Wine Spectator 2012 Top 100 biased?

Is Wine Spectator biased?

The new Wine Spectator 2012 top 100 list is now online and can be viewed for free until November 27th at their site. I wanted to take the opportunity to express why I dislike Wine Spectator. There have been many rumors that the Wine Spectator (WS) gets paid for the awards they hand out. The new top 100 list makes me believe that further more as it makes little sense to me. I’m not just focusing on the Italian wines in that selection, I will also address the lack of Spanish wines in the top 10.

250$ get you a Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence”

Wine Spectator Award of ExcellenceBack in 2008 consumer advocate Robin Goldstein came up with a plan to prove that WS awards are not to be trusted. Next to wines, WS also awards restaurants for their excellent wine cellars. Goldstein invented a fake restaurant based in Milan and submitted his wine list together with the 250$ to WS. In the August 2008 edition of WS Goldstein’s imaginary restaurant Osteria L’Intrepido won the award of excellence. Read the full story at Goldstein’s blog. You can also read the New York Time’s article about this matter. According to the New York Time WS made in 2008 1.000.000$ just with the award of excellence entry fees.

This is just one example to show how easy it is to get an “award” from Wine Spectator which brings me to the conclusion that as long as you got the money you’ll get the WS award you want – even for something that doesn’t even exist

Wine Spectator 2012 Top 10 and Top 100

I’m pretty sure that all of the wines in the WS Top 10 exist but I have my doubts that all of these wines really “deserve” the award.

Let me express my concerns now. If we take a closer look at the Top 10 then we see that it includes 4 French, 3 American, 1 Italian, 1 Australian  and 1 from Argentina. The first time I looked at the list I immediately wondered why there was no Spanish wine in the top 10. Probably no Spanish winery was willing to “pay the sum X” to be included in the list. Of course this is pure speculation on my part but why should WS actually change their policy for Wine Awards compared to their policy for the “award of excellence”? The answer is simply: They wouldn’t change it.

2012’s best wine is according to WS is the 2008 Shafer Vineyards – Relentless Napa Valley. I’m not an expert on American wine but I’ve never seen this wine in any Enoteca in Germany nor in Italy. So I wonder: Why is this the best wine of the year not available in my country?


The Italian wine in the top 10

2007 Ciacci Piccolomini - Brunello di Montalcino DOCGLet’s take a look at the only Italian wine in the WS top 10. The wine is #9 on the list and is produced by Ciacci Piccolomini – a winery from Montalcino. The wine “awarded” was their 2007 Brunello di Montalcino. I’ve seen a lot of Brunello di Montalcino and tasted a lot of them, too but I’ve never came across this one so I looked at wine-searcher where I could buy it. The closest store is over 270km (165 miles) away from me and I live in one of Germany’s most important and largest cities, Munich. So no luck with buying the wine. Once again that made me wonder why is Wine Spectator’s the best Italian wine not available in anywhere close to me? I assume that it’s not that good (I’m not saying it’s bad but there are probably better Italian wines out there!). Why do I assume that? The brand new Gambero Rosso 2013 wine guide did not award the wine their prestigious “tre bicchieri” (three glasses) award. No other Italian wine guide gave the wine any notable award. The Gambero Rosso awarded 17 Brunello di Montalcino the “tre bicchieri” award. Ciacci Piccolomini are not in that list. If I recall correctly the wine did not even get awarded the “un bicchiere” (one glass) award which many OK wines get. So why did WS select this wine out of all possible Italian wines? Only reasonable explanation is that the winery paid WS for it. In the wine review WS states that this wine is also the best value wine. According to WS the wine costs 60$ in the US – I surly hope that there are better best value deals out there than this 60$ wine.

No Spanish wines in the top 30

I already said it earlier that I found it odd that there was no Spanish wine in the top 10. Spanish wines are not among my favorites but I’m not an idiot and I know that there are good Spanish wines out there. They might not be my taste but they are good. Period.

After taking a quick look at the WS Top 100 list I seemed to find no Spanish wines and I was halfway through the list. The 2009 Can Blau from the Spanish winery Montsant Blau is ranked #33. Very, very hard to believe that 32 wines are better than the very best Spanish wine of the year. It would be great if WS could explain how that’s was possible.

The Top 50 is dominated by American and French wines but there are also a few Portuguese and some Italian wines in the list.

Where is Germany?

