by Gary Thomas and David Honig

A Palate Press editorial about copyright infringement by wine critic and author Natalie MacLean has unearthed new allegations of unethical behavior by the well-known wine writer. Winery proprietors described a pay-for-play system for wine reviews.

Pay for Play

The Palate Press editorial called the publisher of Nat Decants to task for republishing other professional writers’ reviews without prior authorization — in other words, intellectual property theft. Online comments as well as social media reaction to that story brought to light new information that outlines a “pay-for-play” policy by MacLean in which she requires wineries to purchase a subscription to her online wine review pages before she will review the wines.

Palate Press has investigated the new allegations. Interviews and comments by different winery owners and managers — some of whom asked to remain anonymous, and others who agreed to go public — are consistent and reveal another disturbing pattern of questionable practices by MacLean.

One vineyard manager told Palate Press that MacLean solicited the winery for samples for review. MacLean told the winery where to send samples and required the winery purchase a subscription to the wine review section of Nat Decants.

An Ontario winery owner, in a widely seen Twitter comment, substantiated the allegations. He said MacLean asked for subscriptions in order to have wine reviewed both from his current winery and one where he had once worked.

Louis Calli, who worked in trade relations for a very well-known high-end Napa winery, also confirmed the allegations. MacLean, he told Palate Press, demanded that the winery purchase a subscription to Nat Decants before she would review their wine.

A former wine marketer, who could not be identified due to confidentiality agreements signed while working for several wineries and distributors around the world, tells a similar story. The marketer reached out to Nat Decants to inquire about submitting wines for review. The response was an explanation that in order to have the wines reviewed, a subscription to the newsletter should be purchased in the name of the winery.

The PR Director for a large Northern California winery, who is well-known to Palate Press but asked for anonymity in order to speak freely, explained that after arranging for an agent to deliver wines to for review, MacLean sent an email explaining that the winery needed to load all its information into her website, Nat Decants. This, alone, raises ethical questions. MacLean purports to be a wine journalist offering information on her website. She does not reveal, however, that the information she provides about wineries is not written by her, but rather by the wineries themselves. (The Association of Food Journalists’ Ethics Code states “to assure accuracy, so-called news communications or press releases should be substantiated.”)

After the winery PR manager provided the information, it could not be submitted. MacLean, when asked, explained that the wine reviews section of Nat Decants was subscription only, and the winery would have to subscribe to access the page, even to post the requested information. The cost of the subscription, MacLean pointed out, was “about the cost of a cup of coffee.”. The winery did not subscribe. A week later the PR manager received an email from MacLean stating she was ready to publish a glowing review as soon as the winery submitted the information to the site, an act that could only be completed with the purchase of a subscription.

A winery owner from British Columbia shared an email from MacLean explaining the “business model” behind requiring a subscription to submit samples. MacLean opined that online is today’s dominant medium, then went on to compare the Nat Decants subscription fee for reviews to entry fees for wine competitions. When the owner suggested paying for a wine review seemed like a conflict of interest, MacLean claimed the subscription requirement was the only way to keep up with the hundreds of samples arriving every month. She did not explain how purchasing a subscription helped with inventory maintenance. From there, MacLean got to the heart of the matter, saying the subscription fee would be “well worth your while” reaching the largest wine audience in Canada and the media exposure would be “worth thousands of dollars to you.” MacLean concluded that she was taking the time to taste the wine, write reviews , score the wine, and come up with tasting matches, as well as run her website, thus justifying the fee. “Once you go through the process,” MacLean promised, “you’ll be set up for the future.”

However. another British Columbia winery, which was not willing to go on the record, reports that it received good reviews on Nat Decants and was never asked to purchase a subscription. But, from the number of comments Palate Press received from industry insiders, that seems to be, for whatever reason, the exception rather than the rule for MacLean.

Richard P. Vine, Professor of Enology Emeritus at Purdue University and author of The Curious World of Wine, disputed MacLean’s comparison to wine competitions, stating, “wine competition fees are appropriated toward the event’s expenses (judges travel, per diem, honoraria, etc.) in the judging activity. It seems a stretch that a subscription fee actually supports such expenses for her. I know of no wine magazine that requires any such fee.”

Samuel Freedman, Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, was careful to note he could not comment on specific allegations with which he was unfamiliar. However, he said that as a general principle, a subscription requirement was “completely unethical, a journalistic version of ‘pay-to-play,'” — the practice in which people give campaign contributions in exchange for access to candidates. “Decisions on who gets covered or what gets covered, in order to be ethical,” Professor Freedman said, “must be made on journalist grounds.”

Dean Tudor, Ryerson University Journalism Professor Emeritus and Treasurer of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada, said such a request from an “above board media outlet is obviously unethical and would cause me concern.” But he adds that the practice can only exist so long as both the writer and winery are complicit in it.

MacLean’s “business model” of charging wineries for the privilege of having their wares reviewed is an inherent conflict of interest that undercuts any pretense of unbiased, honest wine reviews. Palate Press contacted MacLean and asked for her response to the allegations. She did not respond in time for publication.

** Update **

While Ms. MacLean did not reply to direct inquiries for comment, she did post a comment on the previous story. Said comment can be seen HERE.

Gary Thomas, Wine Review Editor for Palate Press, is a 35-year veteran of journalism, spending much of his time having served as a foreign correspondent in places like Islamabad, Kabul, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. He recently retired from Voice of America, where he worked as a senior correspondent/news analyst. He was the wine columnist for the Austin American-Statesman in Austin, TX and has also authored pieces for the Wine Spectator. He lives in Arlington, VA, across the river from Washington DC and just up the road from the Pentagon.

David Honig, Palate Press’ Publisher, is an attorney with more than 25 years of experience in civil and criminal litigation. He is licensed in three states and multiple federal jurisdictions, including the United States Supreme Court. He is a self-educated oenophile, and defers to the tremendous experience and wisdom of the amazing staff at PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine.

103 Responses

  1. David Honig
    David Honig


    Ms. MacLean denied requiring the purchase of a subscription to complete the process for the submission of wines for review in her comment to Palate Press and in reponse to inquiries from Palate Press received permission to publish THIS email thread from a Canadian winery. The only condition was that identifying information be deleted out of fear of retaliation. The email thread was initiated after the winery questioned the need to purchase a subscription to submit wines for review. This was one of the email threads in Palate Press’ possession at the time it published the above story.

