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Posted: Monday, November 09 2009. 16:00

WWS: French Journo Slams Irresponsible Journalism

Michel Bettane, one of the most respected French Journalists slammed wine writers at the Davos of Wine  conference last week, especially the internet bloggers on their ethics and exhorted them to follow a code of conduct and be objective and responsible in their writing. Subhash Arora reports.

A hard hitting speech by the 59-year old former director of the oldest French wine magazine in French language, Revue du Vin, set the ball rolling for some provocative subjects at the first edition of the World Wine Symposium, dubbed as the Davos of Wine, held at the beautiful Villa d’Este in Lake Como last week.

Three Eras of Wine Journalism
Michel divided the wine writers’ era in three parts. He said there were no critics before 1920s and 30s. English critics who were predominant were also wine merchants. Working with auctions, there were experts who also doubled up as writers. This meant that the commercial interests were also there with a possibility of conflicts of interest.

‘Consumers in the US were guided by the likes of Schneider. These people tried to teach us about wines. With certain progress in media and coming of the internet, people started thinking that the wine journalism was not very good,’ he commented.

‘Third category was that of consumer journalists- the internet bloggers. This category would be great in a perfect world. But it has not helped wine consumption. There is a struggle between the old and the new school. There is a conflict – internet users try to accuse each other more than focusing on the subject of reporting. There is a lack of moral code of conduct.’

‘What can we do to maintain the experts? In a pluralistic society, it is important to have retailers, wholesalers talk about their products. Experts can give their critique. The single goal is to defend quality. But we must speak of code of conduct.’

Three Fundamental Concepts of Journalism

There are three fundamentals concepts which are often forgotten and must be understood by wine journalists:

‘First and foremost is the need to have a good knowledge of the product. This knowledge is plural in dimension and is not necessarily the simple economics or techniques that go behind making the product, like grapes, enology. It should not be only gastronomical either.  But the knowledge should be all embracing and one must have this knowledge,’ explaining further that ,’here, I am very much in favour of universities to bring practical knowledge. Same holds true with journalism schools. Winemaking and journalism must be taught together.’

‘The importance of words cannot be underestimated. Description of Taste which is the most important factor is distributed unequally among experts. Taste is linked with DNA and everyone is not knowledgeable about it. We manage to communicate because of the language. We must know the tools of communications and the weight of words we use is important. Words must communicate precisely. The same words should be used by all. This is not quite evident in the writing. Glossaries and dictionaries give precise definitions and their use should be encouraged.’

‘Over and above all, there is the importance of being able to measure criticism and the words used should be such that individuals should not be irritated by them and we must not lose sight of the praise either.

‘Especially in the USA, high praise is common. People exaggerate quality and defects; you have to be skilful to address both properly. Lastly, the moral work has to be carried out, that of judging the quality of wine.’

'Journalism tends to be a commercial activity, like that of auctioneers.  A journalist is not going to criticize a product whose producer subsidizes or patronises his magazine. This is wrong,' thundered Bettane. 'Great journalists do not succumb to pressures. During my 18 years as Director of La Revue du Vin de France (the oldest selling French wine magazine in French, which was sold to Marie Claire in 2004 when he quit with his fellow journalist Thierry Desseauve to form a separate company with him) I don’t recall a single instance where the magazine was obliged to carry a story under pressure from a client.’

'One has to wage war in criticizing his own judgment. He should not try to be popular in changing the judgment. Then there is the temptation of ideology – politics are carried on in the world of wine. Sometimes there is unnecessary criticism against a successful producer or some journalists feel that a small producer can never be successful. Especially in France and Italy, political ideas of wine producers and not their quality, and a lot or lack of the wealth of a producer count with journalists- which is wrong.'

Agriculture and viticulture in the last 40 years has reflected the change in varietals and soil. Today the producers have no respect for soil or it is decreasing at times.

Commentary and advice

‘It is a pity that sometimes people talk of things they don’t know about while at other times they have concealed interests. I have tasted thousands of wines but I don’t give advice on any of the wines- I do give my opinion. I have basically a layman’s approach and I am quite ok with facing criticism.’ Elaborating further, he said, ‘to talk about a vineyard or criticizing the grape growing techniques without knowing the full details about viticulture is criminal.’

‘Moreover, not everyone gives same importance to each word,’ he added.

According to Jacques Perrin, the Swiss moderator, ‘there is a conflict in the journalism in publishing too. Espresso has a lot of money involved in the business. So there is inherent conflict,’ adding, ‘I am a publishing director too and I think transparency is most important.’
To a query from a delegate whether there should not be a formal study to become a wine critic, Michel disagreed. ’I come from a generation who believed in study. In a democratic country, one’s personal and moral choices are important. One can have a formal education and get diplomas. But the freedom of expression must remain too. Each individual should be free to write what he feels. Since we are so fortunate to have the freedom of saying what we want, we should be as honest as possible.’

Surely, one has not heard the last on this important subject and his views will be debated in the wine fraternity for times to come.

Subhash Arora



Subhash Arora Says:

In all fairness, Bettane was not targetting the bloggers only. His advice was for all journalists. We know of cut and paste journalists exist everywhere. What you say was encompassed in his advice as well. Subhash

Posted @ November 12, 2009 10:58


Hervé Lalau Says:

Wine bloggers are easy scape goats. When I see how badly wine is treated by so-called journalists (holding press cards) in France - a recent example was given last Friday when every newspaper copied a wrong dispatch about cHmpagne from AFP, with the name Vranken spelled as Wranken, and no journo seemed to realise (nor cared to go deeper and dig up figures and facts)... I think bloggers are not the biggest problem.

Posted @ November 11, 2009 11:18


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