Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Ethics of Sampling

One evening earlier this week, I Twittered about as much as I ever have in a single session: three or four times in fairly rapid succession, my regular pattern being more along the lines of three messages per week. What drew me into such garrulousness was an ongoing discussion of blogging ethics. The finer point in question was whether or not a wine blogger (or any person in the wine writing trade, I suppose) who accepts press samples is obliged to publish a review of every wine received. At least one person thought yes, others thought no, and I found myself siding with the latter camp.

I’ve never gotten around to publishing a “policies” page here at MFWT, so let me clear up any questions you may have. I do accept samples for review. I also promise to taste everything sent my way with as open and critical a mind as possible. And I’m happy to provide feedback, as Lenn suggested, in the form of a raw tasting note to anyone who sends me a sample. I can’t promise I’ll get to every bottle immediately, so if you’re looking for instant review gratification, I may not be your man. But again, I do promise to get to each and every bottle in due course. When I do blog about a wine I’ve received as a sample, I’ll always state that it was a sample and let you know who sent it my way.

In any case, and more importantly, I’ll blog about the wine only if I find something compelling to say about it, only if its context and quality – good or bad – move me enough to make me want to write about and share my experience. It’s as simple as that.

Or is it?

What happens when a sample comes from someone you know, even from someone you consider a friend? In such cases, I think there’s a natural human reflex to soften one’s step, to be kinder, gentler or – in a negative scenario – silent.

I also think it’s important, no matter how difficult, not to let those reflexes sway you.

I found myself in just such a situation recently when Terence Hughes, the man behind Mondosapore and co-proprietor of Domenico Selections, sent me a box full of wines for review. It’s not as if Terry and I are best buddies or lifelong chums. I’ve only actually met the guy once…. But between that, the occasional email correspondence and following each others blogs for the last couple of years, I have come to count him as a friend.

As I’ve already written up one of the wines he sent me, it should be obvious that I've already worked my way through this ethical pickle. And I’d like to think I reviewed the wine just as honestly and bluntly as I would one I’d purchased or one I’d received from a more anonymous sample sender. I don’t think Mr. Hughes would have wanted it any other way.

With one of the other wines he sent, though, I found myself holding back, writing less quickly than I might have otherwise. That may have been influenced by the fact that Terry smartly sent two bottles of each wine. I knew I’d be able to give the wine another look, get to know it better before putting pen to paper, fingers to keys and posting to the blogosphere.

Does that make me hypocritical or unethical? That’s for you to decide, I suppose, though I’d like to think it just means I’m careful and considered in my work here at MFWT.

Or do you think this is all just a long winded prelude to and softener of a harsh review? For answer to that question you’ll have to wait until tomorrow, as I do think it would be unfair to bury a review – good or bad – at the end of this pseudo-dialectic discourse.

13 comments:

Laboratory Chief said...

Hey McD,

Very interesting (the ethical dilemma, not the twittering).

The Lab has always maintained a strict "no samples" policy. How else to maintain our scientific integrity?

But lately I've begun to wonder about the basis for this. I can anticipate an upcoming Lab Note that explains why I've been wondering thus by saying, I'm not sure it makes any difference whether I buy the wine, get sent the wine, am given it by a friend or find it by the side of the road.

In principle, I'm a big fan of transparency, so there's no harm in explaining how you came to taste a certain wine. But at the end of the day, your credibility with me, your reader, is all the matters.

Here's what I mean: Over the past year or so, I've come to realize that you and I have some similar interests in wine, and I think I've learned a little about your palate. So when you are really excited about something and it sounds like something I'd like, I make an effort to find it and try it.

But what happens if, for whatever reason, you start recommending sub-par samples?

I try them, find them to be sub-par and quickly stop looking to you for advice. Right?

For me it's a murky line between a commercial sample, a bottle that a winemaker friend sends, a bottle that a friend of a winemaker sends, something I try at a tasting dinner I'm invited to, something I try at a friend's house for dinner, a wine I taste at the winery, and so on and on, listing the many wines I've tasted that I didn't buy at a shop.

