John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 5th 2013
The Importance of Reliable Sources
2012 is drawing to a close as I write this, and it’s been a fruitful year. The WineAlign community has grown significantly over four years with now close to 41,000 registered users. And nearly 175,000 different people have visited the site over the last month. This ranks WineAlign behind only the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s website in terms of traffic on wine related websites in Canada. And with full coverage of the wine markets in British Columbia and Québec scheduled for early in the new year, I have no doubt in predicting that by the end of 2013, WineAlign will be by far the largest, most useful and reliable source of independent information and critical opinion on wine in the country. What this means for you, of course, is more wine reviews and reports from a growing roster of Canada’s most authoritative and dependable wine critics, with the added layer of greater regional perspectives.
This success establishes the viability of the model, but this isn’t just about a ‘rah rah’ for WineAlign. It’s about a much larger issue that has been put in the spotlight in 2012: the importance of source. It has become clear this past year that the Internet landscape is changing and that there’s increasing attention being paid to the trustworthiness of information. Simply put, the Internet is maturing, and so are its users.
You Rarely Get What You Don’t Pay For
The last decade has seen endless debate about the future of the web, and among many, many observations, one that strikes me as particularly important is the changing perception towards the reliability of, and accountability for, information posted. Much of the excitement in the early days surrounding free access to all kinds of information that once commanded a price is starting to wane. It has taken some time, but users have come to grasp the basic truth that you generally get what you pay for, or rather, that you rarely get what you don’t pay for. In other words, free, unqualified, non-professional, unvetted sources of information are for the most part, low down on the trustworthy scale.
The reasons for this are obvious. Largely gone are the former protective measures of editors and fact checkers, transparent ethical standards, and the generally high barrier to entry for authors, critics and journalists of all stripes, which used to shield the public from unscrupulous manipulators with hidden agendas or outright charlatans. Today, of course, anyone with a machine and an Internet connection can publish opinion veiled as fact, or fiction masquerading as observation, with virtual impunity.
Gaming The System
Many incidences have come to light of ‘consumers’ posting glowing (or damning) reviews of products, restaurants, resorts, films, wines, and just about every other consumer good or service, who, as it turns out, are related directly or indirectly to the provider of these goods or services. And there are currently few legal measures in place to prevent people from publishing opinions on the web that have been bought (outside of the notoriously Teflon charge of libel for negative views).
Wine is a particularly problematic Internet minefield where knowing your source is crucial. For one, it attracts a lot of people, mostly because it’s such a great business to be in, so there are many in the game. But it’s also an expensive consumer good to review and report on. Outside of the independently wealthy, how many unpaid (or poorly paid) bloggers can afford to cover their own transportation and expenses to visit wine regions, buy samples to review, pay for their meals when dining out with a winemaker or winery principal? Zero is the answer. Thus the potential for conflicts of interest is large. This means that virtually everyone in the wine reviewing business is complicit to some degree in stretching the ethical boundaries that the journalists of a by-gone era were held to.
Wine of course is not the only field prone to conflicts of interest. Publishers send free books to reviewers, travel writers go all expenses paid to write-up destinations and DVDs are sent to film critics, to point out but a few. But that doesn’t mean that the reviews published on these things are fraudulent or even unreliable, however. It just makes knowing your source of information all the more critical. And there are so many more sources to sift through. If you’re after genuine third-party, original and independent views, get to know the critic behind them. It’s not hard to do research these days – we’ve all had to become our own fact checkers and vetters of information. Credible credentials, track record, longevity, positive peer reviews, number of supporters/followers, the cost to access information and other bits come together to establish the level of reliability of the source.
Re-Raising the bar on Ethical Standards
It has also become clear that the tolerance of dodgy practices is crumbling in the Internet world. The questionable things you could get away with until very recently have suddenly become a call to arms, resulting in at worst a witch hunt, at best a righting of wrongdoing, like toppling a malevolent dictator or calling a public figure to reckon.
Shrugs of ‘oh well, that’s the way the Internet works’ have turned instead to moral outrage that inspires action. 2012 saw the outing of several writers mostly at the hands of, at least initially, their own colleagues. Read for example about the spectacular fall from grace of celebrated pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer (whose insights I have drawn on in at least a couple of past WineAlign postings), who was caught back in June plagiarizing himself (i.e. recycling his own work) by another writer (http://nymag.com/news/features/jonah-lehrer-2012-11/). This was only the start of an unraveling that led to the discovery that Lehrer had also borrowed liberally from others, manufactured quotes and manipulated or ignored scientific evidence that did not conform to his pre-determined thesis and which would otherwise get in the way of his story. It was a question of shoddy science, questionable journalism, and possibly theft, and Lehrer got caught.
