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World’s Best Wine Writer Busted

2012 December 20
by Mike

With the NHL season currently on ice, we Americans have had even less reason to pay attention to Canada than usual. But our friends to the north have now generously obliged us with two big stories: a colossal maple syrup heist and a juicy wine scandal. I’ll let Maple Syrup Diarist take up the first story; I’m going to focus on the wine scandal. It involves Natalie MacLean, the Canadian wine critic writer content aggregator personality. According to two articles published this week by Palate Press, MacLean has been pilfering tasting notes from other wine writers and passing them off as her own content, and she also been requiring  wineries to buy subscriptions to her website in exchange for reviews. Regarding the “borrowed” tasting notes, MacLean has promised that she will go back and make sure they are fully credited to their authors. She denies charging wineries for reviews, but Palate Press has now posted an email exchange between MacLean and an unnamed winery in which it appears that pay-to-play is indeed her M.O.

Evidently, MacLean is a big deal in Canada. Her influence doesn’t extend south of the border (or anywhere else), but she’s not unknown here. I met her perhaps a decade ago at a James Beard Awards dinner in New York. She and I were nominated in the same category; she won, a stepping stone on her way to being named the world’s best wine writer. She seemed pleasant enough, and we talked about having a drink when she was next in New York. A few years later, I was asked by The New York Times to review her first book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, as well as Jay McInerney’s second collection of wine articles, A Hedonist in the Cellar. I told the editor that MacLean had beaten me for a Beard Award and that I had just landed a book deal with the same house that published her book, Bloomsbury. He didn’t think either of those things posed a conflict (and I certainly harbored no resentment over losing out to her for a Beard Award—I don’t have a lot of use for awards, and just being nominated was fine by me).

MacLean’s book was not very good, and my review was respectful but unenthusiastic. Her writing was cloyingly purple, and she just didn’t seem to know all that much about wine. She concluded her chapter about Burgundy, for instance, by claiming that the region was falling out of favor and in need of revitalization. As if! After I filed the review, the top editor at the Book Review decided that the Beard thing could indeed raise questions about my impartiality, and the paper ran only my review of the McInerney book. I was not unhappy; I had taken on the assignment expecting to like her book, and I was concerned that she might have thought I had a grudge. I also wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of pissing off my publisher.

At some point, I noticed that I was getting a fair amount of spam from MacLean—emails touting her wine recommendations or announcing her latest product lines. I took a look at her website, and noticed that she had won quite a few awards (including world’s best wine writer) and wasn’t shy about advertising it. Again, I had the impression that she didn’t really know all that much about wine, but between the spamming and the self-promotion, it was clear she was relentlessly ambitious—the Tracy Flick of wine writing. I didn’t have a problem with that; we’re all brands now, so we’re told, and if she was more enterprising and energetic about building her brand than the rest of us, good for her. I did find it somewhat odd that she never seemed to interact with other wine writers. We are a small, incestuous tribe, united by our passion for wine, our poverty, and our fixation with Robert Parker, and we all chat with one another. Yet, as far as I could tell, MacLean existed in her own bubble, engaging only with her followers.

But while she largely kept her distance from other wine writers, she evidently helped herself to their tasting notes and posted them behind her paywall without proper attribution (citing the names of the critics and their respective publications). Given that she allegedly took the notes from a buying guide in which full attribution was given, one can only conclude that she was trying to pass them off as original material. That’s a big-time infraction, the sort of thing that would likely end a career at a reputable journal, and while it might have been an innocent mistake, this is not the first time that her journalistic integrity has been called into question (sock puppetry is never a smart idea).

Meanwhile, the pay-to-play allegations—which, again, she denies—have sparked an interesting debate. A few wine writers have said that opening boxes filled with samples and sorting, storing, and tasting the bottles can be a chore and that there is nothing wrong with charging wineries a fee for the time and effort. Uh-huh. It has also been suggested that charging for reviews is no more unethical than taking press trips or attending tastings hosted by wineries. I don’t buy that, either. Sure, the people sponsoring junkets or hosting tastings hope to receive favorable coverage, but that doesn’t mean a writer is obliged to provide it. I don’t take press trips, but I certainly attend tastings that are of interest to me. Occasionally I write about them, more often I don’t. However, attending a tasting put on by a winery or an importer is very different than telling a winery that you won’t review its cabernet unless it pays you.

