In Defense Of Natalie MacLean

Vinted on January 2, 2013 binned in best of, commentary

Wait a second…

…you mean to tell me that Canadian wine personality Natalie MacLean’s probable plagiarism (or at the very least, insufficient, obfuscated attribution of others’ work), possible pay-to-play wine reviews / favorable brand mentions, on-line comment “sock-puppeting” (and iTunes app review sock-puppeting, while we’re at it) allegations, along with spam-botting (can I use that as a verb?), multiple accusations of comment censorship and what seems like outright lying isn’t defensible with a simple “oh, whoops, my bad! :-)” letter to her readers?!??

Really??

[ Editor’s note: Despite the author’s better judgement telling him that he ought to just forget all about this, he’s still pissed-off about it, and so has decided to help the cause in a small way by drawing a little bit of extra attention to this scandal and not letting it die on the vine. Look, he’s not saying that the average wine-loving person should care what he thinks about these things, but it’s his blog so he’ll whine, wine, and whittle away the time with this opinion on a scandal here if he wants. Thanks to those of you who will indulge him the time to dip into the wine media’s scarred underbelly. ]

Ah, and I forgot about the whole let’s-call-the-entire-wine-media-thing-into-question-because-we-all-look-like-a-bunch-of-douche-bags-for-bestowing-awards-on-these-people debate that gets stirred up every time that something like this transpires (which is way too often right now, by the way).

Oh, well – our bad, right?!?

The primary thing that’s got me riled up about this scandal is that, as the Hosemaster of Wine recently put it, MacLean “dared use dull and virtually interchangeable wine reviews from wine experts on her blog without attribution” (ouch!)….

It’s the “without attribution” part that ought to have people – both the authors of the “attributed” (using the term very loosely) work, and those who read it on MacLean’s website thinking it might have been authored by MacLean herself – justifiably upset. So what comes next isn’t the most balanced take on the scandal (but you’ve figured that one out for yourself already).

I can actually think of one defense for Natalie, which is that she has promised to rectify the improper attributions. But that doesn’t make right what she’s already done, which is nearly tantamount to stealing the work of other people. There’s no shortage of vitriolic agreement with this in the comments on the PalatePress.com article that broke this story, but to me the most damning commentary by far was included in the article itself. I can say this because the comment comes from English MW Jancis Robinson, and I happen to speak British. Let me translate; when Jancis wrote this to MacLean:

“I must say I am horrified, Natalie. Not just by the general lack of proper attribution, but by the appropriation of reviews from Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com which is a members-only publication.”

…she probably meant this:

“WTF?!??? Are you MAD?!??? You’re basically stealing my hard work, you b*tch!!!”

I can’t speak directly for Jancis, of course, but in the past I’ve worked for Brits (that includes several years and many visits to the UK). My experience has taught me that they do not use hyperbole, and they’ve elevated understatement into a language all of its own (and one that’s often lost in translation to N. American English). If you give a suggestion to a Brit, and the response you get is “that’s interesting, have you thought about this alternative angle…,” it means they think your idea bites bull honkey and that if you have any sense in your head whatsoever, you will seriously entertain the alternative they’ve offered (or be ready to produce a very good reason why you shouldn’t). So when one of them tells you that s/he is “horrified,” it means they’ve likely totally and absolutely written off your cred, for good.

My personal take, after several days reflection (a true rarity for me!), is this:

  • I’ve no doubt that MacLean is a talented writer, and I’m impressed with the seemingly endless fount of her self-promotional hustle, but given the damning evidence that’s come to light lately, I’ve also no doubt she is currently exercising a lot more hustle than she is good sense.
  • It would be bad enough if this had been done by someone of whom wine consumers are largely unaware (and unattributed content scrapping happens every minute of every day online), but having it come from an award-winning wine personality is all the worse for the entire industry.
  • The result, I think, is that if you’re not already skeptical of the wine media, then you should be. I’d love to be able to tell you that someone having certifications and awards from well-regarded wine and food institutions ought to allay that skepticism, but 2012 was pretty much The Year Of Wine Scandals Involving Lauded Wine Personalities. So much for that helpful guidepost.