There’s also of course the case of wine writer Natalie MacLean that went viral in the wine world (http://palatepress.com/2012/12/wine/content-theft/). MacLean’s use of colleagues’ wine reviews without proper attribution or permission for profit, and an alleged pay-to-play wine review scheme (http://palatepress.com/2012/12/wine/pay-for-play-wine-writing/) caused a veritable maelstrom that’s still battering her web-shores today. It was the Internet equivalent of a football pile-on, and many reputable wine writers are still seething.
These examples and others prove that you can’t get away for very long with substandard ethics on the World Wide Web, because sooner or later somebody will catch you. That’s the beauty and the curse of the Internet. It has always behooved us to check into our sources, and more and more of us are doing just that on the Internet today. It’s no longer enough to be “published” on the web to be credible. There’s too much temptation in the shrinking writing market for critics to succumb to conflicts of interest or to profit from the work of others. Transparency is also critical.
See You on the Other Side of the Pay Wall
We’ve reached the point at which the perceived value of the information one gets from the internet is based on the source, as it always has been for print publications, and not simply on the fact that it’s free and available for all. Cries of “why would I pay when I can get similar information for free” are ringing more and more hollow, particularly when it comes to highly specialized news or reviews, such as wine reviews.
I think we’ll also see a shift towards more users paying for reliable information, a natural evolution that allows such information to be unearthed or created and disseminated in the first place. Free to users does not mean it’s free to produce, and there’s only so much cost that advertisers can (or should) cover, especially when it comes to reviews. This past year we’ve seen pay walls erected on the websites of the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and The National Post; The Toronto Star will start charging for certain sections in 2013, as will many more I’m sure. I won’t be surprised when wine writers start charging a fee to the retailers who use their reviews to sell wine; a positive review is effectively an endorsement, which in most other fields cost money (and in the case of wine reviewers, obviates the need for consumers to subscribe to their newsletters or websites, and thus reduces their income). Quality news and information is costly to produce and has value.
We’re glad that so many of you have found WineAlign to be a trustworthy source of information, and we plan in 2013 and beyond to continue to deliver our reviews following the most stringent ethical standards and transparency protocols. And although there are no plans to change our ‘freemium’ model, remember that the premium WineAlign subscription gets you even more of that reliable information – the reviews themselves beyond just the scores – and helps keep your favourite wine writers employed, too.
Top Ten Smart Buys
The first Vintages release of every year is devoted to smart buys, which is what I focus on every report, so it’s back to business as usual. It’ll be Saturday January 5th by the time these wines hit the shelves, an opportune moment to replenish the rack after the holidays with some wines that will get you through to the next special occasion (Sunday afternoon?). All but one of my top ten are under $20.
But that one wine, the 2008 La Pieve Barolo ($28.95) was worth including at the price. There was a time when entry-level Barolo started around $40, so sub-$30 is already skewed to value for the region, and especially so when it gets you a maturing but classically styled example, typically firm and tough, for fans of more reserved, traditional Barolo.
At the other end of the price scale, the 2007 Coppi Peucetico Primitivo ($13.95) is an amazingly mouth-filling and satisfying wine reminiscent of Amarone at less-than-basic Valpolicella pricing. And rounding out the values from Italy I’d highlight La Sala Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 and the 2009 Arnaldo Caprai Rosso Montefalco, (but $19.95). The former delivers clear riserva-level quality, with generous, high-quality oak, ripe, concentrated red and black fruit, and a firm and structured, densely packed palate. This should improve over the mid-term. Caprai’s Montefalco (mainly sangiovese and sagrantino) is a perennial favorite, a wine I used to purchase regularly for restaurant clients because of its structure and complexity above the price category. The 2009 is particularly ripe and fruity, with a fine balancing mix of pot pourri and dried flowers, licorice, black and red fruit, though the palate remains steadfastly Italian, with dry, firm, dusty tannins and puckering acidity. Serve this with salty protein, or leave in the cellar 2-4 years.
Fans of bright and zesty ‘charcuterie’ reds should consider the 2009 Rabl St Laurent, Kamptal ($15.95). St. Laurent, once believed to be a distant relative of pinot noir but since proven to have no relation, produces in this case a fresh, bright red and blue fruit-scented wine, with terrific balance and succulent, mouth-watering acids.
Among whites worth your attention I’d signal the archetypical 2007 Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese ($16.95), an astonishing value, as I never tire of pointing out when it comes to top Mosel Riesling. It’s drinking beautifully at the moment, and although it starts off slightly sweet, the underlying acids and terrific minerality dry out the long finish. Also a regular source of fine value, minerally wines, Santorini’s competent cooperative winery gives us the 2011 Santo Assyrtiko ($16.95). It has palpable texture and saline flavours, not to mention solid intensity.
See the full top ten here; also stay tuned Saturday December 29th for a shopping list of a dozen sparkling wines recommended by the WineAlign team, in stock at the LCBO and ready to ring in the new year.
And on that note, Happy New Year and best wishes for all – here’s to more trustworthy information in 2013.
John Szabo, MS
From the January 5, 2013 Vintages release: