Wine Fraud…What’s a Reviewer To do?

For as long as I’ve been in the wine business I’ve heard rumors of "specially bottled" versions of wines that get sent on to reviewers and tasting panels. These special bottlings are supposedly designed to meet the palate preferences of particular reviewers or they are wines bottled up from the very best barrels that are supposed to be blended in with a number of other lots. I’ve never confirmed this actualy happening. But in all honesty, I believe it has happened…and probably often.

The recent Competition Scandal that was uncovered in New Zealand of late has led to me to consider the consequences of special "competition bottlings" or "Reviewer Cuvees". When it comes to competitions, it is easy enough to go out and buy "off-the-shelf" bottlings of the award winning wines at competitions to check if they are similar to that bottling submitted by the winery for the competition. In the wake of the scandal in New Zealand that saw the award winning wine to be something other than what was generally on the store shelves, this kind of checking up is likely to be much more common in competitions in New Zealand, Australia, America and elsewhere.

But what of simple reviews from newsletters, magazines and other’s who evaluate wine for publication?

I suspect at the offices of the Wine Spectator in Napa upwards of 50 to 100 bottles, if not more, arrive daily. Robert Parker, Connoisseurs Guide to CA Wine, The Wine Enthusiast, Wine News all likely get a similar number of unsolicited samples from wineries and importers every day.

These reviewers and tasting panels taste 1000s of wines  a year.

It simply is economically and logistically impossible for these wine reviewers to confirm the integrity of each bottle of wine that UPS and Fed Ex delivers to their doors. This begs the question, should we believe that the wines that get high scores from reviewers are in fact the same wines we’d be drinking when we buy the wines from the store?

I’m unaware of this kind of chicanery every being exposed in the United States. There have been scandals, but I’m unaware of this sort being exposed. I recognize that it would be difficult to uncover this sort of thing. An individual reviewer or panel would have to expect something, then buy a bottle off the shelf and test it. To even suspect this kind of fraud was being attempted you’d first have to be very familiar with either past vintages of the wine in question or with the character of the fruit that tends to be produced from a single vineyard or region. And even then you’d have to discount the possibility of cellar manipulation that might easily alter the general character of a region’s or vineyard’s fruit. Furthermore, you’d have to be inclined to go checking.

What would cause a reviewer or tasting panel to be inclined to start buying wines off the shelf and checking for similarities between bottles sent as samples by the winery and the same wine on the shelf? The answer is a crisis of confidence in the review process.

I think it very unlikely that the New Zealand Affair will cause any such crisis in America’s wine reviewing community nor within the trade or with consumers. Out side the wine industry there has been very little talk of what went on over there.

So, yes, I do believe it happen. Some wines are bottled up special for reviewers. However, don’t think it makes much sense worrying about it. It’s uncommon. And in the scheme broad scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Very little can be done to combat it.


5 Responses

  1. farley - December 18, 2006

    The reviewers may not have the time or resources to check, but with more and more people reading about wine, taking classes, holding tasting parties, etc., don’t you think it quite unwise for a winery to do this kind of thing? Besides the possibility of being found out, it sells the wine short to put forth a better product for review than what the customer actually buys. I addressed this briefly in a couple of posts if you’re interested:

  2. tom - December 18, 2006

    To send out a “reviewer’s wine” is wrong, dangerous and stupid on a number of levels. The problem you point to is just one. There’s also the issue of one’s conscience.

  3. Ken - December 18, 2006

    This problem of potential fraud highlights one of the weaknesses of the reviewing process itself. As Tish of has pointed out in his valiant and on-going ridicule of the 100 point system there is, among other things, the scene of the quasi-scientific tasting procedure. You can almost see the reviewers dressed in lab coats hunched over sterile glasses in a shuttered room. Nobody enjoys wine under such antiseptic conditions, of course. And tastings do not occur in this manner. But, wine drinkers being a fairly heady crowd, we all know the difference between receiving an A- and a B+. Then, still with Tish, there is the matter of retasting the same wine on another occassion. Would the results be the same? Who cares, finally? Surrounded by friends and revellers, and good food, wine takes on a life of its own. It becomes another guest at the festivity.
    Further, and perhaps more importantly, there is the matter of wine reviews scattered all over the web. The blogs of extraordinary tasters, iconoclasts, fun-loving geeks, and just plain wine enthusiasts, are typically trumped by just a pitiful few national wine mags. One of Tom Wark’s recent suggestions is to figure out how bloggers can join forces, as it were, how to make alternate views of wine and wine culture more streamedlined and consolidated, certainly more widely known. How can bloggers work together to grab the attention of the wine afficiando so that their first thought when teasing out a bottle(s) would be to turn to the web. Rather than fret over doctored wines the idea should rather be how to break the monopoly currently enjoyed by so few over so many.

  4. tom merle - December 18, 2006

    Because of the ease of this kind of fraud, it behooves the reviewer to buy the wine either online/phone, etc. or in a store.
    The husband and wife team who do the extremely popular critique in the Friday Wall Street Journal make a point of not accepting samples and buying the wines in different parts of the country.
    This approach could be merged with the blogosphere per the comment above. A ~panel~ of bloggers in some rotating fashion could act as the tasters/virtual sommeliers for the go-to reviewers in the MSM.

  5. Erin - December 19, 2006

    Tom M., are you volunteering to set up this panel of bloggers? I would definitely go for a single bottle meta-review assigned to a team of three, perhaps out of a rotating pool of participants. Allow bloggers to sign up specific wines (that way they can judge their own budgetary restrictions), give them a time limit, and publish the meta-review on all three blogs. Interesting experiment.

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