Wine producers v critics - an uneasy relationship

Over the last week there have a couple of stories about wine producers fighting back against wine writers, both of which I read on wine-searcher. The first describes a producer's withering review of the ability of writers who judge en primeur in Bordeaux - read the piece here, with further detail on who's being called out here. The second concerns Domaine Huet of Vouvray, and how the owners apparently reacted badly against criticism from certain writers.

It is perfectly understandable why producers would resent negative reviews of their wines, of course; and there's no reason they shouldn't have the right to reply, even if that rarely seems to resolve the situation. 

What is unusual is how the uneasy relationship between wine producers and wine writers has been laid bare. At the heart of this relationship is a conflict: there's a large degree of co-dependence which requires mutual friendliness and collaboration, reinforced by the convivial and social nature of wine; but there's also a need for independence and integrity to eliminate (or at least, minimise) any bias.

For both parties, there is a lot to potentially gain or lose. Writers rely on the good will of producers in order to get access to wines for review (especially for the most expensive and famous examples). They also have their own reputation to consider, and how a positive or negative review might impact upon that: a low score for a first growth is a big risk, both for credibility (since the consensus is that these are great wines) and for their relationship with the producer themselves; on the other hand, excessively high scores might seem to betray a lack of critical faculty, but they are bound to curry greater favour with producers.

Whereas winemakers could lose sales if they get low scores, or be able to increase their prices and profitability based on high ones. They also have a reputation at stake, so might consider either changing their style to suit a certain critic - or simply refusing to allow them to taste in future.

From the perspective of someone that reviews wines, the primary commitment ought to be to the audience, therefore requiring complete freedom to comment as you wish about any wines - with the proviso that it is a personal opinion being expressed, and that unduly harsh comments are unnecessary.

But in reality, there's a reluctance to be explicitly negative. Sometimes that's because writers prefer to focus on the wines they enjoy, therefore keeping quiet about any wines they strongly dislike, but mostly it's because we are all aware of how fragile the tacit agreement is between those that make wine and those that write about it.

A winemaker must toil for twelve months to create a product on which their livelihood depends, while a wine writer might spend only one or two minutes to determine its fate. That might sound unfair, but it's the best system we've got. Good writers should have the skill and experience to taste wines and make their best, fair assessment in just a few moments. In an ideal world, they should also have the indemnity to pass judgement as they see fit. 

Yet as with all things wine, it's more complicated than that. This close-knit world is built on a foundation that usually allows just enough independence for writers and just enough benefit for producers. When that balance is upset, it reminds everyone involved uneasy the relationship between producers and writers can be.