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Under A Tuscan Cloud

2011 April 29
by Mike

My friend Tom Maresca, a writer who specializes in Italian wines, has posted a scathing article on his blog about James Suckling. I recognize that we wine writers spend a lot of time talking about other wine writers, but navel-gazing is a favorite journalistic pastime, and wine hacks are hardly the worst offenders (that distinction surely belongs to the Washington press corps). Anyway, Tom lets rip over an article about Italian wines that Suckling has published in the current issue of Decanter magazine, and he also calls attention to what he regards as an ethically dubious event that Suckling is hosting in Tuscany in June. Tom points out that two winemakers quoted in Suckling’s piece are participating in that event, called Divino Tuscany (in fact, they are listed on the Divino Tuscany website as “founding vintners”). This information is not disclosed to readers. It would be good to know if Suckling shared it with Decanter when he submitted the article, and it would be good, too, if he followed Antonio Galloni’s example and disclosed the exact nature of the June shindig. His scores are routinely cited by retailers, and I think consumers and merchants alike have a right to know if Divino Tuscany is a pay-to-play event.

What particularly bothers me about this stuff is that it encourages cynicism about wine writers in general. That cynicism manifested itself in some of the discussion about Galloni’s Festa del Barolo, and I suspect that it will rear its head again in regard to Suckling. One line of argument that emerged during the Festa del Barolo controversy was that wine critics aren’t really journalists and shouldn’t be held to the ethical standards that obtain in newsrooms. I strongly disagree, although my view may be colored by the fact that I worked as a journalist long before I began writing about wine and continue to see myself as a journalist first, a wine writer second. I am curious to know what you think. Should critics like Suckling and Galloni be regarded as journalists?  Should they be expected to adhere to the same general code of conduct that applies to newspaper and magazine reporters? And, lastly, a broader question: Are some of us making too big a deal over these ethical issues, or is the scrutiny a good thing?

55 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2011

    Nice comment Bill!

    BTW, Mike is certainly very well aware of CT and has written about it extensively, e.g. http://www.cellartracker.com/SteinbergerWineWriting.pdf

  2. May 5, 2011

    This whole discussion has made me even more grateful for Cellartracker when it comes to wine criticism. I can see how some might argue there’s still a need for full-time professional critics who have the training, education, and experience to make informed judgments on wines. However if, as many have noted, making a living as a full-time critic these days means cozying up a little more to producers, taking freebies, going on junkets, and doing some industry-friendly for-profit work on the side, well then maybe it’s not really worth it?

    With Cellartracker, I get lots of data and several (sometimes hundreds of) impressions on a particular wine. I can see how those impressions have changed over time and often read about how those wines tasted in different contexts (i.e. with or without food). It’s dynamic, entertaining, and growing increasingly more valuable as the number of users and amount of data soars. It’ll never displace wine writing (of the Steinberger mold), which provides essential context and analysis on the world of wine (and which does and should involve higher journalistic standards). But for wine criticism, I’ll take the “wisdom of the crowds” over the musings of this kind of noteworthy professional (http://www.youtube.com/jamessucklingtv#p/u/16/TillmxEN1GE) anyday. Sorry, I just can’t help posting his videos….they’re like fish in a barrel….

    Cheers,

    Bill Moore

  3. May 5, 2011

    Patrick – would LOVE to see the Washington state univ. study results! Put us in our place, man! 😉

  4. May 4, 2011

    Bill Klapp,

    Good points, but let me raise a couple things in reply:

    1) To clarify, the point I was making about “just trust me” was in reference to Galloni’s assertion that he can take freebies from producers and have them give speeches at his events, both of which contribute to him making money, and then subsequently turn around and review their wines without any bias whatsoever. He’s asking us to believe that he can erect a kind of mental firewall between the events and his reviews, and maybe he really can, but he must understand that we shouldn’t be expected to believe that. Doctors, whose ethical standards and practices are orders of magnitude higher than that of wine critics (and yes, higher even than lawyers!) :), have been shown in study after study to be influenced by the freebies they get and the relationships they maintain with pharmaceutical sales reps. And that’s with lives, not beverage selection, at stake. If you read a gushing review of a Rinaldi barolo from Galloni in the future, would you really trust that review over that of another critic, who perhaps didn’t host a for-profit event with wines served gratis from Rinaldi? That review just wouldn’t be credible to me, no matter how well-intentioned and honorable a person Galloni may be.

    2) And building on that point, you are exactly right that it’s time for Galloni to set clear policies and standards for where he and the WA are going moving forward. But if the goal here is to rebuild the trust lost by Parker and certain associates, is hosting an event like this really the best way to start off? Building credibility by hosting a swanky dinner with big-name producers? Sounds a little counter-inuitive to me. More importantly, there won’t be trust among the readership if there’s this continuing disconnect between the high-minded language of their ethics policy and their actions. He has every right to use the Wine Advocate name to pursue whatever new marketing, educational, or other intiatives he’d like, but the Wine Advocate’s ethics policy should align with those initiatives, and we the readers shouldn’t be expected to pretend that such activities will have no bearing, intentional or no, on their reviews.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  5. May 4, 2011

    Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter, posted below Tom Maresca’s original post: ‘James Suckling’s piece was an adjunct to a larger piece about the popularity of Italian wine in the US. Suckling was asked to write an opinion piece to complement this, on the subject of the diminishing relevance of ‘SuperTuscan’ wines, something which, as the reviewer of Italian wines for one of the US’ leading wine publications over a period of two decades, he is eminently qualified to do. Whether or not you like the piece is a matter of opinion. Like any other guest column in Decanter, however, his views and those of winemakers quoted in it do not necessarily reflect that of the magazine. But we believe in being an open church – allowing and airing multiple views. It should be noted that Suckling is not recommending wines for Decanter, nor was his upcoming event – which had not been announced at the time the piece was written – promoted with the piece.’

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