Can I Really Be Objective?

by Tim Elliott on April 5, 2007

Last Friday night I had the opportunity to meet-up with Alder Yarrow of Vinography for a glass of wine and discussion at San Francisco’s VinoVenue. I put the subject of wine blogger ethics on the table and we discussed it while enjoying an unremarkable, but still very nice Mosel Riesling.

I wanted to have this discussion face-to-face and not via email because the subject is nuanced and I wanted to somewhat debate the issue in real-time. I’ve always been on the side of transparency, so I’ve disclosed I’m in the wine trade and who pays for the wines I review for some time now. As long as I continue to do this, I reasoned, readers and listeners would take this into account when evaluating the recommendations I make here.

But Alder questioned whether or not a member of the wine trade could actually be objective no matter how transparent the writer is. At the time I — somewhat naively in retrospect — shrugged off this position as a difference of opinion but this idea has continued to reverberate in my head for nearly a week now.

Can I truly be objective about wine here if I make my living marketing and selling wine?

To avoid any conflict of interest I do not review the wines I am marketing nor do I blog about the business of the winery (not directly, anyway). But I am aware that should I review another Napa Valley wine and rate it lower than say, 85, it might appear that I am trying to benefit the brand I am working with. No matter how much I assure you that this is the farthest thing from my mind, I know that some will assume an ulterior motive.

So the only solution here is to stop reviewing Napa Valley wines or give up wine reviews altogether.

I don’t like either of these options simply because wine reviews and recommendations have been a part of the DNA of Winecast from the very first post and podcast. From incoming links and search engine referrals I know that these reviews are popular draws to this blog. Further, I have never considered myself to be a wine critic but a wine lover who writes about wine. It’s just a subjective opinion and readers can judge for themselves.

But Alder’s words are still ringing in my ears. Before doing anything rash I’d like to hear from readers and other bloggers about this issue. Shall I stop reviewing wines that could be considered competitive with my day job, stop reviewing wine altogether or hang it up and stop blogging and podcasting? I know that any of these will hurt a lot because I really love doing this but ethics are very important to me and if what I write here is considered tainted by my association to the wine business then I would be willing to take this course of action. It’s really up to you.

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  • http://www.wannabewino.blogspot.com Sonadora

    Interesting dilemma. Ethics is topic that rears its head in my line of business ALL the time. I am both a lawyer and I work in government contracting, so I have to be careful of the regulations of the State Bar Organization in addition to avoiding any appearance of impropriety in my contracting activities. Meaning, I had to divest myself of stock of corporations that I might potentially be awarding contracts to and disclose and recuse myself from any work where I may know or be related to a party involved, plus other things. And I need to be very conscious of this given that I worked too damn hard for the Bar admittance to lose it over something stupid.

    In your case, I think that simple disclosure of the fact that you received the wine as a sample, coupled with the knowledge that you work in the wine industry is fine. That seems transparent enough to me to satisfy a reader. I guess my point is, do not give up blogging or restrict your blogging. I think disclosure is great though, as it’s something I appreciate when I see a blogger revealing that the wine was a press sample.

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  • http://www.scrugy.com James

    Let me start by saying that I think that ethics in blogging are very important and some self-evaluation from time to time is healthy. However, I think you need to give yourself and your readers more credit here. Blogging is more open and is usually more personal than what you find in traditional/print publications. They are either unwilling or not permitted to be as open as bloggers typically are and this keeps them distanced from their readers. There’s always that sense of doubt about what may be motivating a particular score or an overly flattering article. My point is that your readers know where you stand and your commitment to disclosure & transparency since you blog/podcast openly about it. At least that’s enough for me.

    Put it this way: if you ripped a wine from the producer across the road from Goosecross, I’d take your word for it. ;-)

    -James

  • http://thirdcoastwine.blogspot.com razmaspaz

    Tim,
    First off I think that in normal circumstances a disclosure (that you work in the industry, or that you received a press sample) is enough to provide transparency. You are right that because you work directly with a winery it COULD call into question your reviews of a competitors wine. The part that makes it OK for you in the end is that you value your reputation. If you begin using this blog as nothing more than a way to sell your client’s wines then you will lose readers. People aren’t stupid, they’ll see through the trumped up (or down) ratings and reviews for what it really is. So if you are honest, and you disclose when there might be a conflict of interest, you won’t cause any problems by me.

  • http://winecast.net Tim

    Wow, thanks for your support everyone… the only comment I’m still pondering is Garrick’s post, but my next review will not be a fruit forward wine in his honor (and who does make the best French Toast in the Twin Cities?).

  • http://www.vinography.com Alder

    Tim,

    All good questions to ponder, and good to do them here with your readership, which is really what you’re concerned about in making this sort of choice. It’s important to think, too, about whether you might be doing your readers more of a disservice in STOPPING coverage of Napa wines as you might be with any implied conflict of interest.

    At the end of the day, though, you need to be able to live with yourself and not constantly be second guessing what you do, and you need to feel confident that you’re doing right by your readers.

