by Andy Neather

Who Pays The Wine Critic?

Few subjects are as thorny for wine writers as their dependence on the industry – for samples, travel and more. We hear whispers of conflicts of interest at wine publications: many producers assume they have to “pay to play” if they want coverage. So perhaps it was just a matter of time before vignerons could pay to have their wine reviewed.

This was the service offered for the first time last month by Editions Féret, publisher since the nineteenth century of classic reference work Bordeaux et ses Vins and now digitally re-launched by owner Stéphane Zittoun. Producers can pay €160 per custom tasting note from one of a small group of journalists and experts.

A press release boasts that “for producers, it is the opportunity to have the wine of their choice, of the vintage they wish, tasted by the journalist they have chosen, when they want.” The seven critics recruited to date include the UK’s Chris Kissack, publisher of Winedoctor, and Richard Hemming MW of 67 Pall Mall in Singapore.

The move has provoked social media ire. Nick Jackson MW tweeted, “The slow death, by suicide, of independent wine criticism is one of the most unexpected and dispiriting legacies of the post-Parker era.”

Others are more equivocal. US food and wine critic Jon Bonné tweeted that it might represent proper recompense for critics: “as someone who’s long struggled to put a dollar figure on [these] skills, it fascinates me that this figure is now out there in the world”.

Kissack himself is more forthright. For a start, he tells me, “I can write what I wish about the wines, and score them as I see fit. There is no pressure to score high from Editions Féret.” He also contrasts the transparency of the Féret process with present practices: “I see up-and-coming influencers as well as well-established big-name wine communicators travelling the world’s wine regions, dining in prestigious restaurants, drinking expensive wines… with no hint that any of this was paid for by someone else.”

It is a question not just of how wine criticism is paid for, but what it is for.

To periodise this question, it was different before US uber-critic Robert Parker, an era arguably starting with Edmund Penning-Rowsell’s monthly wine column in Country Life magazine in 1954. He went on to become the first wine correspondent on a national daily, the Financial Times, in 1967. But the 1970s wine world described by Jancis Robinson in her autobiographical Confessions of a Wine Lover looks very gentlemanly compared to ours. And the trade were the main readers of Decanter magazine (from 1975) and Wine Spectator in the US (1976.)

But in 1978, Parker took a very different approach with his consumer-focussed The Wine Advocate newsletter, rating wines out of 100 points. His influence from the early 1980s rode surging middle-class demand for wine fuelled in part by the neo-liberal wealth re-distribution of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. That same demand – and oceans of New World imports – powered wine’s first British TV show, Robinson’s The Wine Programme (Channel 4, 1983) and then Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden’s wildly popular BBC2 Food and Drink.

This was a golden age for wine critics. The Guardian’s Malcolm Gluck could sell truckloads of his Superplonk guide in the 1990s – and columnists could still make a living from one weekly piece.

But by the time Parker stepped down as Wine Advocate editor-in-chief in 2012, the internet had turned this media ecosystem upside down. From the late 1990s, with ever-mushrooming free online content, print media business models started to look very shaky. A quarter of a century on, digital media has destroyed or transformed that newspaper and magazine world.

Those industries have responded in part by paying freelancers less. When I left the Evening Standard in 2015, after 11 years as Comment Editor (and wine critic too for most of that time) our lineage rates were almost half what they were when I arrived – never mind inflation.

Meanwhile, magazines face greater pressure from advertisers – and have got more commercially aggressive. Last year US drinks journalist Jason Wilson, publisher of the indispensable Everyday Drinking blog, wrote a damning exposé  of “pay to play” fees charged by (unnamed) US wine publications and associated skulduggery. Guy Woodward says that while he was deputy editor and editor of Decanter, 2003-12, he was never aware of being thus pressured – but that it was clear some advertisers thought their spend gave them a right to editorial coverage.

So funding for wine journalism has become a problem – as it has for independent journalism generally: hence Féret. How it is paid for depends in part, though, on what wine critics are for today. Or as Jon Bonné asks, “what grand torch of light and reason are professional wine critics supposed to be holding up, at least in 2023?”
I’d suggest that recommendations and points shouldn’t be a major part of it. Never mind that retailers agree they increase sales – or that even in his first published piece, in 1960, Hugh Johnson was recommending Christmas wines to Vogue readers (Château Lafite 1949, 39 shillings from Dolamore & Co). It doesn’t add enough value today, in an internet swimming in opinions and product reviews.

Instead, we have to do proper journalism: telling the endless stories to be told about producers and their vineyards, about the bars and restaurants where we drink rather than taste their wine. We have to cover the innovations, machinations and scandals of this global industry, the pratfalls of governments and regulators.

Independent journalism is fighting back: for example, my former Standard colleague Joshi Herrman has won plaudits for his Manchester Mill venture. The internet has turned things upside down – but created a lot of new spaces for wine journalism too: this one, for example. And while it won’t be completely objective, we can at least be transparent. We won’t win our readers’ trust without it.

Andy Neather blogs at The View from my Table

Photo by Fernando Santander on Unsplash 

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