Fake Wine Reviews: Peer Review Sites vs. Wine Critics

Can the wine and food world trust the conclusions of the crowd?

Recently an Italian paper created a TripAdvisor profile for a fake restaurant. Then they went about submitting fake reviews. In no time, the fake restaurant was the highest rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in Italy.

When the newspaper finally called TripAdvisor to tell them what they had done and to get a statement, TripAdvisor took down the profile for the restaurant along with the reviews and stated:

“As the world’s most visited travel site, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the content on TripAdvisor provides a trusted and useful source of information for those planning a trip anywhere in the world. In this instance, we investigated and removed from the site the listing and reviews that failed to meet our guidelines.”

This is funny since, in this case, TripAdvisor “investigated” only after being told the profile was fake. They concluded, yes, indeed, it is fake.

So, is it outrageous to speculate that wine-related peer review sites and services can also be so easily manipulated? (That’s a rhetorical question—despite the fact that I’m not personally aware of it ever being done.)

Let us assume for the sake of argument and reality that I could orchestrate a campaign on Vivino or Delectable or Cellar Tracker that would boost the user rating of a particular brand of wine, as well as serve up some pretty stunning reviews for those wines.

Does it matter if this is possible or if it is done? Certainly it would matter to the brand being promoted if they chose to use the “user ratings” in their promotional and marketing materials.

In this context it’s also appropriate to compare the possibility of manipulated ratings at peer review sites to critics’ reviews, which seem far less likely to me to be faked. I know, people have for many years accused the Wine Spectator and others of giving higher reviews to wines that advertise. But I’ve never seen proof of that. I’ve never been offered that option and I’ve bought ads for clients before. Furthermore, the implications of a magazine doing this are so dire, it seems like the most desperate thing they could possibly do.


Posted In: Rating Wine


11 Responses

  1. Matt - December 8, 2017

    Possibly a money making opportunity for struggling small (tiny!) producers like me? Will submit fake reviews for cash!! (At least until the 3-tier system is abolished.

  2. Elizabeth Schneider - December 8, 2017

    This is a fascinating question. It actually begs the question: Why do we use star or point ratings at all when taste is so subjective? Sure, it’s an easy heuristic, but the comments are far more helpful when written by someone articulate (I find Cellar Tracker especially helpful in terms of good descriptors and explanations of why the person liked or didn’t like it). I find that a lot of people are becoming more savvy about the ratings — professional or otherwise and that stars are only a small part of their decision to buy or not buy. The advantage of peer to peer sites is that there are often wines there that aren’t looked at by the big pubs. That means that small wineries can get the word out via word of mouth, an opportunity that didn’t exist before Vivino or the others.

    And although I don’t think Spectator or Enthusiast, which is the one I’ve heard can be bought and sold the most, are influenced in the reviews, sometimes certain wines are brought to their attention more clearly than others (wines that may not have otherwise been reviewed) when there is money involved.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. Very interesting!

    Wine for Normal People

    • Tom Wark - December 8, 2017


      I think the use of stars and numbers have always been accompanied by a review. This is appropriate, I think.

      As for buying better scores, I’ve never seen any evidence of it happening at the Spectator or Enthusiast. Though people say this, they have no evidence. And as I mentioned above, there are some very dumb things these two publications could do….But selling better scores ranks among the dumbest. They don’t do it.

      • Robert Wolfe - December 9, 2017

        Among the magazines, the Wine Enthusiast is the most assiduous in offering enhanced editorial placement of reviews. The reviews themselves are offered up independently by their different editors, some tasting blind most not tasting blind as I understand it. But you can pay for an enhanced placement and get more play for your positive review.

        No one has ever been able to pin pay for play on the Wne Spectator. But in my opinion, I have noted that consistent high-dollar advertisers receive editorial coverage that is above and beyond what otherwise might be expected.

  3. Scott Burns - December 8, 2017

    Fake Reviews, and fake news give a sad commentary on the ethics of people now days.

    • Alan Goldfarb - December 11, 2017

      I can attest unequivocally and with first-hand knowledge that I know of a winery that paid big bucks to the Spectator (Disclosure: I have written for the Wine Spectator as an independent journalist, and I’m not a Spectator apologist) to place several full-page ads, and said winery never got an article written about it.

  4. doug wilder - December 11, 2017

    Tom, From my observations the wine community is skeptical of anyone out of the blue touting how great a particular wine is. The first reaction is usually several people asking if the person has a financial interest in the brand. Unless genuine, they get exposed rather quickly. What it comes down to is someone needing to create a reliable body of work on these community sites over a number of years that would give them a sliver of name recognition. Richard Jennings comes to mind as one of the most prolific members of the CellarTracker community who has an extremely well respected, wide-ranging experience in wine from around the world. However, I can’t remember ever seeing a retailer website using even his solid work. This should stand to illustrate how difficult it would be to sustain a campaign of fake information – demonstrably longer than one could hope to build to critical mass over one 12-month release cycle. (Will the campaign suddenly shift from the 2014 xxx to the 2015?) Here is another way to look at it. Few people will notice if you build a bonfire on the beach on a Friday night. in July because lots of people do it. However if that one bonfire started in July is still burning on a Tuesday in November, people will want to know about who is so dedicated that they are stoking this blaze constantly.

  5. Paul Vandenberg - December 12, 2017

    With 30+ years experience in producing wine I recognize a large flaw in the critic/ competition fields of wine promotion. What is the critic/judge tasting?
    Small wineries such as ours have a single bottling of any wine. Large wineries may have a dozen bottlings of wine with the same label. They may work diligently to ensure consistency but they will be different.
    I know of no critic or competition that does any laboratory testing to ensure integrity .
    My feeling is that the compilation of opinion from a large number of consumers is less prone to fraud.
    For one there is the certainty it is the wines in the market. Secondly in a reasonable cohort there will be few getting lavish lunches from wineries.
    I know companies whose budgets for wining and dining ” influencers” is larger than our wineries gross sales.
    Ideally we would all get to taste before we buy.
    I’ll take the mob over old, fat, white, guys who smoke cigars.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol

  6. Marta Sommer - December 25, 2017

    Fake ratings, and fake news now give people a sense of regret over ethics. We all want to taste before we buy. Now a days there are more fake ratings and reviews which give a sense of regret over ethics. Over ratings and reviews people prefer tasting the wine before buying it.

  7. Peter - August 22, 2018

    Check out Vivino wine reviews for Curtis Family Vineyards. They consistently come up in the “Best Wines” lists based on fake reviews.

  8. Dexter Smith - January 19, 2019

    This is definitely being done already on Vivino. Check out their Screaming Eagle Cabernet. Of all the reviews, a lot of them are people who have seen the wine in the bottle before or randomly found it at their house. And the people that have said they taste it all just seem to be saying some nonsense and almost all the people have over 500 reviews. Very suspicious.

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