At least not to the best of my knowledge it isn’t, otherwise most of the wine lovers that I associate with would be in jail right about now.

Yet, last week I received the first threat of legal action against my site (after being around for 18 months now). I figure that it is probably a compliment as I am finally important enough for people to get angry over something I have written.

Ric from TorbWine has written an excellent article on the topic here along with the contents of first few emails sent between me and the winery, thanks to him for taking up the issue in the hope that those of us giving our genuine opinions will not face similar threats in the future. Welcome to anyone visiting my site after reading his article.

As part of my large write-up on the Victorian Winemaker Exhibition 2006, I reviewed a wine here that I believed to among the faultiest wines I had ever tasted. It smelt like burnt rubber, onions and the stable in a poorly maintained barnyard. I awarded the wine 50 points, which is the lowest possible score for the 100 point system. I also indicated in the review that I hoped that these were off bottles rather than representative, but that I can only rate what is in the glass on the day.

Despite what Graeme Miller from the winery of the same name may think, publishing a bad review on a wine is not against the law. All I am putting forward with each tasting note is my personal opinion, and as long as I do not make false allegations (ie this wine will poison you or similar) I am entitled to tell people what I think. In this particular case, I was not the only person who thought that the wine was faulty, a number of people I spoke to who work in the industry and have good palates were at the same event tried the wine, with one describing it as “Summer Nat burnout ring, mercaptan, DMS, DMDS it had the works”.

After I replied to the initial legal threat, indicating that I would not remove the review, I received another email telling me that critics enjoyed the wine, I guess with the implication that my judgement was incorrect. Wineries are going to have to get used to a big difference between old media (magazines, newspapers, books etc) and new media (websites, blogs, podcasts). Old world media is restricted in what they have the space and desire to publish, nobody wants to open the paper and read about three bad wines – so in general you will only see very positive reviews in these formats. With the internet, all wines can be reviewed – good, bad and indifferent; this gives some power to the consumer to look at various opinions, good and bad, and to make informed decisions.

The winery alleges that my review is incorrect and that as I am high on the Google results for their winery, I am doing damage to their business. The other good thing about the internet and wine reviews is that reviews will balance themselves out – if this was truly a good wine, there would be others commenting around wine forums and blogs to say that it was so. If the wine is good Graeme Miller Wines could have offered to let me retry the wines, or offered other wine reviewers the chance to try them, but instead they decided to try to bully me into removing my opinion.

In conclusion, I was speaking to some wineries during Wine Australia and they were divided, some said that publishing the bad review was the right thing to do, and some said that it wasn’t and that reviewers have a responsibility to ensure that they do not damage small businesses with poor feedback (those with power protecting those without, so to speak). What do you think wine reviewers should do? Get stuck into wine that we think is poor (preferably after trying more than one sample, but indicating that it was only one sample if that is the case) or keep quiet about poor wines and just talk about our positive experiences with wine? I know that making wine is not easy, and that it requires passion and dedication – so I do not especially want to cause hurt to any one, but on the other hand I do want to make sure that the readers of this site and those consumers that are looking for information on wines have as much information available to them as possible.

Join the conversation! 36 Comments

  1. My position on the matter is to tell it like it is.

    Initially when I started Winetastic, I avoided publishing reviews of wines I felt were poor. However often times a search of the internet does not turn up any results on such wines, so why not be the one to put forward an opinion?

    A couple of times I have been warned off a bottle by a wine bloggers review, I agree with TORB that to be truly informed, you should be hearing about which ones are good, as well as which wines are bad.

    As long as a negative review is posted along with supporting evidence, there should be no problem.

  2. I tend to be of the opinion that there are so many wines out there that it is best to stick to reviewing the ones that matter. The good wines. The ones people should know about. I understand the concept of letting people know about (the ones you think are) the bad ones but sometimes this can backfire. i.e. someone may be in a bottleshop and looking and at a wine and thinking ‘hmmm I remember reading something about this wine..’ My policy generally is not to review the shockers…unless they are high profile, expensive or anticipated releases. That’s just my way and my opinion though. Deal with the positives and don’t waste too much time on the negatives.

    With regards to that Rose..your note is correct. I tasted it and it was not of merchantable quality. I would be too embarrassed to pour it truth be known. Riddled with mercaptans.

    With respect removing your comments. Does google not retain the words even after you have removed the post. i.e. it has them saved in its little Googly database?

    GW

  3. Gary,

    It will retain the words for a certain period of time, until the page is reindexed when the page and contents would be changed or removed from the Google database.

    I guess for some winemakers, the wines are like their children – even if they have faults, you don’t want to really recognise that those faults exist.

