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08.19.2008

Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards Exposed as a Total Farce

My colleague Jim Gordon who currently edits Wines & Vines magazine just pointed me to an article on their web site that made my jaw hit the table.

Reporting from the recent meeting of the American Society for Wine Economists, writer Peter Mitham describes a presentation by researcher Robin Goldstein, who seems to have performed a sting operation on the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards and exposed them as a total farce, as part of his ongoing investigations on the perceptions of value and quality in wine.

In summary:

1. Researcher invents fake restaurant in Italy.
2. Researcher builds web site for fake restaurant.
3. Researcher constructs wine list of the lowest scoring Italian wines from Wine Spectator in the last decade.
4. Researcher enters Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards.
5. Fake restaurant wins Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

I haven't laughed so hard at a piece of wine news in years. It's truly unbelievable.

Read the article at Wines & Vines, and then go read the the researcher's own blog post on the subject, which includes text from the Spectator's reviews of the wines on his list. It's hysterical.

If this is true, it completely destroys any shred of credibility that these awards might have.

Comments (56)

Rajiv wrote:
08.19.08 at 8:32 PM

This is too funny. Alder you forgot to mention that the menu included one ringer, a 90-point Sassicaia for 300 Euros. That sounds like a QPR if I ever saw one ;)

I anxiously awaid WS's response!

Jeremy wrote:
08.19.08 at 8:38 PM

I really liked this one from the "reserve" list:

AMARONE CLASSICO “LA FABRISERIA” 1998 (Veneto) Tedeschi 185,00 €

Wine Spectator rating: 60 points. “…Unacceptable. Sweet and cloying. Smells like bug spray…”


Bug spray? Now that redefines excellence!

Rajiv wrote:
08.19.08 at 8:42 PM

Well... it's all about levels. My friend at the local wine store says that some of their top Rhones have hints of raid. I can see a hint being interesting. A lot, though, would be rather unpleasant.

hamishwm wrote:
08.19.08 at 11:03 PM

This discredits Wine Spectators awards. It also questions WS's research skills. Worryingly it also threads back to the previous blog about paying to enter competitions and winning something. It will be very interesting to see WS's response.

08.20.08 at 3:35 AM

oh...
sweet...
lord...

Yet another reason to stop giving Marvin "Shankin'" Shanken any more of your money. As if the point system wasn't a farce to begin with, you get this.

Reminds me when W(b)S was busted for including a wine that was supposedly representative of the region and varietal (in connection with wine.com no less) for use with one of their failed at-home ABC’s of Wine courses. That wine turned out to be a Gallo Chardonnay that Laube pinned a 55 on.

I hate to gloat in the failures of others, as my own writing suggests (hehe) but this kind of irresponsible, ivory-tower money-making is a perfect example of what may someday relegate W(b)S to a Conde Nast lifestyle publication instead of the defacto guide to wine...

Kids, don’t feel bad if you never got published by WS, they pay well, but you may pay in the long run when it comes to credibility…

Dino wrote:
08.20.08 at 8:41 AM

Adler, didn't you comment on this several years ago? Someone asked the WS (Shanken?) if the Awards of Excellence were ads or editorial content. The answer was editorial content.

Bill Wilson wrote:
08.20.08 at 8:41 AM

The other problem with the WS awards is that the participants are all self-nominated. There are some restaurants I know of that have wonderful wine lists, but do not enter the fray. But this is rather interesting news.

Haha wrote:
08.20.08 at 10:44 AM

More like the wine speculator. Do you guys think that Laube and company even taste the wines they rate?

Rajiv wrote:
08.20.08 at 11:41 AM

I feel that this incident is more a reflection on the publication itself, rather than the individual critics.

08.20.08 at 11:53 AM

...but if you write for them, wholeheartedly endorse them, promulgate the WS mantra as Gospel, you are subject to the floggings as well.

I like Kramer, but he's about it, truthfully, for me. Laube lost credibility years ago in my mind. Sucking does ok, but there are far better sources. But yes, ultimately this isn't the fault of the reviewers (anymore than a PFC is to blame for a war, just that he is contributing to the problem) but the fault of whoever is (or more likely was) in charge of that department. I mean the list even published the scores AND the notes!

