The tyranny of wine samples

wine samples
“Come on. .. they’re just wine samples. What could be wrong?”

One of the great contradictions in wine writing is that so many of us review wine that most of our readers will never drink. That’s because we don’t pay for the wine, but get wine samples — thousands of bottles a year for some of us.

The Wine Curmudgeon has always been suspicious of wine samples, not only because of they are often less available and more pricey, but because there’s not enough transparency. That’s why I try to buy most of the wine I review, and each review notes whether it was a sample.

But wine samples are addictive, something I discovered a couple of weeks ago when a distributor friend brought four terrific (two of which were expensive) bottles for a dinner I was having. During dinner, as the five of us were passing the wine around, I thought: “This is so nice — four wines I never would have bought, two of which are too expensive to buy, and I didn’t pay a penny for them. I could get used to this.”

The older one gets, the more the phrase “There but for the grace of God” applies (regardless of religious leanings). What if, all those years ago, I had started writing about something other cheap wine that I bought myself? What if I had stumbled upon wine samples — expensive, hard-to-find wine samples — through one of the newspapers I wrote for? In those pre-recession days, high-end wineries were throwing around $100 bottles like baskets of chips at a Mexican restaurant; what if I started pouring $60 Napa cabernet sauvignon for a weeknight dinner?

Would I have become everything I hate about wine writing? Given my disposition, that’s not likely, but the idea is troubling. I had a lot of fun drinking those wines that Saturday night, which included a $40 sparkling and a $35 riesling, both from Germany. It’s not so much that they were delicious, though they were, but that I didn’t pick them out, I didn’t pay for them, and I didn’t have to suffer them if they weren’t any good (something that happens all too often with my cheap wine).

It was wine drinking the way everyone wants it to be — wonderful wine on the table without any muss or fuss, and I suddenly understood why so many of my colleagues accept it as normal and wonder about people like me. But, as I reminded myself when I was writing this piece, wonderful has nothing to do with it. The people who read the blog don’t get samples. They have to negotiate the terrors of the supermarket Great Wall of Wine, which is why I’m here. I’m not a wine writer to drink great wine that I get for free, but to help wine drinkers figure out what they like. And, in the end, that’s more fun than any amount of wine samples.

11 thoughts on “The tyranny of wine samples

  • By The SEDIMENT blog -

    If you’re really being curmudgeonly, wine samples are not “addicting”.

    They’re “addictive”.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thanks for this. I’ll fix.

  • By Carl Giavanti -

    It’s nice to see integrity in our pay-to-play wine world. Keep up the good work Jeff.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      That’s kind of you to say. Thank you.

  • By Wineguy -

    We gave up on sending out samples. Too often odd things happen and without being able to present the wine in a consistent manner, results are poor. Scenario: wine blogger has six samples and invites pals over to drink ’em and get reactions. Pal One is a loud, big personality who thrives on snark. Makes fun of bottle (label?) and then says “well it’s ok but really, it’s not Chateau la Snotty.” Everyone else looks in the glass and nods. Marks sheet as “not interesting.” Bam. Or you get the wine glass issue. Or the damn bottle was a bad one (2% TCA issue). Bam. All this and you paid for shipping and the wine? Or the blogger is serving some snacks with sriracha sauce dip. Bam. Forget the subtle Cabernet. So, sorry, we stopped. Happy to provide a tasting appointment with the wine in a decent glass etc. Otherwise no. And don’t get me started about the plastic glasses on the deck. Samples became the “summer party” wines for one cheap blogger. Asked all the near drunks hours later which wine they liked or hated by holding up bottles for a thumbs up or down vote. Bam.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thanks much for the other perspective. As I have noted many, many times on the blog, the sample process is inherently flawed, and these are just more examples.

      Though you can rest easy: I hate plastic glasses, and use the Schott Zweisel Forte. Though I was asked to taste wine in a styrofoam coffee cup by a distributor more than once.

    • By Isaac James Baker -

      Wineguy, I’m sure this scenario happens all too frequently. And that’s pretty shitty. As someone who receives lots of wine samples, I view tasting wine samples as a privilege. When, as you say, someone endures the cost for making the wine, then finding me and shipping it to me, the least I can do is taste the wine in a proper setting and give it my full, undivided attention, which is what each wine sample deserves (even the $8 supermarket stuff). I totally understand your decision to stop sending out samples if scenarios like these were common.

  • By Alan Goldfarb -

    Jeff: The Iran nuke deal is flawed, too (cheap shot I realize). Of course, you have your correct points re: this subject. When I was writing, I accepted samples, and tried my best — really tried — to review as many as I could (an impossibility). Also, as a writer, I couldn’t afford to pay for most of the wines I received (I’m not the NYT, bless its heart).

    But now, as a wine flack, I vett all the writers whom I ID as a possibility of being interested in my clients. I also send a media kit and tech sheets. So, please ‘splain Lucy what you mean by not enough “transparency”.

    Your reply will go a long way toward my better understanding of what writers want — and don’t.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thanks for the note, Alan. I’m approaching this from the opposite point of view, which is: What do wine drinkers want? I think they want wines they can buy, from an availability and cost perspective, and they want to know if the reviewer is being open about how he or she got the wine. I get that a lot — that readers here appreciate that I note whether I paid for the wine or got it as a sample.

      My concern is that too many wine writers review wines because they’re free, and not because anyone wants to drink them, can afford to buy them, or can find them in the store. This reinforces the elitist perception of wine and leads to all the bad press that wine gets from the mainstream media.

      So I don’t know that I can tell you what writers want. I know what I want: quality wine at a fair price that readers can buy in a store after I write about it. You’d be surprised how many people want me to review wine that has very limited availablity, on the theory that it will become available after I write about it because I write about. That’s asking me to do their job, and I have enough trouble doing mine.

  • By Randall Murray -

    Jeff — I think you are on the mark … mostly. I’ve been a wine writer for 35 years and frequently receive samples — some offered, some a surprise. When contacted for samples I make it clear (1) no strings; no obligation to write anything, if the wine does not meet the bar, and (2) I always ask if the wine is in general distribution in my state. If it’s not, I say no, thanks. It is important to me to keep my readers in mind, not the 300-case release they will never see.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      Thanks for the saying so. Always, always, our responsibility should be to our audience.

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