Food and wine critics being sued over poor reviews - to Tom

Interesting topic. IMO the line between opining and defamation/slander is fairly clear. The cases of the food critic and Korbel are made more complicated by the rights or not of anonimity or disguise.
May I assume that we are talking about wine critics who are neither anonimous nor disguised? Need they really be fearful of honesty in opinion becoming a liability?
Certainly dishonesty in proffered opinion can and should be fodder for both civil and criminal complaints. And that should cut both ways, not only on the defamations but also on the aggrandizations. False aggrandization is less acted upon simply because the damages are spread across a broader base, whereas the damage of defamation is more focussed.
Maybe professional critics need a “malpractice” insurer. Not sure that they’d all find an insurer. But then again, their best protection is disclosure of any conflict that might sway their opinion. Is that so bad?

That Korbel one would be more interesting, but it concerns general slander (of employment and environmental practices) and does not concern wine criticism.

Maybe the consumers should, via class action, sue the critics for not publishing bad reviews claiming that all the increase in wine prices above inflation are a result of this unbalanced reporting. I am sure the same science used by the global warming alarmists could rationalize away the other factors?

I thought Korbel settled?

I am sorry I didn’t use a plethora of emoticons but, I was being sarcastic. I live in, what I believe, relative to the US, to be a very under-litigated country (again with the sarcasm) and I like it that way. I need to live in a world where there are more lawsuits like I need to take a big shit and fall backwards. Seriously though, there is no way in hell critics should be immune from lawsuits per se though. If malfeasance can be proved, the law should take its course regardless. There should be a litmus test of some sort though to eliminate the superfluous suits. (May well be something but, I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on the internet … now a judge, that is a different matter). Winking smiley face, man hitting self over head with hammer and whatever the hell else touchy feely graphics are required to indicate a tongue-in-cheek statement.

Its too bad that, the spectre of legal action, may be limiting the publishing of negative reviews because I fully believe that nothing but, “happy happy” notes and numbers for wines can do nothing but, put general upward pressure on pricing.

Define dishonesty. If I have a bad steak at a steak house does it matter if everyone else that week had a great steak? If I say it was a crappy steak I’m not being dishonest.

The issue is rarely disclosure on the part of the critic - most critics we’re talking about don’t have serious conflicts of interest but if they do or did, certainly disclosure is appropriate.

What most of you miss here is that even a baseless case costs the critic money and time to defend. There’s little reason for a major critic, esp Parker, to take ANY risk like this by publishing a poor review of a wine. This really isn’t that hard - the critics all publish reviews of far more wines than any of us can collect. IF you’re looking for buying suggestions or suggestions of what wines are good in a region and you align with a given critic’s palate in general then you have plenty of choices right now. Buy some of the wines and, if you find yourself in agreement with the critic, buy more and ask your local merchant what else is like the wines that you like.

As for what to avoid, you can either ONLY buy critically reviewed wines, you can talk to your merchant, your wine g eek friends and others on boards like this for ideas on what to buy o you can take a chance and deal with the occasional disappointment.

Face it, there’s not a shortage of good wines to buy from any region you can name - so to the degree that Parker, Tanzer et al are in business to advise us on wines that we should buy, AND given the slight risk of someone freaking out and filing a suit over a very poor review I can’t see why any critic would publish poor reviews.


Keep in mind we’re just talkin’ and I have the same moral authority over you that you have over me … none.

You keep coming back to the “advice on wine to buy” argument and I think it completely misses the point. Eliminating the people who buy solely on points/reviews, I would hazard a guess that most people using the reviews at the level we are talking about will take the benchmarking approach. What does this guy seem to mean by “bell pepper” and what does it mean to me as it concerns my like or dislike; that provides important information for the reader irrespective of whether the reviewer gives said wine a 75 or a 95. Granted, there may be pragmatic reasons of all sorts, both general and specific, for any given reviewer to not post negative reviews (and define negative, for Parker twenty years ago it seemed to be something under 80 whereas now it seems to be something under 88 … ). But, you seem to want to have it accepted that not posting negative critiques is acceptable and irrelevant, generally. I do not agree – if I am mis-characterizing your position inform me – I disagree most vehemently as it applies to Parker. Read his Standards statement. He holds, as a standard, Ralph Nader. Nader did not gain lustre for communicating his glowing reviews but, I would argue, for having the courage to identify crap, as did Parker. Parker has held himself up as the consumer’s advocate and repeatly stated that his 100 point system was never as important as the benchmarking the reader could achieve by understanding his descriptors, the words. I can’t conceive how that can be achieved by the reader when only the “happy, happy” reviews are put forward. He may hate bell pepper, while I like it. He’s dead nuts accurate identifying it but, I have no chance of using this descriptor as guidance from him though because, hating it, he won’t be publishing the reviews of wines in which he finds this characteristic. Parker and every other reviewer can set their business up as they wish but, if they are going to only communicate the “happy, happy” notes to their subscribers, they had better lose the reference to themselves being critics or their work being criticism. Parker has repeatedly defined himself as both a critic and a consumer advocate. By only communicating the “happy, happy” notes, he, IMHO, fails both titles. Now of course, I can “reviewer shop” until I find a reviewer who likes the wines I like and therefore publishes notes on them. Of course, if the problem is systemic, I will never find that reviewer because they will never gain favour because they are off the generally accepted cluster of what is good. What attracted me to Parker was his willingness to offer the balance I am refering to; if he hides all the bad reviews, the balance is gone and the benchmarking is severly limited. Parker, the advocate, the Nader-ite, the critic, the very man he has seen himself to be, disappears. I believe that is where he is. I am sure this is a more confortable and lucrative posture but, it is damaging to me the consumer.