Morton Leslie wrote:
08.20.08 at 12:14 PM

They better hope Robin hasn't also invented a new winery named Chateau something, supposedly in the Sierra Foothills, and sent them a sample of their first Cabernet release.....a 2005 Colgin or equivalent re-labeled, re-corked and re- foiled. My guess as a "Sierra Foothill" wine, it would be hard pressed to get an 87.

Dylan wrote:
08.20.08 at 12:21 PM

BRAVO to the researcher!

I absolutely adore moments like this. It reminds me well of Marcel Duchamp questioning of the art world and what they fancy as high quality art. He entered in a piece under a false artist's name R. MUTT. As you can see with the link(http://locus.cwrl.utexas.edu/jbrown/files/Marcel%20Duchamp.jpg), it's essentially a urinal. Upon arrival at the museum exhibition, he appeared as himself asking where the piece of the up and coming artist R. MUTT had went? The curator quickly pulled it from the back room and apologized, all the sudden because Marcel said it was art, everyone agreed.

Marcel later exposed the truth and all of the sudden a new question was born in art. What is art and who decides that? What is good wine and who decides that? The world is not filled with but one critic, so you can look to a range of voices for the truth. But, honestly, the only true means is to explore for yourself.

Rajiv wrote:
08.20.08 at 12:26 PM

I've seen that urinal... it's AWESOME :)

It's patently not true that good wine can be discovered only by exploring yourself. What you will discover instead is what wine you like the best. This is not necessarily the same as good wine. Example: most young people today would prefer Soulja Boy to Bach. That's totally understandable.However Soulja Boy is not a better musician than Bach.

1WineDude wrote:
08.20.08 at 12:28 PM

Holy....

.....CRAP!

If WS cannot answer this acceptably as being a one-off issue, then they have a serious, serious problem on their hands!

Mark Fisher wrote:
08.20.08 at 12:55 PM

Alder: You and I have both written on this subject extensively, I know. When I wrote about the awards in 2006, I received the following email from Marvin Shanken that I think will add to this topic:

"I won’t belabor the fact that 26(?) years ago we started the awards program to both encourage and recognize those restaurateurs that were willing to make wine an important, in fact integral part of the total dining experience. NO ONE ELSE WAS DOING THIS!!!!!!!!!!! We underwrote all the costs for the first 20 years at considerable expense to us. The program became so successful, with thousands of entries, that we were going under water with it. Staffing, processing, travel, etc. One of our editors suggested that it was quite legitimate to charge for the service as the restaurant was getting the benefit — and attracting many more patrons. So we started charging and the rest is history. It keeps growing because it continues to be a great service to the dining and wine worlds. To personally inspect the 4,000 entries from around the world would cost an additional $40 million. We talked about it, then decided it was just a little more then we wanted to spend this year. Maybe next year though. Have a good summer, Marvin P.S: Our editors have traveled around the world many times to inspect candidates for the Grand Award. Half the time they don’t pass the inspection. Should I send the bills to the Dayton Daily News? Please advise."

Arthur wrote:
08.20.08 at 1:23 PM

Although I have had issues with Goldstein’s previous publications, I think he and I are after the same thing: getting people to realize that those we have anointed the arbiters of taste know as little about their subject of interest as those who lazily rely on their judgment.

But the deeper message on Goldstein’s much-debated Wine Trials (and now this shocker, if it proves to be true), I think, is that if you get lazy and want simple, “bottom-line” answers, those giving you the answers will soon get lazy as well and their answers will be worthless.

mph wrote:
08.20.08 at 2:08 PM

This is the Sokol affair of the wine rag industry...

08.20.08 at 2:19 PM

I love how Marvin’s excuse for not doing a job right (which he created btw) is that it costs too much. “We can’t afford to waste all that rebar on reinforcing those bridges. You want us to actually check out the credentials of everyone who applies for one of our awards? Do you have any idea what that will cost us?"

Ten years. In ten years WS will be the Better Homes and Gardens of the wine world.

Dino wrote:
08.20.08 at 4:30 PM

Over at the WS online forum, the chorus has got their shorts in knots, and Matthews explains it all away. (Goldstein is a disgrace to serious wine criticism and the up-scale lifestyle.). See for yourselves.

http://forums.winespectator.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/6826053161/m/835102245

08.20.08 at 5:11 PM

Okay.