No doubt, some people regard the MacLean matter as just more navel-gazing on the part of wine writers, and there’s an element of truth to that (we do like to talk about ourselves—a lot!). But I think corruption and misconduct ought to be exposed, and kudos to Palate Press for bringing to light MacLean’s cutting-and-pasting, as well as her possible pay-to-play shenanigans. It appears that MacLean didn’t disclose these practices to her readers; now that this information is public, those readers can make a more informed judgment about her trustworthiness. With so much wine content being put into circulation these days without editorial supervision, we wine hacks really do need to police ourselves, and I think Palate Press has served up a great example of journalistic self-regulation.

In the absence of an NHL season, it’s good to have another reason to talk about Canada, and let’s hope MacLean is promptly dispatched to the penalty box.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. December 28, 2012

    Hi Kent, great to hear from you, and Happy New Year. I saw your comment on Palate Press and was appalled. It’s bad enough that she didn’t pay you for you work, but to not even comp you a few copies of the book was just unconscionable. She has obviously engendered an incredible amount of ill will, and deservedly so. I’m sorry you had such a miserable experience with her, but clearly, you were not alone. I did not read Unquenchable; the first book was quite enough for me, thanks, though it is interesting to hear that her wine knowledge hadn’t improved. And rest assured, my reference to her “World’s Best Wine Writer” status was sarcastic. I know it’s a BS award, and I can’t imagine that any of the serious wine writers I know would a) accept such a grandiose designation and b) advertise it.

  2. Kent Benson permalink
    December 28, 2012

    Not to put put too fine a point on it, but Natalie’s so-called World’s Best Wine Writer title was actually, “Best Drinks Journalist”, according to the Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards list for 2003. Based in Adelaide, the World Food Media Awards seem to be less international than the title implies. Looking over the nationalities of the various award winners since 1997 reveals an overwhelming bias towards the Commomwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Still, an impressive acheivement for Natalie, but it hardly makes her the World’s Best Wine Writer, even within the bounds of self-promoting extrapolation.

  3. Kent Benson permalink
    December 28, 2012

    Mike: I was one of the fact-checkers for Natalie’s second book, Unquenchable. Had you read the manuscript, as I did, your assessment of her wine knowledge would have been more than substantiated.

  4. mauss permalink
    December 22, 2012

    You raise the key points, Mike. We all know, as you say, that in Burgundy or in Alsace, a seller will usually try to get a good price, if not the best, from an other local producer, and your example of Jean-François is so right.
    My main concern – and I have on the subject no specific information from Antonio who was a speaker at the WWS – can be written in 2 points :

    a : with the words written or spoken by Madame Perotti-Brown, about “employees”, I will have serious doubt about my freedom of speech, action, interest
    b : with the principles explained during decades about the minimum ethic rules to be followed inside the Parker Group, and what will be the rules now, my name as a critic with ethic, will certainly receive by many amateurs a sensible “downsizing”.

    Conclusion : or these Parker Boys negociate some very strong contracts where freedom of speech will be guaranteed as well as other minimum ethic rules to be followed (ex : advertising), or they start their own revue/website. I do guess they will have enough followers to sustain their expenses and a decent way of living. At least, personnaly, I will not pay a penny to Madame Perotti-Brown (I do not need what she will say on wine) but I will pay with joy what I do pay now for Parker subscription for these Parker Boys : I still do need their points of view.

  5. December 22, 2012

    You raise an interesting point, Francois. Yes, in American business culture, profit maximization is the ultimate goal and the highest virtue. And at least as wine goes, a somewhat different attitude can indeed be found in Europe (although maybe not in Bordeaux :). In Burgundy, a vineyard will not necessarily be sold to the highest bidder–other factors are taken into account. Or there’s the example of Jean-Francois Coche still selling part of his production to Jadot even though he could get much more money by keeping all the fruit for himself. So there is perhaps something to this idea of a cultural divide, and I suspect that if you went on eBob and suggested that Parker should have taken less money in order to let, say, Galloni buy the business, you’d probably receive some sharp rejoinders.

    But here’s the thing: I am guessing this was the only offer on the table for Parker. Maybe he would have liked to have sold the business to Galloni–maybe that was the original plan–but I strongly suspect that it wasn’t an option. And let’s face it: Parker is 65, the Wine Advocate brand still revolves almost entirely around him–he surely wasn’t going to get a better offer than this one (if the terms of the deal are as reported), and he took what was available.