    Thanks for your comments Murray and Gary – we should have a wine “blogger” offline sometime soon in Sydney don’t you think? Gary can sit on his own at another table since he doesn’t like being considered as running a blog ;)

  4. Edit: I appreciate the passion that people have shown for my right to publish my views, please do try to keep it civil though as this post made some calls towards violence. There is no need to abuse the other party and advocating violence is worse than the poorly thought out legal threat towards me was.

    I also grasp the irony of me editing a comment from a post that is about my right to speak freely, but some kind readers have pointed out that as the administrator of the site, I may have a legal obligation to remove posts that step over the line. Given the current situation, I feel it is best to do this as I would not want to provide an opportunity for any additional legal problems. – Cam Wheeler

  5. But Cam,

    This is wine, not children and we are not talking about blindness.

    If this guy, Graeme Miller cannot recognise burnt rubber, onions, and over-aged manure he shouldn’t be trying to make wine.

    Or take it like a man, when a batch goes wrong.

    I doubt there is any redemption for this Miller chap.

    With one billion litres of surplus Australian wine, the world simply does not need a bad rose from this guy.

    He should try shoemaking.

    Or is he too born to destiny to be anything other than a wine-god ? Or wine-dog, with apologies to all the good dogs in the world.

    Your mate,
    Rob

  6. Rob,

    You raise an interesting point – as pointed out in TORBs article, Graeme Miller has a great deal of experience, he has been making wine longer than I’ve been alive. I am sure he should be able to tell when a wine is faulty, which is why I figured that the only explaination was that he didn’t want to see that it was “a problem child” so to speak.

    It could well also be a batch issue, the wines that were poured as samples I assume were from the same case, so even though Gary and I tried on different days – maybe there are some bottles out there that are delightful. I don’t know that though (and I don’t really have the desire to find out after they attacked my credibility) so I can only report on the experience that I had.

  7. Cam,

    It is a shame that the winery chose to deal with this matter in the way they did. Unfortunately, for them, they have brought upon themselves a wave a bad publicity far outweighing the potential impact of a one-off negative review. I just didn’t realise you held so much sway as a critic.

    On one hand I agree with Gary that the focus should generally be on positives, but on the other hand I think reviewing poor wine provides invaluable guidance to consumers. Had you done a feature review on this wine it would have been too much and excessively negative, but I think your brief note in the context of impressions from a tasting is fair enough. Life is too short to drink bad wine, so you have potentially saved me, and others, from wasting money and time. Well, it’s not a wine I would veer consider buying, but the principle holds.

    As long as you are careful and stick to expressing just your honest opinion, then I wish you continued success with your blog!

    Mark

  8. How bizarre. Quite how does this help his business? Surely a better response would be to talk to you, and maybe send you another sample to try.

    Whilst I agree that it’s bad form to deliberately pick on a small business that’s doing its best, it’s surely just as bad to encourage one to sell bad products to consumers. You have a responsibility to your readers express an honest opinion consistently.

  9. Cam

    I’m in shock, I actually agree with GW, there is no need to drink crap wine much less write about it; an ideal handed down by Len Evans.

    Still, I’m intrigued about this 50 pointer. I don’t know that I have ever had one. Well maybe some of the stuff from around the Great Lakes that is made from the native American grapes, or perhaps from Virginia. But no, they would be 60-70 pointers. Fifty points is in a class of its own.

    I have a feeling that sales of this wine might just increase with all the internet discussion. Any chance that they will export? I think there is a real marketing gimmick here, especially if they can get Parker to agree with your score. That would really make your name! I don’t even know if he has given 50 points out for a wine. This needs to be blogged a bit more.

    Mike

  10. A few years ago, I was at the Queen’s Birthday weekend on the Mornington Peninsula and purchased a glass of wine that was obviously corked. I went back to the pourer and he went to the winemaker who came over to try it and agreed with what I had to say and replaced the glass with another from a different bottle.

    However he was not happy to discover that the corked bottle was almost empty, that amounted to quite a few punters being given a wrong impression of the wine, as it was also a tasting bottle.

    I believe it is the right thing to do, to alert others to what you think about a wine in case there is a problem with an individual bottle, but I am with some of the other commenters in that perhaps it’s better not to review a poor wine that is representative of the vintage, maybe you could say that you encountered a poor example of the wine that you could not review. Most would understand what you meant.

    And your right, it is a compliment to you.

  11. Miller deserves the bad press he responded with total lack of judgement, the old saying “treat others how you would like to be treated”, can not be truer and very important in customer relations…..sending a one liner threatening legal action is not the most diplomatic approach.

