Saturday, August 8, 2009

Manipulating critics?

A long ago acquaintance of mine, Craig Goldwyn, started up but no longer operates the magazine International Wine Review.

One of the things that Craig did, and that was to be respected, was to institute a policy that for regular review in the magazine, wines were bought off the shelf.

The magazine hosted a wine competition, too. Wines submitted for evaluation in the competition had to already be on the market, so that the reviewers would evaluate what consumers can buy. Plus, Craig’s team randomly bought wines at retail to compare with the competition submissions.

As simple and smart a policy as the above was, it is not the general rule for some of the major wine critics today.

The general system is to evaluate wines supplied by producers and/or importers. The Robert Parker franchise likely does not go out and buy the wines at retail before, during or after they have evaluated them. Often enough, wines are evaluated before the wines are released to the market.

In other words, major wine critics don’t practice quality control of their product—they don’t test what they are evaluating either for consistency or for accuracy.

It’s been suspected by some for many years that a few producers would take advantage of the ability to manipulate the critics by sending to them a wine under one label for evaluation, but sending to the marketplace a different wine under the same label. Since the critics don’t check up on them, the chances are that a great numerical rating has helped move inferior product in the marketplace more than once.

The evidence clearly shows that tasters can be fooled by ratings, but that subject is for another blog entry. The issue here is either fooling or manipulating critics.

2005 Sierra Carche is from Spain’s Jumillia region. Jay Stuart Miller, one of the critics working under the Parker franchise, gave the wine 96 points.

Later, after consumer reports that the wine they bought was pretty awful for a 96-point score, the importer, Well Oiled Wine Company, said that they uncovered a mistake and that one of three lots of that wine had been mislabeled and sent to market. In other words, a different wine was labeled as 2005 Sierra Carche.

Was that the wine Miller had evaluated?

According to the importer, the two other lots were lab tested and found to be sound. The only explanation they could give to address the bad bottles on the market is bottle variation. But with so many consumer complaints, that sounds like a truly lame explanation.

The rest of the story is involved and it includes the requisite and justified sniping by wine geeks at wine producers, importers, and critics—see below links.

Sniping aside, the point of this situation is that first, wine critics should compare what the producer provides for evaluation with what the importer brings into the U.S.--mostly, they don’t.

Second, wine critics should taste blind, make their assessment and then have the labels and pricing revealed to them--mostly, they don’t do this either. They know the (ostensible) identity of what they are evaluating, which seems rather easy for bias to seep in, knowingly or not.

Third, wine critics should never, ever evaluate at the producer’s place of business (except when doing a barrel evaluation for futures).

This episode is the second in the past few months that involves one particular critic under the Parker franchise. The franchise on the ebob wine forum site mishandled the first episode so poorly that it was painful to watch. So, what do they do this time around?

Read it for yourself.


And here’s another link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.


  1. I think that's one of the great things about the new blogger/citizen reviewer movement. It's all about keeping people honest.

  2. Rob,

    Perhaps, but there aren't any particular guarantees that I've seen coming out of the blogger/citizen movement.

    If the wines are being sent to bloggers direct from producers, what's different about the process of quality control?

    Why couldn't unscrupulous producers have a pallet of wine set aside just for reviews and use them to send out?

    If the wine being reviewed does not come off the shelf, there is no guarantee that the reviewed and the shelf are the same wines.

    I'm not saying that this is pervasive; I'm saying that it is by no stretch quality control over wine reviews.