Parker used his sample policy as a promotional device. To suggest he was beyond influence. It was, and is, very clever marketing. But the Bordelaise let him taste for free, right? He's not buying Bordeaux to review. How is that so different? Or what about Terry Theise or Jon Rimmerman who write beautifully about wines they are trying to sell you. Is that any different than someone who is trying to sell you a review?

At the end of the day, Parker is successful because he says this is a good wine, people buy it and agree (or are too dumb to disagree - same thing in the end). Same with Theise and Garagiste.

I get that it's a little different with bloggers, but, for me, only a little and mostly along semantic lines.

As far as the Lab goes, I'm beginning to think that if people want to send me wine to freeze, cook, shake, blend or otherwise abuse... who am I to say no?

A very thought provoking post by you. Nice going.

JD

(ovolod)

Joseph Logan said...

Dave, more important to me than the ultimate decision you make on this, the thing I admire is that you take the time to think and write clearly about the dilemma and seek advice from your readers. Your place in particular could be expected to have much more of a dilemma due to the close relationships you maintain throughout the business. Many thanks for sharing the thought process with us.

On a related note, I will provide a positive review for any samples of a case or more whether I know you or not. Champagne in particular. No, I don't have a wine blog. I'm just a bit of a grape whore.

Terence said...

Now you have me on pins and needles, McDuff!

As a blogger, as a human being, you have to be as honest and transparent as possible. If you do choose to review something unfavorably, be clear about what displeased you, a bit analytical -- in short, as our teachers used to say -- give reasons.

As someone in the wine trade, you know very well that one man's nectar is another man's plonk. I come across wine merchants whose tastes accord with mine -- they like my favorite wines the best. And in the next shop they tell you the same wines are awful and go for one I'm less high on. A matter of taste and physiology.

By the way, I loved your very considered review of the Soave I sent you. Especially because it showed that over time, even a short span of time, your impressions can and do change, not least when you are drinking and comparing similar types of wine.

Estelle Platini said...

David,
It's good that you have a dilemma and that you show it :-)

Do Bianchi said...

McDuff, I wish I had the dilemma of accepting samples or not: no one ever sends them to me (for real!).

I do think that you and share the interesting position (and we're not alone) of being wine bloggers and wine sellers. And btw, I've always sold wine, whether it was by working in a wine store (before I launched my blog) or by writing copy and providing content for people who import and sell wine (which I have always done and continue to do). Even when I was employed full-time as a journalist, I was — in essence — selling wine, however indirectly, by writing about it (my first two years in the biz were as an editor at La Cucina Italiana).

I think the only ethical code we need to apply as wine bloggers is a personal code that transcends the act or gesture of writing about wine. I write about wines that I like (and occasionally I write about winemakers whom I feel are hurting the wine industry by destroying or neglecting something valuable).

I read your blog knowing full well that you receive samples: I wish you would receive more! (And I wish someone would send me some!) And although I don't shop at your business, I want to know about the wines you drink and sell.

Btw, I like Lab Chief's comment but I think the bigger issue is considering the act of wine writing and blogging in a humanistic context. That's when Parker went wrong, when he abandoned his humanistic pursuit.

'Nuf said...

Samantha Dugan said...

I too am in the weird limbo area, (although I don't get sent samples either...dammit) where I am tasted on wines all day as a retailer...does that count as being given a sample? I think the ethical questioning that is going on is a little smoke and mirrors...a bit of the stirring of the pot that has everyone eyeballing one another, kinda bums me out. Wine is one of the most civilized beverages on the planet and here some gasbag comes and causes all this discourse. Ah well, guess I'll just go and pop a bottle of wine, that I bought and write a post about it...that should piss him off!

David McDuff said...

Okay, I swear I haven't been intentionally ignoring you guys. It's just that your comments were so damn well considered and in-depth that I've had a hard time finding time to give them their due attention. Here goes... I may have to splice things into a couple of comments to handle it all.

First up:

Chief/JD,

"Ovolod" indeed. Your comment is worthy of a post unto itself. As here at MFWT, I see no conflict between scientific integrity and accepting samples as long as the scientist running the experiments can maintain his own integrity. Not an issue with you, I feel confident in saying.

