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Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 14, 2009 2:50 am

I rarely comment in public about the ethics or general behavior of specific wine critics or writers and when I do it is generally in a positive vein, complimenting them on an accomplishment especially well-done. When I have something negative to say about the behavior of a colleague, I generally restrict that to a face-to-face meeting. I am about to break that rule, however, for within the last day and a half I have had a plethora of emails and phone calls asking me to react to the article written by Chaim Gan (whom many know through his connection with Ish HaAnavim in Yaffo). The article, written in Hebrew on the new internet site Wineet can be seen at http://www.winet.co.il/he-IL/115/925/

I will not translate the article as that would be in itself a violation of copyright, but do want to react to at least two of the points made therein, those especially related to the ethical behavior wine of local (that is to say, Israeli) critics and writers as raised by Gan who seems to have a few bones to pick with his colleagues.

Among the points he raises are that too many wineries offer aruchot schitoot[/] – quite literally "corruption meals" at which to unveil their wines and to which wine writers and critics are invited. The clear implication is that critics and writers go to such meals, are impressed by the "spoiling treatment" they receive and then write positive reviews in order to encourage the continuation of such meals.

I will be the first to state that not all wine writers and critics are above reproach. I will also state that among those who write, there are people I do not particularly like and/or respect. Conversely, there are indeed those whom I both like and respect. All of which is fair enough, for not all of my colleagues like and/or respect me. On the other hand, even among those I do not especially value, there are none that I can think of who perceive or take such meals as a form of "corruption" or, if you will, bribery. As in any profession, there are weak links, but giving credit where credit is due, I do not believe that very many Israeli wine critics or writers are so weak that they can be bought for the occasional meal.

The truth about these meals is more complex. First of all earning a living by writing about wine (or restaurants) is not easy for most people. In many cases it is actually something done out of passion and as a supplement to other ways of earning one's keep. Second, not all wine writers receive bottles of each wine for tasting from the wineries or importers and thus such events are the only way they can get to taste these wines. Third of all, and perhaps a bit on the amusing side, some of these "meals" are best described as [i]see ha shee'amum
(the height of boredom). Agreed, however, that depending on the nature of the company and how little the winemakers try to over-impress us, others of these events can be most pleasurable. Even at their best, however, such events hardly represent "corruption".

Also worth keeping in mind is that because for most wine writing is not a full-time profession, not all have the time to visit the vast majority of wineries in the country every year. Nor do they receive tasting bottles or have access to nearly all of the wines being released. Such tastings, whatever their advantages or disadvantages are among the few ways that many have of tasting these wines.

As to the wineries sponsoring such events – what can I say other than it happens all over the world and the truth is that many of the most respected critics and wine writers attend them. Simply stated, this is called "public relations". The purpose of p.r. is to impress us. The goal of the professional writer or critic is to decide what is worthwhile to be impressed with, and that positively or negatively.

My own reasons for attending many but not all of these events (as written on several earlier occasions): (a) yet another opportunity to taste or re-taste wines; (b) a courtesy to wineries that have opened their doors to me earlier for barrel, advance or re-tastings; (c) because such events sometimes offer the chance to talk in a relaxed atmosphere with winemakers and others of the staff of the winery and to learn from what they have to say precisely in a relaxed atmosphere that they consider "their own". More than that, no wine critic in the world has an unlimited budget and the need to taste and re-taste wines is critical to our ability to report to our readers. Not at all a case of "blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere" or of "buy me a meal and I'm yours". The real professional who cannot put aside such influences is a poor practitioner of his/her trade at best.

Gan also raises the question of wine critics and wine writers who accept trips abroad, claiming that this puts them in the debt of the inviting wineries. In the case of wine writers – that is to say, people who write primarily color pieces and articles about wine, this is not really a problem (depending of course on the policy of specific newspapers or magazines) for it should be obvious to any even half-intelligent reader that these are precisely that – "color pieces". In the case of the critic that is more problematic, but here too that depends on from where the invitation comes. The critic who accepts a trip, say to Provence, by an importer of Provencal wines and then writes crits of those wines has definitely compromised him/herself. On the other hand, the critic who receives an invitation from say the Bureau of Tourism of Provence and responds to that invitation by stating that he/she will be writing from the critical point of view faces no ethical problem. Within such trips then accepting invitations to visit specific wineries is critical to the success of one's tastings. The same would be true for an invitation to VinExpo, VinItaly, etc……… I rather like the rule of thumb of my own newspaper to the effect that invitations should come from official governmental authorities and not directly from wineries. As to "free meals" on such trips, the solution to such a problem is quite simple: When these people visit Israel it is the critic who picks up the lunch or dinner tab.

