Should Wine Critics Be Sued?

I suspect THIS STORY will be picked up around the wine blogosphere. If it isn’t it should be.

It appears that an Australian winery, perturbed that a wine blogger’s poor review of their wines shows up high in the search engines, had threatened legal action against the blogger.

I was made aware about this turn of events through an email sent to me, and many others I believe, by the folk at Wine Life Today. They were highlighting a post on the subject by Tim over at

The story is pretty simple. The Blog Appellation Australia posted unflattering reviews of Graeme Miller wines back in February. About a week ago, the proprietor of Appellation Australia received word from Graeme Miller that unless the posts were removed they would take legal action. (the episode and commentary is described here) Graeme Miller’s complaint about the reviews boiled down to this:

"They are serving to absolutely denigrate our wines and our reputation
and they have created the most embarrassing and distressing situations where we
have lost business. A wine critic is expected to express opinion, but not to
denigrate. You need to understand the impact that you are having and may have on
others as well."

The review of the Graeme Miller wines were hardly denigrating. However, I really don’t think that’s what they meant to say. What they probably meant was what followed: The reviews resulted in an "embarrassing and distressing situation" and that the reviews have an impact.

Graeme Miller is absolutely correct in this assessment of the Appellation Australia reviews. In fact, I suspect the hope of any wine reviewer or critic is that their evaluation of wines will have an impact. That’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

I don’t review wines at FERMENTATION so the idea that those who do might find themselves in legal trouble doesn’t really effect me. That said, I have some opinions on the role of the wine critic. Also, being in wine PR, I’m actively involved in soliciting reviews from wine critics and reviewers around the country. I also have something of a stake in seeing our clients’ wines reviewed and, hopefully, reviewed well.

So, first, the idea that a wine critic might be at legal risk if they publish a poor review of a wine I don’t think is a notion that has ever been tested directly. And I’m unaware of any legal precedent that suggests published reviewers and critics, of any craft, can somehow be held liable for the reaction of those who read their reviews, good, poor or otherwise. So, let’s dismiss Graeme Miller’s original threats against Appellation Australia as an unfortunate and poorly constructed response to the kind of frustration that often occurs among wine producers upon reading a poor review of their wine.

Second, this episode brings up the issue of whether or not a wine critic SHOULD publish poor reviews of wine. I think clearly such reviews can play a positive role in the consumer’s life. But more important, poor reviews also remind us that critics can easily ball into the role of cheerleader if they abandon the publication of poor reviewers. Yet, there is also the issue of how the critic sees their purpose. Perhaps they merely want to turn on their readers to the good stuff since there are so many wines out there that it is enough to point to the good ones. In my book, a wine critic can’t avoid the publishing of poor reviewers forever. Yet, to focus on them is a bit morbid.

Third, if you are a winery that is going to submit your wines for review, to anyone, you should not have any expectation that any resulting reviews will always be positive.    If you do, you will be disappointed.

Graeme Miller needs some good public relations help. Or perhaps a good slapping about the head would do.
The idea that his threat to Appellation Australia would not be made public is so far removed from the reality of Internet age as to defy explanation. One of the most important things to learn when it comes to marketing, public relations and the Internet age is that many times the best strategy is to simply say nothing. This advice seems so elementary to me that I am amazed that I get paid to give it at times.

So, if you are a wine blogger, don’t look at this episode with trepidation and consider not posting your reviews of average or poor wines. Consider the benefit to your readers of posting too many of them.

If you are a winery, learn to keep your mouth shut when it needs shutting

18 Responses

  1. Fiorenzo - July 26, 2006

    Well, here in Italy we already experienced something like that. Bonilli, editor of Gambero Rosso magazine, has been sued by a Grappa producer ’cause in his blog he used heavy critic terms to describe that grappa. Maybe we won something for having set a record? 🙂
    Anyway, I guess it should be a matter of terms only: be critic, and try not to be offensive; I shortly red the linked site, and I found no offense, just opinions; so, I agree with you.

  2. Fredric Koeppel - July 26, 2006

    The question “should negative wine reviews be published?” is ludicrous. Can you imagine the New York Times or any other newspaper or magazine that provides reviews of books, art, musical and dance performances and films asking that? Bad wines exist, they’re out there by the thousands, and reviewers and critics who don’t mention and criticize them are neglecting their responbilities toward honesty and fairness and toward their readers. I once heard a writer, who went on to work for the Wine Spectator for a few years, say that he never wrote anything critical about California wine because “the industry needs all the help it can get.” What nonsense! It’s fair, honest criticism, even negative, that helps foment development and improvement, not pats on the back. And of course unless a writer has said something untrue or libelous, he cannot be sued by the subject of the criticism.

