The harsh reality of the freebies

02 November, 2007

Is wine journalism corrupt? The question may sound a little blunt, but a friend in Florida has just forwarded me something that appeared on the USA Today website which puts us hacks in the stocks, or whatever the American equivalent might be. Leg irons? An orange jump suit?

The charge, levelled at the government as much as the Fourth Estate, is as follows: "Subsidised by the (American) Agriculture Department and the wineries, writers from Canada, Europe and Asia tour some of the country's most renowned wine regions..." So far, so unexceptional, I'd say. But what follows is a more serious allegation: "It is a violation of journalistic ethics to accept gifts or subsidies in return for stories about the donor's products or programmes."

It's easy to be high-minded about the relationship between wine journalists and freebies, be it trips, dinners, or samples. In the best of all possible worlds, we journos would pay for all our own travel, meals, accommodation and bottles (buying them off the shelf, rather than from the winery). But this is financially impossible, unless you have an enormous private income. Even The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, two American publications that occupy the moral high ground where free trips are concerned, accept free samples and attend tastings.

If I had to buy all my samples, I couldn't function as a (solvent) wine writer. To purchase the 128 red wines that Waitrose showed at its recent press tasting (and there were also eight rosés, 98 whites, 21 fizzes, eight sweet wines and 20 fortifieds) would have cost me £1,750. Extrapolate that over a year, during which I taste around 10,000 wines, and you're looking at a sample bill that would rival the GDP of a small nation.

Most readers, I suspect, are comfortable with the fact that wine journalists attend tastings. They might even allow us the occasional free lunch. But what about press trips to wine regions? Would they be as indulgent if they knew that we are invited (and, in most cases, accept) all-expenses-paid trips to wine regions?

It's still a job, especially if you visit eight wineries in a day, eat two large meals and end up

next to a winemaker with the personality of a traffic cone, but it beats working in a coalmine, or even an off-licence.

I have my own set of (loose) rules about trips. Wherever possible, I accept invitations to judge wine competitions or speak at conferences in order to pay my way. Failing that, I try to take trips funded by generic bodies - Wines of Argentina, Wines of South Africa or New Zealand Winegrowers, for instance - because it leaves me free to say what I want to say about a country's wines without the impression of a direct conflict of interest. Very occasionally, I visit a single producer, but only when I know in advance that it's someone I want to profile.

Some of my colleagues would argue that you don't need to leave London to be a good wine writer. But I disagree profoundly and fundamentally. Visiting wine regions (understanding what is happening on the ground, if you like) is an essential part of my job. I won't deny that it's a perk to fly to Australia in November, as I am about to do to judge the National Wine Show, but the trip will give me the chance to visit Tasmania (where I haven't been for 15 years) and that's important for my wine knowledge.

The National Wine Show is footing the bill for my business class flight, but let's imagine

I wanted to fund the two week visit myself. Even if I flew at the back of the plane and stayed in cheap accommodation, my trip to Australia would cost around £6,000. Putting my hand in my own pocket would make the trip unviable. Should my various employers help me to pay my way? Ideally they should. Will they? No chance. Wine Australia is picking up the tab on the ground.

I will write

about my trip Down Under, but the fact that I'm being paid for it won't influence what I think or say. No generic body would expect anything less of a professional wine writer. As Kirsten Moore of Wine Australia told me: "Obviously we'd rather journalists focused on the positives

than the negatives, but what we want above all is balanced reporting. We actively welcome honest criticism."

Is my trip a "violation of journalistic ethics"? I think not , but I'll leave you

to be the judge . As

Australian art critic

Robert Hughes

once put it , I 'm "nothing if not critical". And that applies

no matter who is signing the cheques.

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