World’s Best Wine Writer Busted
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.