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My first and final post on Natalie MacLean

25 comments

I’ve stayed clear of the Natalie MacLean brouhaha over the last three weeks for a number of reasons, even though I’m kind of involved. First, I wasn’t sure how I actually felt. Secondly, I thought there was some piling onto Natalie by elements of the blogosphere and wine media, and I didn’t want to be part of that. Finally, I watched Natalie struggle under the onslaught of criticism, and I thought it was only fair to give her some time to figure out how she wanted to handle it.

Background: Although I personally had never heard of Natalie before all this came down, evidently she’s quite well-known in Canada, and not only there: she was “named the World’s Best Drink Journalist in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards” (whatever that is), according to this article in the Toronto Star.

[Segue: I guess the World Food Awards is a pretty big deal in its native United Kingdom. Here’s their website: looks like a fun party.]

Anyway, this whole situation broke [for me] last month when I started getting a bunch of emails from other wine writers (mainly in Canada and the U.K.). They were complaining that Natalie was doing some pretty bad things: quoting wine reviews from third-party critics (like me) on her website, without identifying us, and “offering wine reviews in return for website subscriptions,” in Decanter’s words.

Among the critics named in various sources as those from whom Natalie “borrowed” reviews, besides myself, are Harvey Steiman, Jancis Robinson, Allen Meadows AKA Burghound, Bruce Sanderson, Rosemary George, James Suckling, Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, Jamie Goode, my colleague Roger Voss, James Halliday, Steven Tanzer and many others. In other words, Natalie helped herself to a great heaping platter of savories.

This whole episode has alarmed a large segment of the wine critic community, particularly in Canada and England. Palate Press jumped onto the story early, on Dec. 15 publishing this story, whose bullet point is “[Natalie’s] reviews sometimes include the writer’s name, but never the publication or a link.” This became the central complaint against Natalie: that she was expropriating third party reviews without permission or citation. I did check this out at MacLean’s website and verified for myself that she was using some of my reviews without identifying me. Jancis Robinson was one of the first to ask that Natalie remove all of her [Jancis’s] reviews from the site. Natalie felt the heat: on Dec. 22, she emailed Jancis (I was cc’d): “Hi Jancis, I have removed almost all of your reviews on my site and should be finished well before your deadline. At the same time, I’ve have been revising the way I quote the reviews that remain to full names and publications…”. As far as I can tell, my reviews still remain on Natalie’s site, but they now contain my full name as well as the name of Wine Enthusiast (although it would be nice if Natalie included a link along with the publication’s name).

The day before, Dec. 21, Natalie posted “A Letter to my Readers about My Wine Reviews,” in which she expressed some dismay over “the recent debate on quoting third-party wine reviews.” “I didn’t realize that there was an issue,” Natalie explained, since she’d been quoting third-party critics “for years” without attribution, and no one ever complained. Moreover, “my own reviews have been quoted on other wine sites and no one has ever contacted me to ask permission.” The Letter ended with a mild mea culpa. “I feel awful that some writers think that I would try to make their reviews look like my own.” It also generated a ton of reader comments.

So where are we now? Some people still are calling for Natalie’s head. I got an email on Jan. 2 from a guy named Rod Phillips, also sent to all the other involved critics, asking us to “sign a letter to Natalie MacLean, instructing her to remove your reviews from her site and forbidding her use of your reviews in future.” I don’t know Rod; he describes himself as a “wine historian and wine writer” from Ottawa.

I will not sign Rod’s letter, although I don’t have a problem with anyone who did. I think this whole episode should go away now. Natalie has been publicly humiliated, has lost a great deal of credibility (whether deservedly or not, is another argument) and has repented and asked for forgiveness. That she hasn’t groveled is beside the point. She is now listing the full names and publications of the critics she quotes—which, by the way, is called “buzz” in some circles. She should have done that from the beginning, but who among us hasn’t erred in some way? Let everyone now stop casting stones.

Monday: Some of my favorite Pinot Noirs of 2012

  1. May I quietly but emphatically disagree with you. I own a business, a very small business, whose only product, and thus whose only means of making a living, is wine evaluation. Sure, I write articles about vintage and other topics, but the tasting notes are the only fungible product of my business.

    Anyone who uses them beyond the limits that I, or any other publication states in its public policies, is stealing those tasting notes. Why pay me for my work when you can get it free from someone else?

    That is her first sin, but her second and more egregious sin is to use the proprietary work of others and essentially claim it as her own. If no one had ever pointed out to her that she was stealing, maybe her arguments would make sense.

    But she knows better and would not have stopped if Palate Press has not called her on her bad practices. It is not like the Canadian writers had not been up in arms about this for years.

    And then there is the third issue of “pay for play”. Wineries send her wines, but she wont publish her tasting notes unless they subscribe to her newsletter.

    So, Steve, while I admire your principled stance, I disagree that Ms. Maclean gets a free pass going forward.

  2. Steve –

    I think there is a significant distinction between “not groveling” and “acting like a victim and continuing to lie.” She has never addressed Charlie’s point in any detail. She consistently replies that she is “talking to attorneys” about what is legal and not. It is not ever, ever about what is right and what is not.

    She got caught, and instead of truly owning it, she is intransigent.

    Disclaimer: I’m a Palate Press columnist.

