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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. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Bill M., “just trust me” may not be an ethics policy, but it is implicit in every reader’s relationship to a given wine critic, and in my view, far more important than my wine critic aspiring to be the next Walter Cronkite. Robert Parker could gas about ethics all that he liked, but we have no idea to what extent he abided by his own code, and, at least as to his subordinates, the certain knowledge that they did not. Credibility there has taken a HUGE hit. We are no longer sure that we can trust The Wine Advocate. Antonio is no idiot. He knows that he finds himself at a crossroads with respect to the future of the WA. In his case, given all that has happened at the WA, he now needs a new set of policies and standards. But first, he needs the his actual and potential readership to “just trust him”…

  2. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Evan, picking up on your last sentence: “Standards must still exist.” While I am not going to waste my time reading the work of those without standards, I do not believe that standards must necessarily exist unless one is holding oneself out as a journalist. The absence of clear standards and methodology goes only to credibility. You cannot sue somebody who gives you a bum steer on a wine, even if it is later learned that the “critic” is a half-owner of the winery, but only fools will seek advice from said critic.

    There are simply too many bloggers out there who operate without standards or ethics, and do not saddle themselves with the titles “wine critic” and “journalist”, while wanting to convey the appearance that they are one or both. Do the name “Jeff Leve” mean anything to ya?

    I respect both Mike Steinberger and Antonio Galloni (at the moment!). Mike is a wine WRITER and a journalist. Antonio is a wine CRITIC, and he may or may not be a journalist. Big difference. However, I have little doubt that Antonio will, in time, promulgate a code of conduct that will satisfy most, if not all.

    By the way, in my spare time, I have solved the problem. Antonio needs to team up with Mannie Berk of Rare Wine Company, who has been running top-drawer tasting events for years now. In addition to getting a guy who knows how to set up and run the events far better than Antonio will ever be able to do (based upon time constraints and irons in the fire, not intelligence or managerial ability), he also gets a partner of unquestioned ethics possessed of an outstanding palate. Sweeter still is the fact that Mannie is a passionate Nebbiolo fan, and many, if not most, of his past events (as well as the current one) have been in Antonio’s Barolo/Barbaresco wheelhouse. On top of everything else, I’ll bet that I can get Steinberger to sign off on this (at least if Antonio and Mannie let him review their contract!). I am not even seeking a finder’s fee for putting together this marriage made in heaven!

  3. mauss permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Last comment by Wilfred is most probably the closest to the reality. In the time of Lichine,how many american were interested in wine ? Probably a tiny portion of the actual situation.
    TWA is a great business and certainly Mr Galloni is well paid by Parker and, as said by Wilfred, it will be no surprise at all for me to learn, in some years, that Mr Galloni will be the owner of TWA.
    Simply, with now the costs of wines, travels, TWS and WS will remain the 2 sources of information about wines who will need the less side activities in order to collect funds.
    Maybe advertising for cars, watches and various objects outside the wine world will be a solution for TWA ?
    No dream : outside these 2 medias, I cannot imagine someone able to finance all the costs involved in wine-journalism simply by his own writing. So, a new ethic sheet must be written some where, some how.

  4. May 3, 2011

    Thanks for all the terrific comments today; much to chew over, and I will post some thoughts tomorrow. Interestingly, we are not the only journalistic niche having this discussion at the moment. There’s a controversy involving well-known tech blogger Michael Arrington that involves some of the same issues we’ve been kicking around. Here’s a good piece about the Arrington situation, and be sure to also click through to Kara Swisher’s take on the matter.

  5. May 3, 2011

    After reading the many thoughtful comments here, I would like to amplify on something I alluded to in my earlier comment and have explored before: while social media outlets, especially Twitter with its robust wine community, have had a (mostly) positive, democratizing effect on the dissemination of wine news and criticism, knowing just who is putting out this information is sometimes a challenge. This is true not so much for the professional wine community, which is plugged in, but for the average wine lover who might stumble upon a Tweet that glowingly recommends a wine.

    Hypothetical example: “Wine Insights” loves the bottle of Polish wine he tried the other night and describes it in glowing terms. In his Twitter bio, Wine Insights describes himself as a “wine professional” and observer of wine trends but fails to disclose that he represents the Polish Wine Marketing Council. Failure to disclose this undermines not only Wine Insights himself but the client(s) he represents. It also cheats his followers, who are receiving “conflicted” information. While some in the industry scrupulously disclose when they are writing or Tweeting on behalf of clients, others do not and are simply not playing fair. Disclosure is tantamount to credibility, and credibility is everything.

    –Ed Deitch

  6. Wilfred permalink
    May 3, 2011

    I sure hope we’re not coming full circle like most wine writers being wine sellers or merchants or event organizers as a way to finance their writing. Haven’t we progressed beyond that?

    If TWA has the number of subscribers Parker has quoted in the past, there should be funds for Antonio to make a reasonable salary. He may be unique, but as heir apparent of TWA with so many subscribers, the numbers should work….they worked for Parker, didn’t they?

  7. May 3, 2011

    “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?

    Just a few personal thoughts about winewriting…

    When I started reading about wines, most of the writers were British and many if not most of them made their big money selling wine. Later, folks like Schoonmaker and Lichine showed up on this side of the Atlantic. Both were known to American wineaux as winewriters as much as wine salesmen. It was a joke in the trade that winewriters recommended the wines most that they had a hard time selling. Did consumers know of this conflict? My experiences in the trade were that most didn’t and the rest didn’t care.

    But that was the real world at the time. People who were seriously interested in writing about wines could absolutely not afford to do wine writing alone: they had to have a real job that paid real money. And obviously they could not go out and buy all the wines they criticized nor could they afford to visit the wine regions on their own dime. It got to the point where only lawyers, doctors, etc. could afford to dabble in winewriting. I got lucky because I taught wine courses and that money kept me in gyros and Zinfandel.

