Wine Spectator, Scammers or Scammed?

The folks over at Wines & Vines have an article posted claiming that Wine Spectator’s restaurant rankings may be bogus. I am a Wine Spectator subscriber, a fan, and I have used their recommendations both to buy wine and to choose restaurants successfully. My initial response to this news was shock and I was disturbed.

Working with a colleague in Italy, Goldstein said, he wanted to discover what it takes for a restaurant’s wine list to receive an award of excellence from the Wine Spectator. The magazine’s ratings are a signal of quality to many consumers, and Goldstein was curious regarding the underpinning of that value. Goldstein said that he and his partner accordingly established a virtual restaurant in Milan, Italy, complete with its own website.

He said they submitted the supposed restaurant’s wine list for an award of excellence. The list included some of Wine Spectator’s worst-rated wines and vintages of recent decades. Goldstein paid the obligatory $250 application fee, and in Wine Spectator’s August 2008 issue, his putative Osteria L’Intrepido was one of 22 Italian dining spots to receive an award of excellence. L’Intrepido’s “riserva” wine list now is posted online along with an explanation of the venture. It should be mentioned that, although most of the listed vintages were rated by the magazine’s tasters at under 80 points, some came from respected Italian producers and were priced accordingly, from 80 to 300 euros per bottle. The list contained at least one ringer, a 90-point 1995 Tenuta San Guido from Sassicaia, at 300 euros.

That sounds pretty damning, but Wine Spectator claims, rather convincingly in my opinion, that the real scammer was Goldstein. Here are two of their most important points:

2. How could a restaurant that doesn’t exist earn an award for its wine list?

We do not claim to visit every restaurant in our Awards program. We do promise to evaluate their wine lists fairly. (Nearly one-third of new entries each year do not win awards.) We assume that if we receive a wine list, the restaurant that created it does in fact exist. In the application, the restaurant owner warrants that all statements and information provided are truthful and accurate. Of course, we make significant efforts to verify the facts.

In the case of Osteria L’Intrepido:
a. We called the restaurant multiple times; each time, we reached an answering machine and a message from a person purporting to be from the restaurant claiming that it was closed at the moment.
b. Googling the restaurant turned up an actual address and located it on a map of Milan
c. The restaurant sent us a link to a Web site that listed its menu
d. On the Web site Chowhound, diners (now apparently fictitious) discussed their experiences at the non-existent restaurant in entries dated January 2008, to August 2008.

3. How could this wine list earn an award?

On his blog, Goldstein posted a small selection of the wines on this list, along with their poor ratings from Wine Spectator. This was his effort to prove that the list – even if real – did not deserve an award.

However, this selection was not representative of the quality of the complete list that he submitted to our program. Goldstein posted reviews for 15 wines. But the submitted list contained a total of 256 wines. Only 15 wines scored below 80 points.

Fifty-three wines earned ratings of 90 points or higher (outstanding on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale) and a total of 102 earned ratings of 80 points (good) or better. (139 wines were not rated.) Overall, the wines came from many of Italy’s top producers, in a clear, accurate presentation.

Here is our description of an Award of Excellence:
Our basic award, for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style.

The list from L’Intrepido clearly falls within these parameters.

I am inclined to buy Wine Spectator’s explanation, and will keep my subscription. That said, this does point out that they may want to look at some additional checks before giving out their awards. The Internet does make it easy to sometimes scam even the savviest user.

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