Wine Spectator, Scammers or Scammed?

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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.

  • Björn

    I think I know what you're trying to say, and yes, most people really rely on publications like these and will believe almost anything. I mean, look at wine jury's and I mean everywhere, US, France, Italy etc.. in my opinion a great number of those are not really trustworthy!
    I mean use these things for what they are, simple information that has not been verified! The verification is really up to you..
    When someone I respect says that a certain bottle is good, I will try it, but if I don't like it I will say so!! Absolutely and every single time!
    If you are going to let people taste a certain wine, don't take the word of a so called wine critic that it's wonderful. Always try it yourself first!!!
    Always!

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com jpower

    You don't have to tell twice me to taste wine! ;)

    Cheers, Bjorn.

  • Thomas Matthews

    Thanks for giving Wine Spectator a fair hearing. Yes, we will be more vigilant in the future. But our goals are to encourage restaurants to improve their wine programs, and point wine lovers to restaurants that offer good wine lists. Despite the scam, we think the program is achieving those goals, and we'll keep on with it.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com jpower

      Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment…and you're welcome. Everyone wants to take down the big guy, and if Wine Spectator isn't the biggest guy on the block, it is certainly close. One of the best ways for a blog to get noticed and drive up traffic is to generate controversy, but it really doesn't seem right that a very good publication has to have their name dragged through the mud so that someone else can try and get publicity.

      I will continue to read and trust Wine Spectator as usual.

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com jpower

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment…and you're welcome. Everyone wants to take down the big guy, and if Wine Spectator isn't the biggest guy on the block, it is certainly close. One of the best ways for a blog to get noticed and drive up traffic is to generate controversy, but it really doesn't seem right that a very good publication has to have their name dragged through the mud so that someone else can try and get publicity.

    I will continue to read and trust Wine Spectator as usual.

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com Houstonwino

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment…and you're welcome. Everyone wants to take down the big guy, and if Wine Spectator isn't the biggest guy on the block, it is certainly close. One of the best ways for a blog to get noticed and drive up traffic is to generate controversy, but it really doesn't seem right that a very good publication has to have their name dragged through the mud so that someone else can try and get publicity.

    I will continue to read and trust Wine Spectator as usual.

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