On another hand think of the following situation: An invitation from Chateau Margaux (or another producer at that level) to a tasting at the chateau – the tasting to be a vertical from say 1928-2008. I know of no critic in the world who would be foolish enough to reject such an invitation! Nor do I see any problem with a critic accepting an invitation from an industry as a whole (perhaps from a given wine institute), that to do broad tastings from many wineries in a given area (e.g. Napa, Sonoma). Indeed, an invitation to visit say Spain to taste only the wines of a specific winery would be problematic.

Chaim Gan does write in his article that he is a regular member of the tasting panel of Wine and Gourmet Magazine, that he consults to various wineries within Israel, that he is one of the organizing forces behind both IsraWinExpo and the Terravino Competition. He does not mention that Ish HaAnavim hosts quite a few of the tastings to which he seemingly objects, and that he is the driving force between the auction house Claret. He even disarms us by stating that some might think he wrote this particular article to "settle scores". I do not know whether Gan was settling scores or not. Despite that, considering all of Gan's perhaps conflicting interests, I cannot help but wonder if this was not at least somewhat a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

As for me, when time allows, I sleep rather well at night.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Eli R » Sat Mar 14, 2009 5:25 am

Daniel,

I view it as an issue that in our little pond in Israel there are only a handful of people who truly are professional critics or wine journalists.

The majority of people who write about wine are of one the following 3 categories:

1. Wine lovers who have another occupation and report on wine tasting and new releases and in return "buy" their ticket into the wine release events for "journalists", sometimes held in the top chef restaurants, and so on. One would not expect them to remain objective all the way.

2. "Modern" journalists who can write in the daily newspapers articles about wine with the same professional level as internet journalism.

3. People who make their living around the wine industry, without being producers or distributors. Here is where there could be conflict of interests when these people take the role of a critic of a particular winery while at the same time they have a business relationship with the same winery.

Haim Gan discussed also some other points:

1. The lack of implementation of regulation of quality tests of local wines by the "Wine Institute" that are forced only on importers. This way a small winery could use any chemical substance in the wine production process.

2. Lack of definitive regulations on the use of brand names, geographical area etc. on the wine label and marketing campaigns.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 14, 2009 6:59 am

Adding to my earlier note, I think many of Chaim Gan's points on the state of the industry itself are well made and should be well taken. After receiving and considering feedback from several colleagues, I would like to support and even go a bit further than some of the points that were made in the article.

1. As I have been writing now for more than two decades, the world of officialdom and overall industry management lacks authority, concern or knowledge. The Israeli Wine Institute and the Wine and Grape Board are, in my opinion, impotent bodieds neither understanding the needs of the industry nor having any direction other than the narrow interests they serve.

2. There was, for example, a committee destined to redefine the wine regions within the country. The work done was competent and intelligent but no-one is leading any movement to adapt that plan. Simply stated, those with authority do not understand how important this plan is.

3. There was another committee, one that worked for several years to rewrite the teken the set of standards by which the industry should function. Again the work done by the committee was good but the work has been shelved because no-one seems interested in promoting modern standards.

4. There remain no accurate statistics for either consumption, production or vineyard plantings in Israel. Incorrect data is provided not only to local journalists but to the OIV and the Oxford Companion to Wine.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Ian Sutton » Sat Mar 14, 2009 1:48 pm

Sometimes people suggest critics receipt of "free wine" in the form of sample bottles is compromising. Although this seems to favour the larger, more marketing driven operations, on the whole standalone wine critics seem to handle this without obvious bias.

Tasting events & meals. Yes a certain detachment is required.

Free trips abroad - this one has always worried me more. There seem to be a lot of these events on and perhaps one Portuguese wine related manufacturer of cork based products seemed to be more active and generous than it should have been.

Rogov: I like your caveat, that you'll critically review what you see - do they still want to extend the offer to you. Getting that clear up front to me seems essential and defends against corruption suggestions, but also defends against the sponsor getting upset - i.e. "I made it clear I would critically review and I have done. There is no way I could change my words, especially at the request of someone who had funded the trip - because my integrity is worth more to me and my business than any trip supplied to me.

That said, the industry does nicely out of reviews on a 100 point scale that start at 70 or 80. Even a low 84 or 85 score looks good to someone who's new to the hobby and doesn't realise how the scale works. In general critics are on the whole far more positive than negative. In this context the industry get's a fair deal from critics, so any whining from them ought to get very short shrift.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 14, 2009 2:01 pm

Ian Sutton wrote: Rogov: I like your caveat, that you'll critically review what you see - do they still want to extend the offer to you.


