Monday, December 24, 2012

Looking Back, Moving Ahead

Back in the day when I was a restaurant critic, I occasionally devoted an early column of the new year to an explanation of how I went about my job. The format typically was in reply to questions I'd get from readers via phone calls, letters (yes, this was long, long ago) and eventually emails.

Nowadays, my writing is mostly in this blog and in a weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee, my former longtime employer, where I wrote the restaurant criticism. For whatever reason, readers of wine writing aren't as curious about how a wine columnist goes about his task; for every 50 questions I'd get about writing of restaurants, I'd maybe get one or two about writing of wine. Nevertheless, I still do get the rare question, the most frequent of which I will address here, with others I'm making up because I think they may be on the minds of readers who just haven't yet asked them.

Other than today being close to the start of a new year, I'm prompted to do this now because the wine blogosphere is ablaze with reports and commentary concerning the practices of a Canadian wine writer accused of intellectual property theft, copyright infringement and a pay-to-play scheme involving her reviews. These unsavory allegations cast a shadow over the entire wine-writing community, which, to judge by my experience, is by-and-large above-board and open in how it goes about following its whim and passion. At any rate:
  • How do you select the wines you write about? At the end of each column in The Bee is this disclaimer: "Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions." In discovering wines to potentially write about, I prefer the blind tasting, especially when the tasting involves fellow wine enthusiasts who are experienced, open-minded and willing to share their insights, thus my eagerness to join panels at wine competitions. I like to visit wineries, sometimes joining the winemaker to taste through his lineup of current and pending releases, more often on my own as just another pilgrim at the tasting counter. (An editorial aside from my There-Ought-To-Be-A-Law folder: Winery tasting rooms should start each day with freshly opened bottles; the practice of carrying over inadequately preserved open wine from one day to the next is insulting to wine enthusiasts and counter-productive to the winery's best interests.) I attend trade tastings, I round up wines for tastings at home, and dinner virtually each night includes a wine that I've bought in hopes that it might yield a story. Beyond these practical approaches in searching for wines to write about, I'm looking for wines that not only offer quality and value but have something to say of the region where their grapes were grown, of the aspirations of the winemaker, of winemaking technology, of a trend, of history or the like.
  • What's the connection between your wine writing and advertising? None that I'm aware of. There's no advertising on this site. While I've at times pondered selling advertising, I'm not interested in the chore or in the appearance or the reality of a conflict-of-interest. I haven't visited The Sacramento Bee since the day I retired four years ago. During my days of restaurant criticism no editor ever instructed me to or even suggested that I review this or that restaurant. Indeed, during my tenure at The Bee we were directed to avoid the first floor (the advertising department) and employees on the first floor were to stay off the second floor (the news department). The Bee sells advertising to wineries, but as with my restaurant writing no editor ever has as much as hinted that I should write of this or that winery or wine.
  • Do you accept sample wines? I do, but it's a practice I don't encourage. I appreciate wineries that contact me first to ask if I'd be interested in sampling a new release. I sample only those wines available in the Sacramento market. If in tasting a sample wine I find it to be a likely candidate for my column I buy the same wine locally to retaste it to confirm by my palate that it is essentially the same wine. Curious, I just scanned through my list of 210 wine columns over the past four years and found three wines that initially had been sample wines; by far, most of the wines I've written about have come from participating in wine competitions and by visiting wine regions.
  • Do you ever steal other peoples' tasting notes? Never have, never expect to. On their websites or via their media representatives, wineries generally provide technical sheets that give background information on each wine - the date or dates the grapes were harvested, the alcohol content of the wine, and the sorts of dishes that the winery thinks fitting for the wine. I draw my conclusions, then look to that kind of data to affirm or contradict my hunches. Occasionally the information provided by wineries will include the scores and tasting notes of other wine writers. While there are wine writers whose opinions I value, I almost invariably skip over that input.
  • Do you get paid by wineries to review their wines? What a racket that would be, however it might be constructed. Nope, don't do that, and won't. This could be a trend within wine criticism, however, with some critics casting envious looks at the "New Zealand model," whereby at least one Kiwi critic assesses fees on wineries to have their wines reviewed. It's a strategy that helps pay the bills, but raises questions about just how honest and aware the critic can be in providing even-handed guidance to his readers.

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