A) I'm a bastard.

B) This is too much fun. I updated Slinging Juice today in honor of this Glorious Gift of Goldstein.

I really think Chili's has a shot at award. look at their wines, about halfway down this page: http://chilis.com/menu/default.asp?catID=17&tierID=62&Unit_ID=001.005.0930&menuType=Dine%20In

Now since they do not list the vintage, and one would assume they are working with the most recent, I went to WS and pulled scores for their list, all six wines (balanced, three white, three red) and got scores and TN for the most recent reviews of the wines Chili's serves. They faired far better than Osteria L’Intrepido did, though the did have one ringer coming at 88, nothing scored below a 79.

If I were Brinker I'd send in my $250, argue this as precedent, and get that bad boy reprinted up to the tune of what, 350 units nationwide?

But enough, here are the results:

2004 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, WS 82
Straightforward, with lemon and apple peel character. Good acidity. Clean finish. Drink now. 600,000 cases made. –JS

2006 Woodbridge Chardonnay WS 79
Citrusy grapefruit and spice flavors have a twinge of bitterness. Lacks varietal character. 2600000 cases made. –JL

2002 R.H PHILLIPS Toasted Head Chardonnay WS 83
There's no shortage of spicy, toasty oak on this otherwise lean and fairly simple white. Ends on a strong roasted dill note. Drink now. 15,000 cases made.

2003 Beringer Founder’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon WS 82
Trim band of currant, berry and dusty herbal notes, finishing with grape jelly flavors. Drink now. 200,000 cases made.

2003 Blackstone Merlot, California WS 81
Heavy-handed on the charry oak notes, which eclipse pleasant plum and spice flavors on a medium frame. Drink now. 850,000 cases made.

...and the dark horse:

2005 Jacob’s Creek Shiraz WS 88
Lithe and appealing for a sense of delicacy to go along with the focused cherry and plum flavors, lingering against refined tannins. Drink now through 2012. 90,000 cases made. –HS


:)

08.20.08 at 5:26 PM

I have to say that my initial reaction was very similiar to many of those who posted ahead of me. However I would like to play the devils advocate for a minute. I am not defending the Wine Spectator, but I do have to bring up the hundreds of restaurants that get awards that are legitamate and have great wine lists. This was a set up that was designed to ensnare the publication, who of us wouldn't have our credability brought into question of someone was willing to go the necassary extremes to do so?
I personally don't go to a restaurant because they have a Spectator award winning list but I go to restaurants that do have spectator awards. I think it is good to have a healthy degree of skeptiscm about things like winelist awards but it doesn't change the fact that some of those who have recieved the awards DO have great wine lists.

Cory wrote:
08.20.08 at 6:08 PM

Jerry,

Some of them do have excellent wine lists, which makes this all the worse, because it calls into question the lists of those restaurants that have taken the time to assemble a world class cellar and have the award displayed.

Arthur wrote:
08.20.08 at 7:39 PM

So I took a look at the link Dino posted.

Here are some interesting things:

Goldstein had gone to some length to create the illusion of a real restaurant:

“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.”

Furthermore:

“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.”

The WS page describing the Awards program describes the Award of Excellence as:

“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. Typically, these lists offer at least 100 selections.”

Now if the L'Intrepido had earned the “Grand Award “ (held currently, by 73 winners ) things would probably look worse for WS. This award is described thusly:
“Our highest award, given to restaurants that show an uncompromising, passionate devotion to the quality of their wine program. These restaurants typically offer 1,500 selections or more, and feature serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu and superior organization, presentation and wine service.”

When I read Alder's post, I found myself reconsidering my opinion of Goldstein. In my daytime job, we trust authors and researchers to be honest. It doesn't look think this can be said about the way Goldstein presented the issue...

08.20.08 at 7:57 PM

I asked for a copy of the menu over there on their forum, I bet they will cough it up at some point, now that MSNBC is carrying this story...

But this may be a blend of poor WS management and author publicity stunt.

Still, if a fictitious restaurant can get an award without having existed...

