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.