In a "post-critic" world, reviews have only become more monetized. Do publications care about readers or scores?
As a major retailer for many years (including a few before the era of scores arrived) I’ve certainly used high scores to sell wine.
I can remember in my early days at Sherry-Lehmann my old boss Sam Aaron lamenting that scoring would ruin the industry. After all, he wrote the S-L catalogue; if he said a wine was the best, who was around to contradict him?
Since leaving Sherry-Lehmann and opening my own importing company in 2013 I’ve certainly been treated to the darker side of wine journalism.
There is nothing like receiving a congratulatory email from a major publication praising a high score for a wine that I’ve submitted on behalf of a producer, accompanied by a rate sheet to insure that anyone ever sees the score in print.
The figure of $25,000 as a budget for scores on the part of an industry PR firm representing multiple producers or regions is all too believable, and it’s not surprising that a reputable outfit like Polaner (and many if not most others) feels forced into complying with an increasingly twisted system.
Bluest Sky Wines
Great article! We were offered the same plan as Polaner but we declined. We were also asked to ask our winery partners to join. We have not done that either. I don't begrudge publications and writers needing to make money, but there must be a better model. But that model won't be able to emerge so long as pay to play is supported by people in our industry. Thank you for shining a light on this unethical (in my opinion) practice. Just subscribed!
I believe that large subsidies are part of the way wine criticism currently operates but doubt that the average critic is seriously bent. Perhaps I'm naive, but I think most wine critics just love wine and travel and do their best to be honest.
To me the failure is the monetization model for many publications. They accept huge amounts of cash, and naturally the publication itself is then compromised. The critics mostly are employees, but the leadership team ends up in an impossible situation... and as you note, they often yield to their pragmatic need to keep the income stream stable. Very unfortunate.
Plus, you don't even get into the whole access side of things. When someone is invited to a black tie tasting of every vintage of Petrus or DRC that the chateau can track down -- millions of dollars spent -- there is a quid-pro-quo associated with accepting that invitation. Your TNs will need to be quite generous. Otherwise, it won't happen twice...
So much is rotten when you lift up a layer or two. I am not happy about this, but I’ve begun to feel there is little to be done—other than individually stay the course, as you are doing.
The article about Janeane Garofalo you linked to underscores this point.
It’s sad that Vinous didn’t appear to suffer from its decision.