Independence, tastings and hospitality

[October 2012. I’ve updated this post by interspersing the line about my no longer a drinks columnist].

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving this info up here in a light grey font in case it might be helpful. Thank you. 

♦ Anyone contributing opinions about products really ought to be independent of the businesses which sell them – or at least ought to prominently and clearly declare that interest.  I think I’ve covered everything but if there’s any further info you think I should pop up please respond below or by email.

As with celebs tweeting about Snickers, we should expect wine scribes to declare any interest they may have.

The real mission of my column in The Irish Examiner and here on my blog is to inspire and encourage fellow wine fans, not to tell them what to drink. But along the way I do recommend specific wines. All of these recommendations are based solely on my assessment of the quality of what I taste, taking into account certain other factors – primarily price and availability in Ireland.

Independence

The only payment or other benefit I earn related to drinks is from The Irish Examiner for my Saturday column. I’m not part of the drinks trade, and am not employed, hired or otherwise paid by any producer, importer or distributor, never have been, and in all probability never will be. I do not accept special discounts, free stuff or gifts.

Samples

Sending samples to columnists, bloggers etc plays a significant role in the drinks trade’s communication effort – in particular in relation to wine. It’s simply not practicable for us to keep up with all the wines on the market by buying them all. Neither I nor anyone I know has that much money.

However I believe there can be a blurry line between legitimate trade samples and gifts.

I discourage drinks businesses from sending samples but do accept / request them in some circumstances:  Some big retailers simply don’t hold tastings; sometimes I might miss an important tasting; and sometimes there may be new releases between tastings. In such cases, there are only two practical options for me to keep abreast of what’s out there: go buy a range of wines or accept samples. I occasionally do one or the other.

Most people in the business know all this but if you are a relative newcomer to the drinks trade and still aren’t sure whether you should send samples, please drop me a quick email about it.

Yes, there is a delightful fringe benefit to getting gat delivered to my office. All I can say is it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that I usually have to open all of the bottles at once tasting and (mainly!) spitting. Some of the leftovers do end up inside me, and I also recork some remnants and hand them over to colleagues and friends. A helluva lot of the leftovers gets poured down the sink, accounting for the rather glazed look in the eyes of some of the salmon in the north channel of the river Lee. Think of it as a marinade.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving this legacy info up here in case it might be helpful. Thank you. 

Tastings

I do occasionally attend tutored tastings, where a winemaker or some other expert talks the audience through a range of wines.

However, almost all the ones I attend are in the other main format – ‘silent’ tastings. This is where tasters are provided with glasses, water, spittoons and open bottles of the wines and allowed get on with it. This format of tasting is crucial for wine bloggers and columnists who are attempting to be independent and fair. We’re human, and will be swayed by presentations – whether they’re carefully-prepared neuro-linguistic programming sessions or informal chats with the trade representative. I’ve already expanded on the spirit of what I’m saying here in this post suggesting how consumers can use wine tastings to their benefit. If there’s any part of all this you don’t understand or disagree with (particularly if you are in the drinks business) I do hope you’ll check with me.

Importers and retailers generally provide the following two or three items:

1. Tasting opportunity – a tasting or if it’s not practicable for me to get to one, samples;
2. Information – a full list of Irish retail stockists; recommended retail prices; background info about the likes of winemaking techniques etc isn’t essential but doesn’t get in the way;
3. Pictures – Ideally they’ll also provide unadorned 100%-view jpeg pics of the bottles.

Hospitality

Broadly, there are two types of wine hospitality commonly offered free of charge to wine columnists and bloggers.

Firstly, there are private lunches or dinners with a winemaker or some other expert presenting part of an importer’s or retailer’s range of wines. I attended a handful of these in my early days but no more, and decline all such invitations for reasons which I figure ought to be obvious by now. I do however request the drinks trade to keep me on their invitation mailing lists. Why do I do this? Because often the occasion provides an opportunity for me to parachute in before or after the event to taste through the range of wines seeing as they’re open already. And often such an invitation is a wine business’s way of announcing a new agency etc and that information I do need.

