Friday, September 12, 2008

Wine Spectator responds to hoax

Here is the official response from Wine Spectator, sent over this morning by executive editor Thomas Matthews:

Wine Spectator has learned 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.

To orchestrate his publicity-seeking scam, Robin Goldstein created a fictitious restaurant in Milan, Italy, called Osteria L’Intrepido, then submitted a menu and wine list to Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards as a new entry in 2008. The wine list earned an Award of Excellence, the most basic of our three award levels.

Goldstein revealed his elaborate hoax at a meeting in Oregon last week. He is now crowing about the fraud on his own Web site. The story has been picked up in the blogosphere, and now Wine Spectator would like to set forth the actual facts of the matter.

1. Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards

Our Awards program was founded in 1981 to encourage restaurants to improve their wine programs, and to aid readers in finding restaurants that take wine seriously. The program evaluates the content, accuracy and presentation of restaurant wine lists. It does not purport to review the restaurant as a whole.

In the program’s 27 years, we have evaluated more than 45,000 wine lists. There is no doubt that more restaurants offer good wine lists today than back in 1981. We would like to think that this program has contributed to that development. Further, our Dining Guide is a widely used resource by our subscribers. (View more information on the program at

2. How could a restaurant that doesn’t exist earn an award for its wine list?

We do not claim to visit every restaurant in our Awards program. We do promise to evaluate their wine lists fairly. (Nearly one-third of new entries each year do not win awards.) 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.

In the case of Osteria L’Intrepido:
a. We called the restaurant multiple times; each time, we reached an answering machine and a message from a person purporting to be from the restaurant claiming that it was closed at the moment.
b. Googling the restaurant turned up an actual address and located it on a map of Milan
c. The restaurant sent us a link to a Web site that listed its menu
d. 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.

3. How could this wine list earn an award?

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.

Here is our description of an Award of Excellence:
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.

The list from L’Intrepido clearly falls within these parameters.

4. What did Goldstein achieve?

It has now been demonstrated that an elaborate hoax can deceive Wine Spectator.

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.

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.

Wine Spectator, 'winner' spar over hoax

Editor's note: The official response from Wine Spectator is on the next post.

Robin Goldstein didn’t sound like someone giddy with exhilaration over the “gotcha” he pulled on Wine Spectator magazine and its annual Awards of Excellence that date back 27 years. Explaining that it was part of the research for an academic paper about standards for wine awards, he turned in an application for an award creating a fake Italian restaurant (Oesteria L’Intrepido) and accompanying wine list. As Goldstein
explained on his restaurant site, he “named the restaurant 'Osteria L’Intrepido' (a play on the name of a restaurant guide series that I founded, Fearless Critic). I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list.”

Then, as he explained by phone last night, came the e-mail from Wine Spectator congratulating him on the award, “which was shortly followed by a phone call from the ad sales department.” Wine Spectator and Goldstein dispute the amount of communication; Goldstein said it's the only call he got from the magazine. Wine Spectator said a staff member called the restaurant multiple times and that "reached an answering machine and a message from a person purporting to be from the restaurant claiming that it was closed at the moment."

Asked how wide his grin was upon receiving the news, Goldstein said the result was more sobering than satisfying. “I do think this is a problem and not just for Wine Spectator but for food and wine awards and experts in general,” he said. “I think there’s a problem with standards and so it troubles me. I’m not happy about the problem. It’s something I wanted to bring to people’s attention because I think the public deserves better for our experts.”

Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews was asked by e-mail today if he agreed with any part of Goldstein's criticism. He followed up the question with another question.

"What do we mean when we we talk about 'standards?'" he asked. "In my opinion, a credible awards program makes its criteria clear, then applies them fairly and consistently. That is the case with Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards Program. The criteria that apply to each award level are clearly stated, to restaurateurs and diners alike. L'Intrepido's list met those criteria. The presence of 15 low-scoring wines -- out of more than 250 in all, many very high-scoring -- doesn't change that judgment. Every restaurant list, including the very best, offers some wines Wine Spectator hasn't rated highly. We aren't so tyrannical as to rigidly impose our own tastes."

On its Web site, Wine Spectator says the awards “recognize restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.” It judges the wine lists, not the food. Restaurants are judged primarily on the breadth and quality of their selection and the presentation of the list. Winners are broken down into three categories, moving from basic to best: the Award of Excellence for restaurants with around 100 selections (it was given this year to 3,253 restaurants); the Best of Award of Excellence for restaurants with around 400 selections (it was given to 802 restaurants); and the Grand Award for restaurants with 1,500 or more selections (it was bestowed upon 72 eateries in 2008).