  3. Trish - July 26, 2006

    Whether to publish negative reviews (I like to call them suggestions) is something I’ve thought about. A lot. The idea of getting sued, well, until now that’s not something I’d considered. Perhaps I should.
    There’s a place for active critics, without a doubt. They’re consumer advocates. A noble (if thankless) calling. But given all the complaining (especially in the blogosphere) about Parker, the Spectator, etc., I don’t know that it’s a bad thing to be a wine advocate, either.
    Switching gears, the more interesting (pressing?) question here, I think, might be what does this mean for BLOGGERS? If a Spectator critic gets sued, he’ll have the full financial force of the magazine behind him. And he’ll probably win unless the complainers can prove libel or malice. For a blogger, even if he wins (which, again, he probably will), substantial legal bills will no doubt await. That’s a sobering thought. Let’s hope the wine community doesn’t get litigation happy.

  4. Annette - July 26, 2006

    As a wine producer, I feel the need to comment here. I read the wine review in question as well as the blogger’s story of how he came about tasting the wines, posting the reviews, and then the aftermath. First of all, when a winery sends samples to a wine critic, they are taking the risk of getting a good review or not; it is that simple. But, when a critic tastes a wine in an “industry tasting”, where the winery is not necessarily soliciting critical review (which is the case here), I think it is irresponsible of the critic to publish anything less than a glowing review. At least from what I can tell, the winery didn’t specifically solicit Cam’s opinion. And in “industry tastings” where there are usually lots of wines and people, it is extremely difficult to evaluate each wine thoroughly and give each it’s due (I’ve been to countless “hog-call” industry tastings, and more often than not have come to a snap judgement about a wine when in fact I probably hadn’t evaluated it properly).
    Also, I think it was irresponsible for the blogger to post the remarks because he did have an idea that there might be something wrong with the particular samples he tasted. He told the folks at the winery he thought something was wrong, but they didn’t feel it was necessary to open another bottle. The way I look at it, it was a missed opportunity on the winery’s part for a potentially good review (they could’ve been accomodating and opened another bottle), but the fact that they missed that opportunity doesn’t mean they should be, essentially, punished for it.
    Critics — and this includes all critics, even those who are “just” blogging — need to keep in mind first and foremost that they shoulder responsibility to not only their readers or consumers but also to wineries and the wine industry in general, and it is their duty to consider thoroughly what the impact of their reviews — good or bad — mean to all involved.
    At our winery, we make extremely careful and very deliberate decisions when it comes to sending samples out to critics, and I would be very surprised if other wineries did not do the same. The critical review component in a winery’s PR program is extremely important to attain brand recognition and cache, and also to establish one’s product as valuable and worth purchasing. Making and selling wine is hard work. It would be disheartening for me as a producer to know that my product can be potentially “dissed” by any random person who got a “bad” sample and knowingly chose to publish the review, anyway.

  5. Cam Wheeler - July 26, 2006

    I’m the blogger in question who received the threat. Thanks to Tom and the other blogs that have opened discussions about this incident.
    I would just like to state that I was never too worried about the legal threat as I was sure my impressions were not breaking the law.
    What did concern me was the wineries threatening, bullying approach to me. I have a feeling that wineries are not used to seeing negative feedback, most of the papers and magazines in Australia publish only positive reviews simply because nobody wants to open the paper on the weekend and read about three wines not to buy. As blogs and amateur reviews continue to experience this rapid growth, wineries are going to have to get used to bad reviews and also think of ways to combat these bad reviews.
    A couple of things I would have liked to see in the response from the winery were a willingness to hear what I have to say – rather than opening with threats they could have told me that they were disappointed that I didn’t like the wine, maybe offer to send some samples to retry, but at the very least engage me in conversation about what I found not to my liking.
    To Annette, I do understand your point, especially about taking into account the impact on wineries as well as the public – but if the winery told me that the samples were representative (they did) then even if I hoped that they were off (which I stated) I still think I was okay to publish the impressions as long as I put it in context. Even more so since the winery was not interested in my feedback as a consumer at the show and only became concerned when they figured out that I post some opinions on the internet. Why should a consumers concerns be less valuable? If I was “just” a consumer, I would have been telling my friends to avoid this wine. You risk your work being “dissed” by people no matter what you are producing, wine, books, music, services – and with the internet, peoples circle of friends that they will relate bad experiences has grown greatly. I will also mention here that before publishing the notes I spoke to four other people who tried the wine on a different day and they agreed that it was not fit for consumption – it was not only one bad sample but at least a couple of bottles.
    I felt bad when publishing the notes, not because I had any doubt about what I tasted, just because I do know the amount of passion that goes into making wine and I have no desire to hurt anybody. I am taking all the feedback from this situation on board, good and bad, and I think next time I will look at handling it all just slightly differently.