Ian, Hi.....

I've been responding to those invitations I wish to accept with that caveat for more than thirty years and have never been turned down yet. As is fairly well known, I have a good many "problems" with wine competitions. Despite that I receive invitations to judge at anywhere from 10-15 events annually. I reject all of those invitations politely. Several years ago I received an invitation from VinItaly to judge there and decided that it might make a good article. In my note to them I pointed out that I would certainly do my work as a judge as best as was possible but that my main purpose in taking part was to write an article about the problems inherent in even the best of competitions. They too welcomed me. And after my article appeared (and believe me, it was highly critical) received a host of emails from the competition organizers thanking me for both my participation as a judge and for my "thoughtful" criticism of competitions, theirs included.

That said, the industry does nicely out of reviews on a 100 point scale that start at 70 or 80.


For better or worse, my own scale truly starts at 50. Sometimes even I am amazed at the number of wines that receive scores of 50 (the equivalent of a zero of course) to 65. Indeed, it never gives me pleasure to so score a wine but if that is that is in order, that is what must be presented.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Lior Yogev » Sat Mar 14, 2009 5:56 pm

Here's the thing:

In my humble and unexperienced opinion - tasting the wines only at home, and tasting the wines at the best restaurants in Israel with dishes from the best chefs, with good looking stewardesses serving and pouring - cannot produce the same impression and the same image of the winery. Only to the humans amongst us, of course.

Truth be told - this seems to be the standard, and it becames a power display between well oiled PR firms. These days a medium or a large winery cannot introduce a new quality wine (or vintage) without the expansive unveiling that "everyone's gonna talk about", because the item will not make it to the news with the reporters feeling more obligated to write about the other fancy events they attended. I'm not judging this in jealousy - I'm talking as the consumer, who really pays the tab for these events with every bottle I purchase.

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Re: Tempest in a Teapot: A Mini-Scandal Concerning Critics

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 14, 2009 6:12 pm

Lior, Hi......

Humbly disagreed....not on the basis of being "human" but of being "professional". Most certainly there is an impact of the attractive waitstaff, the professional chefs and so forth but to the professional those are more negative than positive distractions. One is, for example, constantly aware that everyone present from the winery and the restaurant has set out to make a positive impression, so aware in fact that it becomes an annoyance and if there is a danger it is that one might tend to see both the wine and the restaurant in a less positive view. Whatever, though, positive or negative, one can rather easily set this things aside, as can one set aside the comments made about the wines by the less professional around the table who seem to want to share their opinions with everyone, not realizing that the best thing they can possibly do during such tastings is to keep their mouths firmly closed (with the exception perhaps of asking questions, but certainly not "sharing" what they think).

What you say makes sense but only in the same way that one might think a professor would give a better grade to the student he/she finds "sexy" or otherwise appealing. There are such professors of course, and indeed there are such critics.
From an entirely personal point of view I can assure you that the wine service I receive in my own tasting room is far more attractive to me than that I can get at any unveiling.

Same holds true when visiting a winery to do tastings. One develops a marvelous filter - necessary information goes in and registers; unnecessary information quickly goes into the left ear and directly out of the right.

Giving some of the wineries and public relations firm credit, when they do truly professional tastings the wines are tasted before food is served. As to the meals themselves, my own pollicy is generally to stay for one or perhaps two courses before making my way out. The reason for that is simple enough - one does develop an appetite during a tasting session. In those few cases where after the tasting the company is particularly pleasant, I will indeed stay on. I suppose that in addition to my cigarette breaks and my canvas shoes in such cases I have become well known for my "two short aggressive espresso coffees, served please side by side at the same time".

I return once again to the same point: ....a question of professionalism.

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"Aruchat Shechitut"

by Mike BG » Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:19 am

I think a few of you have missed the point here. Being married to a native Israeli, and having many such relatives, I understand that aruchat shechitut does not really mean "a corruption meal" in the sense that there is some form of bribery or corruption going on, but rather "a sumptuous and (over) lavish feast". I think that the connection with corruption goes back to the early days of the ZIonist enterprise with its strong socialist roots, and possibly the early days of the State when there was a strict austerity program here ("yemei hatsenna"). Anything lavish was regarded as being quite evil and probably corrupt as well, thus the colloquial phrase to describe an extremely lavish feast became aruchat shechitut.

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