    To a large degree, today’s general situation is the same and economically probably worse (ask your winewriting friend how much he or she gets paid for an article nowadays). For the most part, there’s no money in simply writing about wine. But if you sell wine as your main job, then I – and most other enthusiastic wine drinkers – would consider any comments you might make as a winewriter to be suspect.

    (But let’s cut that hair a bit finer. If you are writing for a wine publication that takes advertising, doesn’t part of your take-home pay derive from that Pinot Grigio ad? But that’s the same with “real” journalists, so that’s a wash).

    What about samples and free trips? One of my first writing jobs allowed for a samples budget, so no big deal. When I worked for a paper that didn’t subsidize samples, I’d contact all the wholesalers, tell them I was writing a piece on Puerto Rican Pinot Noirs and have them send me theirs.

    But, as “Mauss” keeps saying (gotta meet that guy), I only tasted blind. Blind tastings and probably being a tad iconoclastic– plus my editors’ knowing that if I made a lot of money taking bribes it didn’t show in my clothes—helped build my rep as solid. More to the point, my editors learned that they could trust me. Did I go on press trips? You betcha! And they formed a great opportunity for more learning. And any resulting tastings when I got back home were blind….

    But just another dab about press trips. When I started out, I didn’t think about it much because I knew I could trust myself to be fair. But clarification came soon and I realized that accepting a trip underwritten by a regional or national group – Champagne, Burgundy, Santa Barbara, Spain etc.—was jake. I was, after all, going to write about famous wine regions anyway: that was my job. And the more I knew about a region the better for me and my readers.. But if I ever considered taking a trip underwritten by just one winery, that was another thing. Early on, we’d convince the winery to take us to see his neighbors to compare and contrast. But later on, just the appearance of accepting that kind of trip edged me into the “no, thanks” school. Interestingly, I worked for a major newspaper which had a curious policy about press trips. They wouldn’t print anything I wrote that came out of a trip, nothing at all. Umm, until after 6 months’ time had elapsed, that is! No joke. Remind me to tell you the story about the Rabbis and the sturgeon.

    Options? Should there be a school for winewriters? Might make the diff twixt winewriters and journalists narrower. Should we go the route of the MS or MW organizations? That would certainly improve upon the wine knowledge of wine commentators. But I tend to think that if you were to invest that much time and money getting vino-cred you probably wouldn’t want a job that pays dirt, like winewriting. (Besides, I know many an MW and MS who should probably have the letters AH after their names as well: schooling doesn’t necessarily build character).

    I think in the end it comes down to character, to building a reputation as an honest commentator. Your readers may not know it (although 1WineDude’s comments above ring true) but your editors and colleagues will. I know that taking the 10 years road is less appealing than taking the 3 months road, but it seems that’s how it’s done. That, by the way, is how it usually works with journalists.

    Then again, the whole discussion may well be a bit overblown. Years ago I read a report from a Washington state university written by guys who had letters after their names. It did not deal with the $100 a bottle wines that a very very small proportion of American drinkers buy. It dealt with the reasons why consumers buy affordable wines. Was it the word of a friend, the price, shelf-placement, label-design, etc. The advice of winewriters came in at a whopping 3% share. So, maybe we are focusing on this too much.

    Then again, as a lot of the people who read this and other like blogs dance in the same ballrooms, it might pay to keep the slackers in step.

  8. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 3, 2011

    Excellent reality points Mr. Gray. That said, then don’t hold profitable wine events while maintaining a Published Code of Ethics that is totally inconsistent with that reality. The non-knowledgeable wine buying public read that Ethics code and form a belief of trust because they suspect it will followed .

  9. May 3, 2011

    I’m entering this party just as it’s over, but as I scrounge for still-edible scraps, I’d like to point out something:

    Our standards for journalistic integrity were set in an era when journalism could be a lifelong career. Even people who still have jobs in newspapers are looking over their shoulders these days, wondering when the dreaded notice from HR is going to come.

    I remember early in my career being shocked when a colleague left for a PR job. Now she seems prescient; she’s getting a paycheck and benefits.

    I don’t have any specific information or perspective on either Suckling or Galloni. But I do want people to consider how the landscape of journalism has changed. There are profitable sites like the Huffington Post that value writing at $0. I get offers all the time to write for people for free or for $15 or whatever.

    If readers are willing to buy publications, and journalists can get paid a decent salary and can envision a carefree retirement, then you can have one set of standards. Today we are in a different environment and the standards should naturally evolve to fit it.

  10. May 3, 2011

    I’m a little late in coming to this discussion. A few thoughts: (1) There’s nothing wrong with making money. Some people seem to feel that if a wine critic makes money he’s doing something wrong. (2) Joe Roberts is right: just be transparent. Explain all, and let the readers decide. (3) And most importantly of all, this debate comes down to credibility. One can never, ever prove himself credible. It’s a moral quality that is not capable of proof. Credibility is either accepted by the reader, or it is not. It is very easy for bloggers to question a critic’s credibility. It’s like “When did you stop beating your wife?” No matter how the critic responds — or doesn’t — he finds himself in deeper doodoo. I personally don’t know Mr. Galloni’s prior work and so cannot comment on his credibility, but just because he’s making money off an event doesn’t mean he skews his scores. I would like to believe in any critic’s credibility until it’s proven to me otherwise. As for Suckling, well, I’ve written often enough I think he’s a buffoon, but that doesn’t mean he’s dishonest. Anyhow he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, obviously. I’ll add one final observation: There is a lot of navel gazing here. We love it (as Mike pointed out), and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it. In fact, the intra-critical dialogue has been largely a force for good (and I’ve been involved with it for years now). But it can get a little preciously centric at times.