    (This comment is pre-dated to move to the top of comments.)

    • Canadian Assistant Winemaker

      I have personally been plagiarized on her website. Tasting and pairing notes *not* written by Natalie Maclean may be posted without any indication that they are written by someone other than Ms. Maclean. Part of the lengthy form a winery may be required to submit is Cellar Potential (from year X to year Y), Food Pairing, and Winemaking Notes (about which she instructs, “This can include any details you like, such as tasting notes, the weather for this wine’s vintage, the soils in which it was grown, unique production methods, what the name of the wine means if anything in particular, awards garnered for this wine and any interesting trivia about it.”). Several times I have included tasting notes in this field. Several times I have seen my own food pairing recommendations, and tasting notes, posted without any indication that they were posted by the winery, or by any writer other than Ms. Maclean. I went to get a screen shot of my own words – both sent via email and via the form to Ms. Maclean – however, Ms. Maclean has since removed this feature of many of the wines I have submitted (some from as recently as this summer). Furthermore, in Ms. Maclean’s “A Letter to My Readers,” (overall, a very misleading response that side-steps the majority of accusations levied against her) she explains that she asks wineries to submit “basic facts,” so that she doesn’t have to chase them down. The basic facts she lists are alcohol, sugar level, appellation, wine/variety, etc. She does not, interestingly, mention that Food Pairing and Winemaking Notes – which may and often do include Tasting Notes – are also fields of information she requests from wineries before she will consider posting their submitted wines. Additionally, in emails to wineries, she writes that “…You’re also welcome to submit information on other wines, including those I have not yet reviewed. These will also be posted on my site but without my review until I do so.” She neglects to mention to the winery when, if ever, her own review will accompany your posting, as well as neglecting to mention to her readers that the tasting notes and food pairings may be the winemaker’s, not hers. Basically, as a submitter, you have done all the work for her, and you have rented virtual adspace via a “post” on her website – and that I can understand. What is disconcerting (and extremely annoying) is that the work you have done to submit your wine(s) for her consideration, and the money you have forked over to be able to do so, is then presented as Natalie Maclean finding and posting wines for her readership. And what is outright wrong, is when there is no indication that your words are *not* hers. I have, essentially, ended up paying someone for the chance for me to publicly review my own wines, while she implies on more than one occasiona that her own ‘glowing’ review is soon to accompany my own (and naturally biased) words. And I am saddened to discover that it happens elsewhere in the wine world; but never with less transparency than on

      What a busy lady she must be, doing nothing and accepting all the credit for it — literally and figuratively.

      • Canadian Assistant Winemaker

        And, to clarify that subscription fee: You need to be a paying subscriber for your wine to be posted on her site. Before you even submit information about your wine (via a strict form), a banner disclaimer reads, “You need to be a subscriber to Natalie’s Wine Reviews for $2.10/month for the info on your wines below to be posted on her site…”. Not a subscriber to *see* your own reviews, but rather, a subscriber for her to even post the information about your wine. If she actually reviews your wine *prior* to your submitting any information (*which is apparently the case for 90% of the wines featured on her site, although this seems to contradict my personal and repeated experience with being coerced into submitting wines), you may well receive an email (as I have) along the lines of “PS Perhaps someone can submit the info via the site so that I can post my (glowing) reviews.” And again, before you can do that: pay up!

    • Canadian Assistant Winemaker

      CORRECTION: I rashly and improperly bandied the word “plagiarised” about, and referenced it and Ms. Macleans practices inaccurately.

      I am writing to request that the first comment be removed; I was cavalier and inaccurate, and do not wish to levy legal accusations against Ms. Maclean, nor suffer reactive accusations of libel. I do not have the necessary proof to substantiate the strength and seriousness of my phrasing and implore the publisher to remove it for the credibility of this publication and for my own, and Ms. Maclean’s, credibility as well.

  2. Rod Phillips

    This is just astonishing. A couple of people in the wine trade told me some time ago (in confidence) about this practice of Natalie Maclean’s, but I had no idea it was as common as this thoroughly documented article makes it appear to be. (And I’m sure more examples will follow, now that this cat has escaped from its bag.)

    Writing reviews-for-money (whether the money is paid directly or via a subscription is irrelevant) is bad enough. But it is aggravated by the implication (in some of these accounts) that wineries were assured that, if they paid up, they would benefit from the reviews. This is an implied guarantee that the reviews would be positive, even though she had not yet tasted the wines.

    This revelation calls all Natalie Maclean’s reviews and scores into question. We have no way of knowing which wines she reviewed after receiving a payment, and which wines were reviewed, effectively, free of charge. All are now tainted by suspicion of being paid for.

    • Dean Tudor

      Yes, one word: tainted.

      We are all being painted/tainted with the same brush. Nat has set us back 100 years…

      Thanks, Nat. May all your wines be corked…

  3. Stewart Kelly

    Thank you for this very informative post. It shed an intense light on why there are superlative reviews for some wines that made you wonder if they had a cold the day they tasted it.

    • Darcy Kelley

      Excellent observations. My fellow Toronto colleagues joke about her as “Mrs. 90 Points” because the vast majority of the wines she tastes get glowing reviews and high scores. She never has anything negative to say, not about wines, agents or the LCBO (contrast her to, say, Michael Pinkus). Amongst serious wine buyers in Ontario, she has near-zero credibility. Her audience is the less-than-educated mass consumer for whom her bubbly personality, verbose writing style, and ‘apparent’ expertise are appealing.

      • Darcy Kelley

        Dean – I’m in agreement with you entirely. I met Natalie MacLean once and we chatted briefly, however I succinctly remember she struck me as a pretty face but an utter imbecile of a taster and writer.

        What burns my backside is that I never ever see MacLean at tastings – learning from producers and agents, tasting in situ, for her edification and for the benefit of her audience once shared out. Other folks, you, Aspler, Vaughn, Lawrason, Pinkus, you guys put in your time, make the rounds, and share your experiences. MacLean has never invested the time and shares none of the intellectual curiosity. I just wish her mass audience could better understand how uninformed and disingenuous her methodologies have been over the years.

