Are Endless Perks, Free Lunches and PR Schmoozing Affecting Wine Journalism?

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In an age of PR schmoozing, does buying lunch get you good coverage? Nick Ryan ponders the influence of work perks on wine writing.

“It’s good… It’s really good… I thought the ’42 was good but this is even better.” It takes half a beat for Max Allen to check himself. “Shit, did I really just say that?”

Max’s aversion to sounding like a wanker has always been more finely honed than mine.

While Max sits next to me, letting whispered self-admonishment tangle in his beard, Halliday is opposite us in a state of febrile excitement, the kind of eyebrow-vibrating enthusiasm you might think would be long gone after a lifetime drenched in great wine but clearly isn’t.

“I’ve been lucky enough to see more than my fair share of O’Shea wines,” he says without boasting. “And I can tell you that this is a bloody good one.”

On my left shoulder, the man who sat alongside Evel Knievel and Gene Simmons in my childhood Holy Trinity can’t quite believe he’s drinking a wine that was already four years old when the Invincibles went through an English Tour undefeated.

Wine Tasting

“Bloody hell,” is all Dennis Lillee can say.

Robert Hill-Smith sits back with a smile that could only be bettered if he were leading a Cox Plate winner back to the mounting yard.

The wine in question is the 1944 Mount Pleasant Mount Henry Light Dry Red and it was wine of the night, for many reasons, in a field featuring a brace of Burgs, 82 Trotanoy and 85 Latour, a couple of early 1960’s Mildara cabernet shiraz blends from James Halliday’s cellar and a very good bottle of the 1967 Penfolds Bin 7.

All this in the name of work.

The wines were served at a dinner marking the mid-point of two days’ tightly focused tasting at Yalumba, culminating with the unveiling of a cabernet shiraz blend that is the most ambitious wine the place has produced in its long history. The wine will be known as The Caley, it’s seriously bloody good and as I write this, I’m also working on a piece for The Australian that will focus much more on the liquid in the bottle.

This column is inspired by that wine, but not necessarily about it.

It actually comes from something else Mandolin Max muttered in my ear as I poured each of us another healthy slug of the 1908 tokay.

“Should we really be having this much fun?” It’s a valid question.

Wine Tasting

Those who ask it of us should know they ask it half as often as we, the motley crew who practice this most bizarre of trades, ask it of ourselves.

There are many who see the merry-go-round of tastings and dinners that constitutes ‘media engagement’ and justifiably wonder if all this largesse somehow impedes impartiality.

Should the eels and rabbits come so willingly to the gamekeeper’s table? Do wine writers look more favourably on certain wines when the vinous equivalent of beer googles are slipped on? Does buying you lunch buy you good coverage?

The answer is yes… and no.

We’ve all seen our fair share of Twitter traffic and artfully filtered Instagram pictures from wine writers at events. There are marketing types who actually value this stuff and see it as some kind of key measurable, so by that standard it works. Put on event. Get social media coverage. Job done.

We all do it and I couldn’t care less. I do it mainly to piss off other wine writers who missed out on an invite.

But what about the important stuff? The analysis of a wine. The impressionistic word portrait of same. The nuance and detail of the story behind it. The stuff wine writers do and ‘influencers’ don’t.

In this case I have more faith in my colleagues.

While I have, on occasion, seen sales spiels delivered at dining tables make their way verbatim in print – the Champenois are especially adroit at slipping a suited arm up pliable hacks and turning them into puppets – every decent wine writer I know has the ability to cut through the puff and focus on what needs to be done.

Yalumba Wine Tasting

Most will request to see a wine again to taste according to their own personal methodology and I’ve lost count of the number of lunches or dinners I’ve attended where the conversation with winemakers has veered in far more compelling and record-worthy directions than it ever would’ve conducting an interview by email or phone.

And anyone who has put Tim and Philip at the one table and witnessed the battle waged to claim the title of ‘Most Cantankerous White’ will know that buying lunch doesn’t mean buying compliant silence.

So while wine writing may offer more indulgent workplaces than most, they are workplaces nonetheless and anyone who takes the job description seriously is well aware of that.

Breaking bread doesn’t mean breaking the rules.

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