Before you offer the anedotal, “I don’t need there opinion to tell me what to buy cause I quit subscription X in the Pleistocene era” … I will anecdotally – and its is anecdotal and pointless to state but, here goes – point out that I do not subscribe to any reviewer though I have been a Decanter, WS and WA subscriber starting about 20 years ago and having given up all three 3, 4 and 5 years ago respectively, IIRC. I only add that so that you can see that I have no dog in this hunt as you keep pointing about yourself. I don’t believe my lack of subscription makes me any better or worse than people who subscribe and look to the professional critics for guidance. Additionally, supplanting your local wine dealer, customer rep, wine geek friend, wine board poster, etc, as you suggest, in the role of the professional critic is, to me semantics.

My point is that the “aligning” you refer to is, in my opinion, less effective if you don’t have access to the full spectrum of description that the reviewer offers, ie. both good and bad. But, that said, if the person in question makes no claim to be an advocate or critic then “happy, happy” it is. If, however, as Parker has done, the person claims to be a critic and advocate, then “happy, happy” just doesn’t cut it. Either redefine yourself or grow a set and offer your criticism.

Now, of course, none of this is important to studs like you and I because we have evolved to the highest level … we have arrived at wine Shangri La and know only to buy the wines with a bird or cute animal on the label. [thankyou.gif]

I think you’re onto something Serge (actually Rick and Scott both make valid observations, which I think you do a good job to reconcile)… also, I think that fundamentally most people want to hear positive news. And, of course there’s the fact that many have invested themselves (and their money) in Parker and his points.


I view wine and things like theater differently in that there are so MANY wines reviews each year by critics in contrast to a fairly small number of plays (concerts, etc). I might only go to a handful of plays per year, but I’m likely to open dozens of bottles of wine, so the impact of one bad play/concert/performance is greater than one bottle I don’t happen to like. Put simply, I have a so MANY choices in wine that I don’t really need more. As for what to avoid, I addressed that above - one can either avoid any wine not reviewed, develop other sources of information to supplement a critic or even… take a chance.

Scott - I don’t see many valid reasons to read a publications that gives short descriptions and ratings (i.e. reviews) aside from as a guide to what to buy or as education around what a selection of wines from a region are like. If you don’t know the region, reading the notes will let you get a quick feel for it and, if the descriptions generally interest someone they can buy a couple of bottles and see if they like that region’s wine. If they DO know the region, then reviews are only useful for a small handful things - to check on what a vintage has done, to see if anyone’s had a breakout year, etc.

As for the benchmarking issue - people have insisted that they can align themselves with critics for years now. It’s disingenuous to claim that all of a sudden they can’t do so unless we see the poor reviews too. After all, that contradicts previous claims and would mean that these people would actually go buy the crappy 76 point wine - which they wouldn’t.

While I understand the interest in sub-85 point reviews, I can’t see any real benefit flowing from it. Very few people would buy the wines thus rated, the critic exposes themselves to some risk and it hurts the wineries thus reviewed, perhaps out of proportion to the slight benefit we gain. Remember, Parker has a lot of market power and most people do not differentiate between The Wine Advocate and Robert Parker so reviews by his writers carry much of the weight of the TWA imprimatur.

