In commenting on an April 2004 shake-up in the food pages of The New York Times after editors learned of a conflict of interest involving one of the restaurant critic's reviews, the newspaper's chief wine critic, Eric Asimov, remarked, "We recognize that wine is more and more important to a wider range of people."
In a story about the Times' shake-up by Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator-the nation's most widely read wine magazine-he said that "[s]ome industry veterans view it as an implicit admission that the Times' own food writers are too caught up in the restaurant industry to achieve the anonymity, objectivity and fairness the position demands."
Over the years, similar charges have been leveled at other kinds of specialty pages, columns or sections in the Times and elsewhere-travel sections, business sections, and even sports sections (where "local boosterism" may be more of a factor).
But by shifting the focus from the restaurant trade to the wine industry, Matthews' observation could apply equally to his magazine and just about every other wine publication or column-although he undoubtedly didn't recognize the irony in his comment.
In fact, some wine writers do not see themselves as journalists at all, a view that conveniently enables them to sidestep the traditional tenets of ethical reporting. If Asimov's belief about the increasing importance of wine coverage is correct, it may be time for a thorough examination of the journalistic practices associated with the coverage of the wine industry.
Along with America's growing fascination with wine comes an opportunity for newspapers and wine specialty publications to provide an important service. Consumers typically turn to wine columns in newspapers or magazines to untangle some of the confusion caused by seemingly endless varietals and blends, foreign classification systems and pompous descriptors ("supple and ripe, with bursts of mango, kiwi, a slight hint of pineapple, long on the finish"). But that's not all.
Today's wine press no longer limits itself to providing hints about the crispest chardonnay or zestiest zinfandel. Instead, it has moved into the more traditional news domains: Information about the health benefits of drinking wine, business profiles of publicly-traded wineries, legislative and legal efforts to ship wine, and what is happening within this multi-billion-dollar industry.
In short, the factors that feed into accepted definitions of newsworthiness now fill the space allocated to wine in the nation's leading publications. With expanded coverage, however, should come increased journalistic responsibility-but that's the part that appears to be missing.
A Cozy Rapport
While some publications-like The Wall Street Journal-adhere to high standards of journalism ethics in their wine coverage, too often reporters and columnists get swallowed by the elaborate efforts made by wineries to court them, including deluxe accommodations at winery guest houses, access to breathtaking vineyard views, dazzling winemaker dinners, bottomless pours from the finest work product and a healthy sampling of the latest vintage to take home and remember.
The reporting itself naturally should become suspect under such conditions. Within the industry, it is accepted lore that wine writers rely on the vintner's public relations staff to hand them the story.
As James Caudill, of Fetzer Vineyards, put it: "If we didn't [provide the writers and columnists with the means to cover the story] in the wine business, only journalists working for large organizations with large budgets to fund wine cellars and travel could offer insights, and everyone would be the poorer."
So what's wrong with this epicurean courtship? From a winery's perspective, nothing. It's good business. From a journalistic standpoint-plenty.
One of the most prized and time-honored tenets of American journalism is objectivity. From their very first course in news reporting or their first day in a newsroom, journalists are taught the importance of remaining neutral, removing conflicts of interest, and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.
For example, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, wine columnists for The Wall Street Journal, do not accept freebies and do not announce in advance their visits to wineries-and the newspaper pays their travel and wine costs.
As Gaiter and Brecher put it to a gathering of newspaper editors in 2004, "The journalistic principle is a simple one that we're all familiar with: Don't accept anything from people you cover. That's the principle we lived with for decades as hard-news journalists and we didn't see any reason to change it because we changed beats. ... We don't accept free wine, we don't meet privately with winemakers when they visit New York, we don't attend any event that is not open to the public, we don't go on free trips."
Wine Specialty Publications
However, the wine specialty press-magazines and newsletters devoted to the beverage-pay far less attention to the traditional hallmarks of journalistic neutrality and, in some instances, thwart these key reporting principles on a routine basis.
This blatant self-exemption from certain journalistically ethical precepts by wine publications is particularly troubling because increasingly these publications are chock-full of traditional news.
Coverage of health-related matters, for instance, continues to grow and has ever since this country first learned that wine is not just any alcoholic beverage, but may have medicinal qualities: In 1991, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a segment on the "French Paradox"-how people in France, despite high-fat diets, suffered fewer instances of heart disease than Americans-and extolled the virtues of drinking red wine in preventing heart ailments.
