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   Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009






More Shonky Wine Marketing (5 March)


If it looks like a pig, smells like a pig, rolls around like a pig, and squeaks like pig, the chances are it’s not a pedigree, regal, Red Setter.


Let’s face it, businesses are in it to make money and there is nothing wrong with that objective, but how the organisation looks to the outside world does have an impact on consumers’ opinions. If an organisation looks and acts in a professional and ethical manner, they will garner respect. But the converse is true; if they look shonky, even if they are not, people will be left with an impression that will not be favourable. This applies to the wine business as much as any other.


Many have tried to ‘crack’ the wine e-tail business and most have failed. Some spectacularly, but most just disappear into the ether. It’s a difficult market to crack, and an even more difficult one to do well in financially. Over the years, just about every trick in the book has been tried, but the most successful e-tailers all have a few things in common.

Good range of fine wines

Competitive prices

Excellent service

An excellent reputation

And none of them engage in questionable practices.  


One long-time successful Victorian bricks and mortar retailer Nillumbik Cellars, like many others, decided to go into the e-tail business and set up a professional-looking site.  In the early days, I seem to remember buying some wine from Winelist Australia and being happy with the purchase.  However since that time, the way the organisation works its website has changed dramatically, and not for the better.


Sure, the site has copious information on all the wines they sell.  Usually that’s a good thing too. However it is the quality of the information that is highly questionable, and in some cases the smell is rank. Let’s examine just one of many, many, possible examples that has been picked at random, Stephendale Shiraz 2008.  In fact, this was the very first wine I looked at in detail on their site. The description starts off with, “Warburn sets out to formulate the most approachable and satisfying wines. The Stephendale Vineyard is exactingly husbanded to achieve the highest standards. This meaty Shiraz has been fashioned from robust fruit with heightened flavour profiles, a warm and cosy wine that's as satisfying for it's girth of Barossan chocolate and pepper characters, as it is for the highly skilled efforts of the winemaker. A marvelous table red that will be called upon again and again to accompany gourmet style shepherds pies or a rich steak and kidney.


The fruit is harvested as late in the season as possible, permitting the most amount of time for the grapes to ripen on the vines, thereby maximizing flavour development. Warburn Estate have captured the synergies that lie within the moderately warmer pockets around the Barossa by securing the peerless Stephendale Vineyards. Moderate temperatures are maintained throughout the fermentation period, to retain and to enhance the distinct character of the vineyard, extracting excellent colour into the finished wine. Following twelve months maturation under a combination of finely gained oaks, the batches are tasted and trialled to determine the consummate Barossa Shiraz. Approx 14.0%”


That’s all good. One hundred percent kosher and it looks like some, or most, of the blurb was supplied by the winery. Then comes the tasting note. It reads, “Deep crimson colour, bright appearance. Ripe plum and blueberry flavours with pepper and confection, mint and liquorice. This is a classy wine showing finesse, and a superb palate structure. Good weight and intensity supported by the twelve months under oak, the fine tannins extend along the length of the palate, wainscotting the exquisite plum and cherry fruit with impressions of vanillan and cedar. Ready to enjoy now and will develop if aged, Stephendale is excellent with all meat dishes, robust pasta and good cheeses. "Sweet Shiraz fruit, fine length of flavour, pepper and anise, plum and mocha is accompanied by chocolateyness that works in tandem with oaky figures of vanilla and fondant!" -Pinotpower.com


Holy cow, from that tasting note, that looks like a seriously good wine.  “Classy, finesse, superb structure, wainscoting (sounds impressive), exquisite, etc”. But….. but….. but…. there is no score given to the wine.  Still with that description it must be top notch. But…. But…. But…. Hang on a second, it’s a 2008 and costs $9.99 a bottle.  What gives? And who is the author of this tasting note that waxes lyrical about this wine’s charms? I have never heard of Pinotpower.com, so I checked out the site, curious to see why a supposedly Pinot-oriented site would review a $10 Shiraz.


Now this is ‘interesting.’ There are a heap of tasting notes, but it does not say who wrote them. There is no “about us page” so the reader has absolutely no idea who is behind the site and who wrote the note. Are all the notes written by the same person, or have they been written by other people? There is no way of telling.


From my perspective, anonymous tasting notes like this, especially when quoted on a retail website, not only lack credibility, they look very bloody suspect.  But wait, this web of intrigue gets more complicated, and has more ins and outs than a ducks bum. Although the Pinotpower.com website says nothing about who is behind it, who wrote the notes and who pays the rent, so to speak, at the bottom of the page there are a series of links to seven wine e-tail sites.

Aussie Wines

Penfolds Grange For Sale

No Frills Wine

Top Australian and New Zealand Wineries

ANZ Wines

Australian and New Zealand Wines


And guess who is behind those seven wine e-tail website? No prizes for guessing its Nillumbik Cellars / Winelist Australia.


