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Aug 20, 2008 10:15 AM

Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence ...

I couldn't resist stealing this link from Eater LA's blog:

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  1. Well, they don't call it the "Wine Speculator" for nothing!!!

    Absolutely priceless!!!

    1. I detect a distinct whiff of newly-published-author-self-promotion-itis here. I note a few things:

      1. While the blog entry (with convenient and mulitple links to the author's book on Amazon and also to the author's website, which helpfully links to the author's book on Amazon) reprints the apocryphal restaurant's "reserve list" in its entirety (a total of 15 wines), the Spectator page showing its "Award of Excellence" listing shows that the list had a total of 255 selections. The author says nothing about those 240 other wines. Is it not possible that the 240 other wines might have justified recognition even if the "reserve list" was 15 (actually 14) stinkers?

      2. Are we really going to put the burden on the publisher to ferret out that some self-promoting book-writer sent in their $250 fee and made up a phony website, menu and wine list? This seems a wee bit silly. Though it does open up the more legitimate question of what steps, if any, are taken to confirm that the wine list submitted by an applicant is the same that's "on the ground."

      3. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if Spectator were doling out awards based on whether the list included wines highly rated by Spectator? Isn't the almighty "90+" influential enough without it also becoming the benchmark for how a restaurant's wine list is judged? It doesn't appear that the WS "Award of Excellence" (their lowest level of recognition) is based on wine ratings, and I think the avoidance of such a self-reifying approach is probably for the better. The "definitions" of the various ratings are here, and say nothing about points ->

      10 Replies
        1. re: zin1953

          Answering my own question to some degree, the author says on the blog:

          "Although the main wine list that I submitted was a perfectly decent selection from around Italy meeting the magazine’s numerical criteria, Osteria L’Intrepido’s “reserve wine list” was largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades."

          A "perfectly decent selection from around Italy meeting the magazine's numerical criteria" is really all it takes to get the base level "Award of Excellence", according to WS's described criteria: "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 criteria don't say anything about the "reserve list", and given the infinite and often nonsensical variety of descriptors and categories on wine lists these days (witness a recent thread on a "Secrets of the Sommelier" section of the Michael Mina Miami restaurant wine list) it's understandable why such categories would be ignored.

          So if the issue is "How could a list with these "reserve list" clunkers get an award?", I think that's much ado over nothing - 15 clunkers out of 250+ wines is not very significant in the grand scheme of things, whether they're called "reserve list," "sucker's bets" or "drain cleaner".

          If the issue is "How can a mythical restaurant get an award?", that's perhaps another question, but it's absurd to think that with thousands of restaurants around the country applying to get the basic award, someone's doing a site visit to every single one. Get me an expense account and I'll volunteer, though.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            A pretty detailed response from Spectator here ->

            Lends some support to my hypothesis that this was a pretty well-orchestrated scam designed to create publicity for the author, and that the "reserve list" was hardly representative of the full list submitted to WS.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              I have no doubt that is was DELIBERATELY designed. Be that as it may, it DOES point out what I've long maintained . . . BIG lists with names get awards; small lists that are well thought out and better put together do not.

              The awards are a joke, like most of the Wine Speculator.

                1. re: zin1953

                  Not to mention that great restaurants with big lists that are well thought out and put together often don't bother applying.

              1. re: Frodnesor

                I don't know why your last question would be "another" question. One question that does get begged here, however, is why WS defines its own Award of Excellence as an Award for Mere (sorry, Perfect) Decency. That alone is a problematic elision.

                1. re: tatamagouche

                  It's "another question" because it's not the same one as the first one in my post ("how does a list with 15 clunkers get an award?" is one question; "how does a mythical restaurant get an award?" is another question). It's not one that bothers me all that much for reasons I've already mentioned downthread, though there are several others which I do think are more significant (and completely unrelated to the Goldstein stunt) ->

                  I completely agree that the "Award of Excellence" is inaptly named since the qualifications seem to be basically "This wine list is legible and does not completely suck." FWIW, though, there is something to be said (though "Excellence" is undoubtedly overdoing it) for wine lists that do present complete accurate info including vintages, appellations and correct names (which is part of the WS baseline requirements).

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    Ha, I like your wording—I totally think there should be an Award for Legibility and Not Complete Suckiness! I hope I'd win one...

                    1. re: tatamagouche

                      Oh yes, the AFLANCS.

                      Kind of sounds like the insurance company.

          2. seems odd in general that you have to "submit" the request for the award by offering wine spectator $250. or does it seem odd?

            5 Replies
            1. re: bowmore36

              Much ado about nothing. Anyone that relies on any of the Winespectator restaurant awards (or any other pay to play award) to decide where to dine, gets what they deserve. Reminds me a lot of those really important wine gold and silver medals from the podunk county fair.

              Do your homework and don't rely on a flawed system for truth or accuracy.

              Caveat emptor...