Of course I’m optimistic that the wine biz will get through this. And it will. We will get past “Nat-gate.” But not before all of us wine media types once again get called a bunch of raging d-bag frauds in the press. So why give it extra attention? Because anyone who might read MacLean’s books or subscribes to her website or downloads her app ought to know what she’s accused of doing. I predict that Score Inflation (“score-flation?”) will take over as the next scandal-ish wine media meme soon:

skerflation

image bastardized from citywinetraders.com

[ Editor’s note: At this point our author elicits a deep and heavy plaintive sigh, and reaches for bottle of Armagnac. ]

Oh, and if you felt a bit duped by the title of this post, don’t worry; if you’re also a subscriber to MacLean’s website, then this probably isn’t the first time you’ve been duped, is it?

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • pbilling13


    Joe,

    Dude, don't hold back, tell us how you really feel :-)

    Unfortunately, all this will blow over and it will be back to 'Business As Usual'. Unless of course Parker discovers one of his reviews on her site un-attributed. Then, I think all hell will break loose.

    Paul

    Paul

    • 1WineDude


      Paul – you're right, it's not good for my stress levels leaving all of this bottled up! :) As for it blowing over, you might (hopefully) be incorrect about that; the story has seen a bit of mainstream press in Canada. At any rate, I hope enough of Natalie's current followers see the details and see enough of them that they can make up their own minds about her intentions and credibility.

  • dhonig


    Paul,

    Wine Advocate had their reviews used, too. Natalie removed those, as well as those from Jancis' Purple Pages. Everybody else, though, she is just doing a big cut-and-paste to change initials to names and publications. They still appeared in the Google Cache, though.

    • 1WineDude


      David – really? I don't get it… why not remove *all* of the external reviews? I mean, what's the precedent for this? She's not selling wine, is she?

  • Amy @ VineSleuth


    Joe, you totally crack me up. As much as I abhor your use of the word douchebag, (and a few others) you're right on here.
    Hate that it had to be written (so disappointed that someone who calls herself a writer would do all of this), but love your treatment of it all. Your last paragraph really got me.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Amy. I gotta be me… And I agree, it's a long-winded way of saying I'm very disappointed with Natalie's actions. Even if only part of the allegations are true, what's come to light so far even in only the improper attributed works is just… well, it's just *bad*.

  • Dean Tudor


    Hubris applies here — the whole business started when Michael Pinkus wanted proper attribution, she claimed an index was available on the site, nobody could find it, and she stonewalled us over that. Only when Pinkus tracked down some two dozen "international" reviewers publishing in UK and USA and Oz, really prominent people such as Robinson and Parker, showing them a four month search of relevant tasting notes, did Natalie agree to remove and restructure the "borrowed" reviews. She still claimed an index. Palate Press took the story and expanded it to include other matters such as pay to play. Other wine people came up with spam bots.

    The point I am making is that NONE of this would have happened if Nat simply apologized and restructured Pinkus' reviews. In fact, she didn't even have to apologize. Just do the one restructuring for one local wine reviewer — and all woud be good. But oh no, Nat could not back down….Hubris…

    • 1WineDude


      Dean – interesting sequence of events there. Are you saying that Pinkus' reviews were used on her site first, before those from the other international sources?

      • Dean Tudor


        No, Nat used everybody as they occurred in the Vintages catalogue. He just noticed his reviews one day, with his very same initials and nothing else. Just chance…But chance does favour the prepared mind…

        • 1WineDude


          Dean – indeed!

  • masi3v


    What surprised me was it took so long for anybody to notice (or care). She did not just start doing this a few weeks ago….

    • 1WineDude


      Masi3v – I think that's a function of removing the proper attributions and only going with initials for those reviews; apparently there was a directory of those to translate them as to the proper source, but no one has seen it, or even an extant version of it. I think a valid interpretation of that on her part is that she meant to obfuscate the sources, which would certainly have confused a lot of subscribers into believing that she'd actually written those reviews.

      • 1WineDude


        Whoops – mean POST-extant version; I'm sure you'll understand what I'm getting at, anyway.

        • masi3v


          No, I know exactly what you mean and why people are up in arms about it. What I wonder is why did it take so long for anyone to notice what she was doing and care enough to raise a ruckus?

          • 1WineDude


            Masi3v – I think it took this long because of the lack of proper attribution. And it's behind a paywall, so if those authors were scanning the Internet for people lifting their content, they might not find it if they didn't subscribe, etc.

            • Todd - VT Wine Media


              Or it could be that those all those "subscribers" really were not paying much attention to her either…
              That may be the deepest wound.

