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If you knock ratings, then don’t rate wines!

23 comments

Sante Magazine, which is run by two longtime acquaintances of mine, Mark Vaughan and his brother Byron, isn’t usually something that makes me angry. It’s a solid ‘zine catering to the restaurant trade (and the always interesting sommelier column is written by Evan Goldstein, whom I’ve known since I used to hang out at his mom, Joyce’s, restaurant, Square One, in San Francisco.) I had just finished reading Evan’s latest column, a thoughtful tribute to visionaries in wine and food, when I turned to the next column and, seeing the headline, I thought: Here we go again.

It was titled “Beverage journalism is tired.” (Sante doesn’t provide a link to it, but it’s in their Oct. 2008 issue. However, here’s a link to the author, Alan Kropf’s, website at Mutineer Magazine, where, as editor-in-chief, he praises Sante for running his article.) Kropf’s gist is that “The current format of ratings, reviews, reports, and other dry content may serve the industry and collectors well, but it has little relevance to the modern fine-beverage consumer.”

Kropf goes off on the usual rant against ratings. He complains they “supply a shortcut substitute for knowledge” and urges writers to “transcend this model and give readers more.”

I did a little Googling of Alan Kropf and managed to find out that he’s a sommelier in L.A., is connected with a wine collection management company called VinTrust, which in turn puts out a periodical I get from time to time, in the mail, for free, because they send it to me: Somm Selections. I usually browse through it, because I recognize many of the wines. Here’s how Somm Selections works, according to this article in Wines & Vines: “Independent sommeliers across the country review and rate wines; their scores are combined and only those scoring 90 points or higher are included in the newsletter–which accepts no advertising. The SOMMeliers are paid a flat monthly fee for reviews…”.

Let me get this straight. The editor-in-chief of Mutineer says ratings are irrelevant and must be transcended. Then he reviews wines (for profit?) for a magazine that uses the 100-point system.

Hmm.

Just once, I’d like to meet someone who bashes wine magazines and doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive — making money. Hasn’t happened yet.

P.S. I’ll be down in Monterey for the rest of the week, moderating as Wine Enthusiast’s West Coast Editor a wine dinner and a Pinot Noir symposium for the Great Wine Escape Weekend. Back here Monday.

  1. Steve, I think you are more prickly about wine ratings than even I am these days. And in this case, you have assembled a nice “gotcha!” point, but you are aiming at the wrong target. I do not know ALan Kropf but I also read his piece in Sante and thought it was a brilliant snapshot of the tricky crossroads that so-called beverage journalism has reached.

    I do not know Alan Kropf, but I do know that if I want to pass a judgment on him, I will base it as much as possible on things in his control, namely the Sante article itself (spot-on!) and Mutineer magazine (will check out soon). Your mistake is jumping all over the fact that he contributes to a publication, SOMM, that uses the 100-point scale.

    I receive Vintrust’s SOMM magazine too, and it is quite well-done, mainly because they have assembled a ton of on-premise talent, and put that talent to good use, not only recommending specific wines, but also by accompanying them with efficient articles that present cateogories/genres of wine in proper context. SOMM’s primary flaw — in my opinion — is the fact that the management of the publication has chosen to use the 100-point scale. This disturbing conflict — excelllent editorial, stupid ratings — led me to call them up a way’s back, to see why. As I recall, the powers that be there think their readers — who are essentially customers, let’s remember — want/demand ratings. Fine. I accepted that, and made fun of Vintrust in my wine skewer last year (offline right now), right along with the big guys.

    The point is, the 90-point nonsense is being force-fed, foie-gras-style, on ALL of the sommeliers who contribute to SOMM. I can totally accept that ALan Kropf, and the dozens of other restaurant professionals whose reviews appear there, can live with the tradeoff of being paid to write reviews that ultimately appear with 90-point scores. But the culpability here is squarely on the publication, not on the individuals. Judging by ALan Kropf’s article in Sante, he is a sane, honest wine expert who is trying to make a difference. I think we should pay attention to the message he controls, not the superimposed numbers that he can not. Perhaps if you contact the SOMM editor directly, you can get a better platform to discuss ratings anew. But as of now, all you succeeded in doing is tarring a colleague based on a policy set by an employer.

    Meanwhile, perhaps a more important issue here is this: Of all the sommeliers who contribute to SOMM, how many do you think actually use the 100-point scale when deoing their own professional evaluations? THink about that. I would guess zero. The numbers are a useless artifice in their profession.

    Maybe what you have done here is opened a new angle on the ratings debate…. if numbers are so useful, then why aren’t sommeliers using them on their own?

  2. That is a great point Steve; however, I think there is more to this story than you know. It is true that I work with Vintrust. They are an outstanding, passionate bunch of people that really helped me evolve and grow as a writer. I have stopped contributing wine scores as it is against my professional beliefs, and haven’t done any wine ratings in over 6 months, so I have not profited at all from 100 point ratings since my magazine debuted in July and I took a public stance against wine ratings.

