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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wine Spectator award fraud

By Terry Carter*
First we had the
Lonely Planet author fraud where a writer’s tales of his unethical escapades exposed a publisher's loopholes and led to an undermining of the travel writing profession. Now we have the Wine Spectator award fraud where the magazine’s own Wine Spectator Award of Excellence was bestowed upon a non-existent restaurant, Osteria L'Intrepido di Milano, bringing into question the ethics of the publication. This time it’s the publisher who can be blamed for the complete lack of confidence readers now have in the previously well-respected wine magazine.
Whenever we’ve seen the Wine Spectator sticker on the window of a restaurant, we’ve assumed the restaurant has ‘won’ an award, not just sent off a wine list, menu, and non-refundable $250 cheque, and been given an ‘award’. The hardest part of receiving the ‘award’ would appear to be getting the little air bubbles out of the Wine Spectator sticker as you put it on the inside of the window of the restaurant.
In Wine Spectator’s defense, they do tell us they can’t visit ‘every award-winning restaurant’ in the fine print on their website. However, we still expected more of such a pernickety publication. In view of the fact the magazine doesn’t actually send anyone to assess all the restaurants they're bestowing ‘awards’ upon, perhaps ‘certification’ would be more appropriate.
Because there is more to being a good wine restaurant than just boasting a list of vintages. Is the wine on the list well-matched with the restaurant's cuisine? Does the restaurant know how to handle and store wines properly? Do they actually have the wines they claim to have on their list? Does someone there know how to advise customers on what wines work with which the dishes, how to keep those wines at the right temperature, how to open them properly, and how to evaluate the wine before serving it?

It’s the condescending and haughty tone of the response to the ruse by Wine Spectator that's equally as disappointing – along with their idea to spin the scandal by playing the victim. They actually say they're the "victim of a mugging". (You can read more about the 'mugger', author and wine critic Robin Goldstein, his book, and his academic study that started all this here.) Sadly, this tone is exactly why so many people hate wine snobs. Thomas Matthews, Wine Spectator executive editor, posted on their forum: “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.” What is really sad is that the publication traded that hard-earned integrity for easy money and that their industry awards program was little more than a fundraising scheme. They say they have 4,000 restaurants that have attained the ‘Award of Excellence’. At $250 a year per restaurant, that’s a tidy one million dollars a year for a couple of people to rubber-stamp applications – and enjoy the odd good meal at the restaurants they could be bothered to visit. This doesn’t include the one-third they claim didn’t make the grade. Guess those restaurants must have spelt Gewürztraminer without the umlut…
But we do recall questioning of the awards some time back in the New York Times... Matthews responded to the criticism of Wine Spectator visiting a tiny percentage of their 'award-winning' restaurants by saying:“I admit that compared with the Michelin Guide, it's a weakness in the system. But we're not really promising that we're judging the restaurant. We're judging the wine list at the lower level.'' This was in 2003 so the weakness in the system was clearly counteracted by the strong revenue stream the magazine received from the 'awards'. Five years later, they still hadn’t done anything about it, instead they end up giving a fake restaurant an ‘award’. What's also instructive is the tone and content of Matthews response to the NYT story: “The basic award is not that hard to get" and ''At that level,'' Mr. Matthews added, ''we're trying to bring people into a wine consciousness. We're trying to be as inclusive as possible.” It was a disingenuous claim then, even less so now that they’ve had five years to make themselves more accountable. Or perhaps they've been too busy trying to educate those poor people who don’t have a deep understanding about botrytis or appreciate hints of barnyard on the nose.
But Matthews is still unrepentant, posting this week on the Wine Spectator forums: “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.” Indeed? So for all those restaurants who have duly photocopied their wine list, menu and drawn a cheque for $250 each year, we salute you!

* Terry is my husband, co-author and a wine-lover.


Tamara said...

Oh this makes me so mad! I'm not even a wine drinker, but the thought of food/restaurant awards possibly being tainted as well angers me.

Mark H said...

I wonder how many restaurants and their diners think they have got their $250 worth now. It will be interesting to see if the numbers reduce. As with LP (which is slightly different case), I suspect not much will change out of all of this.

laradunston said...

Hi Tamara & Mark, thanks for your comments.

Tamara, but in this case, it's the magazine which has deceived people with these dodgy 'awards', which is both astonishing and appalling. Many people (who love wine) go to these restaurants because they have that Spectator sticker on their window or because they know they've won the Spectator wine 'award' - they're the ones who have been deceived.

Mark, I certainly think some restaurants (the ones who take pride in their wine lists and carefully put them together) will be wondering as much as diners. I'm not so sure it's received the amount of coverage the LP scandal did to make a difference.

I think LP was certainly impacted by that scandal, as were its authors. It's too early for them to tell whether it had an effect on sales, but they definitely lost a lot of loyal readers from the scandal. You only have to look at the LP website forums or read reviews of LP books to see there is a lot of anti-LP voices out there that didn't seem to exist before.

There's also a lot of guidebook-author-bashing in the mainstream travel media (there was one particularly ugly piece in a Canadian paper recently) and somewhere in the story they'll mention Kohnstamm...

The changes that won't happen are the ones that should, and that's changes to author pay rates and in the Spectator case, changes to their shonky process.

franki durbin said...

You've got to be kidding me. I completely missed this calamity. This line of yours sums it up perfectly:

"The hardest part of receiving the ‘award’ would appear to be getting the little air bubbles out of the Wine Spectator sticker as you put it on the inside of the window of the restaurant."