              • 1WineDude


                Todd – well, there are no shortage of people who ignore detail…

              • Todd - VT Wine Media


                I guess I'm starting to wonder how many actual "subscribers" there are…from my IT experience at least 1 in 1000 is a nitpicker enough to ask.

              • 1WineDude


                Todd – good point. 1WD certainly has a small percentage of very vocal minority that actually chime in, etc.

  • Ron Washam, HMW


    Thanks for mentioning me. I tossed in my few cents about Nat on my blog, but what has truly amazed me was not the foolishness she's displayed in the face of being busted, hubris is a powerful force, as Dean points out, but how much built-up animosity there was for her once the scandal broke. I think that speaks volumes. In a real sense, the "crimes" she committed are piddling, a reflection of an integrity-deficient mind, but hardly earth-shattering or criminal. But if only half the testimonials about her behavior and business ethics are true, she's not anyone I'd want to have anything to do with, and is someone with whom I'm ashamed to share a profession.

  • 1WineDude


    Ron – And a fine job you did on that toss, my friend! I was a bit shocked at the opening of the floodgates as well. It's almost as if those folks felt like they'd finally found an outlet for their claims / concerns / diatribes / what-have-you.

  • passionatefoodie


    I think Natalie should be the keynote speaker for the Wine Blogger's Conference in BC. That would be sure to spark lots of attention.

    • 1WineDude


      Richard – no doubt! Insert your own joke about who'd actually write the speech here…

      • passionatefoodie


        Just check the directory for the initials she mentions at the end of her speech.

        • 1WineDude


          Ba-dum-DUM!

    • Dean Tudor


      If even a small number of her 150,000 members came….

      • 1WineDude


        Dean – would be like armies facing off against one another. Or like that scene in the last Batman flick, where the cops all march the street against the mercenaries…

  • MyrddinGwin


    The only times I really ever came across her website was when I was trying to research wines I knew were available in the LCBO (Ontario's equivalent to the PLCB), and usually the same review was listed a bit further up or down the search engine's list with proper accreditation. Since the reviews that were free on her site were the same as other places' free reviews (and properly attributed at the other sites), I supposed she was a review aggregator, and so never even considered subscribing (though my heavy preference for spending money on actual wine rather than spending money just to read about it may have also played a small role). It does surprise me that she never paid these other people to collect their reviews, however, and that when she did pay, it was for subscriptions for their paid sites so she could hide those reviews behind her own paywall. Certainly it's a bit of a situation she finds herself in.
    Perhaps it's co-incidence, but I've never knowingly read anything by her, even a single wine review, so I cannot tell if she's a good writer. The Canadian wine writer I most commonly read is Tony Aspler, as I find his stories can be entertaining.

    • 1WineDude


      MyrddinGwin – Natalie's books are well-written stylistically. Having said that, the comments on the PalatePress.com posts, as well as emails that I have received in private, suggest that she had some serious errors in those books that others helped to correct, and I think casts a bit of a pall over those works.

  • katie bell


    Hilarious! Love the British translation, quite apt. Wine writing is a dangerous business it would seem, or rather wine plaigarism. The inverse nature of scandal is that her website is likely seeing the most traffic ever when it should be an online pariah.

    • 1WineDude


      Katie – I do speak British rather well. For example, “It's rather cold in here, isn't it?” means, “would you go close the window because I don't rather feel like doing it myself.” :)

  • Tom Riley


    In a post with many great lines, the last one might be the best. Since encountering her a while back, always thought her gift for self-aggrandizement was the best club in her bag. And not such a great writer. If you take her out of her own stories, they're not so hot. She is her own best product. Well, she was.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Tom – some good lines of your won in that comment. I'll have to go back to her books and try that, I found the writing pretty entertaining when I first went through them.

      • Tom Riley


        I might be able to save you some time, or at least color your expectations before you go back to MacLean's books. Here's my review of her book Unquenchable.http://thegrapebelt.com/2012/06/12/quenched/Enjoy! And thanks for the reply.

        • 1WineDude


          Tom – thanks for the link.

    • MyrddinGwin


      The number of awards she has won, some multiple times, also serves as a reminder to me that awards are often a bit different in ideal compared to how they are treated in reality. Ideally, they should be researched and then given for an accomplishment, eg, making the unarguably most excellent wine that year, or creating the best comedy-drama in a wine review, or doing the best investigative journalism ever found within a wine list. In reality, awards are given not only for accomplishments, but for reasons like the judges generally prefer one taste or style over another, or the correct amount of money or higher has reached the right people, or because one particular disappointing example was less disappointing than the rest in an overall terrible year, among other reasons.