Arthur wrote:
08.20.08 at 8:06 PM

I posted the same request on WS and the L'Intrepido blog.

I am curious what comes of it.

Randy wrote:
08.20.08 at 8:48 PM

This is simply a stage of the biz life cycle of a Corporate Wine Peddeler. Soon, folks will become skeptical of the "number system" and eventually they, along with the restaurants who bought into this malarky, will disappear. Corporate gets what they deserve!

Rajiv wrote:
08.20.08 at 10:31 PM

Wow! this is a new turn.

Bernardo wrote:
08.21.08 at 5:29 AM

Bobby Parker must be dancing up a storm next to his spitting sink.

Tom Aarons wrote:
08.21.08 at 6:49 AM

Hah! Hilarious!

Vintuba wrote:
08.21.08 at 7:12 AM

Adler,

This is kind of inline with your post on wine competitions. Clearly WS uses these awards as a revenue source. This is going to really impact their credibility!

Begs the question why don't we trust our own reviews or impressions more, we (the collective we) seem to rely so heavily on what "the critics" think. Time to get some wine self-esteem!

Cheers

08.21.08 at 7:46 AM

Alder,

I've really enjoyed watching the twists and turns with this story since it first broke. It's a bit of a microcosm of the 'power' and speed of the web and blogging these days - information is considered 'truthful' until proven otherwise.

It seems that many people continue to be wary of WS because they are unabashedly 'for profit' and therefore the assumption is that everything they do is aimed at making a buck first and foremost, regardless of how they go about doing it.

I am not in this camp - I realize they run a business that needs to show a profit to keep the doors open, but I believe they are as 'objective' in their writing / reviews as any other reviewer / publication out there. Readers may not agree with what they say, but the same can be said with any publication.

Why do you think Robin did not come out and report what Matthews stated over at WS - that of the 250 wines that were on the 'fake' wine list, only 15 had scores below 80 - yet these were the ONLY wines Robin discussed? Why do you think he did NOT talk about the 50 or so wines that received 90 points or higher? Why do you think he did NOT discuss how detailed his plan was to try to deceive WS - the fake reviews on ChowHound, etc?

I'm not saying that WS did everything they could have to check the vailidity of this restaurant - they apparently did not. But I think that Robin did not paint the complete picture when reporting his findings - just those that helped flame the fire.

Just something else to consider . . .

Cheers!

Kevin Kelley wrote:
08.21.08 at 7:56 AM

Yes, the emperor has no clothes, and he doesn't cut a very dashing figure either.
Since when is this news to an enophile?

Rajiv wrote:
08.21.08 at 8:20 AM

I agree with Mr. Schaffer.

Goldstein did not paint a complete picture (heck, he didn't mention that he got the place listed on GoogleMaps, and actually had a working phone number!). While WS may have overlooked the reserve list, that's just a tiny fraction of the total list (and how many people actually order from the reserve list in a "moderately priced" restaurant?).

Robin did cover his own ass by mentioning that the bulk of his list was "perfectly decent" but he didn't mention that this was 94% of the list. According to WS, that portion of the list was more than decent.

All in all this is dishonest journalism.

The Grape wrote:
08.21.08 at 10:02 AM

I used to run that restaurant award program in the 80s and I can say a couple of things about the whole brew haha:

First, Jim Gordon actually edited the magazine for years, and maybe it would be better if he stopped slinging mud at his ex employer... It looks bad.

Second, these awards, especially the "Award of Excellence" are given based upon a wine list that is submitted, BY MAIL, to the magazine. ONLY the "Grand Award" restaurants are actually checked out by the staff, and I can vouch for that. I personally witnessed restaurants losing a "Grand Award" after being visited and found lacking.

Basically, an "Award of Excellence" means little or nothing.

1WineDude wrote:
08.21.08 at 10:11 AM

Matthews' defense is actually quite sensible. But his defense also suggests that a wine list can have 5% crap wines and still receive their basic award. Which might be troubling for wine lovers & restaurant-goers who view the WS awards as a means to help them select restaurants that care deeply about wine and wine service.

Calling the study an “act of malicious duplicity” and “unscrupulous” is a very bad move.