  11. May 3, 2011

    The old slippery topic of journalistic ethics returns!

    Ok, I admit I enjoy the conversation as much as everyone else. :-)

    In my experience, however, the readers / consumers of our writing are the ones who suffer silently in these debates, because they’re largely ignored in the navel-gazing. Unintentionally, usually, but ignored nonetheless. What do *they* want?

    I’ve asked them this question, and what I’ve concluded from the answers I’ve been given is (and I’m not saying it’s the right way to go morally or intellectually or… ) is that people want to be treated with transparency. Transparency with readers is now the #1, above-all-else, golden-rule activity for writers in the changing media world. Those readers – my customers – will decide on their own whether or not I’ve ventured into shill territory. They’re smart people, and I trust them, so this is all fine with me, even if it means I have to give a bit more of my personal info. than I might at first be comfortable with – so far they’ve not asked for tax statements, for example, but they’ve asked some very personal questions and I’ve given direct answers in some cases with numbers!

    But they can only have that interaction and make those decisions when I am honest and open and totally transparent myself.

    That Decanter article is not totally transparent. Might have been unintentional, but transparent it’s not.

  12. May 3, 2011

    Oh, and thanks, Mike, for the book mention! I don’t feel qualified to carry your tap water, let alone your sparkling water. It’s nice of you to bring it up.

  13. May 3, 2011


    James has not responded to me on Twitter. I suspect he has not been pleased with some of my past writing, and his responses have been intermittent at best. But I hope he will.

    Regarding pay-to-play, it seems rather apparent that it’s exactly that. But it would be helpful for James to clarify why he’s structured it that way, and whether he thinks it matters if his customers know that.

    I agree that it’s unlikely Decanter knew about the connections. I would still argue the piece was poorly edited and wasn’t pushed for quality’s sake, let alone ethical implications of Divino Tuscany. But again, we’ll learn more when Guy Woodward addresses that.

    And on navel gazing: Sometimes it’s a helpful practice. In this case, it’s doing a lot of good.

  14. mauss permalink
    May 3, 2011

    On the financial side, we have a lot to learn from Suckling !


  15. Mr. MR permalink
    May 3, 2011

    A participation in Divino Tuscany costs each winery 10.000€ plus wine, preferably older vintages and d-magnums..

  16. mauss permalink
    May 2, 2011

    Keith :

    The situation you describe is exactly the situation of the first growths in EP tastings : if you want to be invited again and again, sometimes with the red carpet, you better give some positive comments and do not ask stupidly to taste blind.
    Again and again and again, the only solution is “blind” and if needed, you have to buy the bottles, as we do at GJE.

  17. May 2, 2011


    I agree: potential conflicts of interest can arise in all sorts of ways, and a wine critic can’t completely cut himself or herself off from those situations. But there’s a big difference between potential conflicts of interest that arise in the course of practicing wine criticism and holding for-profit events involving producers whose wines you review. And the biggest difference is that the latter is not merely a potential conflict of interest–it is an actual conflict of interest. There’s just no ambiguity about that. In his comments to me a few weeks ago, Antonio made the point that it would be crazy for him to fudge scores on account of an event like the Festa del Barolo; he’d be risking his reputation and livelihood. That’s certainly true. But the fact that remains that this event was a clear violation of Parker’s ethical guidelines and created a conflict of interest.

    It’s not for me to tell Antonio what to do, but I agree with Wilfred–I think advertising and press trips are a lot less egregious than holding for-profit events a la the Festa del Barolo.

    As to Evan’s point about Suckling and Decanter (and congratulations, Evan, on the book, which looks great)–I suspect the editors weren’t told about Divino Tuscany. Evan, have you asked Suckling to clarify what happened? And has anyone asked him if Divino Tuscany is a pay-to-play event?

  18. May 2, 2011

    The avoidance of conflicts of interest is certainly a fine ideal for wine writers, but there are some such conflicts inherent in the job description. For example, critics like Mr. Suckling and Mr. Galloni are dependent on producers’ inviting them into their private cellars and offering them the opportunity to taste expensive wines at no charge before they are bottled for sale. Negative reviews can result in lost access, and lost access can degrade the quality of content and result in declining subscriptions. Positive reviews can result in lasting friendships which bring their own potential for conflict. Similar kinds of conflicts affect “real” journalists too, but I’m unaware of any mechanisms established to resolve them other than journalists insisting on their objectivity and resting on their reputations. I suspect that the whole Suckling/Galloni imbroglio will ultimately boil down to that point as well. They’ll be able to put on events like these with their credibility intact so long as nobody suspects any mutual back-scratching is going on. From the comments I’ve read, Galloni seems to have managed that; Suckling not so much.

  19. mauss permalink
    May 2, 2011

    Very strange that facing two questions :

    a : making objective tastings notes
    b : making additionnal income since the sole writing may not be enough for a decent living or for promoting your review…

    … nobody come to the easiest and most understandable solution : blind tastings !

    Are you all against this procedure, as strongly confirmed by Parker and as used without stupid results by GJE for the last 15 years ?