There is some very clever database programming behind these sites. One lot of information is stored and then fed into each unique looking shell, which makes each site look very different, even though the content is essentially the same.


If you take some time and trouble to go through those seven “different” e-retailers web sites, you find links to many sites like pinotpower.com. I found these:













But I understand that there may be up to about twenty of them, at least one of those used against a tasting note (quesyrahsyrah.net) doesn’t seem to exist. They all have much in common. All of them are completely anonymous, and you can’t tell who wrote the tasting notes. However, I can tell you that with a very little detective work, all these sites are registered to the same person, George Papp of Rowville Victoria and all use the same server to store their information. And when I did a search on those seven e-tailers, they are also registered to George Papp. Coincidence? No way!


So how credible are these tasting notes that have been written by the ‘invisible man’ on sites that tell you nothing about themselves and link back to one of several sites associated with one e-tailer? Originally I have zero idea, but when you see notes like the one above on the Stephendale 2008 Shiraz, it not only lacks credibility, it stinks like a badly run sewerage farm.


After having read through a number of the tasting notes, I am surprised at how well the author/authors of these tasting notes write. By the looks of things, they are wasting their time reviewing wine anonymously, with their style and flair for the use of the English language, as well as ability to review so many wines; they would blitz it as a wine writer and in a short time would become recognised as being in the top echelon of their field. But….but….but…. that assumes they have actually tasted all these wines and that the words used are all their own work. When I have a look at a tasting note like this one, Tait The Ballbuster 2005 Shiraz I am not so sure.


It reads, “Ballbuster offers a dense purple color. The nose is like a big, rich perfume of blackberries, plums, chocolate syrup, and subtle wood towards the background. Sweet blackberry and currant, licorice, smoke, and bacon-like flavors are top-class, a gorgeous texture. The knockout palate of creosol, tar and thick cassis makes for a thick juicy, in your face red that's just not for those who enjoy European restraint and delicacy. Lovers of grand Barossa blended reds looking for hedonistic, rollercoaster thrills and large swarthy, earthy flavours will enjoy sipping this awesome wine. Always ready to consume now, and over the next 4-5 years.”


This note has not been attributed to anyone. Note a couple of things. Firstly, the American spelling of flavor and color. If it was written by a native Australian it would normally be written with Australian/English spelling. The words colour and flavour are spelt in the Australian/English way in many places on the site, including the Stephendale tasting note above. Secondly, creosol is not a word that is commonly used in Australian tasting notes, but it is sometimes used in US tasting notes. This leads me to believe this may have been copied, or partially copied from someone else’s work, but whose work I had no idea. That was until Brian did some further research when he edited the article.


Brian found the following tasting note for the Tait 2002 The Ball Buster Proprietary Red: “Deep ruby/purple colored blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reveals a knock-out nose of creosol, tar, blackberries and cassis. This thick juicy, in your face red that's just not for those who enjoy European restraint and delicacy. However, readers looking for hedonistic, full throttle thrill a sip beverage will enjoy this wine…..”  The originator of this tasting note is none other than Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate, Issue 148.


The words in bold from the 02 Parker note can be found in the 05 unattributed note.  But it doesn’t end there. In part, Parkers tasting note on the 2005 reads, “It offers a dense purple color in addition to a big, rich perfume of blackberries, plums, chocolate syrup, and subtle wood in the background.” Again, the words in bold have also been used in the unattributed note.


When cars are sold as write-offs and they are repaired, they are sometimes referred to by the pejorative term ‘cut and shunt’. The repairers have taken the structural parts of two cars, say the back half of one car, and then welded it to the front half of another car. I never imagined I would be seeing cut and shunt tasting notes on an e-tailers site, but that’s exactly what we have here.


The use of cut and shunt tasting notes then begs the question, has the wine actually even been tasted by the anonymous author. If it has, why do they need to use cut and shunt notes? Is it because they are incapable of either assessing the wine properly, or writing good notes themselves? Or is it because they have not tasted the wine? We will never know for sure, but from my perspective, I seriously doubt the author did taste this wine. And if they didn’t taste this one, how many more fall into this category?


We can also add both plagiarism as well as using information from the wrong vintage to the list of shonky practices. According to Brian, this is not the first time they have been seen using tasting notes from the wrong vintage (although quickly corrected or removed when notified).


Let me reiterate, the above listed examples are not just isolated occurrences. There are many more of them. 


With inclusions of cut and shunt tasting notes, as well as the Stephendale description, the prolific use of  anonymous tasting notes, the interlinking of seven vendor sites and up to twenty tasting notes sites, that all come back to one source, credibility is more than just suspect, its downright questionable. This might go a long way to explain why Winelist Australia has not become recognised as one of the small, select group of highly-respected Australian wine e-tailers.  And as long as they continue to use these practices, they never will.


Addendum: To add to the feeling that this might be a regular and considered practice, here are two more recent notes that show ‘creative editing’ and non attribution.


