In the fall of 1998, several well-known Toronto wine writers were asked to be consultants to Magnotta Winery Inc. The Toronto Star‘s Tony Aspler, The Globe and Mail‘s David Lawrason, The Toronto Sun‘s Gordon Stimmell, Toronto Life‘s Margaret Swaine, eye magazine’s Konrad Ejbich, and Andrew Sharp, who freelances for the Winnipeg Free Press and The Telegram in St. John’s, were approached by Magnotta’s advertising agency, Samotie Advertising Inc. We thought, Why don?t we get some direction from people who really know what it should taste like??? says managing partner and creative director Bil Samotie. ?Why don?t we just talk to some of the wine writers and tell them, Here are some wines, taste them at your leisure and tell us what you think about them. If the wine tastes like garbage, I want you to tell me that. Samotie called up the critics himself. This was the offer: Magnotta would send the writer a few bottles of wine, acquire the subsequent tasting notes, and pay $1,000 for his or her time. Magnotta would then study the notes and perhaps use them to improve its product. In addition, Samotie said he told the writers that Magnotta would like to make use of any favourable comments in its advertising. The Christmas wine season was imminent and Magnotta?s owners wanted to make a splash with a collection of wines they were selling at their outlets. However, some of the writers say the mention of running their comments in an ad was not part of the initial proposal. But Samotie says he has the signed paperwork to prove it.
Andrew Sharp: Yes
I have a policy about buying my tasting notes: if you buy, you must print them verbatim. If you can make your comments please people, that?s fine. It’s like a movie. You always see Siskel and Ebert giving this movie two thumbs up. You never see them give two thumbs down. And it’s the same way with wine. I might review and taste 50 products, and out of those 50 products, they might like three or four of my comments. If they want to reprint that around the world and tell everybody this is what Andrew Sharp?s tasting notes were, they can do that.?
Konrad Ejbich: No
The winery said they would like to send me six bottles of wine to review. I said Fine, sure. And they said, Well, we’d like you to write up your tasting notes and submit them back to us and we?ll pay you a thousand bucks. Excuse me? Excuse me? I said, Well, what?s the catch here? Well, if you like any of the wines, we would like to use your tasting notes along with your photo in an advertisement. I said, Well, let me get this straight: you?re going to send me six bottles of wine. If I like one of them, you will use those remarks in a column, in an ad, with my picture.? The guy says Yup. So I said, Why dont I give you six good remarks, and you give me $6,000? He said, No, no, no, it doesn?t work that way! and I said, No, I?m not interested. If somebody calls me up and says, I?ll give you a thousand bucks for a good comment, obviously I’m going to give you a good comment if it’s worth a thousand bucks. Even though they did say, in fairness, If you don?t like any of them, fine. We?ll pay you the thousand bucks.? But the bottom line is, there?s no winery that makes all bad wine. I?m bound to like something, but if you want to use my comments in an ad, wait till I review them, you know, quote me from my column. My comments are tainted because I?m looking for good things to say about the wine because I know they?re paying me. My feeling was, I?ll take the thousand bucks, but you print all my comments as they are, good or bad, without changing a word, all six. And they said, No, no, no! We won?t do that.
Tony Aspler: Yes
I reviewed the wines for the benefit of the winemaker. I tasted the wines and I wrote my notes, and they said that if I said anything worthwhile about their wines, could they quote me. And this is what I believed about the wines and if I had written it in the newspaper, they would have been able to take the quote as well. I was very critical about the wines, how- ever. There was one wine I liked so they used that. I donated the money to the Cool Climate Oenological and Viticultural Institute at Brock University. David Lawrason: No
I said, No, I?m not going to do that. I’d be happy to taste your wine for free, but I?m not going to take money for it.
Margaret Swaine: Yes
What I will do is provide tasting notes on it, and I?ve done it for a number of agents and often those notes aren’t very complimentary, so nothing that I?ve assessed has appeared in any advertisement or any publication because most of the time I?m pretty brutal, so that?s the end of that story.
Gordon Stimmell: Yes
Magnotta said, Your reviews would be used in-shop, at the winery, for educational purposes, to determine whether or not they were going to market wines. So they were professional tasting notes. But they then proceeded to splash them in big ads in all the major media. There was quite a shock because I was consulting for them. I wasn?t supposed to be part of any ad campaign. So it was really disappointing. I accepted the offer, but then I donated the money to charity. The point is that they basically paid me to taste some wines and I tasted them and I rated them exactly as I?d rated any other wine. Some of them I trashed because they were lousy wines, some of them I said were good. Whether they paid me or not has nothing to do with it. The first I found out was actually when somebody said, Hey, Gord, did you see yourself in the Star?
On December 21, 1998, Macleans ran a four-page advertisement that exclusively promoted Magnottas Chilean wine collection, premium collection, and gran riservas. Under the headline, ?What the Critics Say About the Magnotta Premium Collection? were thumbnail headshots of Andrew Sharp, Tony Aspler, and Gordon Stimmell next to their respective reviews. Each of these wines demonstrates a high degree of sophistication with great attention to detail and wine making art, read Sharp’s notes. Aspler called the collection Beautifully packaged with stunning art labels. The GRs are wines that any producer around the world would be proud of. Stimmell?s comments simply said, Magnotta?s premium series continues to surprise and impress.
Magnotta also ran a series of advertisements in The Toronto Star, one of which appeared on Wednesday, November 25, 1998. It bragged about the exciting return of a popular vintage icewine to store shelves just in time for the season of gift giving. ?Our recent Icewine celebration was overwhelming. We sold out our entire stock. Many missed out. And we’re still getting phone calls. Below was a headshot of Tony Aspler. He called the wine elegant and balanced. Magnotta?s best Icewine to date. Andrew Sharp?s notes also appeared in the ad. He described the icewines as Rich, luscious, and creamy flavours… exceptional.