Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ethics and My Blog

I have no statement of ethics anywhere on my blog, but I'm going to add one today. What spurred this? Probably the biggest thing is the dust-up on Dr. Vino's site. Doc, as I affectionately call him, wrote a series of posts attacking Robert Parker and his employees. Doc is questioning their professionalism and ethics based on a damning email exchange and on what he says is a violation of Parker's published ethics policy. You already know about this, because the only person who reads my blog but does not also read Dr. Vino's blog is my father-in-law. And he probably reads Dr. Vino too.

Ethics is an important thing to talk about if you are going to operate a website that offers advice about buying products. Even though I think Dr. Vino's approach to the whole Parker thing is problematic, I'm glad he has brought the question of ethics to the table. And I'm not the only guy who has reacted this way. So what is the ethical code under which I operate? Here are some of the rules that I set for myself:

  • If I do not know something, I say so.
  • When I write about a wine or a wine-related topic (any topic, really), I first check around the blogosphere to see whether or not anyone else has already written about the same thing. If they have, and if my post will say some of the same things, I indicate this in my post and link to the other post. In other words - I try to give credit to others who wrote before me.
  • I never quote people anonymously - no "unnamed sources." If they won't go on the record, then I don't use the quote.
  • I don't write negative reviews about wine or restaurants unless I have enough context to be super-confident in my views.
  • When I write about a wine I tell you where i drank it - I never talk about a wine as if I drank it at home, when in reality I tried a sip of it at a trade tasting.
  • I don't write good reviews as a function of being friendly with people. I never let personal relationships play a role in recommending something.
  • I happily accept samples, as long as the sender agrees to my samples policy: "you can send it, I promise to drink it thoughtfully, but I may or may not write about it, and if I do write about it, I write whatever I want to write." If I do write about the wine, I say that it's a sample.
  • I happily accept freebies, if they appeal to me, using the same policy regarding samples. I write or do not write about it as I please.
I want to offer a few examples regarding samples and freebies. I've received my fair share of samples in the past two years and I've written about exactly one of them, the 2000 Movia Puro Rose that I reviewed for a Friday Night Bubbles post last summer. When I wrote about it I indicated that the wine was a sample. And by the way, I wasn't crazy about it. I wrote about it because it is fascinating wine.

Why is that the only sample I've written about? I don't write bad things about wine unless I feel that I have enough context to do so, and most of the samples I receive are wines that I rarely drink. I get wines from Washington State, Chile, Australia, New York (a load of them this winter) and more. I don't write about them because I rarely like them, and if I do like a wine, I haven't had anything interesting to say about it. If all I have to say is "I don't like that wine," or "I got a Cabernet Sauvignon from Long Island as a sample, and it was pretty darn good," I'm not going to waste your time with that. I try to make it more interesting around here (not always succeeding, I know).

I've never asked for, nor have I received a sample from Dressner, Jenny & François, Chambers Street Wines, or any of the retail stores, importers, or distributors whose wines I drink and regularly write about. Actually, Joe Dressner gave me a bottle of wine once, a 2000 Clos Rougeard Saumur Brézé. I was hosting a wine dinner and I asked him where I could purchase a dry Chenin Blanc with some age on it, and he generously offered this wine as a gift. When I wrote about the wine, I indicated that it was a gift.

I wish that importers/distributors would actually take a quick look at my blog, and then if they are inclined to send samples, send something that makes sense. Something that might fit in with the rest of the wine I drink. If I were an importer and I saw Brooklynguy's blog, I might say "I'm sending this guy my Beaujolais, my Sancerre, and my Provence red." Or "I'm sending this guy my California Roussanne that I think he'll find interesting, based on the other wines he likes." This, my friends, is clearly fanciful thinking on my part.

More on freebies - what is a freebie? A trade tasting is not a freebie because everyone is invited. A freebie is something I'm invited to do that some one else pays for, and where I am the, or part of the target. I sadly have not had to worry much about this, as I get few of them (so far, but I have my fingers crossed). But I've had some good ones: the lunch at Grammercy Tavern sponsored by the Portuguese Trade Commission, my recent dinner with Savio Soares, the tasting of 12 year old Long Island wines, to name the ones I can remember right now. In some cases I wrote good things about the wines, in others, not so good. But I am not so weak-kneed and without integrity as to write favorable reviews simply because some one takes care of lunch or dinner. That said, the one biggest ethical lapse I've had on the blog thus far, I would say, is that I didn't make it clear enough in the Savio Soares post that he sponsored the whole thing.

Am I completely independent and free of any outside interests? I doubt it. I try as hard as I can. I pay for everything I drink, and if I get something for free and write about it, I tell you. I now have friendships in the wine industry, although I don't think that this influences how I review or do not review their products. I am definitely predisposed to liking certain things though, and not to like other things. I wish I could do more blind tasting, and I think that the universe of wine criticism suffers from the relative lack of blind tasting. I think that the wine industry should sponsor two weeks of tastings (on the island of Crete or anyplace sunny and beautiful) and invite the Parkers and Tanzers, and also the Allen Meadows and Peter Liems, and also the bloggers like me. We could all sit together and blind taste a load of wine, discuss, and then write about the wines once they are unveiled. Talk about wishful thinking...