Secondly, there are wine(maker) dinners open to the public. I often recommend these to readers as they can be great fun night out and they usually offer excellent value for money. Often, bloggers and columists are invited to these events free of charge. I rarely attend them as it’s far more useful for my purposes to delve into 60 wines at a two-hour tasting rather than six at a three-hour dinner. Plus there are only so many nights in the year. When I do go to such dinners etc, I do it for fun and am happy to pay the bill myself.

To take one example, and a brief explanation of the economics of wine dinners, I had a blast at the Cork leg of this tour by Jean Trimbach. Astonishing value for great food and wine presented by an hilarious, entertaining host. It far exceeded my high expectations. Really. If you enjoy your food and drink, you should keep an eye out on this blog for listings of public wine dinners.

Un-networking

I’m not stuck up. But I don’t seek out social opportunities with the good people who sell us all that lovely booze. Human nature being what it is, we do to some extent identify with the people we hang out with. It goes without saying that importers and retailers are as honest and decent as anyone else — but their particular concerns are quite different, and in some instances may run contrary, to those of the consumers I am trying to serve.

Ironically, one of my fears about socialising with people in the drinks business is that if I did strike up a friendship with any of them I might subconscously overcompensate and exclude their products which otherwise merited mention. And that’d be wrong too. So, no, it’s best all round for me to steer clear.

You may find useful ideas and anecdotes in this Wikipedia introduction to the notion of capture

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving this legacy info up here in case it might be helpful. Thank you. 

Travel

I do occasionally accept trips to wine-producing areas, approximately one every two or three years, usually as a guest of organisations representing a whole country or region rather than individual firms. These trips I will always declare so it’s clear I’d visited as a guest of such-and-such an organisation. All other travel I pay for myself, or is paid for by The Irish Examiner.

I taste hundreds of wines every year, mainly at tasting sessions in Dublin set up by individual companies or by regional/national wine trade bodies. I travel to and from these at the expense of the Irish Examiner or at my own expense. I also travel to wine fairs such as those in London and Bordeaux – plus make short trips to wine-producing areas to have a look around – at my own expense.

Why does any of this matter?

It’s not like corporate hospitality is a big problem or anything. Years ago I attended some such events courtesy of wine firms but no longer as I feel I might have overlooked some wines and importers if my map of the wine world was drawn, even in part, by the firms with the bigger budgets, slicker PR and most lavish dinners.

DownWithThisSortOfThingFrTed

Down With This Sort Of Thing

I’m not talking a few oul sangwidges here. At its worst excess, corporate hospitality is (or was before the Irish economic boom bubble burst) at the epicentre of the purple economy, its recipients staying in accommodation, eating food and drinking wine that is far, far beyond their budget. I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, with politicians accepting even declared donations from wealthy individuals and interest groups. While my outlook on wines doesn’t have the same significance as their decisions, it would be cynically inconsistent for me to live by a different standard, and sure there’s no call for that sort of thing.

The long dark lunchtime of the soul

How does yer man endure such hardship, you might ask. Sure isn’t he a complete hero turning down those jollies?

Far from it. Imagine you were allowed to spend part of your working life knee-deep in your greatest enthusiasm. Need I say more? For me, being unleashed on the wine world is a treat, and I love it. In fact, skipping a sponsored corporate lunch and going straight to the tasting session — far from being an act of self-denial — can be a relief. Taking people who otherwise wouldn’t be arsed meeting and slinging them together in the most improbable intimacy isn’t my idea of fun. 

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving this legacy info up here in case it might be helpful. Thank you. 

One Response

  1. […] custom) I get zero benefit from success or otherwise of these events. This is as it should be as I’m not part of the wine business. Nuff said.  […]

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