I’d heard stories about the fraudulent activity of wine review plagiarism being perpetrated over the years, but never thought that my wine reviews would be involved. Bob Campbell MW has recounted a number of instances where his wine reviews have been incorrectly used in describing different vintages of a wine he has tasted. Late last month, it was brought to my attention by a retail customer from my previous life, that the Earnscleugh Road Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008 offered for sale on the winesoline.co.nz website had a review and a 5 star rating attributed to me, displaying my name as the author. The wine was for sale at $16.95, reduced from the recommended retail price of $29.99. My contact said that if this was true, then he’d buy some of it. He commented that he could not find the review on my website winesite.wpengine.com which he perused on a regular basis. This rang alarm bells.
Upon checking the winesonline.co.nz website, all was true as presented by my contact. I knew I had not tasted a wine with that label, and confirmed this by checking my database of reviews. Although I have tasted a number of wines that have not had labels finalised, there was no such wine I had tasted with this description or rating. A possible scenario was an existing wine and label sold to another winery, or labelled differently for a different market? The description and rating I had written and made was exactly that for Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Pinot Noir 2009. Upon contacting Phil Handford, proprietor of Grasshopper Rock, he was surprised as I was, and completely unaware of the situation. He was slightly bemused, and a little flattered that someone had used the review of one of his wines I had written for him in promoting another, though cognizant of the improper usage.
These things can happen as a genuine mistake, so I sought to contact both the wine retailer and the winery. Rod of winesonline.co.nz said he didn’t realise that the review was for another wine. He intimated that the review came with the wine. I explained the issues of copyright and he agreed that if there was a problem, he would withdraw the accreditation and review. He said that he would contact the winery to discuss the issue, and would contact me once done. After several days without hearing from Rod, I called again. He said that he had not been able to contact the winery owner. After reiterating the copyright issues, he agreed to remove my name and the 5 star rating, but left the description. I then tried to call Russell at Earnscleugh Road winery, and left a message when there was no answer.
After another several days, I called Rod of winesonline.co.nz to check on any progress he had made in contacting the winery. Again, he reported that he had no success. I insisted that he remove the descriptive wording for the wine on his website, as it was written for another wine. He agreed to do so, and removed it some hours later. Again I tried to contact Russell, the winery owner, and left another message when there was no answer.
There the situation stands. It is not clear how my 5 star review and word-for-word description for the Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2009 was used for the Earnscleugh Road Pinot Noir 2008. It is possible that the retailer made a genuine error in copying what he thought was a review for that wine. Certainly the winery would be aware that the review did not belong to his wine. Someone is responsible for this plagiarism. No-one has owned up to this, and it appears no-one will. With the offending material removed, it is not an issue now. It seems incredibly naïve that plaigiarism in the New Zealand wine scene be attempted. The world is a village when it comes to wine, and local scene must seem like one’s backyard. Phil Handford of Grasshopper Rock has posted an article on this episode on his blog (click here to view), and this has prompted me to do the same.
The reviews I write and scores I give are specific to a particular wine tasted. They cannot be transferred to another wine. There is the scenario that a wine reviewed under one label can have the review used for the identical wine with a different label or brand. That is acceptable, and I am usually informed of this. The finer points of this issue can get complicated by different bottlings and lots of the same wine. Are they identical? The Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2006 controversy is a case in point. Here the Lot Number judged for Cuisine was different to what was generally available for sale. A balancing point was that all the different lots were judged to be of approximately equivalent quality, though slightly different organoleptically. For such a large production run wine, this problem can easily arise. It is accepted that Brent Marris and Wither Hills had no intent to deceive, and I for one am in that camp, but the subject was one that needed to be aired.
As with my experience here, it is the intent that is crucial. Am I to note the Lot Number of every wine tasted? Should every wine reviewer do the same? Is it overkill? Is the general public interested? I believe that any ill-intent will eventually be manifest and serve to discredit those responsible. As a positive wine reviewer, I take the stance that the vast majority of people also are honest and work with integrity. I continue to work and write with that perspective, but will disclose any findings to the contrary.