WINE MAGAZINE REVIEWS AND COMPETITIONS
CAN IMPARTIALITY ALWAYS BE GUARANTEED?
I’ve just been reading the latest edition of the Proensa Guide’s Wine Magazine, PlanetAVino, put simply it’s excellent! Simultaneously erudite, articulate, informative, contemporary and entertaining. It’s a pleasure to read, albeit something of a challenge if one’s Spanish isn’t fluent. (Available digitally in English, see: www.proensa.com).
But it’s the honesty that I like about it most. No sycophancy here! No bending over backwards to please influential bodegas. Wines are submitted for tasting by bodegas hoping for a good review, and they’ll obtain one, if the wine deserves it! If it doesn’t then the magazine will tell it like it is – and quite right too. Those wishing for a vinous version of the cash-for-questions philosophy need not apply!
I sometimes wonder if my own wine reviewing ideology needs updating. I taste hundreds, perhaps a thousand wines a year (I know, lucky so-and-so!). My thoughts about many, though not all, of them are recorded here in Cork Talk. The ones that don’t figure are those which, frankly, haven’t been worth mentioning, usually not because they are faulty (I occasionally mention a fault in a wine as it might be interesting to readers, but I always explain that a problem, such as a wine being corked, can happen to any bodega, and there’s almost always no fault attributable), but because they are poor/badly made wines.
I could write about such wines, including my critical tasting notes, but what’s the point? I imagine readers don’t want to hear about a poor wine. I hope that this explains why most of what you read (dear reader!) is complimentary. I write praising wines, when they deserve it, and I simply omit them when they don’t.
No-one likes to castigate a wine so PlanetAVino’s writers will honestly describe the wine in as gentle terms as possible, but give it the appropriate score out of 100. Fifty and below almost universally means that the wine is faulty and therefore cannot be properly tasted and therefore judged. Clearly therefore a wine that receives 59 or 61, for example, cannot be a particularly good offering. It’s not faulty but it’s right down there. It’s just poor quality wine.
By the same token a wine rated in the 70’s will clearly not be as good as one in the 80’s and so on. But, how many wines do we see in magazines with these lower marks? Practically none. Perhaps this is because they have adopted the same philosophy as me, recording only the better wines’ marks. I think not though.
I take the view that there is a certain pressure on magazine reviewers to talk-up the wines, and mark-up too! Advertising is a powerful tool for bodegas, and a big earner for magazines. Publications make their money from their advertisers, not their readers who pay a relatively tiny sum to buy the magazine/newspaper. Hundreds, thousands of Euros are needed to ‘buy’ a full page ad, for example. The bodegas are willing to pay it, well the better-off ones are, but this also gives them some power.
It’s a reciprocal thing – the bodegas need the magazines and vice versa. But which is the dog and which is the tail, and who’s wagging who?
A bodega can choose where they place their ads, there are several magazine/newspaper options. On the other hand, it’s true also that there are thousands of bodegas from which the magazines can earn their advertising revenue.
However, in these dreadful economic times where, to avoid going under, magazines are desperately clinging to their advertisers like a drowning man to his lifebelt, a bodega’s threat of withdrawing its advertising is power on an almost omnipotent scale! Can the editor allow the reviewers to be wholly candid in their criticisms if a bad review of a major advertiser’s wine might result in the bodega pulling the plug?
PlanetAVino operating under the auspices of the very well respected Guía Proensa, whose founder, Señor Andrés Proensa, is a major luminary in the Spanish wine world and is the reason why the publications are afforded so much respect, will have no truck with such potential threats, it seems.
So, if the above is true, can it also be said of wine competitions, particularly those sponsored/organised by wine magazines? The world’s wineries are charged per bottle for the wines they enter in the many competitions that are to be found in the wine world. The figure varies of course, but it isn’t usually too much of a burden for the entrants.
Neither is it too much of a concern for the competition organisers if a submitted wine is given a poor mark and the winery concerned decides not to enter so many wines next year. Or if the occasional winery decides not to enter at all in the future. It would be a tiny loss for the competition, nominal really, as there are many hundreds of other wineries and many thousands of wines entered.
However if the winery concerned is also a large sponsor and/or advertiser of/in the competition/magazine and their dissatisfaction results in them not only withdrawing their wines from future competitions, but also their sponsorship and advertising. Then that’s quite a different matter. Perhaps judges are put under some pressure as with the magazine reviewers, as above?
It’s also true that, with small wineries, there is perhaps a moral dilemma as well. Whilst the per bottle cost of entry isn’t significant for most wineries, for some it could be crippling. So is there also some pressure to mark a wine slightly higher than it should be in order to make the small winery happy, and, here comes the cynic in me, to ensure that they enter next year too?!