              1. re: Strawman

                The Wine Spectator Awards may have more meaning in rural areas of the country. The awards mean that the restaurant is interested in wine and is making some effort in selecting the wines it offers, which is not the norm. At least, it means the restaurant has an extra $250 to spend and may be open next week, which is also becoming unusual.

                1. re: BN1

                  Urban or rural shouldn't mean anything. The award(s) are either worth something or they aren't.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    It does make a difference. There are few if any restaurant ratings or reviews in very rural areas. Usually, there are no Yelp or Chowhound reviews. Resources for checking out places to eat are limited or nonexistent. Heck, most dinner houses close before 8:00 p.m. Whereas having a selection of wine is expected in an urban area, often rural restaurants don’t even have wine. If one sees a rural Wine Spectator Award, it means they have a wine list and there’s hope for a decent bottle. If I go to Yountville, CA and see an award, I would think Duh; but if I go to Quincy, CA and see an award, I would think Ah Hah!

                2. re: Strawman

                  Strawman: to some extent I agree with you about reliance on the awards. It is similar but not a precise analogy to consumers relying on scores to buy their wines. Setting that aside, both WS and restaurants heavily market the awards suggesting to the public that there was some sort of vetting program in place. Now that it is rather public about it being a very flawed system caveat emptor perhaps has more meaning...

              2. I haven't been overly reliant on the WS lists for restaurants, I have been disappointed in the past. The wine lists might be good, but often they are full of big name wines that are beyond my price range, with little thought to how they match to the cuisine. And the food is often sub par for the prices charged. There are of course exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.

                I found it disturbing that part of the scam involved fake posts on CHowhound! I tried to find them, but no luck.

                13 Replies
                1. re: moh

                  The text of 'Wine Spectator' executive editor Tom Matthew's explanation, not apology but explanation, appears in the comment section at . The whole range of comments is worth reading.

                  Phony recommendations of Osteria L'Intrepido had appeared on When I got wine of the fact that the Award of Excellence had been given to a non-existent restaurant, I posted that on the thread. The alert Chowhound tema then removed all the posts about a place that does not exist.

                  This issue has gone viral and is all over the blogosphere. People in the wine, liquor or restaurant business have written that everybody knew about the way these awards work. But I come from a journalism background, and my indignation is high because this publication has scammed its readers, and when Goldstein called them on it, Matthews accused Goldstein of "malicious duplicity." It does not appear to me that a publication under whose name a sloppy but lucrative awards procedure is acceptable has any business accusing an investigative blogger of being “an unscrupulous person.”

                  Was the magazine’s now clouded award program on the order of, say, phony weapons of mass destruction? Of course not. Industry insiders might have known or spectulated that the Wine Spectator Awards have been a pay-to-play scam, but the publication’s readers — people who buy wines and patronize restaurants — do take such awards seriously. 'Wine Spectator' has let them down.

                  The publication should be grateful to Robin Goldstein for demonstrating flaws in their system and tighten up their procedures in order to restore the magazine’s credibility.

                  1. re: ClaireWalter

                    Robin Goldstein is not an "investigative blogger" so much as an author with a new book he's trying to promote who seems to have provided very selective information about his "investigation" - which appears to be consistent with the M.O. for his "paper" on blind tastings of $15 vs. $150 wines where, despite 15 pages of economic jargon, he gives no information whatsoever as to what wines were selected for the comparisons, how they were selected, how they were paired, etc.

                    Why doesn't that raise your journalistic hackles at all?

                    There are many criticisms which could be leveled at the Spectator award system, but I don't see that Goldstein's hoax does much to elucidate the more valid ones. That they gave recognition to a 250+ bottle list that had 15 clunkers (when Goldstein has failed to disclose the rest of that list)? So what. That they didn't detect a fairly well-orchestrated hoax that had no consequence other than to embarass WS and promote Goldstein's book? Meh.

                    I don't pay much attention at all to the Spectator wine list awards, but I'll pay even less to Goldstein's publications.

                    1. re: Frodnesor

                      Frodnesor -
                      The issue is NOT that Wine Spectator recognized "a 250+ bottle list that had 15 clunkers (when Goldstein has failed to disclose the rest of that list)." The issue IS that WS gave an AWARD to a restaurant that does not exist. That is just plain wrong, no matter who outed the now-discredited pay-to-play award, what subtrefuge Goldstein used to do so or whether of not he had a new book.

                      The magazine's award staff was negligent in not acertaining there really was an Osteria L'Intrepido. All signs indicated that even if it had actually existed at one point, it was troubled or closed when WS claims to have phoned. If Wine Spectator were not a magazine, and one that claimed to be authoritative, this would not be such a big deal.

                      If the buzz about Robin Goldstein's new book helps it stand out amid the ocean of roughly 175,000 books published annually in the US, more power to him.

                      1. re: ClaireWalter

                        Well, there's a number of issues and some matter more to one person than another. As for the one that you focus on - that the restaurant was made-up - what nefarious purpose could possibly be served by someone sending in an application to rate a non-existent restaurant (other than, of course, Goldstein's purpose)? Stated another way, what kind of dipshit would cut a $250 check to get an award for a fake restaurant?