  4. Jane Skilton

    Paid-for wine reviewing is a growth industry. I am always surprised by producers who can see nothing wrong with the practice (though to misquote Mandy Rice Davies, ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’).
    My colleague Emma Jenkins has already posted on the subject;
    “For obvious reasons, this is a topic close to Jane’s and my own hearts and one we have been pondering for some time.New Zealand has several such reviewers and they appear to be doing brisk business. There is no reason why people should not charge for their reviews, as the uptake by producers suggests they are clearly providing a desired service – guaranteed reviews within a set time frame. Where the grey, and to my mind disquieting, aspect creeps in, is the guise of independence. Strictly speaking this may be the case: the reviewers are not working for anyone directly, and are providing their own opinions…..The biggest elephant in the crowded room is the fact that generally, the public is completely unaware that any payment between producer and reviewer is changing hands.
    And to me, this is where I start to feel very uncomfortable indeed about the unclarified proclamations of independence – and their use as such by producers and retailers, who are after all complicit in the whole situation. Yes, the terms and prices are stated on the reviewers’ sites but that is certainly not where the majority of their reviews are being read. And reviews below a certain cut-off point are not published – who exactly is that helping?”

  5. Chuck Hayward

    Unfortunately, there is nothing new regarding this topic. Why just last May 2011, New Zealand’s wine critics had to deal with more overt “pay for play” schemes that certainly did not attract anywhere near as much hoo-haa as displayed here. Online wine review sites from writers Sam Kim ( and Raymond Chan ( clearly state how much you have to pay to get your wine reviewed. Local reviewer Emma Jenkins MW addressed this problem on her site here ( and many other NZ wine writers addressed the issue head on in their columns and websites during the months that followed. Fiona Beckett of The Guardian in the UK suggests that such tactics would violate the country’s Bribery Act (

    Hopefully, the Palate Press will take a look at this as I’ll need to read more exciting commentary in the blogosphere over the next couple of weeks now that the comments about Parker’s sale have dried up.

  6. Alder Yarrow

    Is there a reason you folks haven’t done an equally breathless exposé of Sam Kim’s operation in New Zealand which makes it blatantly clear that you pay for wine reviews?

    In point of fact there’s nothing wrong with this practice. Caveat emptor, and all that. Sure not being transparent about it is yucky, as is being coercive about it, which the allegations these folks are making certainly suggest is the case, but this hardly rises to the level of scandal.

    Following on your very good piece about Maclean’s copyright infringement, which is a serious and severe allegation, this seems more tabloid than investigative journalism.


    • Alder Yarrow

      P.S Dr. Vine’s suggestion that a subscription fee wouldn’t be warranted to support the expenses associated with reviewing samples – i.e. that such expenses probably don’t exist or aren’t substantial enough to be truly costly — is quite ignorant. Dealing with samples, their receiving, storing, sorting, unboxing, and tasting each month is a HUGE source of expense for publications such as the Wine Spectator, etc. The fact that they don’t charge for it isn’t proof to the contrary. They just cover those costs with other revenue.

    • David Honig
      David Honig

      Alder, what a curious comment. Do you truly posit that, because we did not write Story A, we may not write Story B? That’s an argument akin to, “but officer, other people were speeding.” It doesn’t work there, either.

      You asked, “Is there a reason you folks haven’t done an equally breathless exposé of Sam Kim’s operation in New Zealand which makes it blatantly clear that you pay for wine reviews?”

      Yes, there is, and it is contained within your question. We did not write an “exposé” because, by the time we learned of it, it had already been exposed. You beg your own question. We did not write an exposé about Sam Kim because it was not our story.

      You next suggest, “In point of fact there’s nothing wrong with this practice.”

      I respectfully disagree. So, I believe, does the FTC. So does every standard of journalism I’ve ever seen, particularly with the promises the subscription fee will be “worth your while” and “worth thousands of dollars to the winery” made before the wine was tasted.

      Finally, you say “following on your very good piece about Maclean’s copyright infringement, which is a serious and severe allegation, this seems more tabloid than investigative journalism.”

      Thank you for your kind words about our copyright story. We stand behind both of our stories.

      • Chris

        What’s wrong with the practice is the same thing that’s wrong with lobbyists pumping dollars into candidate campaigns. I believe the Latin is ‘quid pro quo’.

        Pay for a wine review, you pretty much expect a good review. I sure the f**k would. Which, by the sound of it, is what Nat promises.

      • Isaac James Baker

        He’s responding to a comment, and responding with a very logical argument. Calling it defensive doesn’t negate the validity of the response.

      • Steve at the Vineyard

        Jack: Pay attention please. “Defensive” doesn’t apply in this kind of thing when you have to have it spelled out for you.

  7. Caroline

    I know some writers request a payment to review a sample from my time in charge of the Sales and Marketing of a New Zealand winery. However, publication never mind a positive review was never guaranteed…

    I wonder Nat requested payment to review samples for which she “borrowed without properly referencing” reviews from other wine critics…

    • Natalia

      This is why I love Daily Drinker keeping the world safe for local veteariis! I didn’t know you mostly send out mono-varietal wines, that’s even more insanely niche. LOVE it. I am not too familiar with Mallorca (sadly) but I was very impressed, the more I found out about these guys the more I dig how they are reviving the Callet grape.

  8. Konrad Ejbich

    I’m not at all surprised by MacLean’s unethical behaviour. I am outraged, though, as it imparts a black cloud over all wine writers in the eyes of the uninformed. I’m also disappointed to hear Alder Yarrow’s take on this. There is plenty wrong with this practice and it must be exposed whenever and wherever it occurs. Kudos to the editorial team at Palate Press.

    • Alder Yarrow

      Why? Aren’t people allowed to make a living however they like, as long as they are a) not hurting anyone else and b) not breaking any laws?

      Take a look at Tasting Panel Magazine, where a few thousand dollars or so gets you an editorial about your product featured in the magazine with no evidence whatsoever that you have paid for such coverage.

      Companies pay for positive media coverage all the time. In all industries.

      Of course we’d all rather read honest, objective criticism. Of course such criticism has more value than pandering, paid-for reviews. Of course we’d all like to live in a world in which compensation is directly proportional to integrity and well meaningness, but come on. The world is a much more complicated and messy place.

