Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Conflicts of interest in the wine media - and a rant about the apathy of the Languedoc and Roussillon marketing bodies

All of a sudden, many of the wine journalists and commentators I follow seem to be falling over themselves to offer their thoughts and opinions on the ethics and possible conflicts of interests of wine writing (chiefly concerning the acceptance of various forms of "hospitality" from the trade). This follows a recent post on the Dr. Vino Blog about the apparent difference between Robert Parker's own publicly-stated policy on the ethics of wine writing (which basically states that he always "pays his own way") and that of certain others employed by Parker at the Wine Advocate. The Internet wine community now seems to be alive with discussions on various blogs and wine fora, about where to draw the line between what might be loosely be termed as "legitimate assistance" and being "in the pay" of wine growers and merchants.

This is hardly a new subject in the wine world, or in any other branch of commerce, for that matter - the Payola scandal in the American music industry of the late 50's and early 60's was an early variation on the theme. Not that the subject presently under discussion can quite be compared with such an extreme example (and we're certainly not talking about money changing hands) but there appears to be much introspection amongst the wine writing community as to what sort of hospitality should be acceptable and what should not. For instance, if a wine writer is treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to a wine region on the other side of the world, with first class flights, 5 star hotel accommodation, lavish wine dinners and winery visits, should that be considered as a legitimate use of a particular wine region's (or grower's) marketing budget or a blatant ploy to get favourable treatment in the media? I suppose the answer is that it is down to the individual and how easily they can be influenced by such treatment.

By and large, I think most are careful not to let their judgment be unduly influenced, although the number of "column inches" a writer devotes to a particular region or grower/growers often seems dependent on the ability of the growers to pull out all the stops. Is this wrong? I'm not sure it is, really, especially if the writer's genuine enthusiasm comes through in what they write, or if they can offer a balanced critique - and even, occasionally, be critical!


From my own point of view, and as a merchant specialising in the wines of southern France, I only wish that the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc, Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (who don't even have an English version of their website) and Les Maisons de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon would get their acts together and be as proactive and aggressive as the likes of Portugal, New Zealand and various South American countries currently are in promoting their wines. My friend Peter Gorley is having the Devil's own job in trying to find a publisher for the 2nd edition of his book "Gorley's Guide - The Wines of Languedoc and Roussillon". Peter has had communication with Georges Freche himself (the President of the Languedoc-Roussillon) on this issue, though I have not heard of any progress more recently.

Given that there have been no significant books published on the wines of these regions since Peter's 1st edition, along with Paul Strang's and Rosemary George's books (i.e. since around 2002) I am amazed that the Conseils and Les Maisons have not bent over backwards to offer influence and financial assitance in order to get Peter's new book published. Such a book would provide a huge boost to the region's wines and winemakers (and, of course, the tourist industry) - not to mention merchants like me in the UK and further afield - at a time when it is really needed. Furthermore, the region could use as much good publicity as it can get right now, especially with the recent Pinot Noir scandal still relatively fresh in the memory!

Having spent the last 2 or 3 years (and a great deal of his own money - no corporate hospitality, here!) visiting and reviewing countless wine growers in all corners of Languedoc and Roussillon, Peter has compiled an impressive amount of material on the regions' wines and wine people (I've had a sneak preview of the "outline" manuscript) which is just begging to see the light of day. I myself recently wrote to the UK office of Les Maisons, suggesting that perhaps now (especially with the beginning of the new financial year and a shiny new budget) is an ideal time for them to help make this to happen. The cost involved would probably be no more than a tiny fraction of your average City banker's annual bonus, yet would reap untold rewards for the region and its wine growers. I'm not holding my breath, though..............

Leon Stolarski

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