Better to have acknowledged that this highlights a potential area of concern and commit to reducing the 5% margin of error - and maybe even asking Robin Goldstein for help. Instead, WS is viewing it as a personal attack and reacting in kind.

Not classy.

Arthur wrote:
08.21.08 at 10:36 AM

Joe

This was not a "study" and Goldstein is not a "researcher" any more than I am a martial arts expert.

This was a hatchet job from the get go and it is establishing a track record and MO for Goldstein (remember The Wine Trials brouhaha?).

I am not absolving the WS here (although I am not yet inclined to say that the awards program is a total sham, farce and a racket), but there was a deliberate intent to sensationalize and give a "gotcha" spin to the story by being very selective about what information and details about the whole story Goldstein presented to the public.

That is an “act of malicious duplicity” and it smacks of pushing an agenda and publicity seeking.

08.21.08 at 11:26 AM

1winedude,

Good points, though I am a bit troubled by your statement that an award-winning restaurant should not have '5% crap wines' on its list.

I think we can all agree that ratings are not perfect, and that one reviewer's 92 points is someone else's 82 points. In addition, restaurants may choose wine that may not score high but work very well with their specific cuisine.

Therefore, just because a small percentate of the wines received 'low' marks should not, IMO, nix that restaurant for consideration.

This is just my humble opinion, of course . . . .

Carry on.

Tish wrote:
08.21.08 at 12:33 PM

THis episode will continue to reverberate. After this round of ridiculing passes, I expect far more serious scrutiny on everything else WS does that involves RATINGS. They made their bed in Awards, ratings and hubris. NOw they have to sleep in it.

Wine Guy wrote:
08.21.08 at 2:02 PM

The best wine for you is the wine you like best. This is just further proof that 'expert opinions' should serve only to help direct you to a wine you will really enjoy.

Arthur wrote:
08.21.08 at 2:08 PM

Wine guy:

Spoken like a guy who makes living selling wine.

St Vini wrote:
08.21.08 at 2:20 PM

Though I did laugh when I first heard about this, WS's response makes it clear that what Goldstein did was highly deceptive (particularly the way he portrayed this)and wrong.

I did enjoy this nugget from Molesworth in the WS response thread though: "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..."

Alder wrote:
08.21.08 at 4:14 PM

Larry,

Thanks for the comments. To address your questions and the comments of others here, I think Robin was being sensationalist and disengenuous. His blog and his presentation at the meeting of Wine Economists clearly did not contain all the information, and his omissions were self serving. Unfortunately, I assumed given his association with this group (which I believe to be reasonably upstanding) that his "experiment" and its results were reported honestly. This was clearly not the case.

Based on The Spectator's response to the issue, I think my claim that their awards have been exposed as a farce is clearly not accurate. In short, I'm in agreement with your assessment that if anyone has mud on their face after all this, it's much more likely to be Goldstein than the Spectator.

St. Vini wrote:
08.21.08 at 5:16 PM

"Wine Economists.....this group (which I believe to be reasonably upstanding)"

Really? Just who are they exactly? Can you list a member besides Mr. Goldstein? I've been in this business for a long time and I've never heard of them until Goldstein hit the scene....

Arthur wrote:
08.21.08 at 5:18 PM
Dino wrote:
08.21.08 at 7:33 PM

In a few weeks time, the IOC may very well strip the Chinese gymnastics team of their team gold medal in women's gymnastics because He Kexin is underage. If the Chinese blame the blogosphere for this turn of events, will some of the earlier commentators realize just how ludicrous Matthews defense is?

Goldstein's deception amounted to a practical joke, an elaborate and probably malicious one, but a practical joke none-the-less. The Wine Spectator fell for the joke, either because of avarice or stupidity, which thus exposed the ongoing hoax, known as the 'Awards of Excellence." Representing advertising as editorial content is more than a hoax, it fraud outside of marketing departments.

Stephen Trask wrote:
08.21.08 at 9:07 PM

While it is terribly amusing to see the Wine Spectator punked, that is not really all that relevant. There is no reason to expect that for the lowest award the Wine Spectator should have safe guards against a someone submitting a fictional restaurant with an elaborate ruse.