  20. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 2, 2011

    This is a terrifc debate Mike. Thanks Antonio for chiming in with your thoughts again.
    To me, the issue Mike that you have raised above is not black and white as some have concluded. “Is it okay to hold for profit events involving producers whose wines you review?”
    Like Klapp, I am an attorney and have been raised with a Sword of Damocles allegiance to an ethical standard in my conduct towards my client and my opponent.
    Does a wine critic have a similar moral obligation to his clients (no real opponent to worry about) for his non-critical writing activities? Probably not.
    I agree that the issue would be better handled with all profits going to charity. Or the Critic involved merely paid a set “Organizing fee” for his name, appearance and efforts in the event. That recommendation seems to be the most logical way to avoid the clarion calls here and on Wine Boards to avoid such for profit activites involving producers critiqued. If profits are to be made and retained by a critic in events like this, then Robert Parker’s acceptance of that that type of activity as fully acceptable under WA’s purported strict ethics policy is a sham and makes the issue seem even more unseemly than it need be. Any such events by any independent taster of WA is still burdened with the WA ethics and “Consumer Advocate” label whether Parker want to admit it or not.
    If Antonio wants to organize and profit from these events they clearly create the potential for an appearance of a conflict of interest. The fact that Antonio says “trust me, that will not happen” is encouraging, but how do his readers really know that is true. He must understand that that decision to profit from wine events involving producers he routinelty rates puts at risk the perception a loss of his critical independence.
    The story of Bepe Rinaldi creating an OMFG experience for the attendees is certainly a reason to encourage such events, but that alone does not minimize the ethical trap these events produce.
    I agree with Bill Klapp’s suggestion of the negotiated fee stated in the event announcement if strictly charitable contributions of the profits is not an acceptable solution for the critic. If profits are to be made by the critic who runs such events, he must then be prepared to lose the full faith of some clients that he seeks to guide though his critical scoring.

  21. May 2, 2011

    I agree with Daniel 100%. Antonio can throw up all the chaff he wants regarding his charitable work or the enormous hardship and risk he undertook in putting it together, but that doesn’t change the fact that producers whom he reviews provided free bottles for an event from which he profited. His transparency and disclosures about the Festa are great only in that they let me know precisely those producers whose Wine Advocate reviews I should completely disregard. In an interview with Mike, Antonio insisted that his integrity couldn’t be corrupted, and that even though he was making money off the producers’ largesse, these events would in no way affect his judgment. I’m sorry, but “just trust me” isn’t an ethics policy.

    As for “building the WA brand,” I don’t see how a pricey Barolo dinner achieves that? The WA is already the wine publication of choice for the global business elite, Bordeaux trophy hunters, and people who share Parker’s “hedonistic” palate. The Del Posto banquet appeals precisely to this core constituency and pretty much no one else, so I don’t really see how this is expanding the brand here. Educating wealthy Manhattenites on the merits and joys of Barolo? Great, with any luck, collectors will take an even bigger interest in Barolo and push up the prices of this already expensive beverage, making a somewhat affordable splurge prohibitively expensive for the average wine enthusiast. Splendid. Way to look out for the consumer….

    But take heart, Antonio, there’s no way anyone would confuse what you’re doing with say, this kind of “wine criticism”:


    Bill M.

  22. May 2, 2011


    And a good point about Decanter.

    They should have known better than to print that.

  23. May 2, 2011

    Decanter’s Guy Woodward sent me a private message on Twitter promising to respond to this issue this week. I hope he will. Suckling’s piece was a mess, and while Suckling’s problems are obvious, Decanter is getting off easy here. Do they have editors? Tom Maresca nicely pointed out the very basic failings of the piece long before any ethical implications. It was junk, and lazy. I don’t say that to be rude. It’s not easy for writers to get published in magazines like Decanter. If Mr. Suckling is not interested in writing strong pieces, he should cede the floor to someone else.

    But now, we need to hear from Mr. Woodward on whether Decanter was aware of the relationship Suckling has with the producers he featured. If Decanter knew, they have lost a great deal of credibility with me. If they did not know, will they alert their readers in any fashion?

    Mike, I’m also a journalist first, and I’ve gone back and forth with Keith, Bill, et al. It’s not a distraction; it’s important to know whether writers consider themselves journalists. But contrary to what some have said about Antonio Galloni and the ostensible ethics code, you aren’t immune from ethical standards if you rip up your publication’s code. Standards must still exist.

  24. May 2, 2011

    This is just silly. Profits are profits.

    If you make them, as a wine “journalist,” on events where

    1) You ask wineries for free wine
    2) You ask wineries to sponsor
    3) You ask wineries to travel across the world on their dime to attend
    4) You charge consumers anything above whatever the cost of the event is

    You are not a wine “journalist.”

    Francois and Wilfred bring up excellent points.

    No matter what you profit, it is profits.


    Writing things like this “The event turned a profit for one simple reason. It was well attended. That was far from a foregone conclusion considering this was the first time we had ever done an event like this. La Festa could have easily broken even or lost money given that there was zero financial sponsorship involved. The event took place during Spring Break for a number of New York City’s private schools and therefore quite a few people who might have otherwise attended were not able to do so. The break-even point was actually quite high. There were moments where I wondered if we would be able to sell enough seats to at least cover the costs” is just nonsense.

    You picked the week to do the event. You had to know that it was going to do well.

    Until you disclose how much money you are profitting from events such as La Festa and the Masseto dinner, anything you say to counter act what folks are saying is not the “truth.”

    The truth is you profitted from the event. You did not donate any of the profits to charity. In fact, there was no charity portion of the dinner until about a month after you announced the event (the earthquake in Japan happened somewhere in between). You might recall a “tweet” where I asked you what charity you were supporting when you said La Festa is just like La Paulee. At that time there was no response.

    So while James Suckling is the worst of this kind, let’s not forget that while he is taking money from a handful of sponsors, you actually had the suppliers travel across the world, on their own dime.

    Perhaps if you had taken the “profits” and put them towards any sort of additional expense incurred by suppliers (wine and/or travel) or donated it all to charity, then people would not ask the questions of ethical conduct.

    Suckling left WS because he wanted to max out his “profits” potential. At WS, he could not do this sort of stuff.

    How one cannot actually say that Festa and Masseto (where the winery donated every btl of Masseto for the dinner) does not go against Parker’s BS ethical code of conduct is beyond me.