    Alder

  • http://www.catavino.net ryan

    I agree with Alder. You would be doing a disservice by stopping your reviews. The reader needs to be careful when taking anyone’s advice, and we all are influenced by wine samples, our position in the industry and other factors. That said, being objective is important, and the dialogue you have started just shows all the more why you should rate the wines you taste.

  • http://winecast.net Tim

    Alder & Ryan,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am coming to the conclusion that I just need to continue to be vigilant with disclosure and make sure I keep my professional life and what I do here well separated. I’ll also revisit this subject from time to time with readers.

  • http://www.goodgrape.com Jeff

    Tim,

    I don’t think you need to stop reviewing wines or blogging. Your opinions are your opinions. It might not hurt to remove all references to your employer on the site and put the caveat that your opinions are yours alone.

    I’ve also taken the step of not using information that I’ve gained professionaly for use on my blog. Of course, I do use ideas and I reference things opaquely if they need to be referenced so, but I consider it like a journalist who does background research and not an issue of ethics.

    Occasionally I’ll use a conversation I’ve had while on the job as a reference point, but I make sure that it’s couched in something of relevancy for my site i.e. consumer-oriented and doesn’t engender or endanger any relationship for which I might be striving professionally.

    It cuts both ways. Disrection is the rule, but presenting something compelling with authority is the same rule for this situation. Sometimes the two don’t always place nice together. And, I also ALWAYS reference a mention of a winery as a customer of my employer, if that happens to be the case–though that is perhaps less than 2% of the time.

    I think as long as your opinions are well researched and rationale, people understand you’re trying to do something with integrity and no ulterior motives. And, again, your opinions are yours alone and do not reflect that of your employer.

    One last thought, perhaps it hasn’t happened, yet, but it will … you will be privy to something by virtue of your spot in the wine blogosphere that will directly economically benefit your employer, and that too will need to be noted for positivity.

    Jeff
    http://www.goodgrape.com

  • http://www.coaching4lesbians.com Paula G

    I’ve been reading and listening to you for a long time now. While ethics are always a dilemma, let’s face it we all have perceived and actual biases. For example, you shared you like a certain style of Zinfandel & when you review Zins you mention it, and it comes out in the end. Does that make something else “bad” by nature. No. It is preference. While there are some standards around what constitutes a good or bad wine, the bottom line for any person is – do they like the way it tastes & do they enjoy it. What if you reviewed a wine and were simply having a bad day and didn’t rate it as high as you might on another tasting. Does that mean you’re biased or simply reporting your opinion of a certain wine and a certain tasting experience? I would say the latter.

    That being said — I think full disclosure as you go along (just like you have done in the past) coupled with the fact that your site and reviews are only as good as the reputation you maintain means that you should continue doing what you’re doing. As long as you stay authentic, honest and up front which has been your style anyway, the ethics dilemma should no longer be a dilemma.

    Thanks for bringing the conversation forward to us all….

  • http://winecast.net Tim

    Jeff: As a fellow wine blogger/wine industry professional I really appreciate your perspective here. I know we are walking a fine line at times but our experiences do provide interesting subjects and context to blog about. And that last point you make has not come to pass just yet but I will continue to disclose anything along those lines here when it does happen.

    Paula: Your point on bias and the subjectivity of rating wines is a very good one and I’ll be posting a bit later today on my background as a taster and the mechanics of how I taste. All of this certainly does have an effect on the resulting reviews. Finally, your point on authenticity really hit home. Thanks…

  • http://goodwineunder20.blogspot.com/ Dr. Debs

    Chiming in a little bit late here, but I think the replies you’ve already received are all headed in the right direction. You do disclose your connections to the biz, and reveal press samples, and I think that is what you need to do–provided, as Alder points out, that YOU are comfortable. And then there’s the objectivity thing (which you know I have opinions about). As we all recognize, it’s hard to be objective totally and completely when it comes to something as subjective as wine. Connections in the biz, or a free bottle, only highlight a problem that is there whenever we write about the stuff. Being aware of it is the only–and by no means perfect–defense. And you are. So, in my books, you are as objective as you can be!

  • http://www.snooth.com Philip James

    Tim – Its an interesting dilemma and part of the bigger topic of impartiality faced by financial research analysts as well as in many other careers.

    Personally, i think you’d be doing the community a disservice if you were to stop your reviews to avoid any potential conflicts. So long as you adequately disclose your involvement in the industry i think people are smart enough to make their own minds up.

    I see the debate itself as philosophical and not relevant to people’s day to day enjoyment of your blog.

    Keep it up
    Philip

  • DancingDavidE

    Tim, keep it coming! I think that we the readers understand where you are coming from, you are navigating these potential conflicts as best you can.

    We would be deprived of a great wine resource if you were to scale back Winecast. Keep tasting, keep blogging!

    Your working in the industry should be a bonus to all of us, not a hindrance.

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  • http://winecast.net Tim

    Dr Debs, Philip and Dave,

    Thanks for your support and feedback. I’m now returning to normal blogging and podcasting…

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