Is “pay to play” wrecking wine criticism?

pay to play
Teeter: Pay to play is the scourge of beverage journalism.

VinePair podcast says wine criticism, as well as beer and spirits, needs more transparency and fewer free trips

We need more transparency among wine writers and wine critics – and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“It’s something we’ve always been talking about, among the staff,” says Adam Teeter, the co-founder of the on-line wine, beer, and spirits magazine VinePair. “And we thought it was time to start talking about it again.”

Hence a recent VinePair podcast discussing what Teeter calls “pay to play journalism,” where wine, beer, and spirits and writers take samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else – and then write exactly what will make the producer happy. Because they want to keep getting the free samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else.

“We call it book report journalism,” says Teeter, who also teaches at Columbia University’s prestigious journalism school. “It’s like when you wrote a book report as a kid, and you just rewrote what was in the book. The writers just rewrite what they’re told on the trip.”

I called Teeter to talk about this because transparency has always been a problem in the wine writing business. Yes, there has been progress, like most sites and reviewers acknowledging when they’re reviewing samples. That’s something that didn’t happen when I started the blog. But as technology has evolved, so has marketing, and the problem may be worse than ever. On one of the last trips I took, I was told what I could write – something no one had ever done before (and which I ignored). But many others are happy to write what they’re told, and that’s probably why I don’t get invited on trips any more.

As Teeter noted on the VinePair site: “Well, there’s a scourge in the beverage journalism world, and it’s called ‘pay to play.’ Whether it’s brands getting guaranteed coverage or even inflated scores by taking wine critics on elaborate trips, or just a spot on someone’s [Instagram] story through sending them some sample bottles, it’s an ugly side to this industry that rarely gets talked about.”

So the podcast talks about it, in detail. “The amount of free stuff out there is insane,” Teeter told me, and he used the word insane three times during our brief conversation to describe a world where producers see an Instagram post as marketing nirvana. It costs nothing, save for the sample, and it makes the person posting the Instagram feel like a big deal. In other words, it’s infinitely more brand friendly than dealing with a cranky ex-newspaperman like me.

The good news for wine drinkers is that beer, which has almost no history of criticism, is probably the worst for pay to play. We may harp on the biases of the Wine Magazines, but it’s not like beer, where a beer company subsidiary owns a leading beer ratings website.

So the next time you see a surprisingly favorable wine review, don’t be surprised – it may have been pay to play.

Photo courtesy of VinePair, using a Creative Commons license

7 thoughts on “Is “pay to play” wrecking wine criticism?

  • By William Baker - Reply

    This is why you are one of the very few wine critics I pay any attention to. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Thanks for the kind words. It’s one reason why I do what I do.

  • By Tina Caputo - Reply

    This sort of thing has been going on for ages, but I agree that it’s getting more intense. I’ve recently had “invitations” to media trips that required me to have an assignment in place in advance, and basically to guarantee coverage (I turn those down). In the era of “wine influencers,” the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. The viewer has no idea if the person is posting because they like the wine, or because the producer is compensating them to do it. (By the way, I don’t consider wine samples as payment; I don’t know any wine writers who can afford to buy their own wines for review.)

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Thanks for this, Tina. Your thoughts are always appreciated. And I think the bit about samples is about samples that no one would write about, but that some people get as payola.

  • By Bob Henry - Reply

    The “benchmark” news reportage on this phenomenon dates back to 1987, and future Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist David Shaw’s two-part front page Los Angeles Times pieces.


    From Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (August 23, 1987, Page A1ff):

    “Wine Writers: Squeezing the Grape for News”
    (Series: First of Two Articles)


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    PART TWO focuses on Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate newsletter:

    From Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (August 24, 1987, Page A1ff):

    “Wine Critics: Influence of Writers Can Be Heady”
    (Series: Second of Two Articles)


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

  • By AC - Reply

    It looks like things really haven’t changed that much in 30+ years, except for the names….However 30 years ago journalists wrote harder hitting articles, while now we have a looser form (e.g.podcasts) that dance around this issue… Good that they bring it up, crack open the door. But it really need to be swung wide open…. Pay to play is real…in the industry and among the blogger/podcaster caste…

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