    The code has not been followed for years, whether it is Parker himself, Miller, Squires or now, yourself.

    He talks about an arms length from the trade, and here you are doing for profit events, while asking suppliers to travel and donate free wine.

    Like Bill Klapp, I have no issue with these events, but unless you are going to talk about how much money you make on this stuff, you need to rip up the code.

    James Suckling is doing an entire weekend of festivities. Who says that he is going to profit?

    If he loses money, does it make his event ok for your journalistic integrity?

    That is directed at anyone here…Mike, Antonio, anyone else who cares to chime in.

  25. mauss permalink
    May 1, 2011

    Bravo for this emotional presentation. Every thing will be perfect in the future if all the potential profit generated by this kind of event is going to charity. Very simple and killing all problems.

    This is exactly what Angelo Gaja told me as his own way of doing speeches in USA.

    But, as explained over, someone needs to modify the first page on TWA since the rules settled in the past by Parker are not any more accurate.

    Thanks to Antonio to come back again here to explain more in details what he has achieved. At least, his “transparancy” in giving details in his own way of processing events on the side is something quite new in the world of wine-critics in USA. It should be noticed.

  26. Antonio Galloni permalink
    May 1, 2011

    The main goal of La Festa del Barolo was education. I think we accomplished that in many ways. Clearly, those who attended tasted a wide range of wines; newly released Barolos during the afternoon session and a bevy of older wines during the dinner. Producers tasted more older wines than most of them had ever seen – much less tasted – in one place, including many of their own bottles. Lastly, a group of this country’s top sommeliers tasted the same wines and came away with a much deeper understanding of what Barolo is and can be.

    The event turned a profit for one simple reason. It was well attended. That was far from a foregone conclusion considering this was the first time we had ever done an event like this. La Festa could have easily broken even or lost money given that there was zero financial sponsorship involved. The event took place during Spring Break for a number of New York City’s private schools and therefore quite a few people who might have otherwise attended were not able to do so. The break-even point was actually quite high. There were moments where I wondered if we would be able to sell enough seats to at least cover the costs.

    The spirit of the Collectors Series is to deliver once-in-a-lifetime experiences that bring consumers closer to wine. By definition there are not a lot of those. As of today there are no future events on the calendar and none are in the planning stages. The reality is that these events take an enormous amount of time to plan and my schedule is already extremely packed for the rest of the year. When we do the next event we will have clearly stated ethical guidelines with all of the appropriate disclosures. Raising funds for charitable causes will play an even greater role than it has thus far.

    There were a number of great moments at La Festa del Barolo, but one in particular that I will treasure. Towards the end of the afternoon session it was Beppe Rinaldi’s turn to speak. Rinaldi is arguably the greatest of the remaining old-school traditionalists in Barolo. At this point people had been in their seats for nearly two hours. I was shocked when I learned that Rinaldi would attend. I had tried to make this happen for months, but only at the last minute did Rinaldi decide to make the trip to New York (his first). In typical Rinaldi fashion he didn’t even bother to tell me he was coming, perhaps fearing that his passport (a last-minute rush job) might not appear in time. When Rinaldi finally spoke the room turned the quietest it had been all afternoon. Everything stopped. The attendees waited with great anticipation. All of the sommeliers came out from the behind the scenes to listen. Everywhere I looked I saw cameras and phones recording the moment. Then came the goosebumps as Rinaldi charmed the room with his speech. Afterwards, one of the other producers on the stage came up to me and said “I would have gladly given up my time to hear Rinaldi speak for another fifteen minutes.” This is the essence of what the Collectors Series is all about.

  27. Wilfred permalink
    May 1, 2011

    Great questions, Mike. You note and ask:

    “But there are compromises and then there are compromises. What practices are acceptable, and which ones ought not to be? For instance, are free
    samples okay? How about press trips, or advertising? Is it okay to hold for-profit events involving producers whose wines you review? Where do you draw the line? I think this is the heart of the matter.”

    To me, free samples are fine, somewhat in the same way that a book reviewer often gets a book submitted to review as a sample. I realize that wine samples could be argued to be potentially “doctored” (and likely are) to represent the best the winery has to offer, but given economics as they are, I can hardly imagine an independent reviewer being able to afford to buy all the wines that are reviewed. (That said, I am reminded of a visit to a top producer in Burgundy in which we tasted a recent vintage. The wine merely showed as average. “Wait a moment,” stated the owner, and he went to a certain barrel to extract a different sample. “This will taste much better” and it did. He knew which barrels showed better than the others.

    I also have no problem with press trips, as long as they are disclosed to the reader and the reviewer has the opportunity to review many producers in a region, not just the ones who are members of a sponsoring syndicate.

    If advertising is not related to wine (e.g. automobiles, etc.) I have no problem with that; but I think the reviewer should not accept advertising from wine related businesses such as wineries.

    I do not personally feel it is appropriate to organize, host and profit from events of wineries the reviewer reviews. This, to me, definitely crosses the line.

    As Francois notes, much of the problem can be avoided if the reviews are done under single blind conditions and monitored for legitimacy; that would solve a host of problems.

    Just one person’s opinion.

  28. May 1, 2011

    Thanks for all the comments. This is a great discussion. As I indicated in my post, I think wine critics should be regarded as journalists and ought to be held to the same general standards that apply in newsrooms. But both Keith and Wilfred make good points, and perhaps the journalist question is a distraction. So let me come at this from another angle. Whether or not you consider wine critics to be journalists, it seems to me that they/we do have an obligation to try to avoid conflicts of interest to the fullest extent possible, something that Robert Parker recognized long ago. Francois rightly notes that the economics of wine writing has changed and that it is no longer possible to fully adhere to the rigorous standards that Parker established. As we have learned in recent years, Parker himself is no longer faithfully abiding by them. But there are compromises and then there are compromises. What practices are acceptable, and which ones ought not to be? For instance, are free samples okay? How about press trips, or advertising? Is it okay to hold for-profit events involving producers whose wines you review? Where do you draw the line? I think this is the heart of the matter.

