On ethics and wine writing

Penfolds, Koonunga Hill; Colio CEV Sauvignon Blanc; La Fiole; Robert Mondavi. (Photo: Pat Mcgrath)

The international controversy swirling around the practices of Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean has focused attention on the ethics of wine-writing. Many writers have clarified their own practices, and this is a good opportunity for me to follow suit.

Like many other kinds of writing, wine-writing involves relationships that are fraught with potential conflicts of interest. I receive many goods and services from wine producers, regional and national wine organizations, and wine agents: bottles of wine (and spirits) for tasting, meals, trips (travel and accommodation) to visit wineries and wine regions, and small gifts (usually corkscrews and aprons, but recently a beret, a bottle of olive oil, and a plastic ice-bucket).

This is standard among wine writers. Few of us can afford to buy the wines to review or to pay for our own travel to wine regions around the world. Even the full-time wine writers who pride themselves on paying their own way accept various forms of hospitality, and don’t pay for the samples of (sometimes very expensive) wine they taste.

I know I’m given these various benefits in the hope that I’ll review the wines positively and write nice things about the wineries and regions I visit. Providing wine samples and trips is part of the marketing strategy of wine producers. But they have no guarantees. I taste almost every wine I’m sent, but I don’t review them all and not all those I do review get high scores.

I’m sure some wineries are disappointed with my write-ups and scores. I tend not to review wines that I don’t think people should buy, but an unenthusiastic review won’t attract many consumers. I’ve had a couple of complaints that my scores for this or that wine weren’t as high as other writers had given them. In one case, a winemaker sent me an email, saying it was a pity I didn’t understand his wine.

It’s up to me (and each of us wine writers) to review wines conscientiously. I visit hundreds of wineries each year. I taste thousands of wines, as bottles sent to me or as tastings at wineries and wine shows. I review about 250 each year in these columns and maybe another 1,500 elsewhere. That’s maybe a third of the wines I taste.

There’s no need for me to review mediocre wine.

More important: if I were enthusiastically to review a wine that was poor quality, I would lose the confidence of readers. If anyone bought a wine I raved about, and thought it was poor quality, they would be less likely to follow my advice again. Confidence in a reviewer’s professionalism and integrity is everything. Anyone who plays fast and loose with ethics forfeits confidence, and that’s the way it should be.

Colio ‘CEV’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011

From Ontario’s Lake Erie North Shore wine region, this sauvignon has focused flavour, good weight in the texture, and bright acidity — and all in balance. Drink it with grilled white fish or mild cheeses. 12.2-per-cent alcohol; $15.95 (Colio wine boutique, Kanata, or from coliowinery.com)

Penfolds ‘Koonunga Hill’ Chardonnay 2011

Reliable vintage after vintage, this South Australia chardonnay delivers attractive, layered flavours, a fairly rich texture, and refreshing acidity. It’s versatile at the table; drink it with white fish, poultry, pork, and mild cheeses. 12-per-cent alcohol; $14.95 (321943)

Robert Mondavi ‘Private Selection’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

From California’s Central Coast appellation, this is well-paced cabernet that goes well with red meats and hearty winter stews. Look for concentrated and quite complex flavours, easy-going tannins, and the acidity needed to keep it all fresh.13.5-per-cent alcohol; $17.95 (392225)

La Fiole Côtes du Rhône 2010

The bottle is quirky, the wine is great value. From France’s Rhône Valley, this dry, medium-weight red blend shows rich and vibrant flavours and just the right dose of acidity. It goes well with red meats, and stretches to pork and poultry. 14-per-cent alcohol; $13.95 (293498)

Email Rod Phillips at rod@rodphillipsonwine.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at@rodphillipswine

Connect with Rod Phillips |@rodphillipswine|rod@rodphillipsonwine.com