    However it takes two to tango and on the other side, what does the 50 score say and is it fair. If you believed that the wine was faulty then why not just say it and mention not rateable or simply write “below 80” ……….why waste your time trying to give a score below 80. People understand it means stay away!! Better still don’t use scores, I like Torb’s system it removes the subjectivity and crap that surrounds trying to assign a score and gives an assessment which people can relate to.

  12. GK,

    The 50 score says that I believed it had no redeeming qualities – it was the worst wine I have tried and I don’t want to imagine that there could be anything worse. I was told that the wine was representative and so while it might be the case that it was a off bottle, I rated it as I would any other wine I think is representative.

    Can I ask why you think that Torbs system removes subjectivity? Just because it is a word rating doesn’t mean that it no longer has personal bias. If I were to take up his rating scale, just because I rate something Excellent etc doesn’t mean that he would give it the same rating – hence it is still subjective.

  13. Cam

    What a shocker!! I really don’t know whether you should post a bad review or not, but isn’t that how Robert Parker really came to prominence – by criticising other wine critics and the wines they rated highly? Not that I am pushing Parker’s barrow – heaven forbid!

    Print, radio and tv journalists don’t seem to have any qualms about printing negative rubbish that can really destroy businesses and lives – why are the rules different for wine critics – amateur or professional?

    That said, I would have a tough time publishing something really negative but, when you get down to it, I didn’t think your review was that negative. You tried to take the positives and led people to believe it may have been a one-off. I think the winemaker overreacted and instead of trying to get you on side by offering another better sample to review took the negative way out – not a good marketing approach!

    Good on you for standing by your blog! I admire your position on this!

  14. I agree a wine rated “excellent” by you may not be the same as by Torb. My point is on assigning a number, when I read a score given by you, say between 90 to 94, I don’t really care what the number is, what I read is your impression assigned to this band noted under your score system on the web site………it has a lot more meaning and says a lot more. I am one of those people who believe that you cannot be that precise and the subjectivity lies in trying to assign an exact number. As an average joe blow I simply get a lot more from an assessment, Torb’s system qualified with his value rating tells you something and is meaning full.

  15. Do car reviewers, music critics or restaurant reviwers get sued if they say a car/cd/eaterie is rubbish? No. So why should wine reviewers.

    As stated winemakers are more passionate and hands on than makers of cars but should be receptive to feedback.

    I dont tend to review wines I dont think are good. I put a score against most but really it boils down to ok, nice and good!

  16. It’s a tough issue. I write a food review blog and defamation scares me.

    My understanding is that a) you’ve got be be clear when something is opinion, b) you should include facts in the post that your opinion can hang off, and c) you need to be specific.

    You could also have a policy of allowing the winemaker to post a reply on your site – it doesn’t stop something from being defamatory but at least it gives them a way of putting their side of the story without resorting to legal action.

  17. Cam,

    You’ve got balls!
    There are some very ordinary wines on the market, and I think if we want better quality wine, comments need to be made, even if they be harsh. Well done.

  18. Cam

    Just as an FYI. A quick check of Parker’s site reveals that he has given 50 point scores. There are over 71,000 scored wines on his site, 56 of which are rated below 60 points, seven of those have been given 50 points. The lucky seven?

    Bordeaux
    1978 Marquis-de-Terme
    1965 Mouton-Rothschild
    1977 Rausan-Segla
    1973 Lagrange
    1975 Angelus

    Burgundy
    1969 Remoissenet Pere et Fils Le Montrachet

    California
    1990 Calera Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard

    However its probably correct to say that his site is incomplete in that in recent times he has not been putting up the scores of wines that are not recommended (i.e. below 84-85 points).

    Mike

  19. Having now read the TORB article (pillory?) on this I would like to point out that publishing private correspondence (emails) in the public domain is really bad form. Bad form on your part for giving TORB the emails and even worse on his for publishing them. Shame shame shame.

    GW

  20. Cam,

    Why apologise for being born ?

    Before you were born we never knew what we now know; that the aforementioned bad winemaker is not so hot after all.

    What is worse than an old winemaker, that makes bad whine ?

    And Cam,

    I saw that comment by Jesus:
    Since when is a challenge of honour into the boxing ring, considered violence ?

    Many a delinquent twerp have matured from experience in the boxing-ring by learning the pugilist limitation to their bullying of others.

    Your mate,
    Rob

  21. Kate,

    Don’t be so afraid, dear.
    If it is true, it is not defamation.