Just to clarify, I have no intention of recommending sub-par wines. If I drink them, find them to be sub-par and still feel there's something compelling enough to write about, I may write them up but will do my best to explain how/why they are sub-par. Writing does not, in such a case, equate to recommending.

In the end, I think we're in agreement that it really doesn't matter where the wine comes from (though the side of the road may not offer the best in provenance). Our take on it should be unaffected by source -- even if I did find myself being particularly tough in my approach with Terry's samples.

Credibility is definitely crucial, especially as it intermingles with the humanistic approach that Jeremy mentions... but more on that later.

David McDuff said...

J-Lo, Terence and Estelle,

You all hit on what seems to be the common theme here: transparency. That was my main point in writing this post in the first place. It really was inspired just by a quick interchange on Twitter and had very little if anything to do with the dialogue around Parker, Squires, Dr. Vino, etc., of which I was aware but not addressing.

The fact is, I actually receive very few samples. Of those wine samples I have received, most aside from Terence's have had very little to do with what I normally write about -- that is, artisan, old world wines. I've chosen to write about a few of the others but only a few. So Joe, you'll have to get in line behind me for that case of Champagne. I'm still waiting!

David McDuff said...

DoBi,

Your thoughtful comments have proven to take the longest time of all to ferment. Two things grabbed me in particular.

First, the idea that the act of writing about wine is, in essence, an act of selling wine. In a way, I think you're probably right. I'd be flattered to find that people come to MFWT to research and shape their purchasing decisions. Maybe some do. I've certainly come to consider the reviews of some of my fellow bloggers, much more so than reviews in the mainstream wine press, when making my own buying decisions.

That's where your second point comes in: humanism. Without a personal, experiential element, wine reviews hold little interest for me. I mentioned in this post that, "I promise to taste with as open and critical a mind as possible." The word "objective" has no place there, as I really feel that there's no such thing as a truly objective wine review. Maybe it makes more sense to say that all reviews are, at heart, subjective. Even when tasting blind, every person brings his or her own personal tastes and frame of reference to the table (think of Terence's comment about one man's elixir being another's plonk).

Getting back to the question of selling wine by writing about it, I never write about wine here with the express aim of promoting or selling it (not that I thought you were suggesting that). If there's a lack of transparency at MFWT, it's that I don't mention exactly where I work (my employer has forbidden me from doing so). So I make it clear that I work in the retail wine biz and leave it at that. When I write up a wine that I sell, I write it up only because I've tasted and enjoyed it (or not enjoyed it) in a personal context outside of the workplace.

I could keep going and going here but I think that's just about enough. Let me just finish by saying that Do Bianchi, for me, is a model example of the humanistic side of blogging, one that I hold in very high esteem. Importers and distributors everywhere are missing the boat by not sending you samples.

Samantha,

The same goes for you, both in regards to the personal side of your blog (which makes it such a blast to read) and to the fact that you should be receiving samples (they'll come in time, I'm guessing).

I don't think of the wines I taste at work as samples received for the blog. But then, I almost never write about wines in the context of tasting them at work. I generally consider that to be a quick, analytical and business-specific practice that does not fit with the personal experiences I choose to write about on my blog. In the rare cases when I do write about wines I've tasted at work, it's usually in the context of a producer visiting the shop and sharing his or her wines with me. In that context, if I do choose to write it up, I look at it as both a personal learning experience and a way to share some insight into the work of a farmer and winemaker who I respect.

As to smoke and mirrors, the only person I was eyeballing when writing this post was myself.

Samantha Dugan said...

David,
Thanks for taking the time to really consider your response, I wish I had that kind of control...I tend to babble then think of what I "should have" said later.
By eyeballing, I was referring to the fact that many of the blogs I read posted something about this after that eBob thread, including my own, just kind of felt like we were all defending ourselves, which after a few days made me feel a little sad.
Like I said in my own, "defensive" post, most of us do not get paid to do this, we do it for the love of wine and are getting little more than conversation, with like minded people for our efforts. That is more than enough for me, well that and the fat ass book deal I am so gonna get...(snicker).
I very much enjoy reading your posts and have never once thought about where the wines you write about come from. From my fellow bloggers I learn, am entertained and inspired to taste new things, all very good things in my book!

