The Great Wine Scam

Are you one of those people who suspects that so much of the hype surrounding wine is entirely fraudulent? If so, then the events of the last few months will provide enough fodder for your scepticism. Let’s start with the Wine Spectator Awards. You may have seen these awards proudly hung on the walls of many Indian restaurants including at least some that are not noted for their wine service.

A few years ago I was assured that these ‘coveted’ awards were only given to restaurants with outstanding wine lists and the fact that so many Indian restaurants had now won them demonstrated the progress of India’s wine revolution. I was a little surprised because some of the restaurants selected did not strike me as being temples to the grape. Then I read the Wine Spectator’s own list of great wine restaurants. My general  rule of thumb with all international lists of any kind is to turn to the Indian section. If that seems well-chosen to me – and I know more about India than I do about the rest of the world – then I treat the list with some respect.

“The Wine Spectator’s India list struck me as being very odd indeed. It consisted of many five star hotels.” But the Wine Spectator’s India list struck me as being very odd indeed. It consisted of many five star hotels and where there should have been pictures of sommeliers, there were photos of F&B Managers. Now I learn that I was right to be sceptical. According to The Times (London), 4,500 restaurants paid the Wine Spectator $250 (around Rs 10,000) to enter the competition to select deserving winners of its award. And guess what? Over 4,000 won! Only 319 restaurants were judged unworthy of such an award. So, if you too want a Wine Spectator award, just send them Rs 10,000. Something like 93 per cent of all applicants win. And you could too.

You don’t even have to run a restaurant or have a real list. A wine writer called Robin Goldstein invented a fictitious restaurant in Milan, called it Osteria L’Intrepido, ran off a bogus menu on his computer and sent it off to the Wine Spectator with a cheque for $250.

And yes, his non-existent restaurant got a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. So excellent was his restaurant’s wine cellar that neither the cellar nor the restaurant existed outside of his imagination. But his money was real. And the Wine Spectator kept the cheque. It makes about $1 million from people who apply for these awards. You may ask: but doesn’t the Wine Spectator send out inspectors? Doesn’t somebody visit the restaurant before it is judged worthy of an Award of Excellence? Nopes. They couldn’t be bothered.

The way it works is this. You send them a copy of what you claim is your list. They read it. And if it seems okay, they send you the Award. You may not – like Goldstein – run a non-existent restaurant. But equally, the list you send the Wine Spectator may not be your real list. It could just be something you run up to impress them. They’ll never find out. Because they won’t bother to visit your restaurant.

Or, even if this is your real list, it could be (as is true of many, many Indian restaurants that display these Awards on their walls) that much of the wine on it is unavailable or ‘out of stock’ much of the time. No problem. The Wine Spectator won’t know. Perhaps, the wine is badly stored so that, even if you do have the wines you claim to serve, the bottles are now undrinkable.

Not to worry. You’ll still get your Award. So is this Award worth anything? You tell me. And the next time you see it on the walls of Indian hotels and restaurants, recognise that what it signifies is this: these establishments have paid Rs 10,000 to earn the right to claim that the Wine Spectator thinks they uphold excellence in wines. That’s it.

It doesn’t signify much more than that. Goldstein claims that even the choice of wines on the list is irrelevant. When he made up his fictitious list for his non-existent restaurant, he deliberately included wines that the Wine Spectator itself had rated poorly. One of them, according to the Wine Spectator, “smells barnyardy and tastes decayed.” Another “smells like bug spray.” A third has “nail varnish character.” 

But the Wine Spectator still gave the list its Award of Excellence! Goldstein, who prides himself on puncturing the pretensions of the wine world, has also been conducting blind tastings. They demonstrate that what we instinctively believe to be the case is absolutely true. Show people a cheap wine and an expensive wine and they’ll claim the expensive wine is better. But serve both wines blind and the same people will suddenly get confused and choose the cheap wine.

For instance, expensive champagnes usually do badly at most blind tastings. In Goldstein’s tasting, two thirds of testers picked a $12 bottle of Washington State sparkling wine over vintage Dom Perignon which costs $150.

This pattern has been repeated in tasting after tasting. Tell people what a wine is and all the other associations will come into play (reputation, price, fame etc.). Let them taste it blind and they’ll give an entirely different response. The most famous example of course is the Paris tasting of 1976 (referred to on these pages a few weeks ago) where French wine experts preferred what they thought were French wines over what they believed to be California wines. In fact, most of the wines they liked were Californian. But because the tastings were blind, they were easily fooled.

More recently, the chef Gordon Ramsay invited Cliff Richard,  the pop singer who now makes his own wine, on to his TV show. Ramsay made Cliff taste various wines blind. The one that Cliff said was rubbish turned out to be his own wine. Would you buy wine from a man who doesn’t recognise his own wine and thinks it is rubbish? But the same, I suspect, is true of many celebrity wine makers.

Then, there’s the famous story (now increasingly dismissed by wine writers as apocryphal) which contends that when tasters  were asked to drink red and white wine blindfolded, they couldn’t tell which one was white and which one was red.

I’m on the side of the sceptics myself. I think that much of wine snobbery is humbug and fakery. When people judge wine they are often more influenced by reputation than taste. I loathe the tendency to give wine marks out of 100 (popularised by Robert Parker but also adopted by the Wine Spectator) as though some objective marking of as subjective an issue as taste is possible. I despise  those who only order 95 point wines. Or those who look for the Wine Spectator mark of approval (in restaurants that do exist!).

I do not dispute that there are people who can tell you what a wine is just by sniffing it. I’ve seen wine experts guess the year a wine was harvested with a single sniff. And blind tests show that while novices fare badly, people with some experience of wine will rarely mistake a cheap wine for a great one.

But people who understand wine constitute a tiny minority of the wine-drinking public. Which is fine – you don’t have to understand something to like it.

My problem is with people who don’t understand wine, who go by labels, awards, points and price and show off about the fancy wines they’ve drunk. Wine is about fun. It’s not about snobbery.  And so, I celebrate each time.

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