    Your mate,
    Rob

  22. This winemaker needs some good PR advice. If he’d kept his mouth shut or had simply sent a polite email far fewer people would have read the article and had the name of the wine seared into their minds.

    On reviewing good and bad wines I think there is a role to highlight the bad ones as well. Consider the average punter walking into Dan Murphy’s. How on earth do you choose from so many wines? It is as important to know what to avoid as well as what to buy and you are doing us all a great service by telling us that a wine isn’t very good. There are many ways I buy wines – by brand, review, recomendation. Sometimes I simply take a punt. If I’m punting on rosé then I want to know whichone to avoid. Keep up the good work.

  23. More power to you Cam! For what its worth I think your review is pitched as an opinion and we are all entitled to our own opinion. You may like a wine I dislike and vice versa; it would be interesting to see other opinions on this wine. Perhaps a link to other opinions would help calm the waters?
    Best of luck

  24. Cam,
    The original post sounds pretty water-tight. They had their chance. I’m sure they would have openned another bottle if they knew what you did on the side. Shame on them for offering tiered service based on the perceived importance of the taster. Wine is all about emotion. I posted recently about a poor experience I got in the Hunter and it got a lot of simpathetic responses. Isn’t withholding the truth paramount to a lie?
    I’m sure most people that make anything (cars, wine, shoes, etc) have good intentions but if a car maker stuffs up something safety related, they have to pull the whole lot off the market. What is a wine if not a taste experience. I’m not saying take it off the market, but at least own up to it.

  25. “Isn’t withholding the truth paramount to a lie?”

    Sometimes that is also called discretion…

    GW

  26. As someone said at torbwine, it may have been prudent to post your comments but not the scores.

    Also, I agree that they should have paid more attention to your comments at the exhibition and not assumed you didn’t know what you were talking about but….. these exhibitions are not a relaxed affair where you can discuss every issue with every patron. I’m sure all winemakers have a limited time at these events. If it were at the cellar door then it’s another matter.

    Having said that I think their approaches to you have been very very very bad PR work.

    I’m curious if you would give them another hearing if they were to write to you or ring you genuinely trying to repair the problem?

  27. Thanks to all for the comments.

    Roger, yes if their attitude towards me was changed I do not have a problem with giving them another hearing. First of all, I’m the kind of person who gets very upset/angry for a short period of time after an event and then tends to let it go just as quickly after some time has passed.

    Secondly as I have said, I’m not interested in hurting people for the sake of it, I love wine and I love it when people are passionate about wine. With the Amietta Shiraz review recently I could have just reviewed the first bottle, said it was bad, maybe generated some more controversy – but I was much happier speaking to the winemaker about it, trying a second bottle, getting someone else to try it and presenting both points of view because the winemaker was reasonable and willing to listen to what I had to say.

    I do note though that in the Halliday ’07 Wine Companion the Chardonnay got 86 (over-oaked) and the Rose got 83 (no note). These scores are interesting since they mentioned in the email that Halliday was on a panel that liked the Chardonnay, as one of their arguments that I was incorrect.

  28. The note by Halliday that the Chardonnay is over oaked is interesting as the panel note the winery provided to Cam includes the comment “this wine needs time to fully integrate and for the fruit to swallow the oak”. I wonder who made that comment?

    Mike

  29. No one likes to get a bad review, or even not to get reviewed when one sends wines in for review. Generally it seems to be the norm not to review a wine if the critic feels it is not in his/ her top wines.
    I get your point about old versus new media, but I even so alot of web newsletters have taken the view that they will only publish wines that rate 80 points plus. Maybe it is because they only want to be positive or maybe because it still takes time and space to review a bad wine, which could be given to a good one.

    I think that the ultimate litmus paper of a wine is the consumer. Someone will only buy the wine once if it is truly bad and the winemaker will get the message real quick that he has goofed. However, one would have thought that if it is being sold in a winemerchant (large or small) then their wine buyer bears alot of the responsibility. In this case why not send an email to the said buyer alerting him/ her of your concerns ? Alternatively if it is being sold at cellar door / mail order why not do the same to the winemaker? If you are trying to protect the public, there are many ways to skin a cat.
    However, one has to take into account that the opinions of a reviewer are just that: everyone’s taste is different: what you may find “off” may not be recognised by most of the public as they do not taste all day long. Again the acid test is whether the public agrees with your comments.
    Another point of view is there is no such thing as bad publicity. I am sure now alot more people know about this winery and probably alot will go “what the hell” and try the wine to see if they agree with you.
    My opinion therefore is to inform the winemaker first and tell him/ her that you will be posting the review unless another bottle is submitted or the wine withdrawn from sale. If the winemaker feels that the wine is just being seen in a supercritical light and the public will not notice he/ she can decide to ignore the message; if he/she feels your review is really just confirming what they already thought then they should put it down to experience and feed it to the waste water system.

