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In the Internet era, what makes a wine review credible?



There’s a brouhaha (or is it a kerfluffle?) going on in San Francisco concerning the relative merits and demerits of Yelp and Open Table.

Both online sites began in San Francisco, so the city’s netizens have a lot of interest in them. And, to the extent that both allow anyone to critique restaurants, that interest has expanded to an obsession in food-crazy Ess Eff, where people take their restaurants up close and personally.

Yelp is currently in a declining state of popularity here. Google “Yelp” and “credibility” and all of the top results are along the lines of “Yelp’s credibility problem” and “Phony five-star reviews threaten Yelp’s credibility.” The problem is that anyone can say anything they want to, anonymously, which doesn’t exactly inspire trust. You don’t even have to have eaten at the restaurant! I used to use Yelp to check out places I was unfamiliar with, but I wouldn’t anymore, except, possibly, for entertainment.

Open Table started as a reservation site, and I do use it for that purpose. But they allow diners to review restaurants, and claim to be more trustworthy than Yelp because “Only diners who booked and honored reservations through OpenTable can submit ratings and reviews,” which is certainly not the case with Yelp.

However, today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, whom I do trust a lot, and whose reviews I depend on,wrote on his blogabout the possibility that Open Table is censoring, or at least editing, certain reader reviews. In this particular case, an Open Table official did a reasonably good job defending her company. (The situation is a complex one.) But after reading through the 97 comments, it’s clear that San Franciscans are uneasy with any form of unprofessional, anonymous online reviewing, and with good reason. You don’t know who these “reviewers” are, or if they have ulterior motives, or if they have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. Even if someone went to the restaurant, that doesn’t mean their opinion is worth listening to.

Which is, of course, the precise situation we have with wine reviews on the Internet.

Now hold on a minute, Heimoff! Isn’t everybody’s opinion worth listening to? Last time I checked, America’s a democracy, where everyone’s entitled to speak their mind. Right?

Well, yes. But why wouldn’t I trust Michael Bauer, a seasoned pro who’s been at this forever, over a stranger on Open Table? Just because the person booked a reservation at the restaurant doesn’t mean he’s not the owner’s friend–or the owner’s ex-wife with an axe to grind.

Someone on Open Table called Plearn Thai “the best spot for pad ke[e] ma [drunken noodles].” How do I know that that person is an expert who’s actually has had pad kee ma from lots of different restaurants? I bet Michael Bauer has, and moreover has the chops to determine if any particular noodle dish is up to par or not.

And here’s someone on Sons & Daughters [a well-known downtown joint]: “High level, creative…will retrun [sic] on my next San Francisco trip.” Notwithstanding that misspelled word (for me, always an uh-oh moment), for all I know this person is from some Podunk where the best restaurant in town is the local donut shop, and he or she would consider Joe’s of Westlake a fine dining experience.

See what I mean? Credibility is based on experience. It’s not just somebody’s opinion, it’s somebody’s expertise, acquired over many years, and proven to be trustworthy. That’s why I trust Michael Bauer. I may not always agree with him, but I know that he has nothing to lose or gain in his opinion–he knows food inside and out–he’s a pro.

Or, to quote The Office’s Michael Scott: “Anyone in the world can write anything they want on Wikipedia, so you know you’re getting the best information.”

  1. What you ding acknowledge is the volume of input on a given restaurant – if most “reviewers” agree or there is a trend in the comments about service or quality, there might be something to it. These sites, including Cellartracker, to bring it back to wine, don’t offer “expert” or “professional” reviews, but they do offer a democratized attempt at feedback. On CT, if 9/10 posters score a wine 92+ and one claims it’s a 78, I tend to go with the majority. Same with Yelp or other user-based sites. In terms of misrepresentation, we have seen this issue come up in the professional reviewer realm as well with comp meals, bottles, and trips. I think having access to all sources and using them is key.

  2. Judi Levens says:

    Will you throw out Trip Advisor also then Steve? These are not professional reviewers, just users of hotel and B & B services (also restaurants and local sites.) While a professional reviewer does bring a higher level of credibility to the table, there is room for other types of reviews in my opinion. I like the idea of non biased reviewing…I don’t stay anywhere without checking Trip Advisor first.

  3. Whenever I see a typo in a review, I know the place must be garbage, and all sense of trustworthiness goes right out the door. I mean, if they transpose two letters in a word, it’s a huge red flag that this person is clearly not qualified to be sharing their experience.

  4. It is up to the consumer to figure out which review he or she finds credible. Lots of voices are a good thing. Of course there is a lot of nonsense out there, but it gives consumers choice. If consumers only had reviews from Heimoff, Laube and Parker, the wine world would be worse off. Sorry, Steve.

    And of course, Steve, you’ve never had a typo in your blog. “Experts” are infallible, right? Heaven’s forbid doing something like getting a producer’s or vineyard’s name wrong (especially in a print publication). I wonder what that would do to one’s credibility…

  5. Wait a minute! Are you dissing Westlake Joe’s? I started going there with my parents when I was about 10 (which, for me, is over half a century ago). It still survives (and, I believe, thrives). How is that not a testament to fine dining?

  6. Bob Henry (wine industry professional) says:


    “Yelp should review its disclosure efforts” – Los Angeles Times

    “Yelp makes two major changes in the way reviews are posted” – Los Angeles Times

    “Yelp reviews: Can you trust them?” – Los Angeles Times

    “Yelp cracks down on businesses that pay for good reviews” – Los Angeles Times

    “Turning a critical eye on Yelp” – Los Angeles Times

    “Putting Yelp in their rear-review mirror” – Los Angeles Times


    “Helping Yelp Create More Accurate Reviews” – Harvard Business Review

  7. John Lahart says:

    A wine critic tastes a wine and applying a set of criteria and perhaps some scoring system, tells you what he thinks. If the wine sounds like something you might like, you might buy a bottle and try it for yourself.

    If you find that, that critic has a reasonable track record with you, then he/she has some credibility. Even if there are occasional disagreements, and you find their descriptions of the wine to be “accurate” their credibility is not damaged much.

    The problem is we (the trade especially) have elevated wine critics into wine judges making pronouncements from on high.

    Same for restaurants.

    The emergence of the internet has created thousands (millions?) of “experts” and “amateurs” all now with a forum that extends beyond friends and family. Everyone gets the chance to “publish” their opinions. After reading the Yelp explanation, I am impressed with their response. The easy access to the net provides a tremendous opportunity for “gorilla marketing”–for hanky panky.

    I wonder how many bloggers–from wine to food and dining to automobiles and travel/hotels etc etc etc can stand up to ethical scrutiny. It is common knowledge among savvy marketers that getting mentions in the “right” blogs aids awareness and sales…….

    I like to think most consumers are not brain dead and can sort through all this on their own. “Fool me once…” is still operative and “caveat emptor” is a applicable today as when it was first appeared (probably on some stone tablet advice column).

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