What does it mean to win an “Award of Excellence,” as per The Wine Spectator‘s popular restaurant awards program? Not a whole lot, as many people already perceive, and as was recently established by the resourceful and, what some are calling fraudulent, methods of Robin Goldstein. On his WordPress blog, he explains to readers how he created a fake restaurant, submitted a fake (and very suspect) wine list along with the required $250 entry fee, populated a restaurant review website with a few supposed reviews, put a false message on his answering machine, and successfully won a Wine Spectator restaurant Award of Excellence.
There has been significant back and forth over this “fraud,” but the result of Goldstein’s exercise is very poignant. It dignifies the popular opinion that the Spectator’s awards program is nothing more than a cash grab, and further more, that the first tier of awards hold very little merit or usefulness for consumers, and offers little legitimacy for the winners.
Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth admits, “We have said before, very clearly, that the program judges the list itself, because we do not visit the restaurants other than the Grand Awards,” of which there are few more than 70. Yet the bottom tiers of awards (Award of Excellence and Best of Award of Excellence) form the basis of the program and are the bulk of those handed out. The Spectator claims that with more than 10,000 restaurants entered, they cannot all be visited, but my belief is that if they have people on the ground all over the world, most should be visited, especially if they consider these awards to be of any use to anyone. Not to mention The Spectator charges a $250 entry fee, which ought to provide impetus to do a little more leg work than to cross reference using Google. What are they awarding? Tidy paperwork? With no one visiting the restaurants, or auditing their claims so as to weed out restaurants that don’t even exist, then it is left to the restaurant to determine what is true. And all that requires is deep pockets, which restauranteurs have in abundance these days, it seems. This lack of accountability reduces the significance of the program entirely, and compromises any integrity built up for restaurants with legitimate claims and applications.
The lack of integrity or usefulness of the Wine Spectator restaurant awards program has been commonly felt amongst many in the industry for a long time. Quite often nowadays, restaurants start up with the expressed interest of earning a Wine Spectator award to add third party endorsement to their establishment, and these restaurants stock their cellars according to what has become a predictable formula. To me, a restaurant with a good wine list, but hiked up margins, poor glassware, average food or bad service, should not receive any merit from any awards program, but The Wine Spectator does not gauge any of these variables. So I say, beware the next time you see a purple poster at the entrance of a restaurant, or take caution the next time a restaurant purports to be award-winning. While the restaurant may indeed be excellent, and many recipients are, the fact remains that these restaurants meet very limited criteria, and their award requires little more than their own claims, a $250 entry fee, and 10 minutes of an intern’s day to “fact check.”
If a business wants to operate a restaurant awards program with prestige or at least significance, they ought to run them like the Michelin awards and randomly visit and audit the restaurants, where the auditor will rather anonymously critique it.
Fundamentally, if you want to run a competition that is credible and useful to consumers, but find that you can’t, perhaps you shouldn’t. Dunno, just my opinion.