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Friday Fishwrap
Come Fly With Me

By Charles Olken

I note with jealousy that Alder Yarrow (Vinography) is off to Greece, that countless Chinese journalists are apparently jetting their ways to Bordeaux, that every one is traveling everywhere—except me. It’s time to stop this payola. It is perverting the cause of caustic wine journalism.

That is the case that is being made in some circles. Actually, it is the case that has been made ever since the first wine critic took a trip that someone else paid for. I don’t get many of those trips. I guess covering California wine is probably not the ideal way to be invited to new and exciting places. Don’t get me wrong. I will drive up to Rutherford in a week or so to taste some pretty spectacular Cabernets in a setting that the average punter cannot possibly duplicate. And my reward for a day in wine country will be lunch on the veranda accompanied by several dozen other writers and the very winemakers whose wines we will be tasting.

It’s not that I dislike such trips or that I turn them down when offered. Over my thirty five years of writing, most especially when I had columns in the Los Angeles Times, I did manage to get to Australia, Chile, Italy and Spain. And, believe me, I have no complaints about any of those trips. Oh, and did I mention Argentina? What a treat to arrive in Buenos Aires and be escorted through the terminal by armed police. Tough place, that Argentina. Loved the wine country though.

There is, however, a requirement that I have imposed on myself, and I would see imposed on all journalists who make these trips. I never judge wines while on the trip. Sure, I taste lots of them, and I like quite a few, and indeed, love some. But there has never been a tasting note in Connoisseurs’ Guide or in one of my newspaper columns about a wine that was tasted at the winery with the label showing. When I have done evaluative reports on the wines of those places, it is with wines purchased here and tasted blind with the regular CGCW tasting panel.

So, go on your trips, you lucky devils, but please remember, you owe it to your readers and to your reputations to avoid the need to pay back those trips with reviews not conducted with appropriate rigor and independence. Sure, tell the story. I loved the articles that came out of my trip to Sicily, because I loved Sicily, but the wines, no matter how great they were, were not evaluated based on something I tasted while being regaled by the winemakers. Indeed, I liked Sicily so much that Mrs. Olken and I are planning to go back next summer on our own.

My next trip is to Nova Scotia. Turns out that there are wineries there. They don’t know that I’m coming, and maybe I will have something to say about the local wines if there is anything good to say. But this is my trip, not theirs. And, while I will happily trot off to South Africa or Champagne or Portugal if invited, you can count a full and honest look at any wines worth talking about, based on what I taste when I get back from wherever my wanderlust takes me—on my nickel or someone else’s. It is the standard to which we should all be held.

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Just Curious
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:7/1/2011 9:54:16 AM

Could not agree more Charlie. I've been on 2 paid for trips and can only think of one time that I wrote about wine, as in tasting notes, on either of them and even that was just as much about the winemakers and setting as much as it was about the specific wines. But for me, the way I talk and tell stories about wine, it's almost always more about the people, the situation and emotion than the flavor profile of the wines, so that works in my favor there.


I'm just curious how you feel about bloggers that write up the free samples they get? So many of them are favorable reviews....kinda have to be if they want to keep receiving free wine right? Just wondering if you think they "payola" deal can be applied to bloggers samples as well?

Could not agree more...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/1/2011 11:02:17 AM

...and cannot add anything to what you said, Charlie, except maybe that I find the blogger "give-away contest" trend equally disturbing.

Soooo true
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:7/1/2011 12:10:20 PM

Samantha, that’s an excellent point re: bloggers and free samples. To your point, I gave up on doing some blogger tastings because I saw a trend towards bloggers selling out for samples. I recently did a tasting where a group of us tasted close to a dozen samples. I was very familiar with what this region could produce, and IMHO these wines blew big chunks—not little chunks but big chunks. I have no doubt that folks like you and Charlie (and hi Thomas!) would agree. Yet, everyone participating in the event acted like they just discovered fire or something. “OMG! This wine ROCKS!”  “What a wonderful wine, filled with lovely blah blah”, “this is simply lovely, blows me away”, “these wines are so diverse!” Are you F’ing kidding me? The diversity was that they were bad and just downright horrible. And that’s not including the flawed wines! DOH!  I could only assume this behavior was tied to receiving more samples, or, maybe they were simply doing it to support a PR friend. But the way I look at it, bloggers will lose (or never gain) a following by continuously recommending crap.

As for wine trips, I don’t guarantee a write-up and I make this clear from the start. I remember one winery wanted to offer an international press junket in exchange for stories—a ridiculous contract that required six stories (one story per month for six months, 500-1000 words, approval from winery before posting, blah blah) WTF? I was surprised that the blogger who took this junket accepted these terms—maybe he had the sense to revise the contract, I don’t know, I hope so.

To Pamela
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/1/2011 5:41:28 PM

You left out the possibility that the bloggers reallly liked those wines, which you considered inferior--and that is even more frightening to think about, no?

Plain and simple: jounalism standards are obliterated online on a daily basis, and not necessarily by journalists.

As far as I can determine, Charlie's method of reviewing wine is unique when it should be the norm.

Frightening indeed
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:7/1/2011 8:35:29 PM

Thomas, frightening, indeed.

I appreciate and utilize many of the methods Charlie utilizes for tasting..and agree it should be embraced by more.

Even Then
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:7/2/2011 7:41:20 AM


I would have signed that contract. Course my name would have been, Blow Me. That's insane! The one blogger trip I was on I was told that I could write whatever I wanted or not at all if I was so inclined, that's why I took it. My other trips were all importer trips and I or the store, had to pay for everything aside from a meal here and there that the winery put on. So I feel clean and some junk.


Asd to the blind tasting, well as someone that has been a part of Charlies panel I have but one observation as to how it effects the consumer.....which is who we are writing for I assume. Once the bottles are evaluated and the blinders taken off, when the food comes to the table and you are just drinking them for fun, well they friggin' change. Tasting wine in a far cry from drinking wine and unless someone is going to be "tasting" then...well to be frank, the tasting notes and scores mean nothing.


I was teaching a class about wine and cheese pairing last night and there was a spirited discussion happening about a particular pairing I was offering. One guy just couldn't wrap his head around it while the rest of the group found it at the very least interesting. I just told him, "Hey look, there are no right or wrongs here. I can't tell you what is good and what's not. I haven't been riding around in your mouth all day, (to which he made an unfortunate offer....ugh) so I can't tell you what you're tasting is wrong". I just feel that there are so many things that contribute to how a wine tastes to someone that I can't see that tasting a wine, in a group, (although this is where Charlie and his panel gets my vote above all others in that he keeps them small) like that is going to have anything to do with how the consumer drinks it.  Guess I have been flavored by the retail end of things and am just so much more into telling the story of the wine than the scoring or rating of it....and there goes my invite to Charlies next panel. (wink)

Nothing? Zip? Niente?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/2/2011 8:36:27 AM

My Dear Ms. Dugan--

It is with great sadness that I have received your note of retirement from our tasting panel.


Charles Olken, Publisher

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:7/2/2011 8:50:50 AM

Daggumit! I knew it. But Charlie My Dear, do you still love me?

Well .........
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/2/2011 11:57:37 AM


Besides, you are wrong anyhow. How else would my readers learn about Marcel Moineaux if not from CGCW? They don't all shop at your store.

Could not agree more...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/2/2011 4:30:13 PM

CGCW needs to add a section that covers NY wine. I volunteer to operate it...

Fair Enough
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:7/3/2011 10:45:36 AM

"They don't all shop at your store" I do so wish they would! Guess the wine world needs both of us Sir Charles. Oh and you never answered my question cutie pie, the blogger free sample question.....

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