Manipulate the 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.

eBob

And here’s another link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

5 Responses to “Manipulate the critics?”

  1. Mitch says:

    Thanks for sharing your take Thomas.
    Others are proving to be triple-jointed contortionists over this latest episode. Who knew?

  2. Thomas says:

    Did you think my take would be any better???

  3. Wine reviewing is indeed a tricky business in which the ideal, as I know from experience, is rarely met, that is, if the ideal is pure double blind tasting or even single blind. As you know from my blog, I often taste wine in the context of food or a meal, because I believe that such a process is helpful to readers and consumers. Other times, I will sit down with a dozen wines at home and go through them, but of course that’s not in a blind setting, though it’s not impossible to be objective. I also taste wines in the circuses called trade tastings, situations that call for speed and stamina and are clearly not ideal. I suppose what it comes down to is this: I can’t afford to buy the wine that I taste and write about, so I do the best job that I can under whatever the circumstances are and try to deliver to readers my honest experience of the wine. As far as receiving wines from wineries and importers that might be “special” bottles and not the ones that go out to the market, I get enough bottles of bland, mediocre or overwrought, over-oaked wines that I can’t imagine wineries or importers going to a special effort to dupe me.

  4. Thomas says:

    Fredric,

    I suppose I should have qualified my diatribe by singling out those critics whose words move the market.

    Numerous times over the past decades a Parker review has made a winery (it no longer breaks one, because the above-board, true critic hardly reviews anymore wines that suck, which in itself is a suspicious possibility).

    With stakes so high, and with a critical brand that obviously has lowered its standards by bringing on inexperienced reviewers as well as by overlooking its own stringent policies, the temptation to “fool” the critics is too great not to have happened.

    In one of his posts on this issue, Parker allowed that maybe 20 frauds might have passed his critical judgment over the years. He offered no names or any indication if he was speculating or capitulating to his critics. But the fact that he acknowledges it publicly (whatever the real number is) is not a good sign at all. If real quality control was in play, he wouldn’t be forced to admit such a thing.

    Your reviews are stellar, precisely because you often do them with context–food–and you make no claims to having a mission to protect the consumer from the bad wines of the world. Were you to make that lofty claim, I’d be watching you closely. Parker says that he modeled his advocacy after Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy–I like most of what Nader stands for, but there also are reasons not to trust him implicitly, but that’s another story…

  5. Mitch says:

    Keep up the good fight Thomas…