      • 1WineDude


        MyrddinGwin – an entirely larger can of worms there, but as I mentioned in the post this has me concerned for those awards programs. But then, without delving into those details, some or all of Natalie's awards could be entirely deserved, provided they're not granted in part or full on her online reviews.

        • MyrddinGwin


          The awards programs will be okay, I think. If the awards weren't given for things she wrote herself, I have a feeling they'd investigate as soon as their attention was brought to the matter, and those awards might be revoked, if appropriate.
          Speaking of appropriate awards, have you heard Rush is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, finally? It's been delayed a tad, but they're getting in.

          • 1WineDude


            MG – I did. Been trying to line up Geddy Lee for a PB interview. **Very ** slow going!

          • Todd - VT Wine Media


            If Wine Spectator's restaurant wine list awards are still around after being busted for congratulating fictitious entries, my guess is that these awards will survive laying praise on a semi-fictitious wine "writer".

  • Brian Gatt


    Hey Joe – great to see you haven't forgotten how to communicate with us Brits ;-)

    • 1WineDude


      Brian, my man! How's life? I'm excluding race-car-driving Brits from that translation, by the way. When are we hitting Champagne??

  • raincoaster


    I don't understand why people keep treating this as a wine journalism issue: it's a theft issue. Copyright violation is a serious issue for anyone who creates anything original and posts it online. Offering to run around after the fact and scrawl the victims' names on everything she stole doesn't negate the theft.

    I see this kind of thing all the time, and I also see a systematic shrug of the shoulders and a "well, I can't afford a lawyer and I want to be nice," but dammit, that isn't good enough. It isn't even necessary. I'm seriously angry about this, angry enough to write a post to teach people what to do if their work is stolen: take the offending website entirely offline AND cost them their ad revenue. It's a wicked double whammy and it doesn't take more than a half hour, and NO lawyer.

    So, at the risk of seeming spammy, you can check out that post on Manolofood.com but I sincerely hope that a fellow Armagnac fancier would see where I'm coming from on this. Spread the word and smack the offenders over the head with an empty bottle and a DMCA notice!

    • 1WineDude


      Raincoaster – got a link for us? Thanks.

      • raincoaster


        Indeed I do: Whine Journalism and How to Bring the Splashback http://manolofood.com/whine-journalism-and-how-to

        Enjoy.

        • 1WineDude


          Thanks, raincoaster, excellent resource there. Just to clarify, what constitutes proof for the DCMA notice?

          • raincoaster


            All that I've ever had to provide was the relevant dates of the posts and links. It's ALWAYS a good idea to make screenshots of their posts stealing yours, in case they take those down, sensing trouble. But even if the DMCA doesn't work, it raises a flag with the web host, and they will treat any subsequent ones as serious. People like this don't generally stop until the penalty for continuing becomes too painful.

            "Becoming too painful" is the entire point of my strategy, as you can tell.

            • MyrddinGwin


              Though it wouldn't work in this NMA case, and it is very immature, I do think that Daniel O'Brien's article on Cracked.com contains an interesting way to deal with plagiarists who also are dumb enough to link directly to images from the stolen article. One's mileage may vary on it.

              • raincoaster


                Oh yes, the classic anti-hotlinking thing.

  • @StevePaulo


    Jesus. What have I missed?

    • 1WineDude


      Steve – was that rock you were under heavy when you finally lifted it off of you? :)

  • george kaplan


    Not to pile on here, but does " Kermit Lynch"'s blurb on her book sound quite like him?

  • taylor


    Did you get your "custom wine toolbar for your browser" from Natalie MacLean's web site yet?

    • 1WineDude


      taylor – must have missed that one… :)

  • Sheila


    I know the true Natalie, she was my dancing instructor for many years when I was a child. She is caring, honest and hardworking; and she had a great, positive impact on my life. I guess the higher up you go in life, the more people at the bottom will try to knock you down.

    • 1WineDude


      Shelia – not sure what to tell you. The public absolutely deserves to know what people within the wine business think of Natalie's actions with respect to the allegations of a lack of quoted reviews attributions and alleged pay-to-play reviews. People "at the bottom" matter (as do several people at the "top" whose hard work Natalie appears to have quoted without properly crediting at the time these stories came to public light).

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