  6. mauss permalink
    December 22, 2012

    Sorry :

    “This one of the difference, maybe, betweel the two sides of the ocean.”

    Should be read :

    “This is one of the difference, maybe, between…

  7. mauss permalink
    December 22, 2012

    I had effectively a dream : that Parker ask for a fair price that his writers would be able to pay.

    Sorry to speak again in french, but, for me and many europpean, “il serait sorti par la grande porte” (He gets out by the big door). His reputation would have been enhanced so high !
    Giving to $$$$ the only criteria for finding a buyer, we have also a word for that : “boutiquier”.
    He gets out by the back door. As a regular smart, very smart businessman.
    Now I fully understand that in USA this kind of language is not only weird, but immature and stupid.
    This one of the difference, maybe, betweel the two sides of the ocean.
    Now, something sure, especially with the first comments of Miss Perotti-Brown : we will see very soon an hallali against the scores of TWA since, from now on, except for Bordeaux and Rhône, “Parker” is not any more a taboo. You will see !

  8. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 22, 2012

    Francois- Merci! English has many more words than French, arising from its diversity of roots. But la Francais is so much more resonant. My two favorite words are “non merci” as voiced by any good Cyrano. Joyeux Noel.

  9. December 22, 2012

    Dan, I was anxiously awaiting word on this award, and finally it’s here! A worthy choice, I’d say, particularly in light of Suckling’s recent Italian extravaganza in Hong Kong, at which some of the producers were hailing him as the great ambassador of Italian wines. Not quite sure how one reconciles the ambassadorial role with the role of objective critic, but I’m clearly stuck in the last century as these things go.

  10. December 22, 2012

    Wise words as usual, Francois. I think we’ve already reached a point where people are not hesitant to challenge Parker re Bordeaux and the Rhone; just look at the thread over on Berserkers re John Livingstone-Learmonth’s comments regarding Parker and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Burgundy is ascendant now, California is turning away from the kind of wines that Parker championed, Australia is looking to go in another direction–all these things are indications of Parker’s declining influence over the market. That’s not to say that he still can’t move wines–he surely can–but not as reliably as before.

    The GaultMillau analogy is a great one, and one that resonates a bit for me, as I got to know Christian Millau while researching my book. And I know GaultMillau quickly went downhill after the sale.

    As for Parker: while it appears that he made a questionable decision in selling to this particular group of investors, I certainly can’t fault him for taking a generous offer that came his way. I assume you are referring specifically to Galloni; I’m sure Antonio was given an opportunity to try to buy the Wine Advocate, and it would appear that he was unable to put together the financing–that, or Lisa beat him to the punch.

  11. mauss permalink
    December 22, 2012

    Dan : we have a word in french for this kind of comment : coquin !!


  12. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 22, 2012

    The Awards Committee has considered a bevy of outstanding nominees and I have the distinct pleasure to open the envelope naming the winner for Most Ethical Wine Critic of 2012…. And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the winner is…oh, yes, this is, like, really, so very well deserved… , oh my, yes…it is… James $uckling!!!

  13. mauss permalink
    December 22, 2012

    Mike :

    Yes, I fully understand what you say and such a behavior is such a penalty for those who try to work with a real ethic.
    About Parker sale : for me, it is quite evident that what happens here is a copy of what happens in France at the time of the sale of GaultMillau. The new investors target : to do as fast as possible the maximum $$$$, and using a name which had a value before.
    Parker would have such a better image if he did sell at a fair friendly price, his review to his boys working so good for him. Especially since he says he is not a man of $$$$.
    We will come very fast to a new situation where many people will not be afraid, now, to critisize the WA scores, even for Bordeaux and Rhône.
    If I was an investor, I will sell right away all the wines I have in my cellar put in this respect of added-value. The conjunction between the decrease of Parker, the huge amount of false bottles, the new policies in China, their interest now in Burgundy and not so much in Bordeaux, the english wine funds going bankrupted : just the time to “take the moneyand run !”.

  14. December 21, 2012

    Thanks for the Twitter suggestions, Dean.

