Arrogance, Fraud & What’s To Come

Yeah, the Wine Spectator got used. Toward what purpose I’m not sure. But they did get used by granting an wine list award to a fictitious restaurant. The upshot is that the Awards will be more closely monitored. I’m not real up in arms over the "scandal".

But that’s just me. As Steve Heimoff points out, "The reaction has been fast, furious and worldwide, with the weight of opinion running heavily against Wine Spectator."

Not a surprise. Everyone appears to like to see the influential among us get a comeuppance. It seems that the degree of comeuppance that the powerful sometimes experience is exactly equal in weight and measure to how much more important we each feel we are for having observed the comeuppance. Human nature.

But, Steve struggles with an explanation for why the Wine Spectator is being pounced on so hard and why there appears to be so much ill feeling against the magazine. But he does have an idea:

"The one thing I can come up with, at least from my California point of
view, is that there’s a body of opinion in this State that Wine
Spectator is arrogant."

Someone needs to say it: Any publication that takes on the task of critiquing and judging an activity that does not come off as somewhat arrogant probably isn’t doing a very good job. If you are a critic, if you are judging others works, if you are reviewing other’s products and you don’t possess a certain amount of natural arrogance that is greater than the average person, they you have no business being in that line of work. What would a wine review publication that didn’t possess arrogance sound like?

"This Cabernet was pretty good, somewhat enjoyable, and similar in nature to hundreds of other cabernets that are pretty good and somewhat enjoyable."

Yea! Gimme more of that, would ya. Compelling!!!

The problem the Wine Spectator has within the wine industry, however, goes well beyond the proper arrogance it possess, but which many don’t like. There has, as long as I’ve been in this business, been a strong feeling among winemaker and marketers, that you can get better scores in the Wine Spectator if you advertise. This view always seems to be held by those that get 84-87 points. It’s also utterly ridiculous. I ran and crunched the numbers. It just ain’t so, but it does give further explanation as to why there appears to be, again as Steve Heimoff observes, "glee" among those who are witness to the magazine’s faux pas.

That said, if you really want to appreciate the impact of this episode and the way it has traveled outside the wine world and into the mainstream media, imagine what kind of actions it will breed. I will not be surprised to see this particular example of fraud inspire others to do something similar, but with a twist. If I were a wine reviewer or a wine magazine, I’d be on the look out for two wines labeled differently that are in fact the very same wine and looking for the reviewer to give two divergent scores. I’d be on the look out for the same thing if I ran a wine competition.

Posted In: Uncategorized


14 Responses

  1. dhonig - August 22, 2008

    On the one hand, there is always glee when somebody “bigger” than you gets used. On the other hand, though, this went specifically to the “excellence” award. WS’s own explanation, that a full one-third of applicants did not get the award, puts the lie to the award. If anything, it is the “Award of Stunning Mediocrity that came up with the application fee.” Giving such an award creates two different problems. The first is the award itself- it is untrustworthy crap. The other, bigger, problem is what it saws about WS itself. If WS defines “excellence” as the “top two-thirds,” well, what does that say about their wine ratings? As you note, if you really crunch the numbers, perhaps nothing. but the impression it creates is important. Ultimately, all a magazine like WS has is its credibility, and it chose to sell it for $250 a pop.

  2. Arthur - August 22, 2008

    I agree that the nomenclature (as well as the structure and administration) of the program needs to change. However, the Award of Excellence is the “entry level” award (I know, it’s more like a ‘recognition’ or ‘certificate’). It’s the Bronze Medal to the other two, higher, awards.
    How many restaurants you visit have a list with at least 100 wines that match or complement the food menu? (check the WS site for details about the awards program, btw – if you have not yet)
    A list of 256 wines (even if 15 of them got lousy WS scores) is representative of pretty impressive wine program to say the least.
    $250 is a reasonable processing fee. Looking at this from the stand point of someone who operates a website, I think that $250 covers paying someone to process the paperwork and do some basic checking, production (print and web) and other ancillary costs. WS may net $125 per application at best.

