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Being paid to review wines – ok or not? – Published Nelson Mail 09.02.16

Since I started writing this Taste of Nelson column last year I have met some wonderful people making outstanding products in this stunning region and while I love sharing their stories there are a couple of things I have been mulling over that I want to talk about.

The printed media has changed hugely in recent years and the Nelson Mail doesn’t look anything like the newspaper it was 16 years ago when I started writing a wine column; of course it had to change to survive in the world of instant news gratification, it had to find a way of delivering relevant news and information to its loyal print-format rather than digital-format readers.

With the rapid decline in advertising revenue as businesses (and individuals) turned to the internet and social media to tell their stories and sell products the traditional newspaper model had to change and one of those changes was to appoint one wine writer for all of the Fairfax newspaper publications.

That job went to John Saker who is a great writer, someone whose opinion I respect and also a fellow member of the Wine Writers of New Zealand (WWNZ) organisation and someone I think of as a wine friend. He was genuinely sorry I lost my wine column spot to him and I am equally grateful to the editorial staff at the Nelson Mail who found a spot for me to carry on telling local stories in this Taste of Nelson Column.

If you read Saker’s column a week or so ago he talked about WWNZ’s new code of ethics and paid for wine reviews. As an organisation all of our members have agreed we would not be paid directly by wineries for reviewing their wines so members retain their independence and there can be no inference of wineries buying a good review.

This is a vexed subject as writers need to make a living and the number of wine writers Fairfax and other publishers engage has reduced so that removes the opportunity for many to be paid for their thoughts. I am lucky that I don’t rely just on my writing for an income so taking this stand on not being paid by wineries for reviews isn’t really an issue for me, it is something I have never done and never intend to do.

On the other hand I do understand that those who charge a tasting fee need to earn a living and when you are highly regarded nationally and internationally as a wine critic you are asked to sample thousands of wines annually, as long as the review isn’t inflated because it is being paid for is it really an issue? Personally I think it is and wineries also have a responsibility to let consumers know they have paid to have a wine reviewed, they use these reviews for marketing purposes and while the comments and ratings for the wines may be genuine the issue is about transparency.

For example if a winery invites me to a tasting or event I will always tell you I was their guest and that they paid for my flights or meals just as a travel writer would tell you their airfares and accommodation to an exotic retreat were paid for by someone.

Of course wine writers receive free wine samples to review and I try and publish all of these on my website no matter how good or bad the wine is or how many stars the wine is awarded (unless it is faulty, then I ask the producer to send me another bottle). If someone is going to send me a sample to get some free profile and that wine is very average then it won’t reach this column but it will be on my website with two or three stars; wineries only tell you about the four and five star reviews they receive and some writers only publish four star and above reviews on their websites.

As I said earlier I am lucky enough not to have to rely just on writing for my income and my website is funded by me, without advertising, and I happen to love tasting and talking about wine so many of my evenings are spent doing just that.

Something else that occurred to me over the long weekend was just how far the Nelson wine region has come in the last 16 years, from about ten wineries to almost 30, from one or two stellar performers to many who deserve recognition for the brilliant wines they produce. I remember in the mid 1980’s we could ‘do the wine trail’ in an afternoon, there were only four wineries to visit – how that has changed. Not only are there many more wineries they all have a wide range of wines to tempt us rather than just three of four each.

The one thing that has remained constant over the years is local family ownership, some wineries have investors but none of the wineries in this region are owned by international corporate winemakers and that makes the region pretty special, the people you meet at the cellar door are the people who have the big loans and employ hundreds of staff around the region and they also have an incredible passion for the wines they produce.

Next week I might be writing about the upcoming March Fest, or gelato, or fresh berries, or another brewery or maybe an apple grower or even tell you about a new vineyard that is as much about enhancing the environment as it is about making great wines; there are still plenty of stories to tell about the people who are making, selling or growing wonderful produce in this stunning region.

I have been writing a regular wine column for The Nelson Mail newspaper since 2000.

Unfortunately the column space is not big enough to include my thoughts on all of the many wines I taste. Hopefully this blog will fix that. It also gives me somewhere to archive the many columns I write. I will also include some favourite recipes from my dearly beloved who loves cooking and of course because wine and food simply go together. I will also point you in the direction of upcoming events and websites I think are great. Enjoy, Neil

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