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How can we get distributors and other wine buyers to get beyond their 90-point obsession?


Bulletin: Just in (8:05 a.m. California time, Oct. 8): “TTB ANNOUNCES ESTABLISHMENT OF HAPPY CANYON OF SANTA BARBARA VITICULTURAL AREA.” We knew that was coming. I blogged about it more than a year ago.
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I got an email the other day from a winery representative who complained about some of my scores. “The last 4 months of reviews have been in the low 80’s and we have been getting much higher scores from wine competitions and other publications for the same vintages of wines,” the person wrote, asking, “The reason for my email is concern that our wines are somehow getting cooked, or something, from here to there.  Can I give you a call to see what we can do differently to insure the wines arrive fresh?”

I want to blog on this, because so many important issues are at stake. To begin with, I double-checked my scores for the wines since June 1 and discovered I’d given 87 points to a Cab, 86 points to a Chardonnay, a pair of 84s to a Zin and Syrah, and a couple of 83s. One or two of the wines did indeed score in the low 80s, but I emailed the P.R. person back that 87, 86, 84 and even 83 are not “low 80s” but mid- to high 80s. To this, the person responded, “Our distributors and many of the wine buyers look at anything below an 86 as a ‘low score.’”

What can I say. I can’t teach remedial arithmetic to distributors. All I can do is point out that 87 and 86 are not low scores and neither is 85 or even 84 points. All are “very good” and “good” scores by Wine Enthusiast’s definition. Of course, if a wine scores 85 points and retails for $50, then there is a problem, but it’s not my problem, it’s the problem of the people at the winery who establish the price.

Another issue that really gets my goat is when a winery rep tells me, “Parker (or ____, fill in the blank) really liked this wine, and it got a double bronze at the Cleveland International Wine Fair, so how come you only gave it 87 points?” Well, at the risk of being obvious, let me point out that my name is not Parker or Cleveland or anybody or anything else. It’s Heimoff. I don’t check in with other critics before I make a review. Just sayin’…

The final issue involved in this situation is shipping or, to be more precise, wines getting cooked in the back of a UPS or FedEx truck during a heat wave. For many years, I’ve urged wineries to check the 7-day forecast before sending samples out for review, and I’m glad to say they’re listening. This September, the quantity of incoming wines was at a near-record low, because September is our hottest month and we did in fact have several heat waves. I was happy to see my storage closet actually empty out at one point.

What am I supposed to do if a wine suffers from heat damage? Obviously, if I know for sure it’s cooked, I can call the winery and request a resend, and I’ve done that. But I can’t always tell. Many California wines, especially red ones, are so overripe and soft anyway that they might as well be heat-treated — are the raisins from shriveled clusters or a hot truck? I also reason to myself that, if I started asking wineries to resubmit wines that just might have suffered from one problem or another, I’d basically be increasing the number of wines I taste by a huge percentage, and even then, how could I justify leaving a score at “83” unless I’d tasted the wine at least half a dozen times, so I could swear that I’d done my best to be absolutely, positively sure that it was really the wine, and not something external to it? But obviously, I’m not going to do that. I think for the most part that wineries need to take the responsibility for getting me (and all reviewers) their wines in the best shape they can. That’s their job.

But back to those pesky distributors. It’s a cliche to say that anything below 90 is dead on arrival. I’m not sure where that came from, historically, but it’s a horrible development. I don’t think that’s why Parker invented the 100-point scale and I know for sure that at Wine Enthusiast, we don’t turn our noses up at an 86 point wine. Wines that score in the 90s tend to be bigger, riper and probably oakier than those in the 80s. That’s the way the system works. But that doesn’t mean that a 95 point Pinot Noir is better for drinking tonight with lamb than an 87 point Pinot Noir. That’s what the distributors don’t understand. And what I don’t understand is how to get the word out that the 90 point threshold is not some magical, absolute event horizon, the dividing line between Heaven and Hell. It’s just a number. If you have any ideas of how to de-criminalize scores in the 80s, let me know, but please, don’t suggest doing away with the 100-point system altogether. That’s a non-starter. I think it has to do with educating distributors and point-of-sale people, both on-premise and off-premise. It’s a simple message to deliver to the customer: “Dear Sir or Madame, this wine is better for drinking tonight. I assure you.” If the customer doesn’t trust the seller, then that’s where work is needed, not in the scoring system.

  1. Dennis Schaefer says:

    Steve, you’ve just made the case for why I do not, and have never, used numerical scores for rating wines.

  2. Steve,

    I am confused on the scoring system. Here you make a mid-80s review sound positive, but in a blog just a few days back you said this,

    “First, let me start with a general observation that wines scoring between 83 points and 86 points are, by Wine Enthusiast definition, “good.” And the definition of “good,” in our view, is “Decently made, with varietal identity, serviceable. At most, minor deficiencies.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with a “serviceable” wine, but my Webster’s dictionary defines “serviceable” as “useful; usable; durable; ready for use,” which is not exactly a glowing endorsement. For example, if you drive a car, you probably want something that’s more than “useful.”

    That doesn’t sound nearly as appealing as the description in this blog. Help me out with this….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. What hell hath been wrought…

  4. Steve,

    Face it: the industry uses critic scores to sell wine. Why do wine critics make believe that this is not the case?

    And if you are using scores to sell wine–in America, where the biggest and the best are paramount considerations–then score “inflation” is a cinch.

    You can’t get the word out because no one wants toi listen to reason–just the scores, please.

