Fri 22 Aug 2008
So the Wine Spectator has egg all over its face, and the upscale lifestyle, oops, wine journal becomes even more the mag we love to hate.
For years WS has offered Awards of Excellence for restaurant wine lists. Lists that receive the award multiple times are elevated to a Grand Awards level. The results of the competition are published annually in a hefty issue of the magazine, and I say hefty because Awards of Excellence go to restaurants all over the world, though mainly, of course, in the United States and Europe. “Wow,” you’re thinking, “how can the magazine’s staff or even hired free lancers visit all of those restaurants?” They don’t. The awards are based on wine lists submitted by the restaurants, along with a $250 application fee. Only the Grand Award winning restaurants actually get visits from the magazine.
This would seem to be a system ripe for corruption, if not simply ineptness. I know that in my hometown, Memphis, when I dine at a restaurant whose wine list has received an Award of Excellence from WS, my reaction is usually, “You have got to be kidding. This list is as standard as they come.”
So, iconoclast — and the problem with iconoclasts is that they are usually self-anointed — Robin Goldstein decided to test the Awards of Excellence program, and I have to admit that as a sting, this is pretty freaking sublime. Goldstein created a fake restaurant in Milan, concocted a website for this fake restaurant, compiled a wine list and submitted it, with the $250 application fee, to WS, which granted the fake restaurant an award. The real nub of the deception is that among the wines Goldstein chose for the wine list of the fake restaurant were Italian wines that had received mediocre scores from — can you guess? — WS’s own reviewing staff. That’s diabolical. He also obsessed about the details, providing a real street address so a Google search would pull up a map and posting reviews from diners on Chowhound (since deleted).
Does this elaborate stunt, rather like shooting a very large fish in a very small barrel with a gun you made yourself, prove that WS’s Awards of Excellence program is completely fraudulent? No, it simply proves that like any organization, WS is susceptible to fraud. Obviously WS makes scads of money from the application fee, a fact that in itself should raise eyebrows (“how else can be rake in some dough?”), but the fake restaurant and wine list incident doesn’t mean that all the awards are suspect; it does cast a pall, however, on the accomplishments of the (perhaps too few) restaurants that do deserve the award.
Here is WS’s reply, posted on the magazine’s website here.
While the response is measured, this is not the time for WS to be crying that it was sucker-punched. Founder and publisher Marvin Shanken and editor Thomas Matthews need to take this incident, ludicrous as it may be, to heart and order a thorough evaluation of the Award of Excellence system. It’s been my experience, visiting restaurants around the country with WS award wine lists, that the club has too many members.
And while we’re all indulging in chuckles and chortles at WS’s expense — I mean, it’s so easy — don’t forget that this fraud could not have been perpetuated without the nearly infinite resources provided by the Internet. That’s the same Internet that enabled the publicists for the movie Bottle Shock to send out fake responses to blogs that mentioned the words chardonnay or Chateau Montelena or the name of the movie, thereby adding to the film’s publicity blitz without revealing that the fake posts were a form of advertising.
That made us indignant; that made us mad. The nerve of those people! Trying to defraud us!
Baby, the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.