      Just because some of us would never dream of charging someone for a review, because it violates every reason we write about wine and our sensibilities for how it should be done, there’s no reason that someone (such as Sam Kim, who I reference above, or Natalie) can’t try to make a business out of charging for reviews.

      The fact that she’s bullying people into subscribing to her newsletter instead of taking the approach like Sam and simply charging for the submission is yucky, but it’s not illegal, it’s not scandalous, and it’s not nearly to the level of stealing other people’s content.

      • Rod Phillips

        But I think transparency and pressure to pay ARE the critical differences, Alder, and they are as important as the issue of paying for reviews. I looked at Sam Kim’s site, and everything is in the open: the fee, the parameters. There’s no pretence. But there’s nothing of that on Natalie Maclean’s site.

        And you’re right that people can adopt whatever business model they like, as long as it’s legal and ethical. But in the world of wine writing, the vast majority of reviews are written without an exchange of money between wine producer/agent and the reviewer. If there are cases where there is such an exchange, it’s important to know it. Sam Kim makes it known. Natalie Maclean does not.

        Why is it important to know? It’s not that paying for a review inevitably guarantees a good review or score. But if your business model includes repeat business, wouldn’t you be more likely to positive than negative? Moreover, if you look at the statements made in this article, it’s clear that Natalie Maclean not only pressured producers to pay (‘bullied’, as you put it), but implied that, if they paid up, they would be happy with the reviews — before she tasted the wines in question.

        Let’s not obscure that important point. It’s the difference between paying for reviews and paying for good reviews.

      • Richard Auffrey

        It is also a matter of credibility. In the copyright article comments, Natalie has stated that “..I have never charged to review wines..” The people cited in this article cast serious doubts on her words.

      • Bill Klapp

        Alder’s point of view would go over well with those who favor legalizing prostitution!

        Alder, what stretch of beach has your head been buried in during the past several years, what with multiple ethical miscues at the holier-than-us Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator selling a wine award to a non-existent restaurant (among many real ones), Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy K., this mess and any number of other similar unsavory, unethical and/or criminal activities in the wonderful world of wine? Your way of thinking is part and parcel of the non-judgmentalism and moral bankruptcy that gave us banksters and the global economic collapse of 2008, two lost wars that literally bankrupted America and so much more. Yes, we are talking about a bush-league wine writer here, not business and governmental corruption, but to me, it is only a question of degree and subject matter.

        Since there was a call for a post by a consumer, this is it. Maybe Alder is right. Maybe if every wine review is bought and paid for, every book review on a bit of sock puppetry by the book’s author or publisher, and every hotel review on written by a direct descendant of Conrad Hilton, we will all be better off, or at least, none the wiser. Or maybe Alder’s brave new world of wine ethics will rid us of both wine critics and bloggers, and leave us with those who have something meaningful to say about wine, those whose words are quite worth paying for…

      • Tony Aspler

        Imagine I’m a theatre critic and before a play opens I contact the producer and say if you want me to review your play – my review will be read by thousands of my followers – you have to take out an annual subscription to my website. It won’t cost you much. And by the way, I might not be writing the review myself but will be scouting the net for other critics reviews, so you’ll get Jancis and names like that associated with your production.

      • Wine Harlots

        Alder, have you lost your mind? (Or is it just April Fool’s Day?) You assert, “In point of fact there’s nothing wrong with this practice. Caveat emptor, and all that. Sure not being transparent about it is yucky, as is being coercive about it…”

        Now by the word “yucky” do you mean immoral, unethical or illegal?

        According to the FCC you are required to disclose all of those relationships. The sample needs to be disclosed, as well as the fee charged, fee paid for sponsored post, or monies paid for the photo of the bottle — it is a legal duty to provide that information so the consumer can make their own determination if the content is editorial or advertising.

        The issues raised about wine competitions, trade and consumer publications are valid points that I have concerns about, too, and perhaps need exposes of their own. Admittedly, life is a conflict of interest, and the world is rife with hypocrisy — but it doesn’t make it ok.

        Nannette Eaton

      • Tish

        I agree with a lot of the costernation on display here, but especially Nanette’s point that “life is a conflict of interest, and the world is rife with hypocrisy.” There are definitiely degrees to consider — both degrees of actual ethics and degrees of transparency. Natalie’s problems seem to be on both counts.

        In a very real sense, all wine-reviewing sites/publications are like sausage factories: wines go in one end, reviews/ratings come out the other. Anyone who actually wants to put trust in reviews needs to apply his/her own sniff test.

        I think the net result of both this article and the copyright one will be to increase media and industry scrutiny on all of the practices related to wine reviewing. How samples are solicited, how tasting is conducted, how scores get determined, even how they are presented.

        Just as important, scrutiny of wine reviews can, should and will bring more attention to how reviews are used, by both marketers and retailers. Authenticity will become more important than ever.

      • Alder Yarrow

        Yucky = technical term for “stuff I wouldn’t do, but plenty of other people do.” Used most often these days in relation to politicians and people with extreme political and religious views.

        Not sure if anyone noticed, but Ms. Maclean lives in Canada, where the FCC has no jurisdiction.

        Now if Natalie claims on her site and in this forum that she has never charged for wine reviews, maybe she’s lying, or maybe she’s dissembling because she doesn’t charge for wine reviews, she asks people to subscribe to her newsletter (which is not charging for wine reviews).

        I for one would certainly like the editors of this online magazine to publish proof of the fact that she’s charged people for wine reviews rather than report allegations. Should they do that, then everyone can pile on the lady for lying about it.

        But even then, she hasn’t broken any law. The copyright thing, on the other hand may be a different matter. Of course, no one has bothered to clarify what Canadian copyright law says about such practices.

      • Rod Phillips

        Alder, Canadian copyright law was recently re-written and is now very restrictive. Apart from “fair use,” which includes quotations in reviews, etc., permission must be granted. I teach in a Canadian university and we have had to adjust to these new laws. For example, I can no longer lend a student a photocopy of an article (written by someone else) that I made for myself, as I can now photocopy copyrighted work only for my personal use. There’s no question that reprinting other writers’ work for personal gain is illegal here, so let’s get that off the table.