Just do a search on Wine Spectator and awards and restaurants and it’s easy to see how these designations are used in advertising; no doubt you’ll find that recognition hung prominently on the walls of the restaurants, too. “We rely on the certificates that we see posted on the walls in restaurants,” Goldstein said, “and we rely on the awards that we see talked about on Web sites and in restaurant reviews, and it’s disconcerting to think there might not be much behind them. We need to demand more of our experts.”

Matthews wrote in an e-mail that the magazine charged no application fees during the first 20 years of the selection procress. But, he added, the success put significant burdens on his staff, requiring an entry fee that other awards programs, from the James Beard Journalism awards to the National Magazine Awards, charge. The program is entirely voluntary; no restaurant is required to enter, he added. All judging is done only by the editorial staff.

"Some might argue that the criteria for our basic Award of Excellence are too easy to achieve," he added in the e-mail. "But tell that to the chef-owner of a 40-seat bistro in a small Midwestern town, struggling to find the energy, knowledge and money to manage a wine program with 150 selections and several thousand bottles in inventory. Doesn't she merit recognition for her achievement?

"Our program was founded to encourage restaurants -- even modest restaurants -- to improve their wine programs. And in the 27 years we've been running it, wine lists across America have indeed improved. No other publication has devoted so much time, energy and resources to aid this progress."

All the winners were announced in the August edition of the magazine; Goldstein said he first came forward and told people what he had done at a meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 15. Since then, references to Goldstein’s restaurant and wine list have been pulled from the magazine’s Web site and he has acquired a bit of a cult following as the Internet has helped news of the scheme take flight. For someone who said he's hopeful this improves the process, Goldstein said he’s encouraged by the response he has received from people who read what he did.

“I’m optimistic that this might change things based on the reaction from people,” he said, “from readers and from the media and from the food and wine communities. “It’s not encouraging that the reaction that came from Wine Spectator, which was more of a, you know, an accusation that I was some sort of eccentric fraud that sort of dealing with the real issue, which is that their readers expected more from them with this awards program that has been running for decades and that I would have expected something more along the line of ‘We plan to change our standards and we plan do something to confront the fact that this awards program might be functioning more like advertising than people think it is.’ Instead of getting that sort of explanation we got some sort of lashing out against me. But overall, given that my goal was to open the discussion and raise the awareness of it and sort of ask the public, are we getting what we expect out of our elite experts in the world of food and wine, the reaction has been positive and hopefully points toward some change on the way.”

And what changes would he make? Goldstein breaks it down into a short list, at least to use as a starting point.

“One thing would be independence of the bodies from the restaurant or wines or the entities that they are reviewing,” he says. “I don’t think that someone who reviews restaurants, for example, should be in the business of accepting money from those restaurants for advertising on any other purpose. That would be number one. Wine Spectator is far from the only offender in that regard. So, number one, don’t accept money.

“Number two, don’t even have a relationship with the entities you are reviewing. Don’t have this sort of implication . . . in the food world where you have writers going in and identifying themselves and saying, ‘Hey, I’m from such and such magazine, entertain me.’ You know, whether or not they are sort of accepting money from the restaurant it still seems not just because they are going to get special treatment but also because it creates a relationship that they then might feel obliged to honor. We’re all human beings and we feel really bad being honest if necessary saying something against someone we know or someone who’s a friend. So I think that plays in as well.

“And then finally, in terms of the nonexistent restaurant getting an award, I think just applying more editorial scrutiny and fact-checking in a real way. When you have so much misinformation out there and so many interested parties posting this information everywhere . . . I think it’s the role of the expert to be the one who says, ‘No, I’m going to be the one who verifies these facts in person. I’m going to be the one who shows up at the restaurant and sees if what I’ve read, posted by all these people who you don’t know who they are on the Internet. In my role as expert I’m the one who has to do that diligence.' ”

Two things there. One is the disclaimer that Wine Spectator positioned at the end of its online explanation of the awards. It read: “It's important to note that our awards evaluate wine lists, not restaurants as a whole. While we assume that the level of food and service will be commensurate with the wine lists entered by award winners, this unfortunately is not always true. We cannot visit every award-winning restaurant (although all Grand Award winners and many others are inspected by Wine Spectator editors), so we encourage our readers to alert us to discrepancies and disappointments. If you have any comments regarding your experience at one of our award-winning restaurants, contact us at”

Second, I’m in a business where resources are drying up nationally, where media owners with few exceptions and newspaper owners specifically are cutting back on manpower and resources. Investigative reporting? It’s decreasing by the week, a fact that hasn’t been lost on Goldstein, a former restaurant critic for the New Haven, Conn., paper whose book The Wine Trials was published at the beginning of the year.

“I know how hard it is these days for publishers, given that advertising dollars for print is somewhat drying up, it’s really hard to say put your foot down [and say] ‘We’re really going to enforce this division between editorial and advertising,” he says. “But I think it’s so important to maintain that level of integrity.”