Badges? Do Food and Wine Writers Need Stinking Badges?

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Wine writer and Texas wine booster Jeff Siegel, who blogs as The Wine Curmudgeon, last week raised the interesting question of whether there should be a certification process for wine writers, as recently proposed by fellow wine writer Pamela Heiligenthal. Siegel thinks the concept's corked.

Writing isn't medicine: Even when done badly, it rarely does any lasting harm. The government's powerless to punish or muzzle inept writers -- thank goodness -- so any certification standards adopted by wine journalists would amount to a gentleman's agreement.

Still, Siegel doesn't like the proposal because he thinks it would necessarily enshrine a narrow definition of what makes a good wine writer. If I understand his argument, he believes a certification process that required applicants to become familiar with every appellation in Burgundy would be irrelevant to writers specializing in, say, organic wines of Virginia. He relishes the range of voices in the wine world, and worries certification would stifle them.

He concludes: "The people who say the most intelligent things over the long run squeeze out the people who say stupid things. And the Wine Curmudgeon wouldn't have it any other way."

Like Siegel, I'm thrilled that so many people have made a hobby of writing about food and wine. Conversations about food are certainly livelier and more informed now that a few hired hands don't dominate the discourse. Food writing is richer for the contributions of working chefs, restaurant servers, homemakers and weekend pit masters, none of whom had a national platform in the pre-Internet era.

But I'm not opposed to certification. I don't view certification as a fast-track to mastery: Serious food writers would still have to hone their craft through years spent in kitchens and newsrooms. I instead think of certification as a baseline qualification, much like CPR for a personal trainer or hiking guide. If a blogger can't be bothered to demonstrate familiarity with the most rudimentary culinary concepts, that's a pretty good indication that he or she isn't devoted to the field -- and I'd consider his or her work accordingly.

I would hope too that if a certification program emerged it wouldn't focus on the minutiae that troubles Siegel. I don't really care if a writer knows how to make beurre blanc or can explicate the importance of Hannah Glasse. What I'd prefer is a certification program that hinged on ethics. That's not an anti-blog position: There are writers at established print outlets who routinely attend free media dinners and accept lavish gifts from restaurants. Readers have the right to know how food writers operate.

The certification issue isn't new: The Food Blog Ethics website -- which hasn't been updated since last April -- attempted to set out a code governing bloggers' behavior. Blog With Integrity, whose website is no longer working, briefly offered online badges to those who signed on. For the sake of food writers and food eaters, I hope future attempts are more successful. Certification wouldn't end discussions about food policies, philosophies and practices: It would enhance them.

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