      • Producer XYZ

        We were approached as a producer to submit wines for review by Natalie. After sending a case I later received an email stating I had to subscribe to get the review. This to me is not a professional manner in which to conduct business and thus I refused to as a matter of principal. There is legality and then there are ethics.

        You want to bring up the cost of running a business? What about the cost of running a small winery and constantly being approached for samples and tasters? I am all open for chalking up samples as a marketing expense and believe in the producer/writer relationship but I will in NO WAY pay to hear what somebody thinks of my product!

        Nat no more!

      • Producer XYZ

        Hey you just won a Golden Globe…. now pay $100 to come up a get it.

    • Dean Tudor

      This statement is on my website …

      “Remember, it’s not hard to be a wine writer: you just have to have opinions about wines and find someone to pay you for those opinions. You also have to recognize that there’s nothing really free, and that you’re getting wine samples, invites, dinners, trips and parties not because you’re so great and so cool. You get these perks because it serves a purpose: ultimately, it’s a wine writer’s job in association with “our industry partners” to sell wine. You might even want to read “Oxford Companion to Wine” on the differences between a wine WRITER and a wine CRITIC. “The secret of wine writing is not simply to share opinions, but to give readers the confidence to have their own.” — Giles Kime. Or, put another way, “He who refines the public taste is a public benefactor” — Dr. Samuel Johnson

  9. WineMarketingGuy

    Interesting article. As a person working in the industry I came across literally the same scenario a couple of years ago with MacLean. By literally I mean verbatim to what was described by the BC producer above.

    Having corresponded with MacLean for several years, I’ve come to realize her (or her minions)are big fans of cut and paste. The solicitations and responses outlined above are exactly the same formulaic correspondence I have had with her as a marketing representative of a wine company. I would happily copy the email trail here to prove the point were it not out of respect for the confidentiality of my employer. But I have in my inbox numerous instances of solicitation for reviews, or website access only with subscription.

    Too bad. Kudos to you at Palate Press for keeping on this issue. This type of business should be abolished from the wine industry for its inherent dishonesty and general sleaziness. I never want to pay for a positive review, that’s not why we’re in the wine business.

  10. Brenan Lee

    This is such a common practice in food writing that I am amazed you wine writers are so shocked. In Vancouver one of our top restaurant reviewers has an online magazine that only accepts paid member’s press releases, news and event listing and he does not review or include restaurants in his reviews that are not paid members – He also writes for one of our major local papers, a national paper and numerous magazines who all seem to feel it’s OK to have him as their restaurant expert when it’s common knowledge he is pay to play. There was actually a twitter war between him and a local restaurateur who had been conspicuously left out of the best new restaurant category because this writer had refused to review his restaurant. Recently a well known local food blogger created a burger contest for the public to vote on, but he charged all the restaurants to participate making for a field of restaurants that were willing to pay, not best burger joints. Tourism Vancouver only brings media to the restaurants that are paid members and who participate in all their expensive events and national writers, who vote for best restaurant in Canada in major magazines, are flown here, housed in expensive hotels, flown by private plane into remote luxury resorts and wined and dined – maybe not a cash transaction but hardly a transparent practice or impartial review.

    • Tony Aspler

      I can understand why wineries who turned Natalie down on the pay-for-review concept don’t want to step forward on this issue. They are concerned about possible libel or defamation suits being brought against them. Now the cat’s out of the bag let’s see how the fur flies.

    • Andi Quote

      regarding tourism vancouver. they are a NON-PROFIT, MEMBER-DRIVEN organisation (we are members), so of course they have an obligation to support their members. however, if a journalist comes to town and wants to visit vij’s, for example,(not a member) – tourism vancouver will host them there and at other such non-members. this is how tourism bureaus work. keep in mind, writers are more than welcome to approach any destination without being hosted by a tourism association, but if they require assistance (keep in mind, most publications don’t have budget for travel/accom/meals) it’s obvious that a non-profit association will hit up their partners. this is not pay to play. pay to play would be a writer getting extra compensation to write positively about a place. hosting a meal or a room never guarantees editorial. are you also under the impression that wineries shouldn’t give wine writers samples? because this is the same as hosted meals in member restaurants by tourism vancouver. that ‘s like saying “why don’t wineries also offer samples from neighbouring wineries they are not connected to?” how could a wine writer afford the 1000+ wines per year they write about and/or review?

      • Brenan Lee

        Tourism Vancouver is not non-profit, though yes they are a private company – yet they operate like a government agency, receive tax dollars and are the go-to for all incoming media. Again, unless you are a paid member they do not recommend or reach out to your restaurant. Andi, your comment about Vij’s is interesting. Are you saying that although they are not a member, if a journalist wants to dine there Tourism Vancouver will pay for the dinner (host)? Because if you are a member restaurant you are expected to pay (host) for both the journalist and the Tourism Vancouver staff.

      • Andi Quote

        tourism vancouver is a non-profit, any argument is moot. check your facts.

        “Tourism Vancouver has been marketing Vancouver as a destination for leisure, meeting and event travel for over 100 years. We are a non-profit business association representing over 1,000 members in tourism and related industries. We work with our members and industry partners to attract visitors to the region, encourage them to stay longer, and ensure they return time and again.”

        about vij’s (etc) this is our understanding. with hosted meals, sometimes the restaurant pays, sometimes tourism vancouver has budget and pays. even with members, many times tourism vancouver picks up the tab if they have budget for a visit. if a writer from something huge like the guardian or bbc wants to visit a non-member as part of a very high-profile story, i think it a no-brainer for tourism vancouver to be willing to assist. they would never suggest it though.

      • Tai-Ran Niew

        Andi, if you really want to remove “conflict-of-interest” the consumers should pay!! Magazines should carry no adverts, wine writers should buy all the wines they taste and receive no samples. All that cost should be reflected in the price of the magazine and/or subscription. No advocacy, no promotion.

        If consumers are not willing to pay for “pure” coverage, it will never really be “squeaky clean”.

