The Wine Spectator & The Shill

Boy, do I get mail…

Most of it is civil and happy and interesting…..Then there is some of it that needs to be shared. I’m leaving out the name to protect the guilty…but you know who you are:

Regarding the "sophistication of wine" you didn’t spend very much time telling your ‘readers’ exactly who is responsible for foisting this view of wine on the American people because you are a shill for the wine press. If you need to know who made Americans think they have to be rich to drink it just look in the mirror (yea…PR Types) and look at your buddies over at that rag called the Wine Spectator.

Why do you shill for those palateless punks at the ‘Speculator’? All they’ve done is give us that stupid 100 point scale, make average people feel inadequate because they can’t spend $100 on a bottle of juice, and spend time fawning over their big time advertisers. They’ve done nothing good for wine or wine drinkers.

Do us all some good, Mr. Fermentation–stop shilling for swill producers, get a real job and tell the real story about the ‘Speculator’.


Let me start by really pissing off "Joe".

The Wine Spectator is in fact a magazine that has done significant amounts to popularize wine in America among all wine lovers. But more important, like Parker, Wine & Spirits, QRW, The Wine News and The Wine Enthusiast, not to mention other wine magazines and newsletters, The Wine Spectator has spent years introducing Americans to the best wines made in America. If you don’t think that’s a service, you don’t know wine. As for them being "palateless punks" you might consider writing a few books yourself taste more than 100,000 wines then go call Jim Laube a punk. Until then…

Furthermore, this nonsense that advertisers get better scores (and I know you are referring to this notion) at the Spectator is hogwash. If there were one thing the Wine Spectator could do that would destroy its reputation, readership and revenue, it would be found favoring advertisers. Marvin Shanken is a lot of things and one of them is smart.

As for me being a "shill" for the wine press, I invite you to read through Fermentation. If anything, I prod the wine press to ask harder questions.

However, just to be fair, I’ll take my share of responsibility for wine being seen as overly sophisticated. That is, I won’t deny that Wine PR types like me have understood "allure" that "wine country" and the "wine lifestyle" holds for many and exploited it. But here’s the thing, pretty soon, "Joe", people set aside the "allure" and start focusing on what they like. They educate themselves. They usually start exploring wine based on their budget. Sometimes, God forbid!!, they read the Wine Spectator and discover a wine they’ve never heard of, or read about the quality of Pinot Noir from California in 2004, or read about how a celebrity ended up collecting wine. So, if we "PR Types" have led people to that state of mind, we’ll happily take responsibility.

The issue of the over sophistication of wine in America is one that should be understood for what it is: a combination of historical, cultural, religious and promotional factors all conspiring to get us where we are. The interesting thing is that as more people in America drink wine on a regular basis, the sophistication factor fades.


13 Responses

  1. Derrick Schneider - January 5, 2006

    Maybe Wine Spectator doesn’t give higher scores to their advertisers, but I’d be willing to bet that advertisers get mentioned more in the magazine’s features. I say this as a wine writer who’s been asked if I could find a way to fit an advertiser into an article (in some cases I could, in others I couldn’t).

  2. tom - January 5, 2006

    I hear you. In fact, I’ve done the asking. Most often what I’ve asked for as an advertiser is that the wines be highly considered for BEING reviewed. People sometimes forget about the HUGE number of samples that, say, the Wine Spectator or Wine & Spirits Magazine receive.However, I’ve never asked for a good score.
    Interestingly, the last time I made such requests we got the wine reviewed…unfortunately not with the score or write up the client wanted.

  3. Charlie Adler - January 5, 2006

    Newspapers need to sell advertising.
    Magazines need to sell advertising.
    PR Types need to get their clients written about by said newspapers and magazines.
    Are they in bed together? If the PR Type is any good, he/she takes wine clients that have potential – either potentially great wine or potentially a great story (this references your Blog). So there is some quality control simply based on economics – why represent a bad winery, when there are plenty of good ones with great stories! On the other hand, there is really no reason for newspapers and magazines to be objective – if a wine is scored way too high, who gets hurt? My conclusion: better wineries usually have more money to spend on PR Types and to make better wine, so they get the scores – the consumer is usually pretty well served – on the other hand, if said winery has an awful year and really bad wines, most magazines/newspapers ignore that fact and still give high scores. Final conclusion: if you’re a serious wine drinker, only use scores as a benchmark – Wine Spectator is really dedicated to the Nouveau Riche Mr. and Mrs. Big Bucks who need to keep up with the Jones, therefore Big House with a wine cellar filled with 90 point wines is de rigeur. Hey, when you’ve got bucks, you gotta do some conspicuous consumption! If you don’t have the money to play – then drink what you like, you’ll be less stressed and live longer too!!!