    I feel I am qualified to “rant” about wine ratings because Mutineer Magazine is far more than a website, but an actual print magazine that I founded that fully supports my ideas in the Sante article. Your book on the Russian River is actually in the upcoming issue.

    I think you made a hell of a point and applaud you for calling me out, I would do the same thing in your position, but I urge you to reconsider your position given this additional information.

  3. Dr. Horowitz says:

    I think wine magazines are like wine porn (http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/News/Feature/Book-Review-Rebecca-Mead%27s-One-Perfect-Day-38054.htm), do I have an ulterior motive? The state pays me, so please keep paying your taxes. I guess wine magazines are fun to gloss over, to indulge in for guilty pleasure every now and then, and to see who the playmate, I mean, wine of the year is…but I don’t buy wine magazines.

    I do, however, check movie reviews before I add movies to my Netflix queue and before I go to a theater. If only there weren’t so many wines to keep track of…then maybe wines could be rated like movies are rated on metacritic.com. Maybe Cellartracker or another service will emerge as the metacritic.com of wine.

  4. Steve,

    I’ve railed against the 100-point system for years, simply because it, to me, doesn’t take into account varietal correctness, which I am sure is debatable as well. But while I blast the system, I respect the writers behind them – though I may have launched a tirade or two on your blog. The frustration comes from customers who don’t really understand the mechanics of the system, and purchase the wine thinking that it is a rating solely of quality, yet the big scores usually accompany full-bodied wines, and those consumers who enjoy lighter styles, or more acidic wines, are often disappointment with their 90+ point purchases. I realize that most of us would like a better system, but there really isn’t one that is as specific. You could implement Decanter’s 5 star system or Gambero Rosso’s 3 glass system, or use words instead of points, but it’s really all the same road. My boss argues that the points move product, and to some extent, he’s right. In that regard they serve their purpose. But as long as we cork dorks WANT a different way, we’ll probably be bitching about it till we GET it. So, my apologies in advance Steve, and to all of your brethren out there.

  5. I have to begin calling bullshit on the following statement: “Just once, I’d like to meet someone who bashes wine magazines and doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive — making money. Hasn’t happened yet.” Passing off your opinion as fact is irresponsible. As a blogger, I bash wine magazines now and again for very specific, pointed reasons, and NONE of them include making money. I don’t get a dime for the blog I run. In fact it costs me money. So please don’t tell me it hasn’t happened yet, because I’m living proof that it has. I have nothing to gain but readership…readership that nods its head contently in agreement with my rants about the shortcomings of ratings.

    I also readily agree with Tish in that the rating system is unfortunately being force fed to the industry. If anything, THAT is what they do if they want to make money—use the point system, not disparage it—because it’s what many consumers flock to like sheep. It all seems a bit schoolyard-bullyish to me.

  6. I has a similar reaction as Tish to your post. I also happen not be a huge fan of wine ratings and choose to not rate wines on my blog as a result ( I simply share my impressions of particular wines).

    I am not necessarily ‘anti’ wine ratings, they simply don’t engage me. I want descriptors, not points or stars. But I do understand that they are helpful to thousands of wine consumers out there trying to decide which wine to buy for dinner tonight.

    However, I am consulting on an online wine website in development that very likely will incorporate wine ratings in some fashion. I can give my opinions but do not have the final say on the subject.

  7. Steve,
    I must say I too am somewhat tiered of numerical reviews and have written about it on my blog http://blog.vintuba.com/2008/09/22/get-yourself-some-wine-self-esteem/. However I understand the value of rating systems as a way of quickly aggregating several reviewers’ impression of a wine, what bothers me however is when retailers and consumers only highlight numerical scores and do not pay attention to the written review which ultimately gives the reader a much better impression of whether or not they might enjoy the wine.

    Ratings have their place that is for sure but not as a substitute for experience and experimentation. That is my main beef, I think too many consumers and retailers are myopic in their buying decisions when they choose limit themselves to wines with ratings over 90 points. The people at fault are not journalists or wine experts who choose to rate wines but the retailers and consumers who have elevated numerical ratings to be the end all be all of wine buying decision making.

    Cheers,

    ChrisO

    PS. I give your blog post a 95 rating!

  8. You should really read Mutineer Magazine before you attack the editor. Perhaps, just an idea, look at the actual facts of a situation before you decide to publish your ideas. If you took the time to inform yourself about your subject matter you would find that you have published some wonderfully flawed work.

  9. Ok, here are my thoughts on the subject. (Putting on my flame retardant garments now) As a wine PR professional, I am always interested in hearing peoples’ opnions on wine scores. Both sides seem to have many valid points. It also seems that the side against scores is more passionate and vociferous, lending them more credence than perhaps they deserve. (A case of squeaky wheels?) The fact is, if consumers didn’t care about scores, they wouldn’t buy the magazines or ask for them. The demand is there, and scoring pubs are just serving their audience. Those that don’t like it, don’t have to read them and/or can come up with a system of their own.