  3. David Honig says:

    Steve, you can decide for yourself whether this breaks the needle on the irony meter, but this story has been stolen, lock, stock, and barrel, by another website, an apparent RSS aggregator- http://wine2020.com.ar/2013/01/04/my-first-and-final-post-on-natalie-maclean/

  4. What papa said.

    Steve, how spoke you feel if her activity – her longstanding activity – had lifted quotes from your books? There’s not much of a difference, apart from your reviews being freely available. If I reproduced your entire reviews for wines on 1wd, and put the attribution in small print only as STEVE!, would you view it differently? I’d guess that you would, and that’s pretty much the equivalent action that Natalie took for quite some time. In a lot of ways, in this case it’s not just the What but also the How.

  5. BTW, this very post was ” buzzed” as you called it – wholesale, and under another name – just today.

    http://wine2020.com.ar/2013/01/04/my-first-and-final-post-on-natalie-maclean/

    That’s probably theft, Steve; improperly attributed theft. I suggest you send them a DCMA takedown notice…

  6. David Honig says:

    Joe, Yup. I saw that this morning. Don’t you love the smell of irony in the morning?

  7. Dear 1WineDude: I did ask them to take it down. This is theft pure and simple. Thanks for the alert!

  8. David Honig says:

    Interesting. If he now adds your name and website, does that make it “buzz”?

  9. Steve – your welcome, of course. I hate seeing this stuff; which is why I decided to chime in publicly on the MacLean scandal.

    I guess I’d say, treat it as a lesson that there’s a BIG difference between content theft and fair use, but that those borders are malleable and aren’t (from the perspective of courts, anyway, based on my understanding) left to public opinion; they are defined by both law and copyright, and usage policies of those authoring the content.

    Cheers!

  10. Concurrent with this very public discussion about a misappropriation of tasting notes has been another about their manifest futility. Clearly, reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

  11. george kaplan says:

    The Hosemaster took her a-part in Nat Defrauds: another approach to the problem.

  12. One of my favorite characters in the Canadian TV series, “Trailer Park Boys” is J-Roc. He’s a 29 year old white dude who lives with his Mom in her trailer, and who truly thinks he is a black. A petty thief by trade J-Roc is either stealing grocery bundles from the local supermarket or ‘ganking’ luggage at the airport or making porn videos which he distributes in the trailer park. J-Roc sees himself as a hip hop artist and recording executive and in one episode he is selling a CD on which he has sampled tracks from established rappers and mixed them in with some his own recordings. When someone gets on him about pirating the other artist’s work, he defends it as “cross promotion.” “My fans hear their work, their fans hear mine. G’nomesayin”

    That’s all this Natalie business is, just an innocent case of cross promotion. Know what I’m sayin’?

  13. Morton just cracked my ass up. “Thinks he is a black” is the funniest thing I’ve read on any blog today for sure. I’m surprised there isn’t more outrage about her play to pay bullshit. That’s what really pissed me off, and I would think that would trouble her readers/followers more.

  14. Thanks for the article Steve, I hadn’t been paying attention to any of this drama.

    Her job is entertain the reader, not to “educate” them. The mere act of citation breaks the spell of good storytelling. It’s best to put them at the end of the book.

    Is she guilty of bad scholarship or good marketing?

  15. Ian Tarrant says:

    Thanks Steve…

    Only one word has come to my mind in relation to the Nat ‘scandal’…

    Jealousy.

  16. Just wanted to add that my last comment should have read ” you’re,” not ” your.” I’m a geek, and couldn’t let it go. :-) Carry on…

  17. Are we sure that Steve isn’t “buzzing” wine2020? ;)

    I’m really surprised that Steve isn’t more pissed about Natalie and John Stossel (or whomever is posting on wine2020)…

  18. I just can’t believe there has been a reference to “Trailer Park Boys” and the character J-Roc seems almost potentially a perfect analogy if you have seen the show. Morton, you rock.

  19. For what it’s worth, over the years I have shared wines with Natalie, and sometimes she’s requested them, but I have never been asked to pay for that. Like others, if I wanted to look at her database, I needed to subscribe like anyone else, just like several of the top magazines whose first names start with W…not everyone does that, but many do. On that question, at least, I think there is confusion.

    On the other, that’s a different kettle of fish….

  20. Ian Tarrant says:

    Steve,

    ..Sober second comment.

    I was a bit perplexed by someone of your stature that would not even know who Natalie is, as well as who Rod Phillips is (A guy named..).

    Rod Phillips has written for the very prestigous ‘World of Fine Wine’, and another publication in Canada called ‘Vine Magazine’ and Natalie’s books have sold fairly well around the world (as well as her receiving a James Beard award, etc.).

    As I’m not paid to write about wine, I have to say my level of awareness and expertise is probably higher than average, but I do expect that those that get paid (ie: You) to write about wine, and the fact that I’m a paying ‘Wine Enthusiast’ subscriber I expect a bit more from a knowledge standpoint as this is your job..

    Sorry, but you (and by association Wine Enthusiast) have slipped a bit in the cred meter..Back to the books sir.

  21. Dear Ian: Oh, please. I am not paid to keep up with every wine writer on Earth, nor do I even want to!

  22. Steve, which other wine writers (digital and traditional) do you read and keep up with?

  23. for what its worth, i had never heard of her either. and i’m already tired of hearing about her now. but it was nice to read a different perspective on the issue, so i must compliment you for that

  24. Steve, I’m still patiently waiting for a response to my question above…

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