                        As I said, I think this actually distracts attention from the things which perhaps ought to be the subject of further inquiry - whether the wine lists submitted are really the same as what's available in the restaurants, whether the wines on the list are really available or are just listed for show, whether awards are based more on quantity than quality, to say nothing of the whole pay to play structure in the first place. Ferreting out the possibility that someone may have taken a number of steps to invent an apocryphal restaurant is pretty far down on my list.

                        You say it makes a difference b/c WS is a magazine and claims to be "authoritative" (I actually see no such claim in the restaurant awards materials) - Goldstein is a book author and is pretty darn full of himself as well - what's the diff?

                        1. re: ClaireWalter

                          Should they really send someone out to every restaurant to verify it exists? If so, the application fee is going to be much more than $250.

                          This fake restaurant had a website, fake reviews posted on the net, and a working phone number with voice mail. What kind of reasonable person would guess the place didn't exist?

                          I'm not arguing that the WS list is a good thing, I think it's stupid. But I'd say they did enough to verify it existed. This is just a dumb prank out of which no one looks good. Done simply to sell more books.

                          1. re: vanillagorilla

                            A "reasonable person" who called several times and was told that the restaurant was "closed" would suspect something -- perhaps not that it was a ficititious restaurant but that it was having problems (owners' personal problems, financial difficulties, landlord problems, closed by the health department, whatever) or had closed. It appears that whoever supposedly made those (theoretically) transatlantic phone calls "guessed" that the restaurant indeed was viable. Unlike the Chowhound team which can easily delete posts that are found to be phony, WS's gullibility or perpetuation of the hoax is permanently printed in ink on paper.

                            The word "award" implies some kind of judgment, not merely looking at a website, making minor efforts to verify the applicant's existence and cashing the check.

                            1. re: ClaireWalter

                              Once again you are arguing the award is stupid. I agree with that. I wouldn't put any stock in the awards that WS puts out. However, this case doesn't change my opinion one way or the other. If someone want to perpetrate this kind of fraud, they're going to be able to, it's not hard.

                              What if the hoaxer had answered the phone, and talked to them continuing the ruse?

                              To me the awards are stupid, the hoaxer is an idiot, and this hasn't changed anything except the fact that people will get worked up over nothing.

                      2. re: ClaireWalter

                        First, I profess to have little knowledge about the wine business, so please see my query as coming from that perspective. My understanding - and I've read the discussion on the WS site - is that any restaurant can send in what it purports to be its wine list, along w/ $250, and WS will review the list and give it an "award", or not. So, what WS is "verifying" is the list, not the restaurant, etc.?

                        1. re: MMRuth

                          Yes, that seems to be the way it is done, and that is their right to do it. However, why they call that an "Award of Excellence" is beyond me. Recognition, certification, whatever, but award implies something that is won, not bought.

                          1. re: Dan G

                            Yes, I do think of an award as something not bought, but, at the same time, it seems like an imprimatur on the wine list, not the place.

                          2. re: MMRuth

                            What troubles me even more is the fact that all that is being evaluated is a list (and a check). No verification was done to check if those wines were actually available at at the (non-existent) resto. I can give you a list of what I'd _like_ to have in my wine cellar, but on any given day you'll probably find two buck chuck.

                        2. I really have no issue with the criteria for awarding of the basic award EXCEPT that I couldn't find anything on the Spectator site that explains that the restaurant pays $250 for consideration. The fee isn't a deal-breaker in and of itself but the lack of acknowledgment of it kindof is.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Midlife

                            not a deal breaker for sure... they solicite and charge for something they publish in their magazine. isn't that just the same as advertising?

                            1. re: bowmore36

                              Yes, but the point is that the award certificate is posted in the restaurant and can be used in their advertising. I think the average person places the same type of confidence in these awards as they seem to do in WIne Spectator's wine ratings. What it is actually is an EVALUATION of a restaurant's wine list. That's legitimate, but I don't think the public perception is of that reality.

                              1. re: Midlife

                                Winespectator does clearly indicate that they verify only the list and they don't visit any except the Grand Award winners.

                                So the general public puts more faith in an award than it truly deserves. This should come as no surprise as the general public really isn't that smart. <Grin>. As for having as much faith in the restaurant awards as their wine ratings, have you seen some of the strange stuff coming from the mind and palate of James Laube lately? I'd say they are about on par for reliance.

                                I do like the other James' though (Molesworth and Suckling).

                                1. re: Strawman

                                  I like reading James Molesworth 'Tasting Highlights' on WS..

                                  Mod's deleted my other posts to sense of humor they have.
                                  ; )

                            2. re: Midlife

                              The $250 is indicated in the online application guidelines (see for new restaurants). By contrast, see the James Beard Award criteria at .

                              1. re: ClaireWalter

                                Not that the Beard Foundation has been a paragon of good management either ->