  4. Dave - January 5, 2006

    I’ve read the “Spectator” for years. It was quite helpful when I was purchasing wines at the hotels where I worked. On the personal front I found their reviews and ratings fairly accurate. As far as them focusing on the high end vintages they also recommend many wines at reasonable prices. Good wine cheap, my kind of wine. The fault I find is that too much of the magazine is not focused on wine but rather restaurants and travel. I guess that falls under the heading of “over sophistication”.

  5. tom - January 5, 2006

    Truth be told I live and work for those moments when I and my family can indulge in “over sophistication”.

  6. Bryan - January 5, 2006

    Wine mags have been totally useful and entertaining for me in my short history of being a wine buff. There is always a need for the PR and opinions of pros who eat, sleep, and work in wine. There is also charm in finding a small producer or a lesser known vineyard that you can recommend to friends or coworkers. It’s like in the music industry, being a fan of an indie band as oppossed to U2. A band doesn’t have to have the worldwide appeal to be enjoyed by an individual.

  7. johng - January 5, 2006

    Dave is right. The spectator isn’t a bad wien mag within the few pages that are devoted to wine. But overall, it’s a “wine lifestyle” mag – and about a very afluent lifestyle at that, and that might have something to do with why “Joe” has his panties in a knot.

  8. Lenn - January 5, 2006

    Hey Tom, I guess “Joe” isn’t voting for you for wine blog of the year, eh?
    I agree with you that WS provides a great service to wine drinkers…in fact I really enjoy my issue every month. Do I rush out and by the highest ranking wines, no. But I do enjoy the features and calling their tasters “punks” is just idiotic.
    I can also reinforce Derrick’s experience…it happens at every pub…from WS to the pubs he writes for to the local papers I write for. Everyone needs to stroke someone else.

  9. name changed to protect the innocent - January 5, 2006

    One has to wonder why some commenters feel the need to flame. Are they “trolling” to drive traffic to their site, or do they need to adjust their medication? I enjoy civil discussion and give and take, but some people don’t know when they have crossed the line and gotten personal. Just a thought. Have a nice day!

  10. Mark (Uncorked in Ohio) - January 6, 2006

    Screw the issues, the hype, the rhetoric … the photo illustration alone makes this thread worthwhile!
    Oh, that and the beautifully written retort. Well put, Tom.
    Mark Fisher

  11. St.Vini - January 6, 2006

    Tom: A couple of comments….
    1) I don’t agree with Joe’s characterization of you and your blog.
    that said,
    2) While WS may have done something to “popularize wine in America among all wine lovers”, they have probably made it harder for Americans to drink wine everyday as they’ve only reinforced wine’s elitist image. Further, as to the charge over advertisers getting better scores, wasn’t that brought up by a group called “Wine Angels” as few years ago? Never saw the report, personally.
    Further, Gallo Sonoma has a half-page ad every issue near the back and despite being a huge producer and getting generally average scores (recently Laube trashed them for TCA contamination) they seem to always get in the best value ratings.
    Last, I’ve been told that on occasion, reviews are done to “send a message” to a particular winery for whatever reason. This was specifically told to me regarding an article written by Steiman about the “poor quality” of Chateau Ste. Michele’s wines within the last year. This may have been vindictive gossip, but it came pretty directly.
    When I bashed WS in my blog, I got a fairly terse reply from Thomas Matthews himself. I stand by what I said though.

  12. tom - January 6, 2006

    St. Vini:
    Below is a quote from the Wine Angels Report on the Wine Spectator:
    “In 2003 and 2004 the average score was higher for non-advertisers than for advertisers…”
    The idea that the Spectator gives better scores to advertisers is a canard.
    I like hearing anacdotal testimony. But you have to be careful with it, particularly when the testimony is damaging.
    “Joe” clearly has an axe to grind. However, I don’t see how a magazine that focuses as much on wine quality around the world, from the best to the best value, while having articles on travel, food, collecting and such hurts the wine industry or the consumer. If a consumer can’t separate out what is information on wine and what is information on a “lifestyle” and live their life accordingly, I’m not sure I care much about how they respond to wine or a wine magazine.

  13. Justin - January 6, 2006

    I have to agree with St. Vini in that WS’s influence has been both positive and negative. It is indeed a “lifestyle” magazine. Replace the wine articles with pictures of heavily-airbrushed nude women and you’d have something that closely resembles Playboy.
    That being said, Tom is quite right in pointing out that a substantive accusation of score fixing for advertisers would be fairly damaging to their reputation. Since their primary objective is protecting their bottom line and their reputation, or their standing among wine consumers, has tremendous effect on their bottom line, they must protect it at all costs.
    Yes, the wines that advertise in the magazine get a lot of attention. However, it would be fallacious to mistake what is undoubtedly a two-way relationship with a one-way relationship. In other words, a winery is more likely to advertise in a publication that just reviewed their wines well.
    It is also quite healthy for their bottom line to find and review positively great wines that have slipped under the radar as well and I am sure that devote some substantial effort to developing these “scoops.”

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