  6. Joel - July 26, 2006

    I understand and appreciate the point of view that Annette brings to this conversation but I would have to disagree. Was Cam not aloud to talk to the people at the industry event about his opinions on the wine? Was the event not public? If the answer is …no…(had to think about that, double negatives) to these questions then technically, and legally, there is no difference between his blog post and him giving his opinion to the public that attended the event.
    I agree with Annette that Brand is super important for wine since it is, in reality, a commodity and a labor of love. That is why folks like Tom and Jo Diaz exist – to give you advice on how to handle your public image. In my other life as a technology marketing exec I NEVER attend anything public representing the company without the PR agent glued to my side. And I fully expect, especially (as Cam points out) in this age of instant communication and “social computing”, anything that is demo’d, tried, sampled, etc. at an event to make it around the globe in a moment’s time – this means good or bad (this is a perfect example).
    The thought that big money wineries could bully micro-publishers is a scary one. What’s next, suing people who give negative reviews on The only way to truly protect against that is for wine blogosphere to spread the word about such threats and therefore flex the only power that we have – blemish the blessed brand. Wine bloggers may not have traditional traffic to their sites but they usually are “influencers” in that if they’ve gone through the effort of putting up a blog and documenting their wine exploits the SOMEONE probably looks to them for information (online and offline) – at the very least friends, family, etc…we don’t have backing of large money firms or huge revenues, but we do have each other.
    Of course, if this review had just been left alone, 99% of us probably would never have read about it. So I think TORBwine said it best…”open mouth, insert foot”…

  7. tom - July 26, 2006

    The notion of being sued for a negative review is actually sort of attractive to me, were I to review wine, which I don’t.
    I would imagine in the first place that first amendment/Internet-oriented attorneys would line up at your door to represent you pro-bono. It’s the kind of juicy case that gets lots of attention. That said, it’s clear that Appellation Australia is not going to get sued.
    There is something in this episode about the current state of wine blogging that hasn’t been really fleshed out yet. Like the letter to politicians that represents the views of many many others who did not write their representative, the recognition the winery paid to the Appellation Australia blog is probably only the tip of the iceberg concerning the recognition that wine blogs in general are quietly getting from wineries across the globe. It just happens that the way Graeme Miller expressed his recognition of the wine blogosphere probably wasn’t the best way to go.
    There’s more here.

  8. Lenn - July 26, 2006

    You have GOT to be kidding me!
    Cam…I’m glad to hear that you’re not worried because I assume that means that you will not be removing the post/review.
    Annette…with all due respect, I think you’re out of line to suggest that Cam was wrong based on this being an ‘industry tasting’ Shouldn’t wineries assume that ANYONE who is tasting their wine just might write about it?
    Do you think this winery would have the balls to try this with someone like the Wine Spectator? No way. They are trying to bully you because you’re “just a blog”…and yet you have a huge impact.
    Hell…I can’t even believe that you pointed out that the wine was off and they ignored you. I’ve been in that position before at a trade tasting and the person pouring apologized profusely, opened a new bottle AND offered to send me my own samples. THAT is how you operate…

  9. Paul Mabray - July 26, 2006

    Wineries and ALL THINGS (consumer goods, political statements, services) need to understand that since the general adoption of the internet, the consumers and public have the power. They now are very public critics with voices and forums that extend beyond all borders. You can no longer choose who to submit your product to – the world now reviews your product and shares their opinions. The best way to handle that amount of publicity and scrutiny is embrace the new medium or learn how to comment in it. Like my mentor once said, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon” or in this case, “never pick a fight with someone who has harnessed the power of the internet.” Embrace the consumer, they now have the power to make or break your brand (and do it very publically via the internet).
    Inertia – Powering the Wine Revolution
    —Paul Mabray – CEO

  10. Steven Tolliver - July 27, 2006

    What an amazing lack of savvy on the part of Graeme Miller Wines. Instead of just keeping quiet and letting a bad review slide (or approaching the critic and trying to get a new review), now everyone in the wine blogosphere and beyond will think of them as bullies, threatening a lawsuit to stop the spread of a negative review.

