Wine Spectator: Unfairly Duped?

Earlier this week it was revealed that a fake restaurant was awarded Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Since then, forums, blogs and industry publications have been blowing up with opinions over the issue.

Dr. Vino’s wine blog first covered the story on Tuesday with the opening words: “If you decided to get a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for you restaurant wine list, what would you need? The answer according to Robin Goldstein is $250 and Microsoft Word. Restaurant not actually required.”

Goldstein, the author of The Wine Trials, stated on his website that he created a fake restaurant and submitted an application for the award as research for an academic paper. He named the restaurant “Osteria L’Intrepido,” which means “Fearless Critic,” submitted the application fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu, which he deems “a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes,” and a wine list. The so-called restaurant claimed to be in Milan.

As it turns out, the “reserve wine list” largely contained some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades, says Goldstein. You can view the wine list on his website, with scores and some excerpts from the Wine Spectator reviews.

Needless to say, Osteria L’Intrepido won the Award of Excellence, as published in print in the August 2008 issue of Wine Spectator.

“It’s troubling, of course, that a restaurant that doesn’t exist could win an Award of Excellence. But it’s also troubling that the award doesn’t seem to be particularly tied to the quality of the supposed restaurant’s ‘reserve wine list,’ even by Wine Spectator’s own standards,” stated Goldstein.

He presented his findings at the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland over the weekend. According to Wines & Vines, Goldstein’s presentation focused on “whether or not wine value correlates with consumer appreciation of a wine’s intrinsic qualities (not necessarily, he found).” Instead, Goldstein says high wine ratings and premium prices do not necessarily mean that a consumer will appreciate the wine any more that if it was bought at a lower price.

WINE SPECTATOR RESPONDS. Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, posted a bulletin regarding the sting yesterday on the magazine’s online forum.

“Wine Spectator learned yesterday that, for the first time in the 27-year history of our Restaurant Awards program, a fictitious restaurant has entered its wine list for judging,” it begins.

Matthews stated that since the story has been picked up in the blogosphere, WS “would like to set forth the actual facts of the matter.”

In summary, he says the Awards program never claimed to review the restaurant as a whole. Instead, it has evaluated the content, accuracy and presentation of restaurant wine lists since its inception in 1981.

“We do not claim to visit every restaurant in our Awards program. We do promise to evaluate their wine lists fairly,” he stated.

“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.”

Matthews said WS called Osteria L’Intrepido several times. Each time it reached an answering machine and a message from a person claiming to be from the restaurant who said it was closed at the moment. When they googled the fake restaurant, it turned up an actual address and location on a map of Milan. Even more elaborately, fictitious diners discussed their experiences at the non-existent restaurant on Chowhound, dating January 2008 to August 2008.

But how could such a poor wine list win an award? Matthews says Goldstein exaggerated on his website, which claims the fake wine list contained “some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades.” Instead, Matthews says only 15 wines out of the total 256 wines on the list scored below 80 points from Wine Spectator in the past.

“This act of malicious duplicity reminds us that no one is completely immune to fraud. It is sad that an unscrupulous person can attack a publication that has earned its reputation for integrity over the past 32 years. Wine Spectator will clearly have to be more vigilant in the future,” Matthews stated.

“Most importantly, however, this scam does not tarnish the legitimate accomplishments of the thousands of real restaurants who currently hold Wine Spectator awards, a result of their skill, hard work and passion for wine.”

Of course many in the industry are elated over the bad press for Wine Spectator, while others are defending the popular magazine. If you’d like to get in on the action, check our Dr. Vino’s blog, Goldstein’s website and the Wine Spectator’s forum.

DRINKING AGE UNDER FIRE

The drinking age debate has received loads of press – everyone from WSJ to Fox News – this week sparked by a group of 100 university presidents that call themselves the “Amethyst Initiative.” The presidents signed a petition to encourage open discourse on the minimum drinking age of 21, which has resulted in heated debate on all sides.

Even 60 Minutes is said to be preparing a show on the subject. This could end up being another “French Paradox,” where 60 Minutes sparked the wine industry by being the first national program to point out alcohol’s positive health effects in moderation.

Of course, MADD is staunchly against the initiative and seems entirely closed to even debating the drinking age. One of their biggest defenses is that drunk driving deaths have been reduced since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was put into effect. However, they do not take into account that the alcohol beverage industry stepped up campaigns against drunk driving around the same time.

We believe the drinking age requirement at least deserves some dispassionate debate and research among policy makers. Whether it’s the right decision or not, the issue shouldn’t be squashed without giving it the attention it deserves. As our sister publication Beer Business Daily stated: “But for crying out loud, if 100 college presidents – who know college students more than anybody and who have a vested interest in their well-being – think it should be looked at, why wouldn’t everybody support that? Just study it.”

To read our coverage earlier this week, click here.

BEAM GLOBAL INCREASES OFF-PREMISE HOLIDAY MARKETING

Beam Global is upping its off-premise programming this holiday season with themed packaging and POS displays. It’s well documented that the on-premise has taken a hit during these slow economic times, and therefore spirits companies are turning their focus to the off-premise.

“This season’s holiday packaging, recipes and point-of-sale items will make the shopping and gifting experience easier for our consumers. We’re offering specialty glassware, festive recipes and new holiday-themed and value-added packaging, which will help our legal purchase age consumers entertain with added ease,” said Rory Finlay, senior vice president and global chief marketing officer of Beam Global.

WSD BRIEFS:

CARMEN WINERY is the first winery in Chile and in South America to “go green” with lighter glass wine bottles. The average bottle will be scaled down from 17.28 ounces to 14.81 ounces, a 15% reduction that will result in savings of more than 343 tons of glass per year.

HIRAM WALKER GINGERBREAD LIQUEUR will join Pumpkin Spice beginning Oct. 1 nationwide. Hiram Walker Gingerbread is the first nationally available gingerbread liqueur, said the company. The suggested retail price will be $8.99-11.99 for the 750ml.

BEAM GLOBAL IS LAUNCHING LE NEZ DE COURVOISIER program to educate distributors and the trade across the country about the House Style of Courvoisier. Along with the sales force, National Courvoisier Brand Ambassadrice Stephanie Mills will lead tastings, tell the history of Courvoisier and educate participants, said the company.

Until tomorrow, Megan

“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
Sir Winston Churchill

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