Wine Spectator Award Scam-Axes to Grind?

Ξ August 22nd, 2008 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News |

I’m not normally one to simply jump on the bandwagon of “topical” issues, but in the last few days news of a Sting has been rebounding though the ether and has popped up on several Blogs, Chat Forums and reference sites that I visit. Now the dust seems to be settling it could be a good time to take a relaxed overview of what actually happened!
The person at the centre of the story is Robin Goldstein – someone who seems to have a knack for attacking “The Establishment”, being restaurant reviewer at The Fearless Critic and author of the blind tasting book Wine Trials. On August 15th at the recent Portland meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) Goldstein and colleagues gave a presentation entitled “Do Expensive Wines Taste Better?” which seems to follow the topic of his book, the conclusions being “results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.” (I think this is actually more interesting than the main story, so some of you may want to just read the paper here and ignore the rest!).
Now to the good bit. Ahead of this presentation Goldstein apparently explained how he and an Italian colleague set up a sting on The Wine Spectator to obtain one of their Restaurant Awards of Excellence by submitting menu and Wine list information for a fictional establishment in Milan, Italy. Osteria L’Intrepido (Osteria is an Italian tavern or inn) duly received the award and provided Goldstein with the ammunition he needed to go further with this, on the same day as the Oregon meeting the details were posted on the “restaurant’s” website.

News of the scam broke on 19th August when Wines and Vines first ran the story on their website and then quickly the “Blogosphere” quickly picked up with Vinography, Uncorked, Dr Vino and even Jancis Robinson’s esteemed Purple Pages carried the news (possibly with an element of glee detected, since 2003 Jancis has been cynical of “the fact that there is an ‘entry fee’ for some lesser establishments may help to explain some pretty strange inclusions”).
On the Wine Forums WLTV (its members not known for their fondness of Wine Spectator) was first to post comment but soon the Spectator’s own forum was discussing the story with a mix of shock and internally directed anger. It wasn’t until late on the 20th that an official voice appeared in the form of Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the Spectator, which can be viewed here.
After Matthew’s letter the mood changed on the forums, with an immediate backlash against Goldstein for “dishonest journalism” and convenient omission of facts, although there was always an undercurrent of complaint against The Wine Spectator that never really went away. August 21st saw another set of blog postings, this time detailing the case for the defence – Steve Heimhoff (West Coast editor for the Wine Enthusiast) gave the most balanced view in his personal Blog while Mark Fisher of Uncorked was happy to simply highlight Matthew’s letter and invite comment (Mark has ruffled Spectator feathers in the past on this subject).
Now I’ve read and digested all the information several things spring to mind;

1) How quickly people seem to jump on bad news and carry it around the world, regardless of whether they may have only heard one side of the story. Also how vitriolic some of the comments are on the blogs and forum threads, against The Wine Spectator, Goldstein, and those who “dared” to attack or defend each of them – how quickly lines are drawn and polarisation occurs.

2) Goldstein’s reporting of the scam, and the subsequent rapid media attention, miss out some interesting facts that Matthew’s discloses in the Spectator response. Goldstein didn’t just send out $250 and receive an award, as is implied in most of the stories. This was carefully planned and executed (he worked with a colleague in Italy) and he set up fake reviews on the site ChowHound (since removed). Matthew’s states that the Wine List submitted contained 256 wines of which only 15 scored less than 80pts, “Overall, the wines came from many of Italy’s top producers, in a clear, accurate presentation.”

3) That it was no great surprise this had happened, the Spectator Awards have been cause for cynicism for years now, no matter how much Matthew’s tries to claim otherwise. It is clear that the Awards of Excellence have a relatively low reputation amongst the wine enthusiasts’ community (The WS & WLTV forum threads make that abundantly clear) and this isn’t going to help. No matter what tools may have been used to fool them there is clearly “…something rotten in the state of Denmark”.

