Thursday, December 20, 2012

Natalie Maclean - the gift that keeps on giving

Natalie Maclean - whom I will henceforth refer to as NMA (for reasons that will become clear), is a pre-Christmas gift that keeps on giving.
For anyone outside the incestuous wine writing loop, here's a reminder.

1) she is accused by Palate Press of plagiarizing other critics' words - by cutting and pasting them from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario  Vintages Wine Catalogue, and inserting them into her - subscription - site - without the  author, publication and date information that appeared in the Catalogue. Instead of these details, she provided initials. So the "JRO" following this note refers to Jancis Robinson...
“Tank sample. Very rich and opulent nose. Great polish and just the merest suggestion of raisins. Big, dry and hot on the finish. Expressive of the terrain! Good for those who seek sunshine in a bottle. Drink 2013-2017. Score: 16 (out of 20) JRO”
while the "TA" following this one is from NMA's fellow Canadian critic Tony Aspler.

“Winemaker Deborah Paskus is on the top of her game with this wine. Deep straw in colour; spicy, minerally, apple and pear nose with a leesy lemony note; well integrated oak with a fresh, lingering finish. A triumph of terroir and technique. Score: 92 TA”
(both quotes from NMA's site, provided by Michael Pinkus - another aggrieved critic - via Palate Press) 

2) NMA is accused - again by Palate Press of requiring wineries to subscribe to her newsletter ($24 pa) if they want their wines to be reviewed. These accusations of Pay to Play have apparently been substantiated by (un-named) wineries in the form of emails from NMA saying (according to Palate Press)  "the subscription fee would be “well worth [the winery's] while” reaching the largest wine audience in Canada and the media exposure would be “worth thousands of dollars to you.” 

3) NMA is then accused of asking winery PRs to populate her site with information that she might reasonably be expected to be sourcing, checking and entering herself.

4) Then comes another accusation (again via the comment section of Palate Press) - by Tyler Philp, author of 200 reviews "plus several educational articles" that appear on the NMA site that she includes "phony names"  among the list of subscriber-reviewers (but fails to include him "to punish the one member who openly questioned the legitimacy of ‘Operation Peroxide’.")

5) The reference to "phony names" takes on greater import when one encounters another accusation - from Wine Align which created an iPhone app that competed with NMA's own offering. I think it makes most sense for me to include Wine Align's comment in full: (except that they are unreadable, so you should probably take a look at them here.

So, here are the issues NMA has helped to raise:

A) What where and how can/should critics' words be used; with or without payment?

B) Is there any legitimacy in linking payment to wine reviewing? As others such as Jamie Goode have pointed out, wineries actually do precisely this on a regular basis - every time they lay on a tasting and lunch or a press trip. They inevitably sit down with their PR and calculate the cost of the exercise versus the column inches (editorial and reviews) it has yielded. They pay entry fees to competitions whose organisers (and judges) may write about the wines they have tasted once medals have been awarded.

    And, of course... they send them for tasting by magazines that sell advertising.

    A PR with experience in the UK and elsewhere to whom I spoke yesterday said that they have email and printed evidence of the direct link many, many publishers establish between tasting reviews and advertising. Behind the scenes, there is no shortage of chat about this applying to at least one very well-known US publication. Is anyone (a former winery employee perhaps - or a former magazine employee or PR) prepared to throw any further light on this..?

C) What sanctions should be applied to individuals and companies that use reviews to undermine the businesses of their competitors?

Thank you again NMA for giving us all so much to think about over


  1. Do you think that with the Miller/Campo fiasco, Robert Parker's "sale" of TWA and all this stuff surrounding NMA, we are seeing the end of the faith in wine criticism or does the complexity of wine make it a necessity that just needs cleaning up a bit.

    1. Wine doesn't exist in a bubble. Faith in ALL criticism is fading, and giving way to the anarchy of social media commentary. (We all look at Amazon and TripAdvisor Stars before hitting the "buy" button).
      Ironically, NMA manages to illustrate all these at once. She came out of nowhere as a blogger, quietly chasing then overtaking some of her countrymen who were ploughing traditional paths. Then she became a "proper" mainstream critic who is also accused of subverting the Amazon (in this case AppleStore) star system by pretending to be a set of non-existent consumers.

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  3. 1. Those images with comments from Wine Align are impossible to read.

    2. It is unfortunate that too much in this discussion has focused on "attribution" of the quotes. Attribution is basically irrelevant.

    It does not matter an ounce if you attribute or not if you use other writers' text WITHOUT AUTHORISATION. No one can use text from outside sources without authorisation. That's copyright infringement. It does not matter if you have "proper attribution" or not. If you do, it just shows who you are stealing from.