  30. freedom, freedom, freedom!!
    we are near u and your battle for freedom!!
    good health to all, pierosalvatore.

  31. […] Should a critic publish a negative or unflattering critique? In my recent travels through wine blogging land I ran across a post by Cam Wheeler on his Australian wine blog, regarding a negative review that he published. In his original review he said this “I’m sorry to say this, but this was the most faulty wine I have ever tasted. Dominant onion skins, rubber, and some barnyard characters on the nose with the palate living up to the promise of the nose. 50/100” It’s painful for me to read… I can’t even imagine what it was like for the winemaker. Well apparently he found it so painful he felt the need to consult a lawyer and send Cam Wheeler a letter threatening legal action if he doesn’t remove the review. In my opinion, both sides of this debate have merit. I understand the argument that critics should use their power for good rather than evil. In long-ago discussions, regarding restaurant reviews, I have supported this point of view. I prefer to give entrepreneurs the benefit of the doubt and assume they are doing their best to make a good product. Regarding wine, maybe I tasted an off bottle that was stored incorrectly, maybe I was having a bad day. Why potentially damage someone’s business with your damning comments? […]

  32. […] The other day I blogged about Cam Wheeler’s troubles with Graeme Miller Wines for posting his opinion of some of their wines on his blog. This was after reading what others had to say and a few days after Cam had first written about his situation. Several readers commented to my post, including Joel from Wine Life Today and Vivi’s Wine Journal who spread the news further. Yesterday Tom Wark, from one of my favorite blogs FERMENTATION, picked up the story and this provoked more discussion. Now the entire wine blogisphere knows the story and I’m sure others will post more about this in the next few days. When you Google Graeme Miller Wines today, 6 of the 10 first page results are blog posts covering this episode. Within a week, I predict this will be 8 or 9 posts deep. So I’d say this qualifies as a wine marketing disaster. It also illustrates the power and reach of wine blogging. I can’t imagine an issue like this tackled from all sides in such a thoughtful and comprehensive way anywhere else. […]

  33. Part of the value of the Internet is the honesty of opinion present within sites such as this blog. The whole problem with a print-based medium is the control that publishers can exert over the readers. Think about Wine Spectator for a minute: They don’t even list wines that rate less than 85 points. Why not? Well, they’re in the business of recommending wines worth drinking (at least, that’s what they’d like you to believe).

    The point of a Web site in general, and of a wine-specific blog in particular, is not to meet the needs of any specific audience other than those of the author. So I think it’s absurd that any winery would dare to threaten legal action against a blog for publishing a negative review of a wine. Unless Graeme Miller Wines happens to serve as the arbiter of what content belongs on the Internet, I don’t see any reason why they should take this approach to the situation.

    Cam, I think if you tried a wine as bad as the one in question, you should certainly speak your mind about it with all the supporting evidence you can muster…combined with, perhaps, an invitation to the winemaker to send you another bottle for a separate test. If the winemaker stands behind his product, why not give you the opportunity to taste the wine in question again? If it’s still terrible, that could mean the entire batch, or at least those two bottles, are no good. If I were a winemaker, I’d be interested to hear about that.

  34. […] I just read this post at Cam Wheeler’s Appellation Australia blog.  It’s worth tracing the different blogs’ links and coverage of this particular incident. […]

  35. Cam,

    If it is good, it is good.
    If it is bad, it is bad.

    Speaking up about these basics of life are self-evident rights that the free-world defends with its life.

    Good wine, bad wine is not usually a life-critical or life-threatening issue.

    But if I gulp a bad wine, why would I not mention it to others.

    And, why on earth shouldn’t Cam, its his job to alert us on these things.

    And then, there are good people making good wine and un-recognized or un-appreciated. It is as important to reveal this as it is to reveal bad wine.

    Overall, I think professional producing wine-people and food-people can be utterly fanatical about these things.

    Eat, drink and be merry and thank God.

    Cam seems to be a good egg, when he mentions he is in he business of recommending wine.

    Too bad he had to come across poor sports.

    I will always be thankful that Cam let’s me know about what to look out for.

    Thanks, Cam.

    Sincerely,
    Rob

  36. I don’t really care what the number is, what I read is your impression assigned to this band noted under your score system on the web site………it has a lot more meaning and says a lot more. I am one of those people who believe that you cannot be that precise and the subjectivity lies in trying to assign an exact number.

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