Today, medical research continues in this area, and some scientists believe that some compounds present in red wines provide the explanation for the health benefit derived from moderate consumption. (This raises the debate about what is "moderate consumption" and whether any cardiac benefits are outweighed by other health problemsrelated to drinking.)
This "wine is beneficial" research is far from conclusive, but thumbing through the pages of the leading wine magazines would lead readers to believe that the research is as solid as the mountains that surround the Napa Valley.
Another reason for an objective wine press is financial. While California still is the epicenter of the American wine industry, wineries now can be found in virtually every state. Some wineries, which once were owned by individuals and families, are being purchased by large, publicly traded corporations-even worldwide conglomerates.
For example, the Robert Mondavi Winery, headquartered in Oakville, Calif., is a prime example of a family wine business that first became publicly traded on NASDAQ-and then was acquired by the international beverage purveyor Constellation Brands, Inc. for a whopping $1.36 billion. Consumers who may become investors in these companies require accurate, objective information about the financial condition and the products of these corporations. Wine magazines often publish stories about the business aspects of a winery, but can the stories be trusted if the reporters attended a well-lubricated recent sleepover at the vineyard?
Follow the Money
Alan Goldfarb is the wine editor at the St. Helena Star (a weekly Napa Valley newspaper, owned by Pulitzer Inc.), which devotes an entire section each week to the wine industry. According to Goldfarb, "The [Wine] Spectator always has, on the Wednesday before the Napa Valley Wine Auction, a vintner's dinner...and they invite, if not all the vintners, the ones that they like and probably all the big hitters-the high end guys." He says, "there are some media people who live up there who go.... That's really schmoozing."
It also troubles him that "at almost every single wine event, the vintners will get up to talk and when they're finished, the journalists will applaud."
Then, there's the more serious ethical dilemma of tying news coverage to advertising dollars spent. Industry insiders, who prefer not to be identified, report that Wine Spectator is "clean," in that it does not predicate stories about particular wines or wineries on a quid pro quo purchase of advertising space, but some "other magazines in the wine business are tied into the business side, so that if you advertise a page, you get a page."
As a result, the more savvy wineries recognize the need to advertise, and their philosophy becomes, "Let's spend a little money and get, in many cases, a few extra stories."
Several publications will rate wines on a scale developed by the publication or the writer. The scores are designed to assist consumers who wish to purchase wine and want to rely on an expert's palate in making a decision. The scores also typically are the result of "blind-tasting," a method whereby the tasters do not know the identity or the price of the product, and thus the score presumably is not clouded by prejudice.
But not all winemakers are convinced that the process used by these magazines and newsletters is a fair one. Thomas Coyne, whose eponymous winery in Livermore, Calif., produces some 4,000 cases, told CBS' Market Watch that he "quit submitting samples because they're mainly looking to sell advertising." In that same story, Wine Spectator's Thomas Matthews denied any collusion with the industry and reported losing advertisers because of bad reviews. Market Watch noted, nevertheless, that "the makers of [Wine Spectator's] 'Best Value' designees often take out full-page ads in the same issues in which they're honored."
Living By a Code
Over time, wine publications have become more news-oriented in their focus, but unfortunately have not adopted the same journalistic practices as news organizations. Perhaps it is time for the wine trade press to draft a code of ethics for reporting on the industry or, at the very least, to live by the ones governing the activities of traditional hard-news reporters.
A specialized code could recommend, at a minimum, that wine writers who have gathered information during a "paid-for-by-anyone-other-than-their-publication" visit to a winery or event, disclose that fact in any resulting article or column. Moreover, if a wine writer takes a subsidy for travel, he or she should accept, as part of that package, only those accommodations, goods and services absolutely necessary to the reporting of the story.
Events staged by wineries, wine distributors, or wine industry associations for the primary purpose of attracting media attention should be identified as such in any article or column arising out of the event.
Finally, the usual journalistic ethical principles about avoiding conflict of interest and even the appearance of impropriety, not accepting gifts, and not promising favorable coverage should be underscored in such a code.
While some ethicists may argue these suggestions do not go far enough to ensure journalistic integrity, no one would quarrel with the point that they are a step in the right direction, particularly for a segment of journalism that heretofore often has ignored the tenets of ethical reporting.
* Robert D. Richards is a professor of journalism and law at the Pennsylvania State University-as well as a wine educator and a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 12,23-24.