You may be aware of Gault Millau as a restaurant guide, but they also publish Wine Guide Deutschland, the "definitive guide to German wine". Today, a group of leading German winemakers has announced that it will not only stop sending their wines to Gault Millau, they also refuse to even have their wineries listed in the wine guide.
The list of winemakers who have signed the open letter reads like a who is who of German wine: Helmut Dönnhoff, grand master of Riesling, Knipser, who had just won the title "vintner of the year", Pinot Noir experts Dr. Heger and Meyer-Näkel, Josef Leitz (famously called "our friend Josi" by wine merchants Pinard de Picard) and Heymann-Löwenstein, who has redefined the Wine Rambler's understanding of what mineral means in a Riesling, to name just a few.
What has enraged this community of vintners so much? Basically, Gault Millau were asking listed wineries for a "voluntary" contribution of about 200 €. The publisher justifies this by saying they need the money to sustain the Guide in economically tough times and that editorial staff will not be notified whether a winemaker has paid the contribution or not. In addition, winemakers who do pay get a few perks, such as permission to use logo and reviews for their own marketing. I can understand that economically tough times lead to a search for new sources of income - and wine publications in Germany are under much economic pressure. Critics of the "contribution" argue that it could create bias among the reviewers and that it makes it harder for the small wineries to get their wines reviewed. Customers do of course expect unbiased advice and so you may see this as a dangerous precedent. Or you can argue that winemakers should have an interest in marketing their produce and that Wine Guide is a key tool and hence worth sustaining. However, would you trust an unbiased adviser that is financed by those being reviewed?
Whatever you think, it will be interesting to see how Gault Millau can continue to publish a wine guide without some of the most respected producers - and I would expect at least some others to join the list. It will also be interesting to see how the wine world reacts to the open letters. After all, the likes of Knipser can surely afford two hundred Euros, so they cannot claim to be affected economically. I do also wonder if they contacted the winemakers associations before going public.
Leaving all conspiracy theories aside, one can wonder though whether a publication such as the Wine Guide is the right medium for the new media world. Do wineries maybe sell more if they are active on Twitter and get good reviews from the blogosphere? Should winemakers see the fee for the Wine Guide just as a marketing investment? If the Wine Guide would go bust without the money, would it be an institution worth rescuing?
Others use another business model: http://www.wein-plus.de/fuehrer/ for instances charges the readers, not the winemakers. Either way, the current economic crisis will probably put quite a few other "institutions" to the test and might accelerate a transformation in publishing that was in the making anyway. Personally, this will not affect me much as I have preferred the Internet over other media for some the years now. However, I do also think that there is a place for wine writing beyond blogging.