    I will say, however Steve, that I you may have jumped to a few conclusions regarding Alan’s motivations. I don’t think they are as nefarious as you’ve portrayed them. I think he means well, and is just looking out for the wine consumer. He is passionate on the subject, and it shows. I hope that he chimes in here to express his point of view.

  10. Wow… you now have the journalistic abilities of any elementary student with internet access… i though you were better than this…

  11. To all who commented: I was down in Monterey the last 4 days so I got a little behind in posting comments and replies. Thanks for writing in.

  12. Steve,

    You’ve left comments on both the Mutineer Magazine website and on this blog, yet you haven’t addressed the fact that you have made false accusations about me and attacked my integrity…Do you plan on commenting on this?

  13. Alan, what are the false comments?

  14. Check out my response at this link, it outlines my concerns with your blog post:
    http://www.mutineermagazine.com/blog/2008/11/a-letter-to-steve-heimoff/

  15. First…

    Steve i have always enjoyed your work, so hats off.

    On the subject i think things get a little out off hand.

    To me, professional wine magazines are and the 100 point system are unjustifiably bashed by people trying to make a name for themselves.

    I do get Alan’s point and he is in title to change his mind, and change his view.

    The problem here is that while everyone can change directions in order to grow as a professional, it’s difficult to “bash” your previous “beliefs” in name of growth. What happens to the work you did while in that state of mind?

    For the record, i write on Mexican wines and run into this every other day. So it kind off hits home.

  16. Steve – I respect your position and working with a wine mag, it’s understandable that you’d defend the rating system, especially given the fact that no one has brought forth a viable (widely-adoptable) alternative to the 100 pt. system yet.

    “Just once, I’d like to meet someone who bashes wine magazines and doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive — making money. Hasn’t happened yet.”

    I agree with the other commentators here that there are examples of this – I wouldn’t say I’ve bashed the system, but certainly I’ve been critical of it and wine reviews aren’t the staple of my log, so I’ve got no income incentive to criticize the system.

    Of course, like you, I am still waiting for a viable alternative – because criticism does usually suggest that a better alternative exists (somewhere…. :-).

  17. Hi 1WineDude, “criticism does usually suggest that a better alternative exists.” Hmm. Interesting observation. I’m gonna have to think about that. Wine criticism is fracturing, that’s for sure. All those wineries and PR folks wouldn’t have showed up at the WBC if they didn’t suspect there are going to be alternative sources of reviews in the future.

  18. Dude, Steve, All: the alternative already exists. It’s called WORDS. Since when did wine critics get a pass on being responsible for making cogent arguments based on actual words without the crutch of numbers?

    Meanwhile, with respect to the initial tone and topic of this post, Steve, do you understand that people feel you are being unfair to bash a writer who’s theoretically hypocritical stance is based on a PAST association with a publication that required him to use ratings for their particular reviews?

    Your attack still seems disporportionately harsh and personal, especially given the more recent post in which you deservedly rake a “CUlt Cab” writer over the coals without even mentioning that person’s name.

  19. Tish, when I was researching this post, I made 2 calls to Somm Selections. The first was answered by a woman (whose name I didn’t get) who said that Mr. Kropf was one of their writers. She then suggested I speak with the magazine’s editor, Lisa Minucci. I left a message, and Ms. Minucci called me some time later. She too confirmed that Mr. Kropf was one of their writers.

  20. Fair enough. Calling twice sounds a heckuva lot better than just googling.
    How about the Cult Cab writer?

  21. Steve: I am not saying that I don’t WRITE STORIES for wine magazines that rate wines. I take every opportunity I can to share my ideas about wine. I will write for anyone that will publish me, because regardless of the magazine’s position on wine ratings, my words are my words, and whether or not a magazine publishes wine ratings does to change my words. I do write for Vintrust, I just have not reviewed any wines for them since I started my own magazine. I have also written for The Tasting Panel several times.

    In your blog post, you flat out say that I rate wines:
    “Then he reviews wines (for profit?) for a magazine that uses the 100-point system. Hmm. Just once, I’d like to meet someone who bashes wine magazines and doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive — making money. .”

    This is a false statement, and attacks the integrity of me and my magazine, as this makes me a hypocrite according to Mutineer Magazine’s mission.

    So my question to you is this: What happens when someone who hasn’t yet heard of Mutineer Magazine and reads your blog post and assumes that you are a responsible journalist, and they take away from your post that Mutineer Magazine’s Editor in Chief preaches anti-ratings as the very foundation on which the magazine is built, but then does them on the side for some extra cash?

    Come on Steve, you are too good a writer to know that this just isn’t ok…

  22. Still Waiting for reply…

  23. good morning
    My name is Nataly
    Very interesting site.
    See you!

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