The German wine community is in uproar (well, a little). Hundreds of Twitter messages or blog comments are addressing the conflict between the Gault Millau WineGuide and a group of vintners. As is often the case with the blogosphere, most repeat what they have read in other blogs and the discussion can become a little self-referential. However, there are two reasons why I am revisiting this topic today: some of the more knowledgeable bloggers do indeed have a few interesting comments; also, most of the discussion is in German, so it will be hard to follow for our international readers.
The first posting I would like to summarise is Werner Elflein's (yes, this is German for 'little elf') article Quo vadis Wineguides? - published three weeks ago. Elflein starts with a few comments on the structural crisis of the media and the problems wine guides have to make a profit. He argues that winemakers do profit much more from the work of professional tasters than many of them realise and that it is often the producers of third or fourth rank who complain about unfair treatment (Wine Rambler addendum: this does obviously not apply to the winemakers who signed the Gault Millau letter).
However, Elflein also states that, mostly because of economic pressures, wine guides are a lot less objective than they claim to be, which is why many vintners and wine lover have stopped taking them seriously. He then goes on to criticise the letter sent by Gault Millau as it was missing both a statement ensuring that those who do not pay 195 Euros + VAT will be reviewed without bias and he says he would have liked to see a clear statement outlining how the information regarding who paid and who did not will be handled - basically, the letter could have been written better. Interestingly, Elflein cites an anonymous letter a vintner had sent to him, calling the Gault Millau letter asking for the contribution "yet another provocation" - this is one of many indications that at least some winemakers have been unhappy with Gault Millau for a while.
The Wine Academy Berlin argues that the Gault Millau acted somewhat insensitive, but that it would be a shame to lose the Wine Guide.
The Drunken Monday Wein Blog is among those who strongly criticise Gault Millau. He says that there are very good reasons for the vintners' letter, but that he cannot reveal them yet, to protect the 'integrity of certain people'. Hm. Drunken Monday argues that the vintners should be taken seriously as they are among those who get the highest ratings, so should have no reason to complain, and also as their way of working was making it necessary to think in generations, not years - so they would not do anything just on a whim. He also asks whether it was not likely that the "voluntary" contribution would increase every year.
Interestingly, a guy called "Felix" commented on the blog that the famous wineries can afford to dis Gault Millau, but the less well known, young vintners need wine reviews to build a reputation. Felix hopes for a dialogue between GM and winemakers.
There is an interesting discussion on Winzerblog; one of the arguments is that the publisher could have done better on transparency - winemakers too often pay for attending wine fairs, but what happens when, as Gault Millau were planning it, some pay and others do not? It is not a new business model that requires the winemakers to pay that is wrong, it is the lack of transparency.
Dirk Würtz, a blogging wine maker, has just posted a comment by Jean-Pierre Ritler (magazine Merum). Ritler basically argues that wine reviewing will only work if there is trust between readers and critics - and that requires transparency and independence. Merum, he argues, is successful because their income comes solely from the readers. This guarantees independence and the readers of the magazine would honour that. Not compromising was not an easy way, Ritler says, but worked well for Merum who are expanding their editorial staff while others are in crisis. He argues for a critical, independent wine writing.
Personally, I do not feel that affected by the current debate as far as it relates to Gault Millau. I use wine reviews as a way to discover producers that are new to me or wines I might be interested in - and for that it is much more important to get a feeling for who has a vaguely similar taste to mine. Everything else is just an indication - or fun to read if it is well written. I would, however, like things to be transparent so that we can make up our own minds whether we trust a wine guide funded by the winemakers or not. It is also interesting to see how the current economic climate accelerates a transformation in publishing and media.