  29. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 1, 2011

    Wilfred, I am not sure that anybody but Antonio and Parker know what Antonio can and cannot do at The Wine Advocate these days. I am guessing that Antonio could effect changes in the WA ethical creed with Parker’s blessing if he so chooses, being, as he is, the heir to the WA throne. The mistake that he and Parker have made publicly is to maintain that the existing WA standards permitted Festa. Antonio says that is so because he discussed it with Parker, and Parker assured him that it fit within the standards, blah, blah, blah. Maybe within the letter of the thing (a stretch, but perhaps Bill Clinton could get him there), but absolutely not within the spirit of it. As you may recall, Parker rejected the life of the lawyer early on, probably because he is not really very good with the written word (especially interpreting his own in this case), nor a keen and critical judge of his fellow man, both of which are central to the practice of law . (You can trust me on the interpretational point: I am no wine critic, but I was a highly successful lawyer for three decades.)

    Regardless of the status of the WA standards, Antonio is obviously free to declare the standards that he intends to be bound by personally, and in answering many of the Festa-driven questions of late, he has to some extent already done that. I am a firm believer in the need for events like Festa, and far less concerned about the conflict-of-interest and ethical concerns raised by others in that context, especially as it relates to Antonio Galloni. True, others could stage these events, but a strong argument can be made that few could bring out the stars that Antonio has. I am receptive to the suggestion that somebody else should run the events, with Antonio being paid a negotiated fee for participating and perhaps soliciting the attendees. But unlike the ethical purists, I am fine with Antonio doing exactly as he did, as long as he starts laying out the ethical and conflict-of-interest policies that he will subscribe to regarding such events, and his role as wine critic generally.

    What is truly at stake here is his credibility. Marvin Shanken has been running such events for years with no outcry, but then again, Wine Spectator has little credibility among serious wine collectors. Whatever the state of Parker’s credibility these days (damaged for sure, just a question of degree), Antonio still maintains his credibility, and will be able to do so best by “becoming his own man” and dancing to his own publicly announced tune. I am respectful of his need to be respectful of the man who has given him the opportunity. On the other hand, he needs to put some serious distance between himself and the Parker hangers-on Jay Miller, Mark Squires and some of the buffoons on the Squires board. The Squires board crowd of know-nothings and yes men suits Parker well at this point in his career, but the WA brand is doomed if its core audience is not grown beyond them. I suspect that Antonio understands that, and believes, among other things, that events like Festa will help build the brand. I hope so…

  30. Wilfred permalink
    May 1, 2011

    It seems we’ve gotten off track with the “are they a journalist or not.” In a way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, should a wine critic avoid certain conflicts of interest and if so, what are potential conflicts? Very basic.

    Second, I take a slight issue with Bill Klapp–a man whose posts I have come to respect enormously as I’ve read them–in that as long as Antonio is part of TWA and Parker is the leader who published TWA’s ethical standards on the front page of each issue, Antonio isn’t really free to come up with his own unique set of standards. This, anymore than Jay Miller or Mark Squires can come up with their own unique standards (even if they seem to have done so, in practice). This in the same way that the Wine Spectator can’t have discrepant standards for each critic, where he/she each writes their own ethical standards. The publication sets the standard–for the publication. Its not just a collection of discrepant people who happen to publish in the same pages. They are part of a larger publication, who which standards they should be expected to adhere.

  31. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 1, 2011

    I will admit to having fashioned the “wine critics aren’t really journalists” argument. As always, I am unrepentant! A wine critic CAN also be a wine journalist, and a wine journalist a wine critic. Indeed, Mike Steinberger with a bagful of numbers and descriptors would fill the bill nicely! And we, the paying public, are certainly free to hold wine critics to whatever ethical standard we choose. We are, collectively, their boss.

    That said, you cannot look at the background of Bob Parker, James Suckling, Steve Tanzer or Antonio Galloni and seriously contend that he is bound by the quite elaborate and time honored code of professional conduct to which legitimate professional journalists must necessarily subscribe. If anything, Parker is bound by the ethical canons of the American Bar Association. Antonio is a business major and former investment banker. Suckling is…well, Suckling is a buffoon. I have no idea what his non-WS background may include. I am relatively sure, however, that none of them did journalism school.

    I think that it does make sense for any serious wine critic to publish the professional standards, ethical and otherwise, that govern his activities. Yes, Parker did that, and yes, his avowed code of conduct was, at times, observed mainly in the breach (certainly by his subordinates in any event). And, in truth, he is answering for that right now. Increasing numbers of wine buffs look at Parker’s body of work and, after giving due credit for the good that he has done (or not in some cases, I suppose), come away deciding that Bob Parker is not the Naderesque, cut through the bullshit consumer advocate that he claimed to be, and that his published credo would have him be.

    And finally, I am on the wrong side of the “Festa” debate, too. I see a place for such events in the wine world. There were people at that event that probably would never have tasted many of the wines served otherwise, and certainly not at a single pop. Are there ethical and conflict-of-interest concerns? Absolutely. Thus, I say that it is incumbent upon Antonio to put together his own code of conduct, and then to abide by it. If he does the former and not the latter and gets caught at it, the wine board death squad will avenge the wrong. If not, and if his code incorporates events like Festa in a way that makes sense to his audience, voila! I know that common sense approach will not satisfy you ethical purists out there. You hardasses!