      • Andi Quote

        ding ding ding ding! and we see, now in the age of the internet, how much people are willing to pay for things…

  11. Norman McFarlane

    What is most troubling is the disinclination of producers who had been approached by MacLean to come forward until she was “outed” by Palate Press, whether or not they had succumbed to her blandishments.
    Their continued attempts at anonymity after the fact, are equally troubling.
    If the industry covertly supports such practices, why are we surprised that they exist, and indeed seem to be on the increase?
    While her actions are without doubt reprehensible, it is ridiculous to assume that this revelation taints only the wine press. It equally taints producers, in particular those who declined MacLean’s “offer” yet chose to remain silent.
    Those producers who did take up the offer, are no better than MacLean, in my view.

  12. Charlie Olken

    There was a time, and it is not so long ago, when the standard that had to be met by a wine critic/evaluator was to be above suspicion.

    The ingredients thereof consisted of the following: no fee for tasting, no advertising of any kind, but especially from the industry, blind tastings of wines in peer to peer comparisons, double checking of every wine that was to be highly recommened or seemed possibly flawed–and a giant dose of humility.

    Now ask yourselves how many of today’s publications meet those very high standards. Answer: very few.

    If readers are comfortable with lowered standards, then so be it, but that does not mean that we all should.

    And it surely does not mean that there should any level of tolerance for plagiarism or unethical versions of pay for play.

    I don’t like the New Zealand version, but at least it is 100% transparent and theoretically, at least, does not commit the reviewer to positive comments.

    However, that model is too close to self-serving for my taste. After all, it depends on the continued support of the wineries for the continued existence of the publication. That, in and of itself, is a conflict of interest.

    So is the Tasting Panel model. And, of course, Ms. McLean’s version is by far the most cynical of all.

    Tranparency is a good thing in all these dealing, but being above suspicion is the only model I can think of that puts the reviewer above suspicion. Why else did Mr. Parker and his minions get into such difficulties in the last couple of years.

    I would like to believe that every wine review I read is done according to Hoyle. Sadly, I doubt that it is true, and I congratulate David Honig and Palate Press for its courageous journalism and very correct stance on the issue.

  13. Chrissie

    Thank you and kudos to you for finally bringing to light her practices. The wine world is a beautiful place and does not deserve people debasing it.

  14. 1winedude

    Papa Olken nails it:

    “I don’t like the New Zealand version, but at least it is 100% transparent and theoretically, at least, does not commit the reviewer to positive comments.”

    It’s the lack of transparency and the lack of apology / acknowledgement of the fact that readers/followers might feel duped, or at the very least disappointed, that troubles me about this situation with NM.

  15. Craig Pinhey

    Our industry haz fuzzy ethics, for sure, what with us writers receiving samples, trips etc. but there is a line that most of us would not cross. To be honest, I’ve never even thought about charging to REVIEW wines. I charge to ASSESS a wine (for defects. typicity, and market suitability) but not for a review, only for a private report to a winery.

    • Rod Phillips

      Exactly, Craig. You can certainly charge to be a consultant, but not to be a reviewer/critic.

    • Michael Pinkus

      Here. Here. Good comments both of you. I had heard of this practice of her’s a couple months ago at the same time as the quoting scandal (a winery owner was having a venting session to me about a certain writer) … they could not find the email that Natalie sent them so I could not prove anything – but I could prove she was mis-quoting her peers reviews. Good to see both issues are on the table … now tell everybody you know, this has got to spread. We have to ween the rotten barrels out of the cellar (so to speak).

  16. Hugh Sutherland

    I am totally shocked at the number of people that use the fact “others are doing it” as justification for immorality- yes it is rampant in many other disciplines (which is why I got into wine) but that does not make it right- and Canada or US does’nt matter- if people are being misled IT IS WRONG. Kudos to Dean, Tony and Conrad- for being honest without being blatant

  17. Zack

    Though I agree with much of the sentiment of this piece (and most of the comment that followed), I disagree with the ethics aspect of it. I don’t think there is anything unethical about this practice, assuming two things: 1 – everyone who pays a subscription fee pays the same amount and 2 – everyone must pay. Assuming that is true (and they may not be), I don’t see much difference between Natalie’s practice and that of a wine competition. The article argues that a wine competition is using the money to pay for the event, but as that cost presumably includes paying the salaries of the people who run it, Natalie is essentially doing the same thing. Is she charging more than she really needs? Maybe. But that’s not unethical, that’s just a business decision (there are many companies for which that argument can be made). The article also argues that charging for a wine competition is somehow different than charging for reviews. How so? Assuming the two above points, giving a wine a medal at a show for being the best wine of the year, when in reality it is the best wine of those who paid to enter, is not much different than blogging about the best wine you’ve tried of those who have paid you to do so.

    All that said, I’m not a fan of the idea of paying for reviews. However, given the capitalist society we live in (those of us in the US at least), the way to stop it is simply to not participate (as a reader or wine-maker). I’m all for not reading Natalie’s blog because you don’t like the idea of paying for a wine review (and I’m especially in favor of not reading it if she’s plagiarizing, but that’s a separate issue), but I don’t believe she has crossed an ethical line in doing so.

    p.s. this also assumes Natalie is upfront with her readers re: how she’s running her business. Again, that may be an incorrect assumption, but from the comments it sounds like at least some of the wine reviewers who follow this practice are.

    • Tony Aspler

      If there was a disclaimer above the wine reviews on Natalie’s website that they have been paid for by a subscrition to the site (and would not appear otherwise)I think she might have a case – however repugnant principled wine critics might find the practice.

  18. gdfo

    Intead of developing a reputation as a good wine reviewer she now has a reputation as a thief and an opportunist.

    Shortcuts just don’t always pay off like real work does.

  19. Robert C

    From what I gather it seems that Nat was not asking for the wineries to pay for a review but pay to see the review. Since also she lifts other writers and critics work on wines they have reviewed she would not be actually reviewing the wines or writing about them. If you received a favorable review from Wine Spectator she would cut and paste the info and you would certainly be pleased with the review. All above board, no drama, nothing to see here, move along.

      • Robert C

        I know every one is up in arm about this. I was, I thought, putting a humorous play on words about the issue. It is a serious thing to steal other peoples work. It is rude and disingenuous to ask for wineries to pay for a subscription to get a review. The wineries pay already by sending the wine to her (shipping costs a fortune). This has been repeated by everyone ad nauseum. Lighten up.

