The Wine Spectator Award Hoax

It has been a couple of weeks now since the Wine Spectator hoax hit the news. Robin Goldstein (a.k.a. fearlesscritic.com) “blew the whistle” on Wine Spectator in a session that I happened to chair at the American Association of Wine Economists meetings in Portland. (Robin actually revealed his hoax as an unscheduled prelude to a completely different presentation at the meetings.)

The wine media quickly picked up the story and now it is everywhere. The story has generated a certain amount of embarrassment for Wine Spectator and given Robin and his new book a lot of  publicity.

What Robin did was to create a fake Italian restaurant (Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano) along with a made-up menu and wine list. Then, following directions on the Wine Spectator website, he applied for an Award of Excellence, which is the way that Wine Spectator recognizes and encourages restaurants with strong wine programs. Wine Spectator tried but was not able independently to confirm the facts about the fake restaurant; they took the application on trust as an honest entry and presented it with the appropriate award in the August 31, 2008 special restaurant issue (see page 181). You can read all about it on Robin’s website for the fake restaurant, http://osterialintrepido.wordpress.com/

Where is the Outrage?

How upset should we be to discover that Wine Spectator can be tricked into giving its wine award to a fake restaurant?  Michael Morrell, my chief cheap wine research assistant, was outraged.  Although price is the most important factor for him in choosing wine, he admits that he is also influenced by wine ratings. The award hoax undermines his trust in wine critics in general and the ratings and advice they produce.

I can understand Michael’s concern, so I consider this a very serious matter, but I don’t think the fact that Wine Spectator fell for a hoax is reason for us to doubt its integrity.  Here is my report.

The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence is given to restaurants to recognize their wine programs.  Although the actual criteria for receiving an award seem very modest to me (you can read them on page 97 of the special restaurant wine issue), it is a fact that about 30% of the new entries each year fail to meet them (the success rate is obviously higher for establishments who enter and receive an award year after year).

There are three levels of award.  3254 restaurants received the base level recommendation.  802 second tier “Best of Award” ratings were given to restaurants with more comprehensive wine lists. 73 top of the line “Grand Awards” were bestowed.  The people at Wine Spectator are proud of their award program and believe that it has encouraged restaurants to upgrade their wine programs.

Caution: Economics Content

I’m sure this is true, but I tend to view the matter in economic theory terms.  Consumers have lots of restaurant options and are uncertain which ones might have good wine choices. The restaurants know how good their wine selections are but have trouble effectively communicating this to potential customers. This is the classic economic problem of “asymmetric information” and the classic economic solution is “signaling” – where one side of a potential transaction finds a way to reveal key information to the other side to help seal the deal.

Restaurants that want to attract wine enthusiast customers need a way to “signal” them about their wine programs and the Award of Excellence is one way to do this.  Restaurants that think sending this signal is worth meeting the criteria and paying the entry fee do it and get on the list.  Others, even some that have strong  wine programs, don’t bother. They have other ways to send the message, I guess.

Wine Spectator fell for the Osteria L’Intrepido hoax because it relied upon the honesty of applicants, assuming, I suppose, that no one would go to the trouble and expense of applying without a conventional commercial purpose. This is another side of asymmetric information — Robin presumably knew his motives in setting the fake restaurant “sting” and Wine Spectator could only guess or assume.

In Vino Veritas

Truth is especially important in the wine world and, because of the problem of asymmetric information, it is particular difficult to know with confidence.  We depend upon the honesty of self-interested actors and the truthfulness of their signals. When we read wine ratings or see wine competition awards, for example, we assume that the judges and critics are tasting the same wines that we buy in the market. But it would be easy for a dishonest producer or distributor to put special wines in the bottles sent to the critics or wine award competitions. The easiest switch would be to put some of last year’s highly ranked wine in place of this year’s weak effort. Most wine critics rate products that are sent to them by makers and distributors and rely upon the honesty of the sender.  Only a few – Gaiter and Brecher at the Wall Street Journal come to mind – seek out and purchase their wines through normal retail channels.

Doctored “critic cuvee” wines are a potential hoax problem.  I am not aware of any wine publications that have been hoaxed in this manner, but I have read and heard speculation about special “award cuvee” wines being entered in competitions.  The nature of the situation makes us all vulnerable to hoaxes.

Wine Spectator fell for this hoax but it wasn’t because its editors are dishonest in giving their awards.  I think most of the criticism of Wine Spectator in this situation is a bum rap, especially since the magazine’s editors seem to be unusually careful in avoiding advertising conflicts of interest.  That’s the subject of my next post.

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3 responses

  1. Mike,

    I appreciate your reconsideration of this issue. Wine Spectator was deceived, and must be more vigilant. And we will work hard to strengthen and improve our wine list awards program, so that it is even more valuable both to the restaurateurs and to consumers.

    But we still think it’s a worthy goal to encourage restaurants — even modest restaurants — to improve their wine programs. And we hope the hoax doesn’t cast a shadow over the very real accomplishments of the thousands of restaurants who have legitimately earned their awards from us.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  2. Mike,

    I agree with the fact that there is no practical way for Wine Spectator to rigorously investigate every restaurant (though there seems to be a conflict between Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Matthews regarding the extent to which Spectator made an effort to contact/investigate). What I really thought was most interesting about the whole experiment/hoax, though, was the issue of the reserve wine list, which I don’t think you mention. Mr. Goldstein explains on his website that the majority of the award-winning list was made up of wines that WS had given very low scores and usually poor descriptions of in the past.

    Does the Magazine also not have enough time to check the wine list against its own prior judgments? I’m not well versed here but isn’t that a big point of the whole award program in the first place? While it was mildly amusing to see that someone could get away with winning with a fake restaurant, what really gets me is the contradiction with the “reserve” wine list and its supposed level of quality, as determined by the Magazine itself. The ratings and descriptions that WS gives to the wines that eventually merit such an award are interesting to read. Maybe it just means the Magazine should limit the awards further – maybe charge even more in order to make up the lost revenue?

    Kylor

  3. i hope that WS looked at the wine lists before they made their awards. but i think it’s (arguably) to their credit that they don’t impose the judgement of their critics on these lists. many wines are controversial and the WS critics (including italy) are on one side of the divide. if i were a judge i’d look more for unusual and initesting selections at a reasonable price. WS provides (some) information and well-informed reviews. the rest is up to the individual… i’ll try the Soldera…

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