  32. mauss permalink
    May 1, 2011

    Clearly, what Suckling is doing is a pure business way to promote some properties he does like very much and who agree to spent money for such events. So, yes, he is now a high level “wine-communicator” and we all know this is far away from the classicism of wine-journalist as it was teached to us by Parker at the beginning of TWA.
    Many wine-journalists are still in this respect of avoiding possible conflicts of interest. Clive Coates was, Meadows is as well as Asimov or many others.
    Obviously, Mr Galloni has other views in this field and he is very strong and sensible to develop his objectivity when he did organize an event for profit, even if it is small (?) and associated to a charity action (full respect for that). Parker himself has done many gifts also in this field. Chapeau.
    But, again and again, when you are a producer and when someone like him is asking your presence for an event, be sure they think it may help for their consideration in the future. We do not need to make an extensive survey to confirm this fact. Just some discussions with those properties are largely enough. And this is now a widely business also in Europe.
    Nobody knows what Mr Parker will do later with his products, books and review; maybe he will give that to a foundation or maybe he will sell to someone one day. This is not actuality. The future will tell us.
    But definitively, the question of conflict of interest will ALWAYS be a topic when you will learn that a wine-critic is doing something using his relations and power, for earning more money.
    Again, and again, this was quite clear in the first page of TWA. Obviously, these wise principles are not any more actuality. It is a fact and for those who link their buying policy on recommendations of journalists, we all understand that it may become a major concern.

  33. April 30, 2011

    A huge thank you to Antonio for joining in the discussion. Also, to Mike for beginning and now distilling the debate into a core question.

    We would only add one more question to your great synopsis, Mike.

    Antonio: It’s impossible to believe your medical and kid’s charity comparison when Le Festival del Barolo is a for-profit event. If charity truly is where your heart lies, why not donate your portion of every future Collectors Series events to charity and stick to your day job of being an advocate for us, the consumer?

  34. mauss permalink
    April 30, 2011

    About Suckling : I find a very prompt answer to his way of doing, starting the day he did start a website so particular; he is not anymore a journalist in the noble sense of this word. he is simply a “wine-communicator”, doing business in cheating naïve amateurs.
    And about Antonio : it is obvious now that nobody in the wine-critic world will be able to generate as much $$$ that Parker has generated inside some rules just impossible to follow now. So, naturally, with the very extensible understanding of morale of our time, any new way to make $$$ generates interest for many people.
    Again and again : the “purity” has to follow a one way system : blind tasting. As written as a standard for many years on TWA.

  35. April 30, 2011


    Thanks for stopping by. As I noted in my post, you were completely forthcoming about the nature of the Festa del Barolo when I asked you about it. It will be interesting to see if James Suckling responds to the concerns that have been raised about his event.

    I’m not quite sure I understand your point about journalists not calling to ask about charitable events that you do. If the implication is that journalists are just looking to dig up dirt, I don’t think that’s true at all. I contacted you about the Festa del Barolo simply because the event seemed to be a significant departure from the Wine Advocate’s code of conduct, and that struck me as newsworthy. From the amount of discussion that my article prompted, it would appear that my judgment was correct. The fact that you do events for charity, which is wonderful, doesn’t change the fact that the Festa del Barolo was a for-profit endeavor involving producers whose wines you review, which is clearly at odds with the ethical guidelines that Bob established years ago. Some people were troubled by this, others were not. But I think it was information that people were entitled to know, and I assume you’d agree.

    Apropos of my Suckling post, perhaps you might weigh in on the questions I posed at the end. Should you be regarded as a journalist and held to the same general standards that apply to newspaper and magazine reporters?



  36. Wilfred permalink
    April 30, 2011

    Yes, Keith, we want his opinion, just like we get the opinion of a movie critic or a restaurant critic. Sam Sifton is a journalist even though he’s providing his subjective opinion of what’s “good” and “not so good” in NYC restaurants.

    But the key part here is whether influences should be minimized that will sway his opinion artifically. I think you and I would agree Sifton is a critic who provides his subjective opinion (like Parker et al). I think we’d also agree he is a journalist. Finally, I bet we would agree there should be some ethical guidelines for him to follow.

    Why should it be any different for RMP, Parker, Antonio, Steve Tanzer, Josh Raynolds, and so forth?

  37. April 30, 2011

    Lew, I think there is an important difference. Journalism (at least the American version) promises a certain degree of objectivity. The Wine Advocate, with its logo fashioned after a crusader’s cross, implicitly promises something else. You weren’t paying for the news, you were paying for Robert Parker’s point of view, the primary mission of the publication being the promotion of the kind of wines Robert Parker liked. To the extent anyone expected or expects objectivity from the Wine Advocate, that has been a delusion with unfortunate consequences.

  38. Antonio Galloni permalink
    April 30, 2011

    I would like to remind everyone of the following facts regarding La Festa del Barolo:
    The amount producers had to pay to participate = 0
    The possibility for adverse selection based on a winery’s financial clout/ability to participate = 0
    The financial cushion provided by sponsorship of any kind in the event of an under attended tasting/dinner = 0
    The amount raised for charity = well above the profit generated

    Each year I do a (separate) charity event that raises between $40-50K medical and kid’s charities. Yet no journalist or blogger has ever called me to do a story on one of those dinners. Why? I read above that negative reviews don’t sell. Sometimes I think positive stories don’t, either.

  39. Lewis Dawson permalink
    April 30, 2011

    With respect, Keith, I believe you are drawing a distinction without a difference. Whether reviewing and scoring wines qualifies as jounalism or not, it still inherently has all the same needs for avoiding conflicts of interest if the wine critic is to have credibility as independent from the wine trade. Galloni has made a huge blunder by setting up a business that lives on sponsorships provided by the wineries he reviews. I hope he (and Parker) will see the error, and reverse course immediately. As for Suckling, he is on the same track as Galloni, if Tom Maresca has his facts straight. He does not start with the credibility of The Wine Advocate, and one could surmise that he does not intend to build his business in that direction, based on Maresca’s reporting.

