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Wine Writers Behaving Badly, the Natalie MacLean Story

Let me start this with full disclosure. Although I am not a member of the wine writing community, I have close ties to it. I have a business relationship with two of the writers who have complained about theft of their content, and I know several more personally. Additionally I have business and personal relationships with several small wineries and winemakers.

I’m also a wanna-be writer, although not in the field of wine journalism, or more accurately in the field of writing about wine. I say that because calling some of this “journalism” would be an insult to the word, even the watered-down definition that has emerged in the Internet age.

Natalie MacLean stands accused of appropriating wine reviews from other writers, reproducing excerpts without permission or acknowledgement. The details can be found on this article from Palate Press. Interestingly, another set of allegations emerges in the comments, but that’s for others to pursue.

Ms. MacLean has posted a variety of rebuttals, both in the comments on the Palate Press article, most recently on her own site. Charitably, the tone of her remarks prior to this latest article seem to be characterized by an attitude that amounts to “oh tee-hee silly me! I’ll fix that!” This must have eventually appeared as disingenuous as it is to her, for the latest explanation contains this gem:

I believed then (and still do) that another criticism or evaluation of the wine provided a helpful comparison for my readers, especially since I thought that the manner in which I was attributing the reviews was appropriate, given that I assumed they were already in the public domain on other wine review sites and liquor store sites. [boldface mine]

So If I read this right, a professional writer — no, no, The World’s Greatest Wine Writer* — assumed… assumed that work published on other wine review and liquor store sites was in the public domain?? You must be kidding me. If true, then she has an incredibly naive understanding of copyright laws and publication permissions. She is basically asserting that the so-called World’s Greatest Wine Writer is missing a grasp of the fundamental principles that allow her to earn a living. I find that hard to fathom. To me, it seems she’s just concocting a series of semi-plausible stories that will appeal to her existing fans, hoping to weather the storm and get back to making money.

But all of this isn’t what gets me. I’ll let my capable friends fight for their own rights. What bothers me most is the persistent remarks I’m seeing on Twitter about spam. I’ve never had the misfortune of getting on one of her mailing lists, so what I see is second-hand at best, but it’s disturbing. I would suggest that Ms. MacLean review the latest legislation on unsolicited mail in Canada, because if these allegations are true the resulting fines will have her destitute in no time.

The spam isn’t restricted to mail either. The Twitter account @NatDecantsFans, which claims both to be run by “Pat Simpson” and by “a group of wine lovers” seems to be nothing more than a keyword driven spambot. Several times a day, at regular intervals, this account will send the same tweet to many users. The tweets contain links to MacLean’s website and her mobile app. The only thing that the recipients have in common is that they used the same keywords recently. I checked several accounts and none of them appeared to be following @NatDecantsFans. So I verified my theory on several accounts I manage, sending out a tweet that contained the words “wine” and “cheese”. Sure enough, most of those accounts received a personalized message: “[name], you’ll find 219 cheeses paired w/ wine in this web Matcher [link redacted] & mobile app [link redacted]”.

NatDecantsFans Profile

Almost 180,000 Tweets. That’s prolific!

Theft of content understandably gets most writers pretty riled up. From what I’ve seen of the wine writing profession, it’s a hard road. Most of the people I know couldn’t earn a living if all they did was write about wine, and every bit of revenue, of acknowledgement, makes a difference to their viability and their ability to continue doing something they love. if I were in their shoes I’d be pretty upset too.

But what irks me is spam. It’s one thing to get spam from an outright fraudster aiming to steal my money or identity. I mean they’re criminals, we don’t hold them to a very high ethical standard. But when someone purporting to operate a legitimate business wilfully ignores small things like attribution, marketing permissions, and Twitter’s Terms of Service agreements. That gets me angry.

I’m really looking forward to hearing from “Pat Simpson”, especially “her” explanation how she can generate 20 or more tweets in the span of a few seconds. Not to mention her uncanny ability to find people talking about the subjects that interest her so. Failing that, I’m looking forward to a another creative explanation spun for fan consumption. I’ll also be pursuing an account review from Twitter.

To follow the story on Twitter, try searching the hash tag #NatNabbed. This is going to turn out to be a classic PR battle, deny deny vs. an increasing number of revelations. It’s kind of like Canada’s miniature version of Lance Armstrong. I wonder if someone in Vegas will set betting odds on this one.

* Until recently, MacLean billed herself as the “World’s Greatest Wine Writer”. She has since amended this to “World’s Greatest Drink Writer”. This is in turn based on an award she received in 2003. The actual title of the award is “World’s Greatest Drink Journalist”. One presumes this convenient revision leaves her unencumbered by fact.

