Fraudulent reviews have no place in professional wine writing!
I don’t often express outrage on this blog, but reading this made my jaw drop and my eyes bulge in sheer consternation: Jamie Oliver’s Australian wine expert has defended himself against criticism for not tasting some of the vintages he recommends.
Seems that Matt Skinner, the Australian wine “expert” who runs the wine operations for celebrity chef Oliver’s Australian restaurants, rated certain wines he never tasted, in his annual guide to wine, “The Juice.”
On “The Juice”’s webpage Skinner describes it as “a beginners guide to wine – a guide that is designed to inspire and encourage those that know little about the subject to feel more confident, more knowledgeable, and more enthusiastic about wine.”
Well, I don’t know how “confident” his readers will feel when they find out they’re reading reviews of wines Skinner never tasted.
The original report that Skinner had not tasted all the wines he reviewed appeared in an Australian publication, according to Decanter. Decanter.com, on Nov. 13, wrote that Skinner “has admitted to not tasting several wines that he recommends in his latest book.” After the scandal broke, Skinner defended himself on his website, explaining that “It is imperative that I taste all the wines that I recommend however [sic] there are some releases that are consistent from year to year, and as popular, good value and accessible wines I want to include them because I know that my readers will appreciate them.” In other words, Skinner made the decision that just because a particular wine performed well for several years in a row, he can recommend that his readers buy it for the new vintage, which he hasn’t yet tasted!
Mitchell Beazley, the publisher of The Juice 2010, also issued a statement on Skinner’s website in response to the brouhaha. “One small category of wine in Matt’s selection regularly comprises wines which he rates worthwhile buying and drinking as soon as the most recent vintage comes on to the market. For these few wines, Matt’s [sic] has always based his recommendations on the qualities a particular wine has regularly achieved.” In other words, Skinner reviews — or let us more accurately say previews — wines of the new vintage, which he hasn’t tasted, so that his readers can rush out to buy them before they sell out.
Besides, Beazley is saying, Skinner only does this for a “few wines” in “a small category,” so it’s not like he’s committing massive fraud.
Look, here’s the truth. Just because a winery has a track record of excellence doesn’t mean it can’t make a dog. A wine critic simply is not allowed to review a wine he hasn’t tried!!! It’s irresponsible to the highest degree. This insults my profession and feeds into the perception that we’re all sleazebags. Skinner could have written, in a transparent way, “Here are some wines I haven’t had yet, but they always perform well, so I can recommend them.” But apparently (Decanter again) he didn’t.
I can’t conceive of myself writing about a wine I haven’t had. It’s just beyond the pale. I can’t imagine what Skinner was thinking, or how Mitchell Beazley thinks they can blow this off by calling it a “few wines” in “a small category.” That’s like saying to the police, “I only stole one Rembrandt from the museum, not the whole collection, so let me off.”
There is one implication to be had here, and that concerns the reputation and quality of annual handbooks on wine. I have always had concerns that some of them, like Hugh Johnson’s, are cranked out like cans of soup, rather than thoughtfully re-written each year. And I can tell you, personally, that I was asked to write the California section on one very well-known pocket guide published under the name of a famous wine writer. When I asked to be given written credit as a contributing editor (he was going to pay me anyway), the famous wine writer summarily fired me. (This was about six years ago.) His pocket guide went out under his name, misleading readers into thinking he’d written the actual reviews when I knew for a fact he hadn’t. Now Skinner’s annual guide casts further doubt on the accuracy of these annual guides. I won’t go so far as to say Skinner should lose his job. But he, and Beazley, need to come up with something more heartfelt and confessional to explain this egregious lapse of ethical standards.