So, although I’m in danger of re-hashing so much that has already been said over the last few days, what is my opinion?
To The Wine Spectator. Keep the $250 submission fee to present a restaurant for an award, I can imagine carrying out basic due diligence (hopefully improved after this story) still costs someone time and money, BUT tighten your standards a little and if a restaurant does get past Stage 1 then to actually receive the award you cover the costs of a ”mystery diner” to actually check out the place and give some real feedback to WS HQ – I doubt they’d be a shortage of volunteers on the WS Forums or even organising something with local newspapers in the town/city in question – you may lose some of the profit, but would gain some major credibility.
To Goldstein. The media was bound to sensationalise this story as soon as it was picked up, however by omitting pertinent facts on what you did to get the award and only sharing the juicy parts you haven’t helped. Sure, it’s great publicity for you and your book, but these Awards were an easy target and it would have been better to share all of the background right from the beginning.
We are already seeing a backlash in the wine community against the methods used in implementing the sting and this has obscured any point you were trying to make, leaving only a cheap publicity stunt visible. The comments section on the Osteria L’Intrepido website is in the high 80’s now, including several requests for the full wine list submitted, I trust you will offer some reply to some of the questions posed there?

To James Molesworth (Senior Editor at The Wine Spectator) who said “This is the problem with the ‘blogosphere’. It’s a lazy person’s journalism. No one does any real research, but rather they just slap some hyperlinks up and throw a little conjecture at the wall, and presto! you get some hits and traffic…”.


Just because everyone that had gone to press with the story at the time was coming down hard on the Spectator doesn’t justify use of such crass generalisation – there are many of us out here in the “blogosphere” that do plenty of research, look a little closer to home for some of the harshest criticisms. I hope that the more balanced reporting in the last few days has improved your obviously low opinion of our community.


There may be more yet to come out of this spectacle, but I’m going back to drink and write about some wine.



5 Responses to ' Wine Spectator Award Scam-Axes to Grind? '

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  1. ryan said,

    on August 22nd, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    I just want James to name some blogs that he has visited that are so lazy.

    As to the award, it was a joke in the industry when I started 10 years ago, and this just goes to show things don’t change.

  2. Thomas Matthews said,

    on August 23rd, 2008 at 3:37 am

    This is the most objective analysis of the scam I’ve yet read, including from such paragons of MSM as the NY Times, LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

    To “ryan” – NONE of the wine blogs that pounced so gleefully on the story bothered to contact Wine Spectator for a comment; that’s what Molesworth means by “lazy.”

    Yes, we have been hoaxed, and yes, it will result in changes in our Restaurant Awards program. Nonetheless, I stand by the belief that our awards have encouraged restaurants to improve their wine programs, and helped wine lovers find restaurants that share their passion. What’s so bad about that?

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  3. Greybeard said,

    on August 23rd, 2008 at 8:21 am

    Thomas, thanks for the comment. The piece was written in the hope of being as objective as possible (which I hope doesn’t mean “upset both parties equally”)!

    The goal of Reign of Terroir is to inform, educate and advance wine knowledge. We are a young blog but we have no axe in need of grinding and I hope this and other posts – past, present and future – will confirm this.

    I hope the changes implied in the Awards program improve its perception in the wine community – if that is the net result of this episode then it will be good for everyone.

    Best Wishes,

    Karl Laczko

  4. TIm Naylor said,

    on September 6th, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    There was nothing unethical about the hoax. It exposed what the public otherwise thought was a well vetted awards process. People make judgements and spending decisions based on the veracity of Wine Spectator’s Awards. By revealing they have absolutely no epistemic integrity, Goldstein has done a public service. What you also fail to mention is that Goldstein discovered the 87 percent of WS reviewed wines score above 80. That aside, even if the Wines listed all scored 90 or above it doesn’t change the fact that WS awarded a sham restaurant and the extent of its fact checking was a visit to Chow Hound.

    Matthews shouldn’t defend the hoax his awards pull on the public but instead recite his mea culpa and list of reforms. For now, I’ll never buy another copy. If awards of excellence can be bought it makes you reel at what other reviews or scores may have been purchased.

    Shame on you for trying to purge the whistleblower. Would business as usual be better?

  5. Greybeard said,

    on September 10th, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks Tim, obviously my piece has managed to fit into the “upset both parties equally” category – possibly my British penchant for reserved sarcasm failed to make its impact although I would have thought the Shakespeare reference made it clear this was not a simple defense of the Spectator’s stance. However maybe I should take solace that we have not not suffered the assorted slings and arrows of outrageous comment that other blogs received in their coverage of the story.
    Shame on me? for trying to balance both sides?…so be it.

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