Bin 389 2006:

Winemaker comments by Peter Gago - Penfolds Chief Winemaker

COLOUR Bright, deep-red, with an impenetrable core.

NOSE: A complex amalgam of fresh mulberry/blueberry/blackberry fruits laced with soy & malt, and slices of fresh fig & dates. A later residual whiff of pan- juices, rosemary & sage. Ripe, yet not overripe with stylish oak!

PALATE: Textbook structure: tannin, acidity, balance. Up-front, Cabernet & Shiraz fruits intertwine for collective attention, a sweet middle meshed with tea-leaf/olive tapenade flavours. Rounded, ripe and lush tannins and integrated spicy oak usher a finish bereft of any rough edges. Focussed, polished, brooding, inky. No doubt its best lies ahead. "Floats out of the glass - Cabernet/Shiraz as one, with Grange aromatics & persistence."


Unattributed notes on WLA:

Bright, deep red with an impenetrable core. Focussed, polished, brooding and inky, it floats out of the glass, cabernet and shiraz as one, with Grange aromatics and exemplary persistence. A complex amalgam of fresh mulberry, blueberry and blackberry laced with soy and malt, aromas of fig and dates. A whiff of pan juices, rosemary and sage. Ripe, but not over-ripe bouquets with stylish oak. Textbook structure on the tannins and acid, a wine in fine balance. Upfront cabernet and shiraz fruits contend for attention, a sweetness to the mid palate, garnished by teal leaf and olive tapenade. Rounded, ripe and lush tannins, fully integrated spicey oak ushers in a fine and clean, long and memorable finish


Another one:  Bin 138 2007

Winemaker comments by Peter Gago - Penfolds Chief Winemaker

COLOUR: Crimson/garnet - medium intensity.

NOSE: With the opulence of Barossa Grenache to the fore, juniper berry, sweet and ripe quince &

pomegranate fruits and a spicy/nutty/liqueur lift give way to the savoury/cold meat/pan juice aromatics of the Mourvedre & Shiraz coalition.

PALATE: Wonderful, warm Barossa primary fruits (wild raspberry, loganberry) merge into a pool of

liqueur cherry-chocolate heightened by cherry pip tannins. The high Mourvedre component (21%) explains the persuasive gravely tannin on the finish. Flavours suggest Barossa and the texture mirrors its varietal composition. "Although proudly Barossa, some would purport that the 2007 is texturally more reminiscent of its Rhone origins than previous vintages."


Unattributed notes on WLA:

Crimson, garnet colour, medium intensity. Bouquet features the opulence of grenache to the fore, juniper berry, with sweet ripe quince and pomegranate, a spicy, nutty liqueur lift gives way to the savoury, cold meat and pan juice aromatics of the Mourvedre/shiraz coalition. Wonderful, warm primary Barossa fruits of wild raspberry and loganberry merge into a pool of liqueur cherry chocolate heightened by cherry pip tannins. The strength of the Mourvedre contributes the persuasive gravelly tannins at the finish. Vigorously perfumed, layered with thick jammy fruit, and studded with wet crunchy acids, innately suited to robust foods. Bin 138 is Barossa GSM through and through, befittingly reminiscent of it's French cousins


Feel free to submit your comments!

From Ivan Watt: Thursday 5 March

I’ve just read your fascinating article on WineListAustralia, and all of their affiliated sites.

I have been buying judiciously from them for a couple of years, mainly wines that I had tasted and I was looking for a good price.

However, I also became suspicious about their plethora of unattributed wine tasting notes and the extraordinary amount of information about wineries and wines on some of their sites, particularly the ANZ site.

My mates and I are experienced tasters, since 1975 in a formal sense, as well as long time members of a couple of Wine and Food societies.

We have been scathing about the amount of unadulterated bullshit written about wines for years. We have a general policy of not buying anything without tasting, except for the occasional wine which needs to be grabbed immediately. EG the latest Jimmy Watson wine from Flametree in Margaret River, which I got from Bert Werden at WineStar.

I find I am buying much more from him now, and what is also good is that when I phone to order, as often as not Bert answers the phone! I am finding his recommendations much more concise, his range of recommendations more selective, and have had 100% success with a variety of wines form his source.

For the reasons you outlined in your article, I have not used WLA for months, as I found it hard to trust an organisation with so many subsidiary web sites all purporting to be independent. As a professional marketer and Management Consultant for some 40 years experience with very large and small companies, I smelt a rat with WLA once I started to explore all of their links. You really went ‘down the mine’ in exposing the depth of their deception. Congratulations!

I live in Sydney and find that with the exception of Kemeneys, I get a better deal from sources like Wine Star, and occasionally WLA, than the local shops. Once shops like Figtree Cellars, formally owned by Max Trisic and the Crown of the Hill at Forestville, with all of their professional and experienced staff sold out, the Sydney retail wine scene went downhill and the range of options are now really limited.

I love reading your material, and thank you for the effort you and your mates make.


Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009