The only part that seems worth getting upset over, even outraged, is the overall crappiness of the wines on the list. Any customer walking in to a restaurant with a Wine Spectator award posted should be able to trust that almost any wine ordered will be a quality offering at a reasonable price. one wonders (and might someone investigate?) how many other award winners have lousy lists.


1WineDude wrote:
08.22.08 at 7:49 AM

I've been speaking with some of the WS folks on their website forum, and I'm reasonably convinced now of 2 things:

1) Alder and others here are correct that Goldstein is too shadowy in his presentation of this "study"

2) The study being a bit of a farce is not relevant now - the publicity and perception are "in the wild." WS still needs to provide details on how they will improve their awards system in order to answer that perception. Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Shadowcat wrote:
08.22.08 at 12:21 PM

St. Vini says: I did enjoy this nugget from Molesworth in the WS response thread though: "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..."

Curious, but are you being sarcastic?

On this blog, the author starts the thread by basically saying "My friend told me this happened, and if true..." He slaps a sensational headline on it and bang, zing, there it is!

But did this blog's author call either Goldstein or the WS to confirm anything from the sources themselves? Or was it all taken at face value before adding in some hyperlinks and conjecture, and then reaping the fame from increased website traffic?

One should always get both sides of the story - and get it from the source...

Alder wrote:
08.22.08 at 2:04 PM

Shadowcat,

Thanks for the comments. It's important for me to clarify a couple of things.

The first is that I found out about this issue not because some "friend called me" but because I read an article on the web site of a well established wine magazine known as Wines & Vines. I do happen to know the editor (who, by the way, was an editor at Wine Spectator for many years) but that is beside the point.

Second is that no, I did not call Goldstein or the Wine Spectator. I wasn't reporting that I had investigated the issue. I was reporting that I had read about the issue elsewhere. My post was a report of my reaction to, and opinion about what I had read elsewhere.

Finally, I never make the decision to post anything on my site for fame or fortune. I post stuff here that I think is interesting. Period.

Big Daub wrote:
08.22.08 at 4:54 PM

To quote Morrissey... "Is it really so strange?"

To whose amusement is it to watch WS curl up into a ball after poking it's soft underbelly with a stick? Sure it's reassuring for the rest of us mortals that this behemoth can shiver and shake, complete with full-blown damage control, but is it really so strange? What's the point here? The beauty (and the beast) of the interweb is that anyone can be anything to anyone. Construct a non-existent restaurant right down to a fake website, fake wine list and fake diner's opinions... okay... bravo, you fooled them! Was WS supposed to do a background check with INTERPOL?

Folks, we're spending 19 million dollars an hour grinding up bodies in the Middle East and the whole world's in a tizzy about an imaginary restaurant getting a meaningless award. Shame on all of us...

08.24.08 at 9:38 AM

That example shows perfectly the limits of a rating system which is, by definition, always subjective. WS is not overwhelmed by the system since it is them which have created, bringing a lot of money in their pockets by adds and the potential business the rating brings.
Same things (not to say worse) of course with their wine section. And BTW, I forgot to mention that this also applies to the Wine Advocate jokes.

Andres wrote:
08.25.08 at 10:43 AM

I think the whole issue has blown a little out of proportion. It goes to show that we all ought to re-think the way we react to wine news that are as appalling or interesting as such. I think the blog and the opportunity to exchange thoughts is great. But I also think it is unfair to make easy assumptions or conclusions as to what WS duty are as a reputable wine magazine.
I believe WS works as a “greater good” to the exposure of wine to the general public. As many of us who are enthusiastic (and smart) about the subject will know, the magazine, its content and its reporting, are ought to be take subjectively and with a dose of personal opinion in between. Sure the grading system serves as a guideline for some who lack their own perception and knowledge about wine (hence helping, informing and enhancing). But I also manages to upset certain people who are savvy enough to know the system has its subjective taste and opinion.
So the wine award should not be any different. For the people who are not smart (or savvy) enough to know what a good wine list looks like, or is supposed to be composed of, the guidelines of the award allows them to put trust in something they lack the knowledge. It helps them make a decision. And for the ones who know about wine, the awards should mean nothing since you can make your own assertions and conclusions as to the selection of wines that are provided.
In a very “Theise” metaphor, one can pick a car online for its specs, pics and prior owner’s opinion and comments. One could also even check a Carfax report on the vehicle before actually finding out the car is a total wreck and a total fiasco.
The awards should be a base for guidelines for the uneducated wine enthusiast (so is the ratings), and it should be taken with a pill of precaution for the wine savvy. No one should get upset over the hoax pulled. The public should go on with their lives knowing they didn’t get cheated since nobody visited the fake restaurant. Goldstein should really consider getting himself a girlfriend or a hobby, and WS should see this as a precautionary warning as to avoid incidents as such in the future. Kudos for doing you best within the budget to investigate the fake restaurant; but now you know next year you will not fall again in the same mistake, and you will be more persistent and careful when reviewing the entries.