    Francois, you are absolutely right, and clearly, we are in a new era as far as wine journalism goes. That said, I think most people would agree that requiring wineries to pay for reviews is bad, and pilfering the tasting notes of other writers and passing them off as original content is indefensible. And at least with regard to MacLean, I don’t find it sad at all; I’m very happy her misconduct was exposed, because it reflects badly on all of us who write about wine.

    Now with regard to the changes in wine journalism, I trust you saw the Decanter article, Francois, about Parker’s Singapore investor? It’s pretty incredible if true, and would explain why Parker has been so reluctant to offer details about the deal.

    Katie, you are exactly right–this is basic journalism. You don’t help yourself to work other people have done–it’s effectively plagiarism, and the people whose work was appropriated are understandably outraged. The rest of us should be, too.

  15. December 21, 2012

    A very apt piece on this whole sordid business. What she did is Journalism 101—stuff we learn in high school. It’s really just sad, when she clearly had much going for her.

  16. mauss permalink
    December 21, 2012

    As usual, an example of what is done also by some other critics, maybe with more discretion and intelligence.
    The biggest problem : idealy, a wine critic must be paid by his readers. Most of them are now paid , directly or indirectly (by advertising), by the producers. As soon as you have this kind of link, it is easy to see all the compromissions that may occur.
    We do not have to throw (jeter) the stones. It is sad, of course, but then…

  17. December 21, 2012

    You can also check Twitter spambot @NatDecantsFans and the hashtag #natnabbed

  18. December 20, 2012

    Thanks very much, Tony, and my best to you for the holidays, as well.

    Rod, thanks for the comment. Yes, I know she was giving initials, but I suspect most of her readers had no idea who the reviewers were and assumed that it was all original content. And I would do exactly as you did: demand that all my tasting notes be removed from the site. She engaged in copyright theft, and there is certainly no reason for the authors of those purloined tasting notes to let her keep using them.

    Lee, thanks for the update. From what I can tell, she gets a lot of media attention in Canada; interesting that people in the business don’t take her terribly seriously (I’m not surprised, but given all the media attention she commands, I wasn’t sure).

    Mr. Blandings, you are absolutely correct. She had no right to appropriate that material, and whoever is giving her legal advice is doing her no favors.

    Henry, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I’m sure the LCBO has permission to cite the notes and ratings of people like Jancis. It’s a mutually beneficial thing: it helps the LCBO sell wines, and it gives the critics free publicity. Quite apart from the fact that MacLean helped herself to content that she had no right to use, there is no reciprocal benefit for people like Jancis. MacLean was putting these notes behind her paywall and deriving all of the benefits from them.

  19. Henry Lai permalink
    December 20, 2012

    Many of the reviews she publishes are the capsule reviews found in the LCBO’s Vintages sales magazine, which appears a couple of times a month. The LCBO, Ontario’s government liquor monopoly and at one time the single largest buyer of wine in the world (probably still is), presumably has permission to publish reviews from the Wine Advocate, Jancis Robinson, etc. MacLean’s copying of those reviews and publishing them on a pay-site is dishonest, even with proper attribution.

  20. Mr. Blandings permalink
    December 20, 2012

    It’s not as though attribution would solve the problem. She’s using copyrighted material without permission in pretty much the direct opposite of a “fair use” context.

  21. December 20, 2012

    Mike the Juniors are coming and many of them play in the NHL, but only the Canadian team are from Canada, more or less.

    I have talked to many BC, Canada based wine people about the “MacLean” issue and it’s a big, meh……… nobody I know followers her in any way, the most anyone says is they have trouble unsubscribing from her non pay newsletter, so they need to block it as spam.

  22. Rod Phillips permalink
    December 20, 2012

    A nicely written article, Mike, and your points hit home effectively. One point: the reviews she published were scrubbed of the full attribution they were given in the sourc she took them from, and attributed by initials. So Jancis Robinson became “JRO” ( of course!). So she wasn’t passing the reviews off as her own, but she was clearly and deliberately obscuring the source. Her response is to say that she s now providing proper attribution. I’ve told her to remove all my reviews from her site, and I hope all wine critics will do the same. If anyone is not sure she has used their reviews, and doesn’t want to buy a subscription to find out (!), e-mail her anyway, and also forbid any future use of your reviews.

  23. December 20, 2012

    Great article, Mike. Touching all the bases. Best wishes for the holidays and may the Bluebird of Happiness settle on your navel and lay golden eggs. Tony

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