In the end, here is the thing: you are an important part of this too, reader. You are responsible for determining whether or not my reviews are meaningful to you, or Dr. Vino's, or Robert Parker's, or anyone else's. If you are reading for entertainment purposes, then please enjoy yourself. But if you make purchasing decisions based on what a writer recommends, it is your responsibility to determine whether or not you agree with that writer, and whether or not you would take their advice a second or a third time. Not to say that Parker and others should act unethically, but since we can never know with certainty what really goes on in the house of Parker, Dr. Vino, or Brooklynguy, it is merely good sense for a consumer to think critically about what they read.

I think that you have everything you need in order to do that with reference to my blog. If I am wrong, I sincerely hope that you will tell me so. Not so we can have an argument, but so I can learn from what you're saying, and make whatever changes may be necessary. Please ask questions, challenge me on this, offer your opinions, chime in however you see fit.


Do Bianchi said...

BrooklynGuy, frankly, I was really surprised by Dr. V's attack on Parker (although I was glad to see him call out Squires for his unprofessional and rude treatment of Mike Steinberger, a wine writer we all respect for his talent and his palate). Having said that, I think the last wine writer in the world whose ethics or motives would come into question would be you. I do think the bigger epistemological question is whether or not there can be a code of ethics for wine writers at all: the very nature of what we do is bourgeois, in other words, classist and incestuous. How can the wine writer divorce her/himself from subjectivity, how can the wine writer divorce from the human nature of winemaking and wine tasting? And after all, who really cares? We are writing about wine. The top wine writers in our field are very careful not to accept travel gifts etc. But did Jon Pareles ever refuse backstage passes to a Springsteen show? Do I really care? I like Springsteen and I like Pareles. And most importantly, I return to BrooklynGuyLovesWine because I enjoy it and find it immensely informative and terribly well written.

NickG said...

For me, it's far more important that a wine writer/blogger's picks have a history of intersection with my own discoveries. Only then do I take a writer's opinion into consideration when making purchasing decisions. Over the past couple of years I've had this blog, Do Bianchi, McDuff, Rockss and Fruit, and more recently Wicker Parker, in my Google Reader subscription list because of intersecting tastes and interests in wine. It really doesn't matter to me whether you guys paid for the wine your reviewing yourself - if you start waxing rhapsodic about crap that you got for free, or got a free dinner at Per Se to plug, readers like me will notice and stop paying attention. So far I'm not concerned at all - keep up the good work!

Weston said...

Ill try to make this relevantly on topic. First of all yeah there needs to be accountability, I for one would like to see all the stats about the wine I drink oak used new or not how long how old the vines, and as you say When a Champagne was Disgorged.

To semi quote Alder Yarrow, he was speaking at a wine blogging event and told people you don't start a blog to become rich or famous, you do it to practice your writing skills and its something you love. Thats what made me start to just generally write, to improve my writing. C minus in Highschool and A in math hah I need work on writing and english ^_^

Hopfully not to off topic

Director, Lab Outreach said...

Put me on the list with your father-in-law.

Tracie P. said...

we are ALL blogging for free, for fun, for love of wine. we are not paid wine journalists, therefore i see NO problem with samples, no conflict of interest.

writing (or not writing) honestly about what excites you is enough for me.

Michael said...

I really, really don't care at all about Parker's crew and the supposed ethics at stake. (though I might feel differently if I subscribed to Bob's wares) I do care about the prong of the story that takes Squires to task, because that guy drags down the eBob community in a big way. I like Tyler's blog and have followed for some time, and I'll neither laude him nor fault him for this line of stories, its merely his prerogative.

Really if a wine is a sample, then it is nice note that, maybe in just one line. The reality is that for any sort of interesting level of wine coverage these days, beyond the scope of the biggest media sources, samples help to widen the field. I am not saying that it can't be done without, but rather that I don't think that it ethically undermines the entire wine-writing and reviewing community.

Thanks for the disclaimer, but I care far more about the quality of writing product in my wine blogging than any sort of ethical purity.

Brooklynguy said...

jeremy - those are very kind words and i appreciate them.

NickG - also very kind words, and also much appreciated. and I'm honored by the company i keep on your subscription list.

Weston - agreed on Alder's wise comments.

JD - come, come now.

TracieB - agreed, but full disclosure is key, for me. there are some though who say that as long as we publish our writing on the net that we are journalists, and should thereby abide by the same set of ethical standards.

michael - a well considered viewpoint indeed. thanks for your comments.

and to all- i got a few emails asking if i was attacked somewhere for ethical violations. not at all, i was merely inspired by Doc's posts to discuss my own ethical standards. thanks for reading.

David McDuff said...


I appreciate the link in your piece and, like you, am also honored to have been named among the trusted/favored sources of one of our shared readers. Having read and considered your thorough post, as well as all of the thoughtful comments, it seems that we're very much on the same page with this whole question of blog ethics.

The only nit I'd pick is that I really was not responding to the the Parker-bashing thread you mention on Dr. Vino. I'd read the thread on the Squires/Steinberger debacle but was actually unaware of any further postings on the matter at Tyler's site. Just a strange synchronicity where we all happened to be thinking of similar topics.


Deetrane said...

Whatever, dude. Can you get me a discount at Chambers St?

Alfonso Cevola said...

interesting post, thanks for sharing

Bryan said...

I really enjoyed your argument for the ethics of not just wine blogging but really all product blogging. People tend to trust to much and sometimes this lends to them getting burned by unethical bloggers or companies. As somebody who works in Social Media I really admire you adherence to an ethical standard and I wish more bloggers would follow your lead.

Brooklynguy said...

deetrane - no problem, just send me a little something to make it worth my while.

hi alfonsi - thanks for your kind words.

bfeheley - thanks.