Yikes. The denial makes this look worse than it is, most likely. On the payments, there is a very fine distinction to be made. If JS was paid to give good reviews, that is clearly an ethical breach and I can't imagine JS is that stupid. As a critic, one's reputation is everything, once that goes, you're toast. I can't imagine JS would jeopardize the next 20 years of his career for $25K. However, if JS was paid just to come and then just review wines as per his normal standards, that is fine by me and should be considered above board. There are too many wines and fine wine regions for the top critics to cover, why would they waste their time covering the wines of meaningless wine regions? If I were JS, I'd sure as hell want to be paid to come, taste and review the wines of Upper Southeast Manitoba. And why should SAQ be expected to utilize JS's reputation and cache without paying something for it? Answer: they shouldn't.
So, could be bad, but likely isn't. Still the cover-up was a needless flub.