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.