare them to the little-people-hating Dan Shaughnessies of the sports writing world, but it’s all part of the same phenomenon. Being an “expert” can be a good gig. And when some nobodies try to kill the goose that killed the golden egg, it’s only natural for experts to point out that these nobodies are…well…nobodies.

You don’t need an official Council On Foreign Relations or Gridiron Club to know who the serious people are and who the jammie-clad losers are.

44 replies
  1. 1

    Ah yes. But the jammie-clad losers are more lovable.

  2. 2
    DougJ says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    I’d rather laugh with the bloggers than cry with the saints.

  3. 3
    Yutsano says:

    The best way to truly appreciate wine is to get out of your region and see what else is out in the country. Go to Napa for a few days and check out what they do there. Head up to the Willamette valley and sample their fares. Go to Walla Walla (yes it’s a real place!) and taste the more than 100 vintners around there. If you can afford it, go to France or Germany or even New Zealand. Just get away from the wines you know and see what all is out there.

  4. 4
    Bob Loblaw says:

    How far do we extend this conversation before the entire edifice of modern society becomes implicated?

    Look at the political process. In order to pass a direly needed health insurance reform bill, the Obama administration sold public influence to PhRMA for advertising money and a promise not to lobby against the bill’s passage. Should we refer to that as a bribe? Or just successful politicking?

    Today, the Lions got absolutely assraped on a touchdown call coming back by a rule change that appears to make no sense on any logical level whatsoever. And yet, Fox analysts, in conversation with the NFL’s head of refereeing, could do no more than slavishly defer to the league and mumble about how “the correct call was being made” despite all visual evidence going against them. Why? They have a billion dollars riding on that television contract, what value is the integrity of the sport next to that?

    How much of our daily lives only hang together because of fraud, whether seen or unseen? Is it not a permanent side-effect of a corporatist state?

  5. 5
    DougJ says:

    @Yutsano:

    I also think it’s a good idea to drink a bunch of fairly regular stuff in the region — instead of just the critical darling cult stuff — to get a feeling for the region.

  6. 6
    licensed to kill time says:

    Reading Keep The Cheap Wine Flowing on Freakonomics led to this New Yorker article on a world class wine conman.

    Which I’m sure you have already read, DougJ.

  7. 7
    DougJ says:

    @Bob Loblaw:

    How far do we extend this conversation before the entire edifice of modern society becomes implicated?

    I’m all for that implication.

  8. 8
    beltane says:

    Still, Tony Blue knows more about wine than Ross Douthat knows about sex. At least he appreciates his free samples.

  9. 9
    Lex says:

    North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, y’all. I’m not saying it’s all great, but the best of what’s there is among the best, period.

  10. 10

    Perhaps not quite the same, as for one thing the price point is way different, but I look at this debate in terms of my own experience in the music business, working for years for a major industry trade, writing music and concert reviews, etc. and at the same time getting inundated with “product” to the point where I”m tripping over CDs I do not want and many of which I will never review but publicists send it to me anyway. And when I go to a concert I would call the publicist and get a freebie ticket so I am sure to get a good seat to better review the show.

    No, I don’t consider these bribes, though some folks might. I can’t say I ever thought, “wow I better write a good review of such-and-such record because the label might be angry and I might not get any more free CDs.” I’m thinking if someone in the industry was pissed off at a journalist for a negative review or negative story it would reverberate around the inside clique so fast that the person who ends up looking like an asshole is usually the record label person or the artist. I can remember one incident where this happened with Garth Brooks after he got so big he was referring to himself in the third person.

    So I don’t know if it’s the same in the wine world but the thing is when you’re dealing with arts and entertainment and fashion, it’s different from when you’re covering hard news and politics.

  11. 11
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    Don’t book reviewers get free copies of books? Movie reveiwers get free DVDs or screenings? Isn’t it fairly typical practice?

  12. 12
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    My iPad won’t let me edit, but I think Southern Beale @10 made my point @11 very well.

  13. 13
    DougJ says:

    @Zuzu’s Petals:

    Good point. Somehow the free wine that Tony Blue gets seems different, since it’s a lot more expensive.