The WS top 100 includes only two German wines. Two Rieslings – one from the Rheingau and one from the Mosel. Not a whole lot for one of the leading white-wine producing countries in the world. Maybe Wine Spectator forget simply forgot about Germany?

A few facts about the WS Top 100 

    • The list contains a very high number of Californian wines compared to very little wines from Spain, Portugal and other important wine producing countries.
    • Wine Spectator Top 100 2012 LogoNone of the Brunello di Montalcino in the WS Top 100 list are also in the Gambero Rosso tre bicchieri list.
    • If we look at the Italian wines then only a few are found in any other Italian wine guide.
      When it comes to Italian wine I value the opinion of Italian wine guides much more!
    • As far as I’m aware the list does not include wines from less-known wine countries like Greece or Croatia. Just to name two countries who produce good wine, too.


Parting words

Not only does Wine Spectator hand out their “award of excellence” for a fee but they also come up with a top 100 wine list that makes very little sense – at least to me. If the list makes sense to you then please use the comment section and elaborate why.

In general I think it makes little sense to try to make a world wide top 100 wine list if you forget about 80% of the wine producing countries. Comparing a French Bordeaux with an Italian Barolo and an American Napa Valley seems to be already a bad idea since they all differ so much compared to each other. That’s why for example Italian wine guides like the Gambero Rosso do never compare Brunello with Barolo or Vino Nobile with Cerasuolo di Vittoria. They compare Brunello with Brunello and Vino Nobile with Vino Nobile. I prefer that system much more. How is it possible to compare and rank all these different wines? A Spanish Rioja and a Vino Nobile have little in common.

I know that this blog post was long but I felt the need to express my dislike for Wine Spectator. Feel free to discuss this matter in the comment section. Do you share my opinion or do you disagree? 

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18 comments on “Wine Spectator 2012 Top 100 biased?”

  1. Sean P. Reply

    I didn’t know that story with the Restaurant. I have to give you credit for adressing this. If an award can be bought as easy as this then it’s worthless!

    • vino in love Reply

      I red the article from the New York times a while ago. To me it’s shocking that WS hands out awards without even checking if in this case the restaurant even exists!

  2. wineking3 wineking3 Reply

    I was wondering, too why there was no Rioja or any other wine from Spain in the Top 50. I’d be a bit careful though with accusing them of selling awards and stuff.. Maybe Spanish wines just declined in quality and therefore cannot compete with the rest of the Californian and French wines?

    • vino in love Reply

      I doubt that the Spanish wines lost that much in quality. The lack of them in the Top 50 also doesn’t explain why there are no wines from Greece or Croatia in the list. In South America many countries produce wine, too – not just Argentina.

  3. theducksong Reply

    Well Wine Spectator Top 100 seems to be quite interesting indeed. Hard to explain the lack of Spanish wines. I personally find it very strange that so many of these wines come from California. I’ve drank some Californian wines and they were good but a world wide top 100 ranking should not be dominated by Californian wines. French wines are simply the best so I understand why many of them are in that list but I would have picked different ones.

    • vino in love Reply

      You are absolutely right that the lack of wines from Spain in the top 50 is hard to explain. In general many things in that top 100 are hard to explain!
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. RiojaChianti RiojaChianti Reply

    Wine Spectator’s Top 100 is rather odd this year. I’m a big Rioja lover and to me there is nothing better than a Rioja Reserva. So I find it very hard to believe that the very best Spanish wine is somewhere after the top 50s and it’s not even a Rioja!

    Mr. Goldstein did brillant to show how easy it is to get a Wine Spectator award of excellence. Thanks for sharing that.

  5. the winegetter Reply

    Thanks for your strong worded piece, Julian! I very much agree that the list is erratic at best. It is heavily tilted towards the American consumer’s expectations, hence the focus on French and Californian wines. Many Americans are obsessed with lists, I never quite understood why…and many have the cockiness to just compare apples and oranges and actually believe that that makes any sense. I am with you on comparing what can be compared…I still find interesting reporting in Wine Spectator, but that list is as worthless as it can be.

    Thanks also for digging up that restaurant story. Stunning…and telling.

    • vino in love Reply

      I’m happy that you agree with me on this matter! Comparing all these different wines with each other makes little sense..
      I didn’t know that Americans like the French and American wines that much but now it explains why the Wine Spectator Top 100 is dominated by them which brings me to the conclusion that the list is even more biased and worthless than I thought it was..

