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Wine Critics : Influence of Writers Can Be Heady

Second of two articles

August 24, 1987|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Chroman says he made the changes because he was asked to re-taste the Inglenook wines for the second edition of the book, and when he did so--blind--"They were better."

Paid by Publisher

Chroman received no money directly from Inglenook for the revisions; he was paid by the publisher (just as Robards was paid by his publisher). But Chroman's publisher did receive money from Inglenook (just as Robards' publisher received money from the wine importer).

Again, there is no suggestion that Chroman unfairly favored Inglenook in the second edition; the issue is one of appearances: Should someone who writes about wine for a major newspaper also lend his name to something used as a promotional product for a winery?

The Los Angeles Times has a written code of ethics that requires staff members to "avoid embarrassment or conflicts with your responsibilities to The Times"--just as it says staff members "should not accept free transportation . . . or free accommodations or meals" and "Staff members may not enter into a business relationship with their news sources."

But whereas Robards was a full-time staffer at the New York Times in 1983, Chroman has never been a member of the L.A. Times staff; he was a free-lance contributor, and The Times--like most newspapers--does not generally apply these standards to free-lancers.

L.A. Times editors argue that since free-lance writers are paid so little--Balzer receives $350 a week, Chroman received $150--it would be unfair to insist that they live by the same standards that govern staff members, who draw full-time salaries and employee benefits. Editors at many other papers agree.

But the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer and a few other papers do apply their staff ethics policies to free-lancers as well; editors at those papers argue that the same standards should govern everyone who writes for their papers.

Moreover, says Gene Roberts, executive editor of the Inquirer, there is a significant difference, between a free-lance writer who submits occasional stories to a newspaper and "our regular wine writer . . . perceived by others as our wine writer. . . . He should be subject to our general standards."

Sparked Controversy

Chroman's activities--most of which Times editors say they didn't know about until a Times reporter questioned them for this story--have engendered industry-wide controversy.

People in the wine industry--especially those in California--were reluctant to criticize Chroman on the record in interviews for this story because of the influence of his columns. In addition, because Chroman has suffered from polio since he was 18 and uses a wheelchair and two canes to move around, many wine makers are sympathetic to him. They understand why he may sometimes behave as he does and why he wants his wife to accompany him on free trips. He cannot get around without her help, he says.

Chroman and his wife have traveled often to Europe--to France, Italy, Germany and Spain--with their expenses paid by wine growers or government trade and tourism agencies. Apart from a recent directive that he no longer permit vintners to pay his and his wife's airplane fare and other expenses at the annual Napa Valley wine auction, Chroman says Times editors have never told him not to take free trips.

His editors told him only "be prudent," he says, and he insists, "I have tried, as best I could, to conduct myself in a manner which approaches that of a (full-time) staffer."

But Betsy Balsley, Times food editor, says she's told Chroman "numerous times . . . over a period of years" that she doesn't want him to write columns for The Times that are derived from free trips with "a commercial tie-in."

Chroman has taken and written about such trips for The Times, though; like most other free-lance wine writers, he says, "I can't afford to do it (take trips) otherwise."

Also like other wine writers who take junkets, Chroman says he is not obligated to write anything favorable about the wines he tastes or the areas he visits.

Industry Reality

The reality of the arrangement, however, is that--like most other wine writers who take such trips--he often does write something favorable.

Chroman and his wife had their expenses paid, for example, when they attended the grand opening of Banfi Vineyards in Montalcino, Italy, in 1984. Chroman then wrote two glowing accounts of the Banfi venture in The Times, the second of which began, "Vintners throughout the world are still in a state of astonishment over the unprecedented $100-million vineyard and winery investment at Montalcino. . . ." Much of that second column discussed the "amazing" success story of Banfi and its most popular wine, Riunite.

Again, there is no suggestion of a \o7 quid pro quo--\f7 simply a question of appearances.

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