    I don’t think the wine competitions are so different from film festivals, except that there are too many of them and they give out too many awards.

  14. 14
    Alex says:

    This reminds me of the Kane & Lynch game reviewing incident.

    Simple summary — reviewer gave the game a bad review. Review site was absolutely covered with ads for the game. Reviewer was fired within the day.

  15. 15
    SciVo says:

    One of the reasons why I had so much respect for Computer Gaming World (back when gaming was an important part of my life) was because of their code of reviewer ethics. I can’t find a link right now, but I recall reading a blog post by one of their reviewers — I can’t remember his name, I think it was whoever reviewed Wizardry 8 for them — that mentioned the strict limits on gifts that they could accept from publishers whose games they reviewed for CGW.

    It sounded like working for CGW was kind of a sacrifice in the name of ethics that he made because it suited him. I also remember that it seemed like he couldn’t help resenting how much easier it was for reviewers who accepted all the perks offered, and he got really hot under the collar at how the less ethical mags were taking advantage of their readers’ trust. But that’s just my impressionistic memory.

  16. 16
    freelancer says:

    “I understand about indecision […]
    all I want is to have my peace of mind.”

    I’ll just stick to Alice White. I’m a snob about many things, wine is not one of them.

  17. 17
    Yutsano says:

    @freelancer: There really is only one hard and fast rule with wine: drink whatever you decide you like. If it’s a $6 box wine, have at it. I know what I prefer in wines and I have my favorite grapes, but I’ll try others. But I always go back to pinto grigio and sangiovese.

  18. 18

    Here’s a fucking thought, NOBODY gets free wines, they should buy their own shit, just like ethical guidelines call for (I’m looking at you NYT).

    This is not that difficult.

    ETA: sorry if this has been mentioned upthread, but I’m amazed that this is an issue. Of course, I’m also more than a little miffed that film reviewers get to screen movies in their little special sacrosanct viewing areas (no matter how much I like Roger Ebert). Even if they pay for tickets.

  19. 19
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    @arguingwithsignposts:

    Well that would mean that only people with LOTS of disposable income could review wines. See Blue’s response to Dr. Vino in DougJ’s link.

  20. 20

    Love the Boston allusion!

  21. 21
    graz says:

    Wine competitions exist to shill and merchandise. Try stopping that.

    In keeping with your sensibilities and the subject at hand Doug, here’s this: http://hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com/

    Snark, satire, wine knowledge and appreciation.

  22. 22
    Ripley says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask, not only in this thread but for weeks now: How does Bob Loblaw type with his hands nailed to a cross? Clever trick!

  23. 23

    BTW, getting that reference probably means I’m officially an old fucken codger!

  24. 24
    DougJ says:

    @Zuzu’s Petals:

    I think that tasting for free at the domain or at a large tasting is fine, getting the free bottle is maybe a bridge too far for me.

  25. 25
    Bob Loblaw says:

    @Ripley:

    I’ve got a very talented dick.

  26. 26
    DougJ says:

    @Comrade PhysioProf:

    It’s fairly recent as my references go.

  27. 27
    eemom says:

    all I want is to have my piece of wiiiiiiiiine…….

  28. 28
    SciVo says:

    @Southern Beale: The problem is that we as humans are subject to a slew of unconscious cognitive biases. I wouldn’t expect that you ever thought, “wow I better write a good review of such-and-such record because the label might be angry and I might not get any more free CDs.” However, incentive-caused bias is so powerful that it’s #1 on Charlie Munger’s list of causes of human misjudgment. Just something to think about.

  29. 29
    Yutsano says:

    Ironic but apropros to the thread: I bought gruyere and reggiano at the store yesterday. I r psychic!

  30. 30
    jeffreyw says:

    I may have a conflict here. I reviewed this ramen soup over at What’s4dinner. The chef insisted I take some canned meats home with me. Pretty sure he was trying to influence my review. Should I keep the pork? I thought the soup was kinda lacking in heat but I didn’t trash it. Maybe go back and review my review? WWMJD?

  31. 31
    Cacti says:

    How many “professional critics” would still want the job if they didn’t get comped all the time?

