We briefly interrupt the Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten List for this special post on the 2008 Pancake Cellars Big Day White, Paso Robles, California.
Along those lines, a question that I keep thinking about is whether or not wine bloggers need to disclose that they receive wine and product samples from wineries, winemakers, PR firms and whoever else might gain from sharing product with anyone who has an audience. For me, I currently disclose the source of my wine – if I buy it myself, I say nothing, but if I receive a sample, I let people know that it’s a sample. In the blogging world, it’s my way of letting you know that my opinion may be swayed in some way by the notion of "free."
Where I struggle with this approach is this...
The biggest wine reviewers in the world are giving reviews of sample wines and not disclosing it. If you think Robert Parker or the folks over at Wine Spectator buy all their own wine for review, just go to one of their offices to see how much wine is provided by eager seekers of high scores and validation. Now, I have nothing against Wine Spectator and I truly believe that there has to be some kind of authoritative voice reviewing wine, if for no other reason than most consumers, unfortunately, need to be told what to drink...but also for the simple notion that bloggers need something to complain about, rail against, rally behind, compare themselves to, whatever you want to call it (if you disagree, just check out all the blogger noise over Robert Parker, starting with 1WineDude, who so elegantly steered us all through the debate).
So, if the big boys don’t share with you every time a wine was provided free of charge, why is everyone else expected to? When I first started this blog, I felt it was my duty and, to be honest, when I got a sample, it was like I won the lottery. I felt like I had arrived, like I had reached some magical point in my wine blogging and it was fun to share that with people. It was very easy at that point to determine which wines were samples and which were not, so, by extension, it was also easy to let everyone know what was what. Now, as more samples have been coming in, it seems 50 – 60% of the wines I review are in that category and the organization of it all hasn’t yet reached daunting, but it certainly takes some thought as to how best to arrange and store the wines.
The real question is this – do I review wines any differently knowing that I purchased it vs. having someone supply it for me? The answer to that is “no, absolutely not.” I have never gone into a tasting of a sample wine thinking that I need to treat it any differently than any other wine I purchased. That I can say with complete honesty. What I can’t say for sure is whether or not my biases come into the picture in a subconscious way – for example, do I have a preconceived notion that a high-end cult wine is better than a sample wine from a winery I’ve never heard of before? Probably. But, we all have that.
And, although I do some blind tastings, I refuse to do all my tastings that way because I believe there is some value to tasting a wine within the context you came across it. If I’ve coveted a wine for a long time and then somehow end up with a bottle, the search is part of that experience and, thus, should have an impact on how I taste the wine. Some purists may argue with me on that one, but that’s the way I’ve always seen it. Does it influence the end score I give a wine? Maybe, but never by more than a point or two and, let’s be honest, we all do to some extent, otherwise blind tastings wouldn't exist.
You may be thinking at this point – “Is this guy writing in his journal or does he have a point here?” My point is this – I’ve decided I will no longer disclose in individual posts which wines are samples and which wines I buy. I will provide an ongoing disclosure here on my blog saying just that, but wanted to let you all know that I’m treating everything the same from this point forward.
Let me know what you think on the matter and how you treat it on your own blog.
CORRECTION TO THE BLOG POST ABOVE (11/10/09): As you can see in the comments for this post, Thomas Matthews of Wine Spectator has graciously sent along the Wine Spectator tasting guidelines (you can find them at Wine Spectator Tasting Procedures and Taster Profiles). Although the title of the post says that Wine Spectator does not tell you about their samples policy, my real intent was to say that they do not disclose it as part of every wine review, as was my policy for the last year or so. I have now changed that policy and, although I will not tell you in every post whether the wine being reviewed is a sample or not, you can always find my disclosure policy here.