With a menu boasting roast piglet with foie gras and grilled prawns on an aubergine crisp, and a wine cellar containing no fewer than 2,100 bottles, the Osteria L'Intrepido on Via Filipetti in central Milan seemed a fitting addition to the list of centres of gastronomic excellence featured in the oenophile's bible, Wine Spectator.
Indeed the magazine, which boasts two million readers worldwide, this month added the Osteria L'Intrepido to its list of global restaurants worthy of its Award of Excellence. The only problem was that the Osteria L'Intrepido – along with its roast piglet and impressive list of Chiantis and Brunellos – did not exist.
For it emerged yesterday that the high-flying restaurant was an illusion cooked up by a wine writer to expose what he claimed was a lack of rigour in the granting of many food and drink awards.
Robin Goldstein, a wine critic and author, added to the embarrassment faced by Wine Spectator, which has run its "Awards of Excellence" scheme to highlight laudable restaurant wine lists since 1981, by inventing a special "reserve wine list" for the Osteria L'Intrepido consisting largely of highly priced bottles which had been previously panned by the magazine.
One of the wines, a 1988 Amarone Classico La Fabriseria, was described by the periodical as smelling "like bug spray", while another, a 1993 Amarone Classico Gioe, earned the description: "Just too much paint thinner and nail varnish character." Mr Goldstein said he had executed his hoax by creating a sham website for his restaurant and submitting the $250 (£133) entry fee to the magazine along with a covering letter, a sample menu, which he described as a "fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes", and an exhaustive wine list.
In its defence, Wine Spectator said that it made no claim to visit every one of the 4,500 restaurants that apply for its award each year and had gone to "significant efforts to verify the facts" by repeatedly calling the Osteria L'Intrepido's phone number, Googling its location, looking at the restaurant's website and reading reviews – subsequently proved to be fictitious – on Chowhound, a dining website.
Mr Goldstein, who presented his findings to a conference of wine economists last week, said his scam raised serious questions about whether food and drink awards were a profit-making exercise for their organisers or a genuine attempt to scrutinise each and every applicant.
He said: "Restaurants, like all businesses, have strong incentives to embellish their images online. We turn to experts and awards bodies to help navigate the chaotic world of information and misinformation that results. If Google, Chowhound and a couple of unanswered phone calls suffice to verify not just the existence of a restaurant but also the authenticity of its wine list, then it's not clear what role the critic is playing."
By any standards, the Awards of Excellence are a major enterprise for the US-based Wine Spectator, which sells nearly 400,000 copies a month. This year, just 319 of the 4,500 restaurants that applied for the award were rejected, translating into some £500,000 in revenue from entry fees for the magazine, which carries a large selection of wine reviews and ratings with every issue.
But Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the periodical, rejected suggestions that the competition was run for profit and accused Mr Goldstein of deliberately submitting false information to stage an elaborate publicity stunt. He said: "It is sad that an unscrupulous person can attack a publication that has earned its reputation for integrity over the past 32 years." In turn, Mr Goldstein, who has written a book questioning whether expensive top-brand wines offer better quality than cheaper alternatives, suggested he had uncovered a deep malaise in the restaurant awards business. He added: "While Osteria L'Intrepido may be the first to win an award of excellence for an imaginary restaurant, it's unlikely that it was the first submission that did not accurately reflect the content's of a restaurant's wine cellar."