The Critics’ View of WineAlign’s New Tasting Service

“Wineries are paying for timely tasting and honest reviews – not better reviews or higher scores”

By John Szabo and David Lawrason, with the support of Michael Godel, Sara d’Amato and Steve Thurlow

In light of recent articles and social media posts by our competitors regarding the announcement of WineAlign’s new “Tastings” service, we need to address the misconceptions and misinterpretations they have aired.

We may not have communicated our intentions as best we could, but it’s disheartening that colleagues in our business would jump to speculation, cast doubt on our integrity, without due diligence, then use the opportunity to promote themselves.

Let us state off the top, in ultra-clear terms, that an administration fee charged to cover the costs of receiving, processing, storing, pouring, tasting and disposing of hundreds of samples monthly, couldn’t possibly sway the objectivity of our reviews.

The new WineAlign Tastings service is a re-active, not pro-active program, designed to guarantee agencies and wineries timely reviews, and save them money by avoiding the costs of shipping multiple samples to multiple critics. We welcome other non-WineAlign professional (paid) critics to our tastings as well, however on our terms and schedule.

The need for this service in Ontario has arisen directly from the LCBO’s reduction of VINTAGES samples made available to the press, and subsequent discussions between Drinks Ontario (Ontario’s wine importing association) and WineAlign to find a solution to the issue. We obviously do not have the resources of the LCBO to access samples.  

WineAlign has been called out many times by wineries and agents, and had lucrative advertising agreements cancelled (and many never materialize) because of our refusal to review products in any light other than our own convinced, and experienced, objectivity. Our scores are notoriously low in the world of wine reviewing. Anti-inflated. We know this. We also refuse to join the inflationary international arms race that wine scoring has become, to our own financial detriment and peril. Integrity and expertise are what we sell, whatever the cost.

Let’s also be clear that WineAlign’s first and most important responsibility is to its readers. We’re proud that so many have come to trust us over ten years of publishing. A renewal rate of more 90% for our paid subscription is a strong testament of that trust.

We also understand that we are inevitably partnered with industry, as every single wine publication in the world is.  And we respect their business. We feel that more accountability and transparency is needed in this relationship. Every bottle that is shipped to us for review under the Tastings service will now be catalogued and duly tasted in a timely manner that is important to the wineries, and that the results will be shared. The new program is assurance that the wine will be tasted immediately, which is what suppliers want.

Wineries and their agents will be paying for tasting efficiency – not better reviews or higher scores.

WineAlign exists wholly from the revenue generated by the content and reviews it publishes. WineAlign reviewers are all professionals, and professionals are paid for their work. John has been paid by publishers for over 15 years; David for over 35. This is not a hobby website for which profit is not a necessity, nor a publication that exists as a spin-off of another profitable enterprise, nor a group of part time influencers looking for free product and industry largesse.

Historically and regrettably to us as critics, advertising is a necessity due to the weakness of adequate subscription revenue in Canada, thanks to the small population. But advertising revenues are not easily come by either, partially due to the dominance of liquor control boards whose promotions and publications use up industry revenues. The recent free fall of advertising revenue for independent wine publishers has led to the administrative tasting fee becoming one of precious few viable solutions to keep professional, independent businesses alive.

Negative Reviews

And now to the most mis-understood allegations by our competitors of not cool-ness: that reviews can be deleted on request. Here the banter has been disingenuous at best, deceptive at worst. There is hardly another publication in Canada, or the world for that matter, that publishes negative reviews. WineAlign has been, and still is, among the only ones who do (if 85 is considered a poor score, which regrettably it seems to have become). 

Every other publication, including those mentioned off the top, publish only glowing reviews of “recommended” and “highly recommended” wines. Presumably, hopefully, they taste many more that don’t make the cut. In other words, they save you the trouble and do the deleting for you.  No problem with that.

On the WineAlign database we publish everything that is collectively rated above 85, as per our longstanding editorial policy, and will send any reviews lower than this directly to suppliers for their review. We feel that wineries deserve to know that their wines have actually been tasted, and also what the critics think of them. We have dual obligations and we aim to respect them both.

We also believe that winemakers, agents, salespeople, marketers and PR companies value honest and reasoned, experienced criticism, to help contextualize products and perhaps gain insight into how to improve wine production or manage portfolio assortments. Cordial back-slapping does little to build and improve the wine scene.

Our real usefulness in the end is to guide readers to the best wines, in our opinions, not inform them of what to avoid. We exist not to tear down businesses, but instead to build up and celebrate the ones who are performing best.  

So, if wineries and importers have entrusted the WineAlign team to have a crack at their product, and don’t feel the published review of any one of us accurately represents it we invite them to delete. We encourage it.

To clarify again, as was initially mis-reported, it’s an all or nothing prospect. No cherry picking the good scores and eliminating the bad ones. That would be deceptive to readers. If overwhelming negative the entire record is deleted, like it never existed, just as happens in every other publication. 

We think that’s fair. And we strongly believe that the policy is in no way at odds with our mission to connect drinkers and great wines, and in no way impinges on our integrity.

And lastly, and not without some irony, for those who claim that fees for tasting is a new cash cow, let’s set the record straight. To repeat, it does not affect our ratings and reviews. We are providing a service to both suppliers and readers, aiming to expand coverage. The fees associated with it are calculated to help off-set costs; they will assuredly not generate much profit.

We’re open to any and all comments and questions. Except from those holier than us, disingenuous competitors, who can just put a cork in it. Unless they now get it!