Unbiased Journalist

Can a wine journalist truly be unbiased?

By Tod Stewart

The oxymoron list is perpetual and ever evolving. Sure, there are the obvious – military intelligence, jumbo shrimp – and the slightly more subtle – revenue-neutral tax, affordable housing, universal remote – but some smack you in the face – journalistic integrity.

“Journalism is the best free lunch in the world.”

I was told this by a journalist while waiting in line for a swanky free lunch hosted by the swanky Relais & Chȃteaux hotel people. I was twentyish years old and keen to see my byline in print. I guess I could have been dubbed a “cub reporter.” (Actually, I was a regular columnist for my university newspaper. But this, to me, wasn’t the Big League.) I really wanted to shed the “cub” bit and enter the hard-drinking, hard-living, perpetually impoverished life of an honest-to-god journalist. Exactly why, I wasn’t sure. But maybe for the free lunches.

An older (much), wiser (doubt it), and more worldly (umm …) me routinely tells prospective protégés (like I have those) that writing is a fun thing to do. Just make sure you have a day job first – or a partner who has a day job – preferably an excellent one with lots of income and benefits.

Given the money/security issues that come as part of the life journalistic, why would any sane person pursue it (hint, sane person)?

Well, if you concede to the reality that you aren’t going to make much of an honest-to-god living from such a life, what you will get are experiences far beyond the pale of mere mortals – outside of the very well-heeled.

I’ve swum with sea turtles off a Bajan catamaran while staying at a US$12.5-million estate and drinking rum poolside; viewed the coast of Turkey from a beach on Samos, Greece; sailed in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley in between sampling some of the world’s best vintages; travelled (and tasted) Sonoma tip-to-toe; toured/tasted/eaten my way through the wine regions of BC, Oregon (via private jet), Washington, Tuscany (don’t get me started), Abruzzo and Le Marche (Italy’s untapped treasures). The Loire Valley and Cognac. Whisky in Windsor.

I’ve eaten ants in Colombia. Crickets in Mexico (had to pass on the grubs), their gritty/saltiness tempered by the fire of primo tequila. I’ve slurped fantastic oysters with a fisher in Prince Edward Island, savoured Lowcountry cooking in the Carolinas, and devoured the world’s best beef in Argentina. The most outstanding seafood I’ve ever had was in Chile, and the best of everything in Spain and the Portuguese Azores are logged in my memory.

And I’ve just returned from my first trip to Japan.

See, I developed an interest in sake and soju – which is now a major area of coverage in Quench and a totally untapped category no other Canadian magazine has really touched – and the Japanese Sake and Soju Association decided I really needed to see it up close.

I was also sent, on my very first trip as a writer, to Walt Disney World – a lunch featuring the best South African wines was followed by Space Mountain. Interesting, depending on how you see it.



Of course, these weren’t exactly vacations. I actually was “working,” and often at it from sunrise till sunset. But still …

And those are just trips. Multiply them all by 20 to account for all the dinners and festivities, including the white-tie 2016 AMBI Gala – the $2,500 per plate pre-TIFF blowout featuring, among others, Martin Short, Pam Anderson, Billy Baldwin and Earth, Wind & Fire. I could have stayed for the after-party but I had my “day job” to get to the next morning (though even my coworkers conceded it would have been acceptable grounds for a sick day the next morning). But I’m loyal to the hand that feeds me – or at least pays the mortgage.

All this is small potatoes compared to what some established writers (and even a few barely established bloggers) are treated to.

So, now you know why you might want to dip a quill in a glass of wine. But how do us wine/food/travel writers pull it off?

It’s an interesting symbiotic relationship, the one between the industry that reports what is, ostensibly, “news,” and the one that professionally tries to create it. In my current position as contributing editor for Quench, I sometimes report news … but mostly I tell stories that try to inform, engage and possibly even entertain our loyal (and, hopefully, new) and inquisitive readers. I try to (figuratively) take you with me on my trips, dine with you at numerous fancy/funky/fun eateries and, of course, have you join me in knocking back a glass, snifter, pint, shot, lowball, highball, wineskin or bottle swig of whatever I’ve got going on. Of course, this all costs Quench (or me) nothing.

No secret, the magazine industry today ain’t what it used to be. Most periodical publishers wish they had the funds to buy their writers a beer now and then, let alone pay for their travel expenses, accommodations, meals, tastings, personal trainers/shoppers/dog walkers and other such things typically secreted into a journalist’s (self-penned) rider.

Does this type of treatment colour my “reporting”? Well, I guess it could be said that I’m under no obligation to write things that put the trip/dinner/sample in a glowing light if my experience resulted in dysentery, food poisoning or acid reflux, but this rarely happens. The experiences are usually so fantastic that I can’t wait to go well over my word count to write about them. However, there are decisions to be weighed.

Way back in my green days, I was enjoying a free lunch courtesy of Sopexa – the French food and wine promotional bureau. I nonchalantly asked the Directice Générale if anyone she sent to France who subsequently wrote anything negative about the junket would ever be sent back. “No,” was the practically immediate answer. So, there are expectations. If you ever hope to repeat the experience, you’d better play nice. And PR (pubic relations) peeps these days are getting pretty demanding when it comes to getting bang for their client’s buck. If you don’t deliver, word hits the street.



Needless to say, respecting the integrity of the writer (me), the writer’s host (them) and the writer’s readers (you) takes a bit of tightrope walking. Ultimately, for me, my only real obligation is to the readers of Quench. Yet I also need to recognize the “industry” that, frankly, makes my writing career possible.

As a result, I’ve developed a few “ground rules” that help me balance personal and professional integrity with “industry expectations.”

Staying honest is probably at the top of the list. If I’m invited to an event or on an excursion (or even delivered one of the myriad, unsolicited press releases I get daily), I’ll typically bring my editor into the loop and ask whether he’s likely to run a story on it. Most often the answer is yes (to the excursions/events … not so much the press releases), but if there’s any doubt I’ll certainly let the party making the offer know what the odds of coverage are. They can decide whether it’s worth the risk of following through. A sincere “thank you” is always delivered by me regardless of the outcome.

I am also careful not to focus on a single product or producer. Even if there’s a significant demand for coverage of a specific item (by the party responsible for it), I always try and work it into a larger narrative. In one instance, a PR agency was somewhat concerned that I wasn’t going to give enough focus to its client and the client’s product in a story (it was certain) I would write. This was a somewhat delicate circumstance in that the agency was holding an airline ticket and deciding whether or not to hand it over.

Yummies for nothing and your trips for free

“Look at it this way,” I cautiously emailed the account exec, “In James Bond movies, Aston Martin cars are featured. But it’s not an Aston Martin movie.” I guess this kinda worked for her … and for me. As an aside, when the story did come out, both the agency and the agency’s client were pretty pleased, to the point where the head honcho of the client company requested additional copies of Quench be sent to him personally.

The line between editorial and advertorial can be a fine one (and one which my editor is fastidious not to cross), but this episode proved (at least to me) that if you stay honest, you actually can please everyone. The PR agency – and the agency’s client – were more than happy, my editor didn’t have to redact the piece to the point where it looked like a letter sent home from North Korea and I didn’t wind up with that slightly slimy feeling people who do have integrity get when their conscience disagrees with their actions.

Somewhat ironically, I ended up writing an advertorial for the client in question, destined for its own promotional publication, for which I was paid very well. Of course, in that instance, I insisted on no byline.



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