  3. Steve Heimoff - August 23, 2008

    Tom, your warning about someone sending in the same wine under 2 different labels is heeded. But even if the reviewer were to give them different scores, that could be due to a variety of reasons. The wines might have been sent under different conditions. (The back of a UPS truck can get 130 degrees on a hot day.) The wines might not have been “equalized” at the winery in a tank. Then too, everybody’s body chemistry (and mood) changes over the course of time, resulting in different tasting impressions. And finally, what if somebody really hell bent on malice sent in 2 different wines, and then claimed that they were the same? There would be no way of proving it after the fact, one way or the other.

  4. Ryan - August 23, 2008

    There are accounts of the same wine being sold under the same label. It happens all the time. Now to see if the WS, WA, WE, or any others have rated these…that would be a long research project.

  5. Gretchen Roberts - August 23, 2008

    I’m not up in arms over what happened with WS, but I am sort of surprised that they considered secondary sources (Chowhound, the Internet, the restaurant’s fake answering machine) to be due diligence when confirming the existence of the place. As a writer, I’d never include a business in a story that didn’t answer their phone, especially in the volatile restaurant business, which has high turnover. If someone didn’t answer the phone, I’d wonder if they were closed for good–and move on myself.

  6. Dylan Klymenko - August 23, 2008

    Not to start some conspiracy theory, but how do you know for certain there isn’t a correlation between advertising and scores. Rather, I’m assuming your methodology for crunching the numbers was based on looking at the current top advertiser compared with their scores (Please, correct the assumption if I am wrong). But, did your number crunching include any statistical data on wines which ranked high scores one year and then lower scores the next? Did you look to those wineries to see if there was a drop in their advertising budget?
    Is it possible the WS judges fairly for those who advertise, but punishes those who do not? That would certainly create the appearance of fair judging, while maintaining steady cash flow.
    I’m not riled up enough to do my own research and find those numbers myself, but I thought it was a question for discussion worth asking.
    What are other people’s thoughts?

  7. Christian Miller - August 23, 2008

    “…I’d be on the look out for two wines labeled differently that are in fact the very same wine and looking for the reviewer to give two divergent scores.”
    Setting aside the good points in Steve Heimoff’s comment, doesn’t this go to the heart of the problem with wine ratings? They are presented and talked about by certain wine publications as being subjective, repeatable facts when all sensory evaluation science points to the contrary. The trick that you suspect will be played on wine publications is part of the standard triangular test that goes on every day in sensory evaluation throughout the food and beverage industries.

  8. fredric koeppel - August 24, 2008

    THanks for bringing up that important point, Gretchen. The lack of solid research by the WS staff is the most troubling aspect of this farce. I’ve been a journalist for 22 years at a large daily newspaper, and if i told my editor that i had called a subject twice and got no response, he or she would say, “Then get in your car and go check it out.”

  9. JR - August 25, 2008

    Why are journalistic standards being applied to the WS? It’s not journalism, it’s religion. Also, I think it’s absurd to say you have to be arrogant to be a critic. You need to be opinionated, yes, but that’s different. WS considers itself infallible: If they don’t like a vintage, that vintage is horrible forever, even if many wines turn out to be excellent (see Napa, 1998). That’s different from having an opinion and expressing it eloquently. And anyone who thinks those “awards” are anything but paid listings hasn’t been to a Grand Award winning restaurant where they won’t sell any of their interesting wines (happened to me–went down the list, one after another of the small producers, “I’m sorry, we’re out of that.”) Many of the Awarded are very good, as many of high-scoring wines are very good. But I won’t base buying decisions on either one (hey, now there’s some arrogance) because I don’t make decisions on faith–I prefer knowledge. Your results may vary.