  20. Jim Caudill

    I’ve worked with Natalie for a long time and she regularly has reviewed wines without any hint of payment; she also suggested that I keep current various digital assets on websites, just like a lot of other folks. Finally, if the Wine Spectator reviews my wine, and I want to go see it online in their database, I need to be a subscriber. There are, in fact, plenty of places where sponsored reviews happen — the Beverage Testing Institute comes to mind, but I’ve not had this experience here. Seems like some confusion going on.

  21. Donn Rutkoff

    Well, like, uh, who she??? Trust your wine retailer more than a scribbler when you want help picking wine for your palate. For your palate. You can’t drink a printed page. Yes, I am biased. I sell wine. Live in person on the sales floor. I find that good customer relations don’t derive from repeating printed stuff, but come from speaking plain English and listening to the customer.

    I do wish the wineries made better use of their labels to inform, they do have a captive audience, but few labels actually make any real contact with the consumer.

    • David Honig
      David Honig

      Donn, This is a great point and than you for making it. Palate Press publishes wine reviews, but we are very enthusiastic supporters of a great wine retailer. We ran a Feature once called Trust is the New Black. We’ve also listed our favorite wine stores around the US. Almost every store review mentions, by name, the go-to person on site, not the number of bottles or the size of the cellar room – Spread the Love: Some of Our Favorite Wine Stores The best thing any wine lover can do is find a great wine store with a great wine person and build a personal relationship.

  22. WineBusProf

    Has anyone ever stopped to think whether a wine review actually has a benefit on sales? In all of the above kerfuffle, you assume that a review by Nat McLean (and the inference is that any wine reviewer) would lead to increased sales. If a wine review does not lead to such an outcome, then McLean is simply helping ‘fools part with their money’.

    Is anyone out there able to illustrate that McLean actually has an influence on their wine sales?

      • Dean Tudor

        Sam, while Fuzion sold very well, WineBusProf was asking about Natalie`s influence: did a review by her sell the wine…Every agent I have talked to in Ontario says that reviews sell wine: some wines take off for awhile, others don`t sell as well. But they sell, and the reviews are used as documentation when re-ordering or getting other wines from the same winery. Some agents keep track of sales and plot their delivery of review sample packages on a timed system so they can see peaks and troughs according to when a review appeared in print or social media (Google is very good at tracking down names of wines).

      • Vinous envy

        You are posing the question wrong,
        As a “Borrowed“ review by her generated any sales?

  23. Alex Lake

    This is pretty shoddy and it seems to me that honest and ethical wine writers/reviewers & even those who voted in good faith for her in award judging panels will indeed be tainted by association.

    The taint is exacerbated by some of the views expressed by others in this thread.

    Well done Palate Press – may I subscribe? 😉

  24. Craig Pinhey

    Do reviews sell wine? Is that a joke question? 😉

    I don’t personally think it should be the main way people choose wine, but it sure seems to be. Actually, they probably buy according to score, mostly, not bothering to read the reviews, which is far worse.

    I think it is very much market dependent. I know for sure that quite a few local people buy wines that I review well. Especially under $20 wines. But it is very difficult to measure this accurately.

  25. Emma Jenkins

    While I am loathe to weigh in on this topic again having previously commented elsewhere on the NZ aspects (ref. Jane’s and Chuck’s comments above) I do think there should be some deeper thought applied on two issues in particular.

    Direct payment from producer to reviewer is always a compromised position and I am yet to see anyone mount a genuinely credible defence of the practice. Most just nibble at the edges or bicker over a semi-related topic. There is a reason why any reviewer worth their salt – regardless what’s being reviewed – won’t go near it. Integrity is paramount to all writers, and to critics in particular. Payment from producers plainly introduces the potential for bias (and it matters not if none actually exists).

    Secondly, those who seek to defend the practice by argument of ‘transparent disclosure’ need to consider this with a little more rigour. The fee paying aspect may indeed be disclosed, but not where the average consumer (at whom these reviews are targeted) will ever see it. They see a producer or retailer quoting a review, or a sticker on a bottle with a fulsome score, and are none the wiser that it was generated by the producer paying the reviewer. So arguing for transparency in this case is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst. Consumers are generally shocked when they hear of paid-for reviewing which is why this insidious practice has the potential to cast aspersions on us all. It should be resisted and condemned by those who value their profession.

    I would add too, that just because the practice is technically ‘legal’ or ‘not hurting anyone’ doesn’t by extension make it right; that is just facile. Alder, even if those charging fees claim they are merely to cover ‘admin/handling’ costs, which I agree can be substantial, last I checked no one owes anyone a living. If you want to make it as a critic or wish to purport your ‘independence’ (as many do), then find a way to do that while still retaining the integrity and independence that are actually the point of the whole exercise. Who are we actually writing for here? I am not a cheerleader for the industry and last I checked I’m not meant to be working in the world’s oldest profession either.

    • 1winedude

      Emma – generally I agree with you, but not on this point: “So arguing for transparency in this case is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst”

      No one can totally control how this type of info gets used. Case in point I’d what Natalie did with others’ work on get own site. Being add transparent at the source is one of the few things that writers can control, and in some cases maybe the only thing!

      • Emma Jenkins

        Yes, I quite agree that transparency and disclosure are absolutely essential and should certainly be used at all times. What I was trying to illustrate was that in this case it’s as good as meaningless as the end-user is (almost) never aware of it. It’s never disclosed anywhere they will see when the reviews are being used to promote wines. Retailers don’t state it and producers don’t highlight it either, with the notable exception I have seen being Grasshopper Rock of Central Otago, whom I think has an excellent way of dealing with the situation and distinguishing between review types. Nice wine too – can tell you that for free! ha ha.

    • Tai-Ran Niew


      Well said! But I wish there would be more comments from pure consumers rather than people in the trade.

      It goes without saying that “critics” have to put their children through college too. And if you don’t have independent means, your income can only come from 2 potential sources – the producers/retailers or the consumer.

      If the consumers are not willing to pay to support their “critic”, squeaky-clean wine writing can only be carried out by those who have the financial backing to do so, rather than those that just have a genuine talent. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive.

      Which means the campaign for diverse, “squeaky-clean”, high quality research, writing and analysis has to start with the consumers – they have to pay.

      Which begs the question – do consumers actually care how independent wine writing is?