  6. talkavino Reply

    The fact that bogus restaurant can get Award of Excellence is fascinating, but lets leave it outside for a moment.
    As far “pay to play” accusations go, none of the publications are immune – there was scandal with Jay Miller from Wine Advocate, I believe you mentioned that there are rumors of some ratings being paid for at Gambero Rosso, and of course Wine Spectator being accused of the same practices many times before. There might be a grain of truth in all of it, but it is hard to know for sure.
    As far as the Top 100 list is concerned, don’t forget that it is written by people. It can’t be objective, even in the magazine which is sold world wide. I publish my own top dozen list every year, and I include there wines which I found to deliver my personal most moving experiences throughout the year. While WS is general publication and it is 1000% more objective than my wine blog, it is written by the mere mortals who have their preferences and understanding of what is good and what is bad…

    • vino in love Reply

      Yes there are rumors that Gambero Rosso got paid, too for some tre bicchieri awards where they upgraded a due bicchieri award to tre bicchieri, nevertheless their wine guide is mostly objective.
      Wine Spectator’s Top 100 is not objective. Why publish a list that is completly biased? Don’t you wonder why there are not many Spanish wines in this world wide top 100 list? What’s with all the wines from other countries? No mentions at all. Why do you think that a list cannot be obejctive? If sommeliers make a list by what tasted best and not by who paid most then the list could have been objective.
      Out of all wine guides that publish some sort of wine list, the guide from Wine Spectator seems to be the most biased one – at least to me.

      • talkavino Reply

        Did you look at the explanation as to how the list was built? Apologies for citing it in its entirety, but here it is:
        “In 2012, our list was selected from more than 17,000 new releases our editors rated in our independent blind tastings. More than 5,500 of these wines earned outstanding or classic ratings (90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale). We narrowed the list down based on four criteria: quality (represented by score); value (reflected by release price); availability (measured by cases made or imported); and what we call the “X-factor”–the excitement generated by a rising-star producer, a benchmark wine or a significant milestone for a wine region. But no equation determines the final selections: These choices reflect our editors’ judgment and passion about the wines we tasted.”
        There are a number of Spanish wines in the Top 100 – the first one is #33, the next is #35 – And there are wines from France, Italy, US, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Chile. The list is not built to represent all the winemaking countries – it includes the wines which got editors excited…

        • vino in love Reply

          Yes I’ve red how they picked the wines. I still disagree with it.
          I’ll check back later tonight if the first Spanish wine is #33. If that’s the case then I’ll update my post.
          If the editors only get excited by the countries you listed then WS needs to hire different editors. Exciting wines are being produced in more than just the above listed countries.
          Even though WS says that the wines have been blind-tasted I still believe that the wineries in the Top 100 paid for their nomination but that’s just my opinion.

          • talkavino

            to be precise, Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, US (California, Oregon, Washington) are all included. There are many Spanish wines from different regions, starting from #33 onwards. There is one wine from Greece, #90. If you will think proportionally, to have only 100 wine from Greece to be included into the top 100 out of 17000 – makes sense for me and correlates with my personal experience. No wines from Croatia in top 100? I believe it. As far as list inclusions being paid for – I have no idea, so this is as valid of a rumor as anything else…

  7. talkavino Reply

    sorry, mistake in my last comment – I meant to say “only 1 wine from Greece”. And it is entirely possible that I missed some other countries…

    • vino in love Reply

      Don’t worry if you missed some wines. As you can see I missed some myself (and fixed my post accordingly).
      The fact that Wine Spectator sold their award of excellence to a non-existing restaurant shows how they handle awards. That’s why I concluded at the end my post that Wine Spectator sold at least some of the spots in the their Top 100.

      In general I don’t quite understand how you can compare Bordeaux to a German Spätburgunder or to an Italian Amarone. Ranking all these different wines objectively seems to be quite impossible.

      • talkavino Reply

        Yeah… don’t get me wrong – all these Top Lists are exercise in curiosity for me – I would never go and buy wines just because they were listed in the Top 100 of any publication – it is only a reference for me and opportunity to see if I know of any wines other people think of highly.
        As far as the restaurant story goes, first, the $250 is standard application fee. And this guy put out quite an elaborate fake, with the real phone number in Italy – considering the number of awards they provide, I don’t think WS stuff can personally visit each and every restaurant…
        Anyway, good dialog – this is all not important – let’s go drink some good wines 🙂

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