Dino wrote:
08.29.08 at 4:25 PM

Last comment?

To the several WS apologists in this comment string.

The WS defense is 'we attempted to verify the restaurant's existence by such rigorous methods as googling it and leaving a message on their answering machine. When was could not verify its existence, we cashed the check and sent them their Award of Excellence.'

Bob wrote:
06.29.09 at 1:58 AM

Having had responsibility for a Grand Award cellar for many years, I can confirm some of what has already been said here.

It is true that restaurants with Grand Awards are inspected and verified. This includes both anonymous visits and cellar inspections, with particular attention not only to the veracity of the listings, but also to both the depth of inventory and the degree of professional care maintained in the cellars.

While it is tempting to jump all over a story like this, surely any thoughtful consumer must have some inkling that the sheer volume of "Awards of Excellence" precludes any possibility that diligent follow-up on establishments in this category would ever be feasible by any single publication.

This, of course, is somewhat beside the point. Many contributors to this discussion have already pointed out the fact that the breech in question has as much to do with the contents of the submitted list as it does with the phantom nature of the award's recipient.

Still, as other contributors have also noted, entry-level "awards" are a response to written submissions, and serve only to indicate that the restaurant, (I suppose we will now have to insert the caveat: "if it exists"), has ostensibly made a commitment to providing and maintaining a reasonably thoughtful selection of wines to complement its cuisine.

If this is indeed the case, the public has a right to expect that recipients of this award will be something more than just actual, operating establishments; that they will, in fact, stand in stark contrast to those which sport a mere perfunctory list, slapped together by a salesperson representing some distributor who is willing to pay for its printing.

Consumers need some arbiter to help them distinguish restaurants with actual wine programs from establishments that turn over control of them to their vendors. This tactic may save the restaurateur the expense of printing wine lists, but it does little to foster a "thoughtful" and "complementary" approach to wine as handmaiden to cuisine.

An "Award of Excellence" tends to protect the consumer from such follies. As such, however, it really tells you nothing beyond the fact that the restaurant, (if it exists), is making a serious effort, has submitted its list, and won Wine Spectator's endorsement of that submission.

If the submission indicates an area of concentration on the list, (such as a regional, varietal or stylistic focus, or, perhaps, a focus on small producers or "boutique" wines), then the restaurant is probably going to qualify for consideration for inclusion in the category designated as the "Best of the Award of Excellence." (It is my understanding that the likelihood of acquiring this designation is significantly enhanced if the restaurant stocks vertical vintages of wines within the scope of it's own particular area of focus.)

All of these facts notwithstanding, I suppose that it's just too tempting to howl with laughter when yet another self-appointed arbiter of "excellence" is clearly giving out far more awards than it can police; but I wonder how many recipients of those entry-level awards would be willing to give up the chance to have that decal on their door, just so that the number of recipients could be trimmed down to a manageable level.

I will grant you that the prominence of Wine Spectator's awards in the consumer's mind is probably more beneficial to WS than to anyone else. After caring for a cellar housing anywhere between 45,000 and 52,000 bottles for many years, supporting over a thousand listings representing vintages from the 1920's to the current decade, I am as displeased as anyone that this breech of trust will cause that laughter to be spread around widely enough to expose my efforts to as many chortles as it will those of all the others.

Clearly, this is not a fun prospect for anyone involved at any level of the quandary that seems to be emerging from this somewhat sensational story. One must allow that there is substantial benefit to the consumer---especially to the traveler---if we can maintain some respectable, universal standard that can serve as a reliable indication of the sort of wine program one is likely to encounter when entering a restaurant for the first time.