      • Emma Jenkins

        Indeed, there’s a real feeling of preaching to the converted for the most part. It would be great to hear more from consumers on this topic.

        But I would still beg to differ in that needing to make a living somehow excuses the practice. This is obviously something I am acutely aware of and struggle with as well. However, that’s what I mean by no one owes you a living. I teach, write freelance and have a completely non-wine-related job to allow me to continue to have independence in what I write, and I suspect many others have similar methods. In NZ, there’s only a tiny pool of income for wine stuff plus it’s an intimate industry overall, and to tread through this while hanging onto independence is very difficult indeed. But it’s entirely my choice to do it and I don’t think compromising myself for income is ultimately very satisfying for the soul.

        Fine to charge for wine reviewing to make a living, but if that’s the case you need to be very clear that you’re providing a form of consultancy service to producers, not reviewing or criticizing wine for the consumer. You can’t be both.

      • Tai-Ran Niew

        Got it! The difference between review and critique.

        I am not supporting unethical behaviour! But I do see very little in this discussion that starts with the consumer. To address what they need and what they want.

        I suspect most people on this forum don’t think that getting a recommendation from a sommelier or local wine shop is a bad thing. And yet, theoretically, it represents a stunning “conflict-of-interest”! There is an argument that they need repeat business, and therefore it is in their interest to recommend what a consumer would like.

        How does that not apply to a wine reviewer/critic?

        From most consumer’s perspective, the utility of wine media is to act as a filter to the millions of wine available and recommend wines that they will enjoy. And they actually don’t want to pay (much) for that service! The success or failure of a “brand” be it the Wine Spectator or Nat M, is, unfortunately, judged by that and that alone?

        I am still staggered that the Wine Spectator still exists after giving an Excellence award to a fictitious restaurant in 2008. That says a lot more about the wine industry, ethics, and wine consumers than what is happening here.

        I do think standards in life should be set independent of what the market needs or want. But that is my personal choice, and I am not sure how the rest of the world feels about it.

        I don’t think that is carefully delineated in this discussion.

  26. Wine-Flair

    I recognize that others make their living from this business—which is simply my passion (I have a day job)—but it still seems to me as a wine educator and writer that there are some incontrovertible facts here:

    1. Plagiarism is unethical. There is no gray area.

    2. Copyright infringement is illegal in the United States. Canadian Law is not the same as US law and may interpret certain matters differently. That does not preclude an aggrieved party from taking action if he or she believes a copyright has been infringed.

    3. There are various schemes used by various wine reviewers, some of which involve paying to review bottles. This is on top of the wine being donated. For live tasting events, these fees typically support logistics, stipends, travel and other expenses. For individual reviewers, these fees may cover the cost of storing the wine, or just be income for the reviewer(s). If it’s made clear that there’s a specific fee for a bottle to be reviewed, the producer can made a choice as to whether or not a submit a bottle. If the fee is tied to something other than the actual review, the producer can also make a choice. Common sense should prevail.

    4. If a producer is promised a positive review of its wine under any circumstances by a reviewer, it is unethical.

    5. Revealing a conflict of interest does not remove the conflict.

    This affair is ugly and tarnishes us all. It also points out the degree to which reviews—and a small, powerful number of people—have come to dominate a global industry. It certainly runs contrary to my motto: “Filling your glass with fun.”

  27. Mikev

    This is all so amazing. Does this mean that the countries best plastic surgeons in the magazine in the seat pocket of the airplane may not be reliable? How about the best steakhouses in Houston?

  28. Wino-fred

    This seems to be the final word from Natalie:

    “Update: The largest worldwide professional organization of wine writers, The Circle of Wine Writers headquartered in London, England, of which I am a member along with 276 other writers, has reviewed the issue and now considers it closed.”

    • Craig Pinhey

      I think Jancis and Jamie Goode would disagree…as would all the main Canadian wine writers. And the other issues – the online antics under fake names, giving fake bad reviews, etc. That calls for another story somewhere. This is far from over.

      • Dean Tudor

        I’ve just heard back from Steven Spurrier:

        “As current President of the Circle of Wine Writers I sent an email to Nathalie [sic] MacLean to say that, since I never follow any blogs, tweets and so on, I had been unaware of the problem that had been flagged by Tony Apsler, Jancis Robinson et al et al, but that I was now aware of it and was pleased that she was taking these complaints about her use of writers’ copy into account.

        I received a reply of thanks in return, but nobody has made me aware that this debate is now closed.”

        So who interjected the word “closed” to the debate? It was not Spurrier…

  29. Dean Tudor

    A Google news search on “natalie maclean” shows the top 10 urls on page one — four of the first five are about “l’affaire de Nat”, and number 10 is a French language site in Quebec commenting on Nat. So, the Palate Press stories managed to get 5 Nat entries in her top 10 news items (not mainstream media).

  30. Wine Blog 酒博 » » 葡萄酒酒评界的“Pay to Play”政策

    […] 近期,国外许多葡萄酒博客都在讨论酒评人的职业道德问题。这个讨论起源于一个在线杂志Palate Press的一份报道。报道中指责了一位著名的加拿大酒评家Nathalie MacLean,说她要求酒庄注册她的收费网站,她才会公布其酒评。 虽然注册费不贵(2块美金左右/月),但这么做的确会让读者纠结:部分优质的葡萄酒会不会因此拒之门外?欠佳的葡萄酒倒会不会因为交会费而得到过度关照? 这份报道出来后,不少人开始纷纷议论世界各地的自称“酒评家”,尤其是那些进行“Pay-to-play”(用钱获取参与游戏的资格)政策。 有人指出了新西兰的一些酒评人,说他们在其博客上注明了要是酒庄希望他们品尝并评价一些葡萄酒,需要向博主支付30多新西兰元/款。起码,他们比较透明,然而由读者自己判断酒评是否公正。但对于去年成立的“新西兰葡萄酒作家”协会(Wine Writers of New-Zealand),这种行为是不可取的,因此其会员们必须签一份“独立宣言”(Declaration of Independence),保证他们不从酒庄或葡萄酒企业获得任何利益。 […]

  31. kevin thompson

    Thought-provoking discussion – I was enlightened by the points , Does anyone know where my assistant might get access to a blank OR WY AN PT Statement document to fill out ?