    It is the same with text, with photography, with music, with films.

    If you lift a photo from my site and publish it on yours it does not matter that if you say it's my photo (or even link back). It's copyright infringement, unless you have my permission. If you post a video with music by Madonna, it does not matter if you say it's from Madonna. It's copyright infringement, unless you have her permission. Same with text.

    3. The Pay for Play issue is interesting, and different, because there are so many parallels that you can make with other situations. (As you partially do. And having run a wine competition you are intimately familiar with one of them.) It is not so clear cut. Perhaps an important aspect of it is how transparent you are about it, AND if you let that payment influence your judgement.

    Anyone who's interested in this should definitely read the two posts on Palate Press, including the comments!


    1. Thanks Per. I've addressed the readability issue by providing a link to the original source. And yes I agree with you about the attribution issue - in terms of whether or not it is theft. I do address this, with my question about when/where can critics' words be used.
      With regard to Pay for Play, I think it is probably an intractable issue, if we take it ad extremis. Accepting ANY hospitality opens the door to the accusation of offering an unfair advantage to that producer - but this must be true for almost every field of commercial endeavour. Coupled to which are the benefits some wineries gain from their - genuine - friendship with writers. But, at least the Competition model is totally out in the open - unlike the press trips and lunches...

    2. That's not quite true. Fair use laws vary from country to country, but for academic and media purposes, it's generally perfectly legitimate to quote a certain percentage of text without ever having to ask the originator of the material, as long as you show where the material came from.

      There are even legitimate ways of using other people's scores etc, without ever seeking the permission of the writer. If you write an article where you do a roundup of scores, you have created your own intellectual property, even though you've quoted other people.

      There are plenty of these sorts of articles around at the end of the year - do a google of 'best books of 2012' lists, where you'll find bloggers have compiled lists of what top critics believe to be the best books, or best films of the year.

      What's key is how much you use and how you attribute it.

    3. Fair points, Felicity. I think one of the issues is the fact that the quotes in question were behind a paywall - so anyone wanting to monitor the use of their words had effectively to subscribe to the newsletter. (You can browse a newspaper on a news-stand).
      Another issue is that this isn't an example of a voracious publisher ripping off poor hacks; it's a hack being accused of ripping off other hacks: dog-eat-dog

  4. As ever, I believe the issue is all about 1) ownership of IP and 2) disclosure of conflict of interest.

    The ownership of IP issue is clear - attribution is not the same as permission to use others' IP.

    Re disclosure, it is merely good commercial practice to charge for your work e.g. in reviewing wine. However, one's readers need to be aware of this in order to have a full picture and to understand that the writer has a conflict of interest.

    The answer therefore is not to ban payment for review but for paid-for reviews to be disclosed as such and to allow the public to make up their mind about how much they trust the reviews of a person who has charged for their review.

    I have a disclosure statement and policy on my blog, for example.

    1. Tom, regarding IP, there's no question about it.

      Re charging for reviewing, there are so few options for making a living out of wine reviewing that I think your model makes sense, but I the issue will inevitably be blurred for many...

    2. Paying for reviewing is fraught. By its very nature, it's a conflict of interest. Reviewers ultimately exist to serve their readers, and it's readers who should be paying for the reviews, not the people being reviewed.

      Of course, in the world of wine, readers rarely do pay for reviews. The question of whether anyone is entitled to earn a living from something that the end user doesn't want to pay for is a separate issue.

      Secondly, a reviewer who only accepts paid wines also runs the very real risk of never being able to uncover gems from producers who don't have marketing budgets. Part of the role of critic is to uncover the new and interesting and bring it to wider attention.

      If paid reviews must happen, and perhaps we're moving to a time when it becomes accepted practice, then the first and most important thing is that the financial transaction has to be transparent and obvious to the reader. Secondly, the tasting process needs to be as unbiased as possible, either by setting up a blind tasting, or by using outside tasters, and then making that process clear to readers.

    3. I absolutely agree about the need for transparency - and about the likelihood of free reviewing becoming an endangered species.

  5. For another gift that keeps giving, there's the Twitter spambot account @NatDecantsFans and the Twitter hashtag #natnabbed.

    1. Thanks Dean. I salso like the idea if (A so-far empty site!)

  6. Thx for the mention in your post I think everyone involved (less one) appreciates the additional exposure. Cheers!

  7. Anonymous6:30 pm

    I wonder what the real letter a stands for in NMA. Maybe a 7 letter word ending in le?

    Oooohh my my, mustn't do that.

    The whole thing smells like brett to me. And since hiding things is what at issue here, I will just sign myself as . . .

    1. I couldn't possibly comment...

  8. I hope you-all have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!