Hopefully, we can find a way to reliably rate and summarize restaurant wine programs with a view toward preparing the consumer for the kind of wine-related experience that is to be had at any given establishment. Once the consumer succeeds in finding and entering such an establishment, (and, thereby, satisfies himself that it does, in fact, exist), the consumption of wine on the premises will have far less to do with the relative prominence of Chenin Blanc or Cheval Blanc on the list than the average "cork dork" might imagine.

Restaurant awards are not useful in the same sense as reviews of a retail wine shop's inventory might be. If it is your intent, as a diner, to find a restaurant with a stellar list, only so that you can impress your friends with your command of its contents upon your arrival, your purposes are better served by perusing the restaurant's website, (if one exists).

If you are seeking a more rewarding dining experience, your purposes are best served by tapping the expertise of the staff. This is equally true whether you prefer to build your meal around a great wine, or to select the most complementary wine to enhance the pleasures of a great dish. A fine sauce can turn any wine, even a great wine, to battery acid on your palate, (provided it's the wrong wine, however great it may be). Conversely, a complementary pairing of wine and food is the essence of fine dining.

As a consumer, I am far more interested in whether or not the establishment in question offers the personnel and expertise necessary to provide whatever guidance I may require for a harmonious pairing of wines with my meal, and far more likely to rely on the staff's familiarity with the menu than the point ratings, or star vintages or celebrated producers to be found on the list.

Typically, restaurants whose awards are beyond those of entry-level recognition will be better able to assist me, whether my priority for the evening is primarily focused on the wine or on the food; and---given that inescapable fact---perhaps this whole ruckus is just a tempest in a teapot.

Restaurants that take wine seriously, and are willing to back up that commitment with substantial time, effort and investment, aren't going to be any less reliable just because WS rubber-stamped an application for an entry-level award that just happened to have been submitted as part of a clever sting operation.

It will probably be a good thing if the public becomes more skeptical of the huge proliferation of relatively minor awards, as many of them are mere marketing ploys, in which some establishments perform the bare minimum necessary to obtain a logo they can brandish in their ads. There are, however, many would-be serious players at even the most fundamental level---many of whom are just getting started---and they shouldn't be faulted for trying. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for most of us, that's at the beginning.

It's always fun to throw stones at Goliath, particularly when you catch him with his pants down. It would be nice, however, if this minor debacle could foster some thoughtful discussion about ways in which we might punch through the veil propped up by the tyranny of ratings. Whether the pronouncements come from Mr. Parker or the glossy mags, no one wants to forever continue to live in a world in which hoards of consumers compensate for their lack of confidence in their own expertise by stampeding like lemmings from one pronouncement to another.

There must surely be a way to promote guidance while transmitting knowledge and fostering consumer confidence. Perhaps the best way to build a better consumer is to create the thing that will ultimately transform rampant suspicion into healthy skepticism. After all, critical judgment is the one indispensable key to both the creation and the enjoyment of excellence.

Alan wrote:
01.17.11 at 10:22 AM

"Total Farce"? Really? One guy goes to a lot of trouble to prove that WS awards can be gamed and you conclude that the awards are a "TOTAL FARCE"? How stupid is that?

The guy punked WS as a self-serving publicity stunt.

The best part of this is that Wine Spectator has published the details of how it goes about doling out the awards and it is obvious that the awards are a profit center since the minimal checking is more than compensated by the submission fee. That said, the awards are not a "Total Farce". WS does some screening and the restaurants pony up the fee with only a 2 in 3 chance of being included on the list.

The system needs to be improved, however, I don't see the folks at Wine and Vines offering a better alternative. I'm guessing that this is because they cannot. Better to carp about WS than to build a better mousetrap.

Bottom line, everyone involved has an ax to grind and has incentives to criticize/defend the Excellence Awards. The "economist" was seeking a PR flash, W&V enjoys jabbing a competitor, WS wants to defend their profitable awards program, and the author of this blog wants more hits. There is no disinterested or unbiased player in this drama.

And that's what it is. A manufactured, pr-driven drama.

scmvgxsiaz wrote:
09.27.12 at 2:48 AM

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