  40. Peter Herman permalink
    April 30, 2011

    Pay to Play is always wrong. Yes, wine writers should be considered journalists and held to whatever standard pertains to journalists. Readers rely on the authenticity of wine writers’ commentary. Accordingly, it should be clean of conflict of interest. Otherwise, it is simply marketing.

  41. Wilfred permalink
    April 30, 2011

    Wow. Red Red Wine Bar. WOW. GREAT post!

  42. April 30, 2011

    There is no another industry this cozy with its critics.* Paid trips. Private personal tastings from the archives. Elaborate dinners. We never hear about George Lucas flying Roger Ebert in to watch rare clips from Lucas’s private collection while his personal chef serves them. Yet, that’s almost the job description for James Suckling.

    It’s like local professional sports journalism now. If you aren’t a cheerleader for the teams in your town you lose access. Without access you lose stature. Without stature you can’t pay the bills. So, like sports reporters, many wine critics become paid cheerleaders. The fans suffer in this analogy because the teams aren’t held accountable. We, the wine drinkers, suffer from manipulation and bloated wine scores.

    With Robert Parker gone there’s a vacuum of authority. How do the two people who could benefit most immediately respond? Instantly kill their credibility. Galloni with his Festa del Barolo. Suckling with his Divino Tuscany. We dare to dream of someone willing to blind taste everything, pay their own way, let the chips fall where they may and create a relationship with us, the readers and consumers, not the industry.

    *OK. One agency comes to mind. The Minerals Management Service which oversees offshore drilling. We all know how the gifts, parties and favors worked out for the Gulf.

  43. April 29, 2011

    Hi Mike, it was me who raised the heretical notion that journalism isn’t an entirely apt description for Mr. Galloni’s line of work. But that’s not to say that there aren’t wine writers who are journalists. Even Suckling, as it happens, seems to qualify, at least based on his work for the Spectator. Whatever you think about his taste or lack thereof, he didn’t just spit out tasting notes and points — he wrote features based on interviews and even the occasional bit of investigative reporting. Magazine journalism is still the Spectator’s model. The Wine Advocate’s model has always been different, as exemplified by Parker’s oft-cited statement that his inspiration was Ralph Nader. You can call Nader a consumer advocate or an activist or all sorts of other names, but he was never a journalist. I think there is a fundamental difference between a publication whose only intended function is to tell you what products to buy vs. one that actually runs stories. It may be that it’s appropriate to apply the same ethical standards to both, but I still think the former constitutes something other than journalism.

  44. Wilfred permalink
    April 29, 2011

    Wine writers are journalists; the conflict comes in when they are also business people and personally profit from the success of their publication. More people will buy when the writing is ecstatic and hyped–writing on steroids. That’s why we have terms like “Soaring from the glass” or a “tour de force” and “liquid sex.” I mean, really; can anyone–anyone–define liquid sex? But apparently, it sells subs as people love to get excited and either go out and buy the wine or get excited they have it in their cellar. I believe this is the reason we do not any longer see many negative reviews, even though they would be appreciated. Negative reviews apparently don’t sell.

    Your comment about Sifton profiting from a dinner of chefs of his choice, whom he reviews, is of course unthinkable, but that’s exactly what’s going on in the world of wine. Why isn’t there greater outrage? “Its only wine, after all” is a refrain some wine writers use when they’re in a corner, and I’m afraid, sadly, it resonates with much of the buying public.

    Long story short, the world of wine criticism has been filled, all to often, with carnival barkers as well as serious journalists, and I’m afraid the result is an unfortunate amalgamation with fuzzy rules as a result.

  45. April 29, 2011

    Transparency is just the start. In my wine writing, that means disclosing in my tasting notes whether the wine I’m writing of was a free sample. It means disclosing whether a trip I have taken has been underwritten by a trade group. No wine critic who wants to be seen as a credible journalist will benefit financially in any way from an individual winery, a group of wineries, a wine shop, a restaurant and so forth. Thus, any wine critic who acknowledges that he or she is vested financially in an event sponsored by a winery or other self-serving interest may be a wine critic, but he or she isn’t a journalist.

  46. April 29, 2011

    Life is a conflict of interest, but this one had us rolling our eyes and calling bullshit. Transparency is key. The facts don’t change, but how people perceive them does.

  47. April 29, 2011

    Thanks for stopping by, Ed. I agree with you. Whether you are called a critic or a reporter, you are a journalist, and the same rules apply. Would The New York Times let Sam Sifton organize a dinner in which top New York chefs paid to take part and Sifton pocketed the proceeds? Of course not; The Times wouldn’t tolerate it, and readers wouldn’t, either. Yet, in some of the discussion about Galloni and the Festa del Barolo, there were people who said there was no inherent conflict of interest, that it was much ado about nothing, etc. I suspect we’ll hear the same thing about Suckling and his event. And that’s why I posed those questions: I’m curious to see where people come down on this stuff.

    I will be sure to check out the discussion on your site, and I hope other people will do so, too.


  48. April 29, 2011


    No, we are not making too much of this. Critics should, indeed, be regarded as journalists, even if judging wine is a largely subjective affair. Journalists (I, too, have worked for years in news and consider myself a journalist first), are trained to avoid and disclose conflicts. It’s what makes us credible, even if, when it comes to wine, each critic tastes the same wine differently. We need to say when we receive compensation from wineries or their representatives, when we accept press trips or samples. On my own site a couple of weeks ago I explored a similar theme that I observed playing out on Twitter and commented on its relevance for social media. Your readers might want to take a look. Thanks.

    Ed Deitch

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