Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pay To Play: New Wave Wine Writing?

When I read of Sam Kim, my first thought was, "Damn, why didn't I think of that?"

My second thought, which followed in a nanosecond, was that while Sam Kim's business model makes sense when it comes to making money, it rubs me the wrong way.

Kim came to my attention through a column posted by wine blogger and wine-trade publicist Tom Wark. The headline on Wark's posting sums up his views of the issue: "Pay to Play Wine Reviews...It's All Good."

Sam Kim
Kim is a New Zealand wine critic. As such, he publishes a wine newsletter, Wine Orbit. To have a wine reviewed in his newsletter, Kim charges vintners a "submissions fee" of $34 in New Zealand currency per wine (about $28 U.S.). The wines are reviewed blind, according to Kim and to Wark, and Kim writes up only those wines that on his palate deserve 80 points or more. This behavior is so antithetical to the standards of  a group called Wine Writers of New Zealand that it has "ostracized" Kim from the organization, reports Wark. That's a shame, suggests Wark. After all, he notes, Kim is showing "(wine) critics how to make an honest living."

Kim is showing wine writers how to make a living, all right, but how honest is his approach? Has any independent observer, for one, verified that his tastings are blind? Also, what proportion of the wines he reviews score fewer than 80 points? For the moment, let's assume Kim is entirely aboveboard, that his palate is astute, that his tastings are blind and that a fair number of the wines he tastes don't warrant his blessing. What, then, is the problem? Well, it goes to accepting payment from people who produce a product that you, as a critic, ostensibly are reviewing independently. I suspect that subscribers to Wine Orbit think the opinions they are buying are free of any self-serving influence exerted by the trade the critic is criticizing. Maybe I'm a simpleton, but if I subscribe to Connoiseurs' Guide to California Wine, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences, The Wine Advocate or any other wine newsletter financed soley by subsribers I expect that publication to be free of any conflict of interest or even any appearance of a conflict of interest. Kim's approach doesn't measure up to that standard.

Wark suggests that what Kim is doing is no worse than the behavior of wine writers who accept invitations to dinners, tastings and junkets underwritten by wineries or trade groups. He likes to refer to these gatherings as "perks," which suggests that he and possibly critics themselves see them as an entitlement or a fringe benefit of writing of wine. True, such soirees can be pretty damn nice, and I occasionally take advantage of such invitations. I'm pretty judicious in my selections, however; my bottom line isn't remuneration but whether the outing will provide something of value to my readers, real or imagined. Sometimes, such treks don't provide posting, column or feature at all; I strike out. They're a gamble, something I want to do, and to a certain extent need to do, but they're more work than leisure. If an outing provides me with material, I almost invariably put the tasting in context, which is to say I'm transparent about the staging. I've never been paid a cent by any winery or trade group.

Something else that bothers me about Kim's method is that it potentially locks out from consideration wines from small producers who may not be able to afford his fee. If that's the case, is he not only denying mom-and-pop operators a chance for exposure but limiting his own perspective to just those wines from producers who willingly pay up? (This also concerns me about wine competitions, where more and more, it seems, large international wine corporations dominate the list of entries while smaller producers are dropping out; maybe it's time for a competition to base its entry fees on scale of production rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, but I digress.)
I've been fortunate. I've never had to rely solely on writing of wine for my livelihood. For much of my career, it was one of the three or four legs to support the chair that kept me at the keyboard, and in retirement I continue to write of wine because I enjoy the culture, people, issues, trends, history and, naturally, the wine.

Kim has a model that addresses one of the enduring vexations of writing of wine: How do you do it and remain solvent? Thus, his strategy no doubt will be emulated by countless aspiring wine writers who love what they do and would like to make a living at it. Few writers support themselves only by writing articles and books about wine. Many have a vested interest in the trade, such as sommeliers, importers, retailers and the like, which also raises questions of propriety and transparency. There are probably more poets making their living by only writing poetry than there are wine writers supporting themselves by only writing of wine. Kim has a solution, and its appeal could spread, but I don't have to like it.

1 comment:

  1. At least his fee is reasonable. The BTI at $95 per submission really adds up. Other than a brief mention by Tom I'm surprised there is no controversy over the BTI doing the same thing right here in Chicago.