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Cherries, Berries, and A Hint of Fraud: Are Fake Wine Reviews A Growing Concern?

2011 August 24
by Mike

Last Saturday’s New York Times had an interesting story about the booming market for fake online reviews. There is a cottage industry now of people who for $5 or $10 a pop will happily supply a glowing review of your book, hotel, or restaurant without necessarily having read your book or visited your hotel or restaurant. This isn’t exactly a surprise; millions of people browse these reviews, and with little if any gatekeeping, it stands to reason that authors, hoteliers, and restaurant owners would try to game the system. When my book Au Revoir to All That came out two years ago, the idea of soliciting a few “friendly” Amazon.com reviews certainly crossed my mind (I was assuming, of course, that some friends and loved ones would oblige me, but perhaps I was being presumptuous!). I decided against it because it struck me as dishonest and cheesy, and as it turned out, the book fared pretty well on Amazon without any authorial intervention. But in an ever-more crowded and cacophonous marketplace, people are going to do whatever it takes to flog their wares, and buying favorable reviews, or even resorting to sock puppetry, is obviously one means of encouraging sales.

Although consumer-generated reviews don’t wield as much influence over wine sales as they do over book purchases, hotel bookings, and restaurant reservations, they are becoming increasingly important, a development that can largely be credited to CellarTracker. If you are not familiar with the CellarTracker story, you can click here for a good summary. As you may have noticed, CellarTracker scores are starting to pop up in all sorts of places; with over 150,000 users and more than 2 million tasting notes, what began as an online cellar management tool is rapidly evolving into a major source of buying advice, and as such, it is potentially vulnerable to the kind of abuse that we see on Amazon, TripAdvisor, and other sites. After reading the Times piece, I emailed Eric LeVine, CellarTracker’s founder, to ask if he was concerned about phony or deliberately misleading tasting notes being posted on CellarTracker and what, if anything, he was doing to detect them. Eric kindly agreed to let me publish his response here:

As customer reviewing tools like CellarTracker become increasingly influential and are used by the trade to drive sales (which is happening with CT and especially for daily deal sites), it is guaranteed that some people will try to game the system in their favor.

My strategy for dealing with this is multi-pronged:

  • First and foremost, I think the community is the most effective mechanism for policing the data, as every month there are more than a million eyeballs interrogating the reviews. Next to every review is a link for a logged in user to report potential issues or abuse. (The vast bulk of reports I receive have more to do with misplaced reviews, e.g. “Gave as a gift to Bob and Ted” that are better entered as private notes on consumed bottles and which I clean up.) In my new beta site, as people read reviews they can vote on whether those are helpful or not. The aggregate totals there (of most useful reviewers) over time will become increasingly important to help filter the data.
  • Today I rely on making the information transparent, so when you read one review you are a click away from seeing all of the reviews from a user grouped by region with easy drilldown. If you see that a reviewer has posted several hundred reviews, has a 1000 bottle cellar and you can easily drill down and see the reviews you can much more easily calibrate. By contrast, if you see another user, newly joined, very few reviews, all concentrated on one winery, well that paints a very different and more suspicious picture.
  • I have mechanisms for people to block/ignore particular reviewers, so when I see reviewers that are frequently blocked they tend to be more spammy.
  • I think abuse is a certainty over time, so before I make a heavy push to have the industry use the CellarTracker community average score I will have deployed many more intensive countermeasures than are currently in place.

As for current instances of abuse, there have been a few. The most blatant was one importer registered 5 accounts and posted a variety of notes on his portfolio wines. I confronted him, he apologized, and then I purged him. There have been other cases that are more benign: e.g. a few small, aspiring winemakers who are truly using CellarTracker for their own cellars and also posting reviews on their own wines or wines of the region from competitors. What I ask there is that these folks clearly disclose their connection and to refrain from using scores in their reviews.

15 Responses leave one →
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  2. December 27, 2012

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  3. October 7, 2012

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  4. Donn Rutkoff permalink
    August 26, 2011

    As usual, there is a Latin phrase come to mind:

    CAVEAT EMPTOR. I believe our founding fathers might have used it once or twice? Maybe it became popular later? Ah, there it is in Wikipedia, Chief Justice John Marshall writing in a 1817 case is believed to be the first citation in U.S. law. If you are not familiar with the term, look it up. And then caveat emptor for what you find on the web, too.

  5. Larry Kantrowitz permalink
    August 25, 2011

    I agree with Dan. The danger is not with common reviewer ( Joe says this is good…) but with the professional in the business of wine in general. Having worked retail wine for many years I never bended to the pressure to sell wine X because of profit or as a favor to the supplier, but I have seen plenty of it. I also never went on winery or importer sponsored trip as I always felt it comprimised my integrity….however I was never offered a villa in Tuscany or a kilo of Truffles d’Alba…I have accepted gifts from wineries or importers after the fact, as a thanks for selling a 50 cases of our wine, here’s a bottle on the house. I think anyone who buys a bottle of wine because Joe Internet says its good is an idiot anyway. Ask your wine guy what he thinks of a bottle and try that.

    A Good Honest Wine Guy…

  6. August 24, 2011

    Mauss – I spend more time on CT than just about anyone. But I’m only familiar with a handful of reviewers (Richard Jennings, Matt Latuchie, etc.) So I’m guilty – as are most people I know – of relying on CT averages AND the notes of people who have chimed in recently, especially when it’s a bottle without many notes.

    So I think plenty of folks – even educated consumers – rely on opinions of unknown names. Of course, this all goes out the window when a wine (or restaurant or hotel) gets an incredible review from someone who only gives high marks or who hasn’t written many other reviews

  7. mauss permalink
    August 24, 2011

    Tell me who is buying some wines just after reading a comment of an unknown name ? At least, we expect people try to cross opinions (thanks for that to CT) and check sometimes with some reputable guides also available on the internet.
    We just had an article in France about this phenomenon of false opinion where some US University has produced a software which is a subtle analysis of the texts and come with sound results of what is fake and what is not. Fascinating. The examples were about comments on hotels and restaurants.
    If I find again this article and US University, I will publish here the name.

  8. August 24, 2011

    Vinformative (my company) offers tasting notes, downloadable technical information sheets, high-res images, etc… on more than 300,000 wines, and all of the notes and technical information is sourced directly from the wineries themselves, to ensure accuracy and transparency of data and notes.

    Our consumer platform just came out in beta this week, but should be ready for mass consumption within a few weeks. You’ll also be able to find restaurants and their recommended pairings based on the wines you look up. Follow us @Vinformative on twitter and we’ll let you know when you can sign up and have access to it all. Oh, and it’s free!

  9. August 24, 2011

    Steven, I knew about that…though I’m talking about actively getting wineries to join under “winery” accounts or similar. That is when it gets really interesting. I’ve talked to Eric about this in the past, so I know it’s on my wishlist.

  10. August 24, 2011

    Ryan, something like that is already happening. Eric has integrated the Terry Theise Catalog wine descriptions, reviews from Peter Liem at champagneguide.net, and analysis from The International Wine Review. He talked about the integration in a recent newsletter.

  11. August 24, 2011

    One solution which we would all love to see is producer accounts so that producers can say they are producers, add tech sheets, and other info that the consumer doesn’t have access to.

  12. August 24, 2011

    I would be more concerned about fake reviews amongst those expert opinions we pay for, as opposed to those furnished by hacks and left dangling around the wine web world.

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