    A big reason why I respect Consumer Reports is that they anonymously purchase everything they review and don’t accept any complimentary products/services.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    Yutsano says:

    @jeffreyw: Feed it to the puppehs! Win-win all around!

  34. 34
  35. 35
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    @DougJ:

    But still, wouldn’t that limit the number of wines you review or require a large dispoable income?

  36. 36
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    @DougJ:

    And reviewing based on a sample tasting is different from doing so based on say, having the wine with a meal. Which of course requires that you have a bottle handy.

  37. 37
    tesslibrarian says:

    Because I am prone to ruts, we joined a local wine shop’s wine club. Once per month we pay $40 for 3 wines they select, and expand our horizons whether I want to or not because I’m one of those people who hates for things to go to waste.

    Would I have tried the Greek reds we are drinking this weekend otherwise? Probably not. But last night’s wine was okay, perfectly good for pizza and football, and tonight’s was incredibly with a nice smokey-grilled piece of lamb and garlic roasted potatoes. It’s good info to have. And when we get a wine I dislike (i.e. chardonnay), there’s usually an event (party invite, new neighbors) where it makes a nice gift.

    It’s worth checking to see if you have a small, locally-owned wine shop nearby that does this sort of thing. Ours is partially owned by a local chef, whose food I love, so I’m frequently pleased with what shows up, though am now trying to figure out how to afford two weeks in France just drinking from place to place.

  38. 38
    DougJ says:

    @Zuzu’s Petals:

    I see what you’re saying. Still I think freebies of $300 bottles is problematic, from my perspective.

  39. 39
    Evan Dawson says:

    As the author of the original post about our decision not to judge in wine competitions, I’d like to jump in.

    First of all, thanks to DougJ for the thoughts. Having judged and spoken to many dozens of judges, I can tell you that 1) most have the best intentions, and 2) others confess that they love the free travel / networking / mini-vacations.

    But for us, the issue is rather simple: Consumers might think a medal means something, but it often does not. And the consumer never, ever has the context to understand WTF it might mean, anyway.

    Consider: The websites of the competitions only list the “medal winning” wines – so a consumer can’t find out how many wines the “winners” were up against, and which ones. The wines that don’t win diddly aren’t listed. Why not offer full transparency and let consumers know what the loser wines are? What is this, summer camp where everyone gets an award to end the week? “Well, Lisa, you sucked at rope climb and swimming, but you gave all the boys herpes after lights out. Well done!”

    And often a winery will enter a ton of competitions, hoping to get one gold. When they finally do, which is almost inevitable based on the math alone, they slap the gold on the wine in their tasting room. The consumers have no clue how many other times that wine didn’t win gold – or didn’t get a medal at all. It’s like a baseball player who strikes out 20 times, then hits a miracle home run, then strikes out 20 times. But the fans are only told that this player is a home run hitter!

    We respect judges and competition organizers, but there are so many more problems with this. You might not be surprised to hear that many judges have contacted us privately to say “well done,” but won’t comment publicly for fear of retribution. Other judges are rationalizing like crazy. Such is life.

  40. 40
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    @DougJ:

    Agreed.

  41. 41
    evap says:

    It is considered unethical for a restaurant critic to get free meals in a restaurant they have/will review. This should apply to wine critics as well, no?

    I have a good friend who lives in Arizona, when I visited last June we toured the Arizona wine country. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but we had some really good wines. I suspect there is good wine to be found in most states in the U.S.

  42. 42
    ronathan richardson says:

    Christ I’ve gotta get into wine-blogging. The ethical dilemma of getting free cases of wine for writing purple claptrap on the internet isn’t something that’s going to bother me all that much.

  43. 43
    HE Pennypacker, Wealthy Industrialist says:

    Bottle Shock presents the famous blind tasting of California wines in Paris. It’s clear that region and price affect taste, and I’d go so far to say that marketing (esp in label graphics) make a huge difference in perceived quality.

    In my own drinking I find vineyards I enjoy and stick with them.

  44. 44
    Crusty Dem says:

    @licensed to kill time:

    Interesting article, I didn’t know one of the Koch brothers was married to Art Rooney’s daughter. Wonder how John feels about having an uber-nutjob in the Steelers family..

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