  10. St Vini - August 25, 2008

    “Not to start some conspiracy theory, but how do you know for certain there isn’t a correlation between advertising and scores.”
    Gallo is a major advertiser and yet, to WS’s credit, they gave Gallo a severe thrashing over TCA a few years ago. Gotta give them credit for that.
    Further, I believe the relationship between scores and pricing has been analyzed by more than a few and has always come up lacking.
    Obviously, the restaurant awards are a different story…

  11. 1WineDude - August 25, 2008

    What I’m still scratching my head over is why WS issued their response in their on line forum, but without any PR contact.
    Those of us who have tried to get a dialog going with WS on this have (more or less) been greeted with a very cool response in the forum (at best) or attacked outright (at worst).
    Seems a strange move for an institution like WS…

  12. Enobytes - August 25, 2008

    I agree with you on many points Tom. Here are my personal thoughts (which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Enobytes as a whole):
    –This isn’t ground breaking news.
    — Many criticizing this award need to educate themselves on the criteria for which Goldstein qualified. The WS basic award looks for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style. It’s a simple as that. Notice that there is no mention on whether or not these wines require high/low scores, high/low pricing structure. Besides the fact that this was a fictitious restaurant, why are so many condemning the WS for awarding Goldstein’s list?
    –I agree with Fredric Koeppel & Gretchen regarding fact checking. WS could have eliminated this whole fiasco by disqualifying a business based on a “no-contact” policy, meaning, if they can’t talk to a person directly, disqualify the applicant. They could have gone a step further by verifying the business through methods like the BBB and other equivalent international bureaus. Then I question at what level should a publication be responsible for verifying a reputable businesses?
    –Some believe wines receive higher scores by simply advertising with a publication. This reasoning is purely nonsense. I have first hand experience that debunks this claim.
    –Goldstein’s little episode will indeed affect award processes (WS and any publication for that matter) in general. I’m certain the WS is in the midst of building a “lessons learned” and will adjust their awards systems accordingly to assure continuation of such a program.
    –Regarding comment about wineries sending in the same wine under two different labels – your point is valid, however I agree with Steve. Variations on scores happen for different reasons (e.g. UPS, chemistry, mood, and lets not forget tasters). Regardless of variation differences, I personally challenge the experiment and appreciate the heads up.
    –1WineDude – do they even have a PR department?

  13. Tish - August 26, 2008

    Slipping faux bottles into the ratings-driven magazines would be incredibly difficult to pull off, primarily because there is basically zero transparency. ANd it is wholly unnecessary. What has really happened here, in my estimation, a crack in the Spectator armor. WS has managed to function — arrogantly — with relative impunity because they set and play by their rules, all the while ignoring every other major media. Now they have egg on their face and everyone sees how human they are.
    I see the piling-on as a magnifying lens that showcases just how phony the wine media has become. Let’s see where we are six months from now. In hindsight, the WS Awards debacle will likely be seen as a pure prank that exposed WS’s arrogance. But it did not expose any corruption.
    On the other hand, the increased scrutiny generated from the WS debacle, I believe, will lead to a more widespread realization that the major wine media are simply not able to do what the claim to do: to frame a sprawling topic/industry with objective judgement.

  14. Thomas Matthews - September 4, 2008

    A person — or organization — may be honest and still be deceived. Yes, Wine Spectator will increase our vigilance, but the fact that we were hoaxed should not cast a shadow over the real restaurants who have put so much passion, effort and money into their wine programs, and earned their awards from us.
    Our Restaurant Awards program is designed to encourage restaurants — even modest restaurants — to improve their wine lists and point wine lovers to restaurants that take wine seriously. We have pursued this goal for 27 years. We may not have a perfect system, but to my knowledge our effort and commitment are unrivalled.
    I’m sorry that some people perceive us as arrogant. We are wine lovers who take journalism seriously and do our best to give valuable and credible information to people who care about wine. Yes, we should have tried harder to confirm the existence of this phony restaurant. But this is the first time a phony restaurant has applied for a wine list award.
    And hey — most of the bloggers and other media who reported on the hoax didn’t even bother to try to contact Wine Spectator for comment before they wrote their gleeful condemnations of us. Some of them, however, to their credit, have subsequently admitted that the truth is more complex than the sound bite.
    We at Wine Spectator will continue to taste wines blind, to research and report with accuracy and fairness, and to support restaurants who care about wine. I hope some of Fermenatation’s readers will join us in our efforts to cultivate the culture of wine.
    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

Leave a Reply