David McDuff said...

Sam,
It goes both ways... sometimes I wish I could be a little less filtered. Good luck with the book!

dhonig said...

As they guy who said you should review them all, I thought I'd pop into the conversation for a second. The reason for the rule, well, it's more of a guideline than a rule, is simple- it prevents the all-too-human and usually admirable tendency to be nice to somebody who was nice to you. If you write wine reviews, you have a few choices. The first is 'do I drink this wine or that wine tonight?' The second, once you pick a wine, is 'what do I think of this wine, good, bad, or mediocre?' Only then do you get to the third, 'do I write a review?' That third one, of course, is where you can get into ethical trouble.

Do I write a bad review? If I do, will I hurt somebody's feelings? More important, from an ethical point of view, if I do, will people stop sending me free wine? Sure, I can write a policy that says "I only write reviews if I have something particularly interesting to say," but that gives me far to easy a back door to run away from a bad review, and perhaps fewer visits from the UPS guy. I, personally, chose to resolve this by doing two things. First, I made it quite clear that I post negative reviews. Second, I promised to review samples. Now, know exactly what they are getting into if they decide to send wine to "2 Days per Bottle."

The dilemma, ultimately, is not whether to review everything you taste. Rather, it is how to decide what you choose not to review, and if having the freedom to decide means having the freedom to back unwittingly into an ethical morass. I choose a simple black-and-white rule not because it is best, but because it is so simple. That is how ethical rules are best written, simply, with clearly delineated lines to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Should everybody follow this policy? No, I don't think so. Some people get so many samples it is just not possible to hew to it. Others are writing blogs that don't lend themselves to it, blogs that are specifically directed toward wine of a certain type, whether it is Lenndevours and New York Wines, or Dr. Debs and GOOD Wines under $20. Lenn probably won't review something from New Zealand, and Dr. Debs is searching for the elusive great QPR. But for a standard wine-review blog, well, there needs to be some sort of promise, implicit or explicit, that there is credibility behind the keyboard. Some people garner it with easily defined rules. Others do it with a great CV, or a long history of personal credibility. There are as many ways to be credible as there are people.

Unfortunately, there are also some very simple ways to destroy credibility, and when people do it on their blog, the damage leaks over into everybody else's. It is unfortunate, but true, that we will be judged as a group, not just as individuals. Hopefully, whatever mechanism we each choose to maintain credibility, we will stick with it constistently and honestly, and then the whole community will thrive.

David McDuff said...

Mr. Honig,

I've read and re-read your comment a few times now and I'm still not sure whether you're simply stating your approach or attacking mine. Whatever the case may be, I do stand by my approach. Whatever the case, I also appreciate your in-depth and thorough response and am glad you found your way here.

Let me make a few things clear, just in case they weren't already. I don't use the "no guaranteed writeup" policy as a tool for ethical wiggle room. I am completely open to writing negative reviews of a wine, whether I've bought it or received it as a sample. I have done so and will continue to. However, I have no interest in writing up, or drinking for that matter, wines that hold no interest for me.

If that sounds confusing, it may be necessary to read between the lines a bit. Most of the inquiries I receive about review samples or about my policies come from commercially-oriented, new world producers whose wines -- whether or not good in the eyes of some beholders -- hold little or no interest for me. And I have no wish to muddy the waters here at MFWT by suddenly feeling compelled to write-up any bottle that a PR agent decides to send my way.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is simply this:

MFWT is not "a standard wine-review blog." I do write-up wines from time-to-time but I always do so in the greater context in which they're experienced. If you want to send me a sample, read my blog first and get a sense of what it's all about. If you still want to send me a sample, then I'm all for it. If I drink it and still find it not worth writing about, that's my prerogative (though as I mentioned I'll still be happy to give feedback in the form of raw notes via e-mail).

Not surprisingly perhaps, I actually receive very few samples. Luckily, many of those I have received have been interesting, even very good.

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