The benchmarking issue isn’t disingenuous at all. Claiming that it is doesn’t make any sense to me. Of course, the thing I may have left out is that, regardless of the claim of the reviewer, palates change over time and as a result the full spectum of reviews are required. The benchmarker is always working a moving target and as such, needs the full spectrum of data to be accurate. That being studied and the studier are both changed the minute the study begins. That part is science and quite proven hence the need for “controls.” Parker’s claim that he takes a scientific approach to tasting and, as such, ensures that his palate hasn’t changed is just silly. Of course, his palate has changed. Mine has, his has, yours has, it just happens naturally and unavoidably. Sure it would be nice if a reviewer could write paragraphs on a wine as they taste it over time and numerous times. That is not available, making the requirement for more reviews, good and bad, of wines the individual has access to in their market more important. The idea that you just “reviewer shop” until you find the glove that fits is nice in theory but, not practical as no one palate is likely to cover all bases for a given person. The reviews that aligned best with my palate, Parker now rarely publishes. I was the guy buying his 84 pointers especially in California (when the man said unctuous, well, I think I had a 4 in row CRAP rating for my taste back in the mid 90s but, that is just an anecdote). So I am sure Parker is not worried about losing me as a subscriber because, as was pointed out it is his business, and “happy, happy” seems to make the herd happy. Unfortunately it is useless to me. So I wish him well in his business but, lose the Advocate, critic and “consistency through my scientific approach” crap would be my wish. He would gain back a measure of credibility. Of course, that’s not going to happen.

That article in the OP was from February. The critic suit article is from July '07. That must have come to a conclusion, too. Strange that a conversation is going on without the most pertinent data.

But generally, to actually succeed in this type of suit something has to be proved. If it’s a frivolous suit, it’s either ill-advised or purposeful intimidation. If that is the case, the judge can order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s legal fees. The defendant may also have a case to counter sue if additional damage is incurred.

And yet you used his reviews to align your palate to his without those. If you and others feel you’ve been getting in alignment without the sub-85 reviews they’re obviously NOT required despite any assertion that you make. Might they be helpful? Possibly. But convince me that any substantial number of people who care about Parker will every buy sub-85 point wines and try them, because unless they buy and open the 76 pointers and the 82 pointers etc, the reviews cannot useful for palate calibration as only one party will have tried them.

[quote=“Serge Birbrair”

July 4, 2007

PHILADELPHIA – In a case that involves issues as lofty as the First Amendment and as basic as which cut of meat was served, a restaurant critic is being sued for libel for describing a $15 piece of beef as “miserably tough and fatty.”
[/quote]This is obviously for publicity purposes only (and pretty stupid, IMHO) – how are you going to prove that the piece of beef eaten was not miserably tough and fatty?

Nice try Rick, but, when I aligned my palate the sub-85 reviews were available and they were instrumental to me (as they were available in his editions of his Bordeaux tome at the time). Your anecdotal mileage may vary but, it is just as irrelevant as mine. That was the point. Next!

crit·ic (krtk)

  1. One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter.
  2. One who specializes especially professionally in the evaluation and appreciation of literary or artistic works: a film critic; a dance critic.
  3. One who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder.


It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook, and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started when, in late summer 1978, I sent out a complimentary issue of what was then called the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate"

Rick, see how the word fault appears right in the definition of critic which appears right on RPs mission statement page.

Sigh… Like most people you project your sensibilities as universal. They’re not. And before you accuse me of the same go back and read carefully.

That’s my point - if you’re going to bother replying try to get beyond what you want and what you find important and look at the general picture. I acknowledged that sub-85 point notes would be helpful. But they’re not vital and people in general continue to assert that they can align with a critic who only does 85+ reviews (Tanzer and Parker).

Put simply, you’re not the center of the universe… try to get over yourself and argue generally. People don’t seem to be interested in buying low scoring wines and, unless they do that, the reviews of such wines cannot be helping them, at least in terms of getting a bead on the critic’s palate since they won’t have tasted the wines.

Where did I offer my sensibilities (??? I don’t get the context here. Are you making a derogatory association regarding your perception of my intellectual capabilities or is it in reference to sensory stimuli specific to the palate calibration points) as universal? I didn’t. I never projected my opinion as representing any group larger than myself with regard to the palate calibration discussion. I never presumed to know what most missed or got from comments, mine or others. I portrayed my comments regarding the palate calibration as both irrelevant and mine, alone. Out of that you divined that my argument was purely personal and not general … wow, I am harkened to the early scene in The Usual Suspects where Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack) is interrogated regarding the robbery and the cops putting him in Queens on that night. Yup, you are right my anecdotes are derived from my personal opinion/experience and not some generalized point of view.

When you benchmark a device, you have to prove the calibration through the full scale. For you the human palate is apparently different; I disagree. Obviously, I did buy and drink Parker’s sub-85 point wines for that purpose … should have been obvious from the gist of the bell pepper comments. Sigh.

I offered a couple of more general points, that only positive criticisms puts unbalanced upward, “forcing” if you will, on price and the aspect of Parker continuing to claim a critic/advocate role. You chose to ignore them and continue with the anecdotal discussion. Sigh. By including the definition of critic you could certainly construe that as making a universal claim regarding the role of a critic. Of course, I would agree.

Too bad. I thought some reasonable discussion could have been had regarding how much of the scale of Parker’s reviews is required for reasonable calibration or what kind of purchasing frequency would be required to make a local merchant’s palate of value among other potential thoughts. Oh well. Now dive in with the last word. Free shot to be as disparging as you wish.