From Now On, They’re Going With “Trust, But Verify”

From Now On, They’re Going With “Trust, But Verify”

You’ve got to hand it to Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews. First, his magazine gets caught red-handed giving an Award of Excellence to a restaurant that not only doesn’t exist, but whose make-believe wine list features many of the lowest-scoring wines ever to be rated by Wine Spectator (“Smells like bug spray” concludes the review of one vintage; “Just too much paint thinner and nail varnish character,” reads another). Then he made it worse by declaring that the magazine had somehow been the real victim in the story. “This was a mugging,” Matthews told the New York Post. Even if it was, do you still want to spend $250 annually to be recognized by Wine Spectator?

For nearly three decades, a wine list award from Wine Spectator has been one of the most prestigious honors a restaurant could have. Many of the world’s finest restaurants currently hold one of the three levels of awards the magazine bestows. In 2008, 3,254 restaurants won an Award of Excellence (“our basic award”); 802 were tapped for the Best of Award of Excellence (“our second-tier award”); and 73 earned a Grand Award (“our highest award”). That’s a lot of award giving to oversee, and the magazine charges a $250 application fee to cover the cost of judging and administering the program.

Wine Spectator awards are given annually and must be renewed. Renewal also costs $250—a sore point among some restaurant operators. From Wine Spectator’s point of view, $250 times its number of award winners brings in an enviable $1 million-plus each year. If you’re wondering what the gold standard for ancillary revenue generation might be in the magazine business, this is it.

Representatives from Wine Spectator visited every applicant when it first started handing out awards. But as the scope grew, the popular program changed. On-site inspections were eventually limited to only those few restaurants that were under consideration for a Grand Award. All others sank or swam on the strength of the wine list they had mailed in for consideration, along with their $250 check. More than two-thirds of restaurants that apply receive awards.

Wine Spectator owner Marvin Shanken defended both the fee and the methodology in an email he sent in 2006.

"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 than we wanted to spend this year.”

Fair enough, but the magazine may become a little more skeptical about those mailed-in entries after its recent experience with Osteria L’Intrepido. The August 2008 issue of Wine Spectator named this restaurant’s wine list as an Award of Excellence winner. No sooner had the issue hit the newsstand than the Wine Spectator people realized they had a problem on their hands. Actually, two problems.

The first was that there is no Osteria L’Intrepido. Wine researcher Robin Goldstein invented it for the sole purpose of testing the depth of Wine Spectator’s commitment to researching its Award of Excellence applicants.

To pull his ruse, Goldstein constructed a fake website, created a menu of Italian favorites and printed up an equally bogus wine list. Osteria L’Intrepido was supposedly located in Milan, Italy, too far away for Wine Spectator contest judges to pay an in-person visit. Instead, they at best relied on minimal fact checking over the Internet before bestowing their award.

Before anyone could say, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” it became clear that Goldstein had laid a second trap for the magazine. Osteria’s L’Intrepido’s basic wine list was decent, if not world-class award-worthy. But its higher-priced reserve list “was largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades,” Goldstein says.

Included on it were such gems as:

Amarone Classico 1998 (Veneto) Tedeschi, 80 Euros
Wine Spectator Rating: 65 points “…not clean. Stale black licorice…”

Barbaresco Asij 1985 (Piemonte), 135 Euros
Wine Spectator Rating: 64 points “Earthy, swampy, gamy, harsh and tannic…”

Brunello Di Montalcino Riservo 1996 (Toscana) Gainfranco Soldera, 235 Euros
Wine Spectator Rating: 74 points. “…Turpentine. Medium-bodied with hard, acidic character. Disappointing.”

The reserve list goes on from there. Note that there weren’t just a few “gotcha” items buried amidst a lengthy list of stellar vintages. Nope, every bottle on it was an overpriced disaster, at least according to previous Wine Spectator reviews.

Goldstein, also the author of a new book called The Wine Trials, unveiled the results of this experiment at the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists earlier this month, “While it’s interesting that the reserve list would receive such seemingly little scrutiny, the central point is that the wine cellar doesn’t actually exist,” Goldstein wrote subsequently in his blog. “And while Osteria L’Intrepido may be the first to win an Award of Excellence for an imaginary restaurant, it’s unlikely that it was the first submission that didn’t accurately reflect the contents of a restaurant’s wine cellar.”

For its part, Wine Spectator felt its honorable process had been violated. Matthews labeled Goldstein “a malicious person” who had performed “an act of malicious duplicity.” However, he told the New York Post, “Wine Spectator will clearly have to be more vigilant in the future.”

We hope so. But a question now lingers for those who currently hold, or who aspire to hold, a Wine Spectator Award: Are you winning an award, or merely buying one? And if it’s the latter, how much will recognition from Wine Spectator really be worth after this scandal dies down?