  11. Ben - July 27, 2006

    I am little surprised at Annette’s point of view. I wonder what she feels the purpose of an “industry” tasting is? In my experience the goal is to present the wine to people who can influence the opinion of others (hopefully positively). If a producer is willing to pour a wine , at any event, they have to be willing to accept the consequences. Apparently Graeme Miller felt that the wine in question was sound and fit for sale; by pouring it they implicitly invited people to express an opinion about the wine. Unfortunately for them, someone did.

  12. Gianpaolo - July 27, 2006

    I’m a wine producer. That’s what I think abou the story: once you have released a wine in the market, it belongs to the person that bought it. This person is fully entitled to say, or write, whatever he wants about the wine, good or bad.
    What I don’t like, it is when people become offensive, because I consider that an unnecessaty lack of respect on someone’s work (I’m not saying that this is the case though). It is all right to say: it is not good. It is not all right to say: it’s shit.

  13. Benito - July 27, 2006

    I’ve been fairly lucky with my blog thus far–there’s been a few occasions where a winemaker disagreed with my notes on his wine but graciously offered to send me another bottle in order to give it a second chance. I can’t get wine through the mail in this state, but when possible I’ve tried to sample the wine again later.
    If such a scenario ever plays out here in the US, it would probably be wise to alert the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Here’s their legal guide for bloggers:
    While they may not be able to solve the specific problem, the publicity would spread the story to other areas of the internet outside of the wine blogosphere, such as sites focused on technology, political activism, legal interests, etc.

  14. Rob Cole - July 27, 2006

    If we decided to suppose that every point that Annette made was completely on target, it still leaves the question “Does this person deserve to be sued?” And i think the answer is still no.

  15. Jathan - July 28, 2006

    I personally don’t write about wines that I pour down the drain. Consumers are confused enough as it is, why bombard them with reviews of bad wine?
    That said, Cam has done nothing wrong, and getting threatened with a lawsuit seems so childish and absurd. On principle alone I’ll be avoiding Graeme Miller Wines.

  16. Mike - July 28, 2006

    When I posted on this I had no problem with Cam’s approach, and I still don’t. However I have just come up against a similar problem where two bottles of a wine were undrinkable. Unlike Cam, reviews already existed for the wine I was tasting (both solid reviews with 90 point scores), so I have spent this week chasing down opinions from others on the wine and the winemaker has contributed to the discussion. I still have not come to a final conclusion but it may well be that the comments of the winemaker will add significantly to identifying a potential problem with screwcapped wines. I won’t be doing the winemaker (or screwcaps) any favors if I do eventually blog this story, but what a difference compared to Graeme Miller.

  17. Gene - Seattle Wine Blog - July 31, 2006

    I guess I’m late to the party, but here’s my two cents. My first reaction was,”hasn’t anyone heard of freedom of the press?” My second reaction was,”hasn’t anyone heard of a boycott?” The blogosphere is about democracy, isn’t it? Such heavyhandedness smacks of totalitarianism. Anyone can express their opinion. In other fields such as art, cinema, opera, etc., producers expect to deal with negative reviews. It’s part of the business.
    In my early days, as a wine critic, I used to write numerous brief bad reviews because there were so many bad wines. Even if a wine is “not bad”, if I don’t like it, I still have the right to say so. I am certainly not obligated to be a mouthpiece for the industry, if anything, quite the opposite. On the other hand, since having children, I’ve come to realize that most wines, especially from small family wineries, are somebody’s baby. Even if I think a baby is ugly, I’ve learned not to say so to the parents, but I might say it to others. If the baby is up for adoption and has fetal alcohol syndrome, the prospective parents have a right to know this information and maybe I have an obligation to tell them.

  18. Alex - August 3, 2006

    Who cares whether a winery solicits a writer’s personal opinion of a particular wine? Wouldn’t there be a powerful conflict of interest if a wine “reviewer” were to write about only those wines that he/she had been personally invited to discuss, and that he/she felt personally compelled to provide “glowing remarks” about? What total nonsense. If that’s the goal behind wine reviews, I think the word “critic” should be changed to “sycophant.”
    As a consumer of wine, I want to be told which wines to avoid. I can’t afford to buy 12 cases of wine each week. I don’t want to waste my money on crappy wine; therefore, I appreciate it when bloggers such as Cam provide their honest opinions about the wines they taste. There are plenty of shallow, advertisement-driven wine publications in the world already. Why try to force Cam Wheeler to become yet another drone?

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