When the wine in wine-journalism turns to vinegar

With Afrikaans the lingua franca of SA wine producers, ethical issues concerning wine writing raised by George Claassen in Die Burger on Friday should attract some interest. Claassen, former Professor of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, is ombudsman for the newspaper and his comments in “when the wine in wine-journalism turns to vinegar” pull no punches. SA wine hacks are not the only ones to feel the wrath of the Claassen pen, with allegations made by Italian publication Il Mio Vino that Decanter magazine sells stories given another airing – this time in Afrikaans. Will Decanter sue Die Burger as they threatened www.winenews.co.za when I reported on the Il Mio Vino bombshell earlier this year?

Claassen’s comments get straight to the point: “how much value can wine lovers attach to the ratings of wine publications and wine writers?” he asks when he receives so many examples of unethical wine judging and marketing. The one he presents is of a “blind” tasting at a restaurant on top of Table Mountain with a group of wine connoisseurs and writers judging bottles from which the brand labels had been removed – although the back labels were “conveniently” still visible.

Cars and wine are the two areas of journalism Claassen accuses of being run unethically, with advertorials – “one of the biggest evils of journalism” – the main problem. He then goes on to quote an unnamed local pundit alleging R10 000 will put a product on the cover of a publication in which paid for comment is often passed off as editorial.

R10 000 seems to be the quantum as this was the monthly payment one winery owner told me he makes to a journalist for “marketing strategy advice” (he was planning to halve the amount after being left out of a benchmark tasting arranged by the writer) while a figure ten times larger was the annual retainer one winemaker reported his company paid another hack. The conflicts of interest of some published pundits make a mockery of transparency and devalue SA winespeak currency.

Claassen then looks at the state of play outside SA and moves on to a piece I wrote for www.winenew.co.za earlier this year. Called “when everything has a price”, it quotes extensively from a feature in Il Mio Vino by Gaetano Manti alleging that one of the major international wine magazines, Decanter, offers stories for sale. I wrote the piece in response to complaints by several local winemakers about the coverage of the Decanter World Wine Awards in the magazine where the form in which results are printed is a function of how much you pay. With over a thousand entries this year, the DWWA are up there with Veritas and the Michelangelo International Wine Awards as the most important wine shows on the SA calendar.

Clearly everything does have a price as my story was removed from the website after legal threats from Decanter – although they ignored Il Mio Vino “in all likelihood because a story in Italian would attract nowhere near as many readers as one in English on the internet” as Claassen concludes.

With Claassen now translating my Italian translation into Afrikaans and posting it on the internet, the potential readership may be several orders of magnitude smaller, but the effect is unlikely to be as diminished.

il mio vino When the wine in wine journalism turns to vinegar

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