  • Dean Tudor

    You are working late, posting on the cusp of Christmas. This thing with Natalie has us all working night and day. I need release. The story grows bigger and bigger, see http://palatepress.com/2012/12/wine/content-theft/#comment-46310 where Steven Spurrier denies that the matter is closed.

    Will the story ever end? Well, there’s more: just sit tight…

    December 25, 2012 at 00:30
  • Martin

    Thé only award she could win is thé best drunken fool in thé Universe. Red, Shy and gone wherever sème like à good title Now!

    December 27, 2012 at 09:58
    • Alan Langford

      While it is tempting to resort to insults in response to insulting behaviour, I think it lowers us to her level. There is an ample supply of facts that are far more insulting than we can be by calling her a drunk or insulting her physical characteristics. I prefer to let the facts speak for themselves.

      December 28, 2012 at 10:16
  • Ian Tarrant

    The practice of ‘using’ other’s content is not limited to Natalie MacLean..In Ontario, as we are bound to purchasing wine through the monopole LCBO, and a few websites devote themselves to helping you ‘sift’ through and provide the best advice to consumers…

    In addition to Natalie, there are 2 others I personally subscribe to, one is called Vintage Assessments and the other is called ‘WineAlign’ – Both of these have frequently published LCBO ‘content’ (Professional reviews from Spectator, Advocate, Jancis, Tony, etc. etc. in addition to their own ‘staff’ reviews).

    WineAlign’s John Szabo also writes on the topic in an article from a couple of days ago:

    http://www.winealign.com/blog/…or-january-5th-2013/

    As he comments about Natalie, he interestingly does not point out that his organization has done the same thing, and without saying so, I believe they have stopped this practice probably in response to this ‘scandal’..

    I don’t defend her, but it seems that the practice of using other’s reviews (perhaps without permission) is probably rampant and it’s funny how she has become the lightening rod..

    December 30, 2012 at 18:25
    • Alan Langford

      My preference here is to keep the discussion focused on the spam issue, which is in my opinion much more clear cut: the @NatDecantsFans account is in obvious violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service. In addition, if the reports of email spam I see on Twitter have merit, she could soon be making herself liable for severe penalties (in the order of $100,000 per mailing).

      As for the misappropriation of content, my understanding is that MacLean was originally asked to merely provide attribution, and only when that didn’t happen in a timely mater, the story was made public. The doctrine of Fair Use is notorious for its complexity, but no matter what, attribution is required.

      The WineAlign post also contains something I find disturbing, which is an implicit assumption that something published by the LCBO is in the public domain. This assumption contradicts my understanding of copyright.

      December 30, 2012 at 19:30
      • Ian Tarrant

        Excellent comment Alan..

        I’m wondering that perhaps as tax dollars fund the LCBO, there is a perception that the content is indeed ‘public’ to those living in Ontario?

        Perhaps all the writers that appear in the biweekly ‘Vintages’ magazine should have further leverage for compensation..

        …or, the fact that the LCBO is one of the Top 5 purchasers of wine and spirits in the world would have each contributor happy that they have their name published each issue and allow as such without compensation at all??

        I would love to understand what their arrangements are with the Government of Ontario..I would expect if it’s anything above a cent it would increase the silly voices of privatization that rear their head every election year in the province…

        December 30, 2012 at 22:31
        • Alan Langford

          I suspect that almost any writer who has a quote from his or her review used by the LCBO would be more than happy for the exposure and the associated prestige. After all they do give full credit to their sources, and that has to drive some interest in what else the writer has done. Then there’s this Fair Use thing. If they had an entry for 2011 Chateau du Plonk with the attributed quote “Drano notes in the nose, with a rusty can finish” cribbed from a full review, then that is probably Fair Use. Also since it’s distributed without charge, my guess is that anyone asking for compensation might simply be passed over for another source.

          However, if a full review of the wine was reproduced in full, I would expect that writer would be paid, even if it was Chateau du Plonk!

          A side note on Fair Use: a few years back in the US the Associated Press tried to claim that the use of four or more words from any of their stories was a violation of the doctrine of Fair Use. I’m not sure the laughter has subsided yet. They certainly haven’t had the gumption to test their theory in court. If they dared to they would almost certainly fail — unless the entire original source was maybe six words in length.

          December 31, 2012 at 00:18
          • Dean Tudor

            How do matters stand on the Twitter spam issue? Beyond your blog, I have heard nothing…

            January 6, 2013 at 23:41
          • Alan Langford

            The automated suspension process only functions if enough people block and report the account. So far not enough people have done that.

            The manual process, following up on my report, could take weeks, and there will be no indication if it was unsuccessful.

            All you can do is convince your friends, enemies, and relatives to say something containing “wine” and “cheese”, then to report the bot as spam if and when it sends a reply.

            January 6, 2013 at 23:50

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