by Tim Atkin

Who pays wine critics?

The campaigning journalist George Monbiot stirred up a considerable amount of debate among hacks recently when he decided to publish a registry of his financial interests on his website. There in black and white, Monbiot declares how much he’s paid by The Guardian, his publisher and his lodgers, as well as his total gross and net incomes.

Why the brave move? Monbiot believes that “journalists should live by the standards they demand of others, among which are accountability and transparency. One of the most important questions in public life, which is asked less often than it should be, is “who pays?”

Should wine journalists do the same thing? In the light of recent revelations in Spain, covered in depth by Jim Budd on his website, that producers in Murcia and Jumilla were being asked by their own inter-professional association to make a substantial contribution to fund a visit, tastings and a seminar by Jay Miller of the Wine Advocate, it’s a hot topic.

Michel Bettane, one of France’s leading wine writers, has responded with outrage to the subject of user pays tastings, although there is no suggestion that Miller himself was being paid to assess wines, merely to speak at a conference. “Producers who pay critics are idiotic,” he said. “If ‘critics’ accept compensation for tasting wines, then I don’t believe them to be true critics. Corruption exists quite obviously in the wine world today.”

These are dark and murky waters, but let’s grab a metaphorical wetsuit and harpoon and try to swim through them. The first thing to say is that wine writers couldn’t do their jobs without the support of the wine trade (producers, generic bodies, importers and retailers). Or rather they could, but they would need to have a substantial private income. If I chose to pay for all my samples and foreign travel, I would be bankrupt.

The second thing to say – and I’m not asking for your sympathy – is that it’s getting harder and harder to make a living just from writing and broadcasting about wine. Rather like high street off-licence chains, the number of wine publications has shrunk dramatically since I started out as a journalist in 1985.

As I know from personal experience, column inches in UK national newspapers are being slashed too. Only the FT and the Daily Telegraph give meaningful space to their wine writers these days. There’s next to nothing on the radio about wine and just Saturday Kitchen on TV, where wine has a small but influential slot.

In a spirit of Monbiot-like openness, I don’t mind telling you that I used to earn £40k a year for my weekly column on The Observer. The rate per piece was the same when I subsequently wrote for The Times for ten months in 2010. When I chose not to continue to work for either publication because of the dumbing down of their wine coverage it left a large hole in my income.

How did I replace the money? The answer is with a combination of teaching, judging, events and public speaking. There’s been a trickle of income from other publications, but there’s a lot of competition for the meagre amount of work, most of which pays exactly the same today as it did in the early 1990s. My website brings in a little income, but costs me far more to produce.

All of the above makes it difficult to take strong ethical positions about wine writing. I accept advertising on (but not from individual wineries or brands) and I have hosted generic tastings of Lebanese, Argentinean, Turkish and Australian wines, provided I was allowed to veto or choose the samples. You could argue that, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to do such things.

For all that, I believe that there are lines that consumer journalists shouldn’t cross. I choose not to write for supermarket publications because I consider it a blatant conflict of interest. How can anyone take your opinion on, say, Tesco’s new wine range seriously if you are employed by its magazine?

I feel the same way about accepting an invitation from one producer. The relationship – and the expectation of positive copy – is too compromising in my view. I am happy to go on generic trips because they give me an overview of a region or country, although here, too, I try to be invited as a conference speaker or wine judge so that I’m giving something back in terms of my own time and expertise. Sometimes I’m paid to do this, but more often I’m not.

Where does this leave wine journalism in the 21st century? The answer is unclear. Blogs about wine, some of them very good blogs, are proliferating but print media are in decline. The former doesn’t pay (at least not yet), while the latter is being forced to cut costs in the face of falling advertising revenues.

Thanks to the internet and social media, consumers are not short of information these days. But there’s a difference between information and advice. The latter is best provided by independent critics. Or as independent as possible.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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