I don't remember where I first saw the link to the blog entry that started all the controversy today about how a blogger managed to trick Wine Spectator into giving an award to a fake restaurant. But it said something like "Blogger sends in $250 entry fee and wins award for restaurant that doesn't exist."
As is often the case, it's a lot more complicated than that. Blogger Robin Goldstein, author of the popular, populist book "The Wine Trials," submitted a fake wine list, a fake cover letter, and a fake menu for a fake restaurant, "Osteria L'Intrepido" along with the entry fee. And he won an "Award of Excellence" from the magazine.
It's "unlikely," he wrote, "that it was the first submission that didn't accurately reflect the contents of a restaurant's wine cellar."
Restaurants, like all businesses, have strong incentives to embellish their images online. We turn to experts and awards bodies to help navigate the chaotic world of information and misinformation that results. If Google, Chowhound, and a couple of unanswered phone calls suffice to verify not just the existence of a restaurant but also the authenticity of its wine list, then it's not clear what role the critic is playing.
Here, he's responding to the complaint by Wine Spectator that he duped the magazine with "an elaborate hoax," that included fake reviews on Chowhound. Editors also searched Google Maps and the fake restaurant's real address showed up there.
What he doesn't mention in the post is that he also, according to Wine Spectator, created a fake Web page for the restaurant, and that the phone number he gave them was answered with a fake message from the restaurant. When I read that, I immediately thought of Stephen Glass.
Further, the magazine says this:
On his blog, Goldstein posted a small selection of the wines on this list, along with their poor ratings from Wine Spectator. This was his effort to prove that the list â€" even if real â€" did not deserve an award.
However, this selection was not representative of the quality of the complete list that he submitted to our program. Goldstein posted reviews for 15 wines. But the submitted list contained a total of 256 wines. Only 15 wines scored below 80 points.
So, who's at fault here? The blogger, for pulling off what was, indeed, an elaborate hoax? Or the magazine, for not checking its facts? Why not both?
I think Goldstein went way over the line with his tactics. The magazine called it "malicious duplicity." I won't argue. But I also think he shined a light on how these "awards" are given out. They are less meaningful than they purport to be, though it's unlikely that any other wholly fake restaurants have ever won one. But as Goldstein says, real restaurants could easily be providing false information to the magazine just to snag an award, and the publicity that comes with it.