  5. Steve, if I told you that my wife & I drank and enjoyed an unrated Spanish wine as an everyday wine does that make us unworthy? If I went to collect a certain wine that I wanted to hold for a decade or so I would make darn sure I had a winner that was highly rated but if I am going drink a wine the first and most important number right now is the price and do I enjoy drinking it.

    If someone is going into a retail store to buy a bottle for dinner this weekend and that person doesn’t want to spend more than $20 do they care that their favorite wine “only” got a 84 while the wine next to it on the shelf got an 87 but is priced at $24.95? Do your readers think that this person would dig a little deeper for those extra $5 so they got an extra 3 point wine?

    Do your readers really think that a consumer would choose a Cab rated 88 over say an Albarino if they were buying wine to have with a fish dinner?

    They had better start reading more of the harvest reports right now. In 2011 or even 2012 when we see the 09 released the current tactics of wineries will play great havoc with “the rating system”. If they think the general wine drinker is confused now they will be lost then…I totally agree that in the past when the only point of competition was how a wine got rated I can see the fixation but guys its all about pricing right now.

  6. Adam, what I meant was that most of the wines I drink everyday are serviceable wines, and I think they’re what most people around the world drink. I have no problem drinking an $8, 85 point wine with the kind of stuff I eat: broiled chicken with broccoli, pasta and sausages, pita bread stuffed with fried tofu and beans, etc. etc. And I drive a 7 year old Toyota. I wouldn’t want to drive a clunker (e.g. an 81 point car) but I wouldn’t want to drive a Porsche either. I can’t tell you how many cheap wines I’ve drunk with food in my life, because 99% of the time it’s not about the wine, it’s about relaxing and having a good time. Having said all that, I do wrestle with the implications of the 100 point system. It does lead to a certain amount of confusion. But like I’ve said many times, it’s just another form of judgment, and all wine writing is ultimately a form of judgment. I don’t think puffs or stars or a UC Davis 20 point system is any different. If the 100 point system disappeared and was replaced by a Connoisseur’s Guide puff system, the distributors would say they can’t sell anything that gets fewer than 3 puffs! So bear with me while I think about the 100 point system and my thoughts on it continue to evolve.

  7. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but it could very well be that winery genuinely thought the wine would have received a higher score and were concerned that some external factor, other than Steve Heimoff’s personal taste, got in the way of that happening. What I pick up from your post is a degree of cynicism, which is certainly expected–I know you must put up with a lot of malarkey from producers, distributors, et al on a daily basis. However, I don’t necessarily agree this is an issue of “if I don’t get 90 or higher from every critic my wine sales plummet” more of “This wine received higher scores everywhere else, is it a matter of personal taste or something else?” Just providing different perspective to your anecdote.

  8. Steve, you are tilting at windmills if you think you can re-invent the 100 point system or change the way it is used (and abused) by the trade. Critics take 99% of the heat for the system’s failings, but it is the trade – wineries, importers, and distributors – who relentlessly promote the numbers, often to the exclusion of the writing and even the name of the reviewer. How many times have you seen a “Robert Parker” score that in fact came from someone else at the Advocate? My own attempt to rank wineries (not wines) on a 50 to 100 point scale convinced me that the entrenched perceptions (“89 is a kiss-your-sister score” one winemaker opined) are just that. It’s a 90 to 95 point scale for all intents and purposes.

  9. Steve,

    I argree 100% with you (yet another numerical system) on the ratings scale. It doesn’t matter what the scale is….100 points just happens to be the current model.

    I think one part of the equation is that nobody wants to drink a serviceable wine. They have (using your words) “no problem” doing it….but that isn’t what they want to drink. They want to drink the really top notch stuff — for not much $$. So one issue is the desires of the drinking public.

    The other issue, I think, is that grade inflation has occured some, and the quality of wine has improved some, so that an 86 or 87 point wine looks worse than it used to look. And, unfortunately, once we have all gone there….it is almost impossible to go back.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for another great blog!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  10. Why does the system have to reward wines that are “bigger, riper and probably oakier” as you phrase it? Perhaps these are destined to age longer, but if they don’t come into balance like the less structured 87 point wine is upon release, what’s the point? I’m convinced there are really two scales. Good to great wines that are elegant, balanced and medium bodied on release score mid 80s to low 90s at best, some of which may actually age quite a while. More extracted, ripe wines are rated 90 and up unless the winemaker really messed up. Not that it matters, but when I score the latter type in my cellar tracker notes, it’s always around an 87-89 when tasted young. Maybe it will evolve, but I’m not writing for collectors, I’m writing for myself and how something is drinking now. High extract, creamy oak and fruit is pretty good tasting when well-made, but not special or unique. It’s a nice grape-based cocktail.

    As silly as Just Wine Points is, there is one thing they do that’s sensible. They evaluate a wine in context. Of course, they give a 99 score to an $8 wine that succeeds at its goal of being quaff-able. But a price-correlated QPR note would be helpful in general. Why not note the value offered by each wine? Is not an 85 point $75 wine a poor value? Scoring on the accepted paradigm–how much stuffing you can put in a wine in the hopes it will age forever–is not that helpful in general. Maybe complex and medium bodied, optimal in 3-5 years should be the paradigm instead. The value a wine offers for its price and style is what matters to the majority of buyers. But the 5% of big spenders who spend 90% of the wine $$$ dictate what the paradigm must be, I suppose.

  11. I’m gonna put that on the back label of every wine I bottle from now on…

    “Dear Sir or Madame, this wine is better for drinking tonight. I assure you.”

  12. Scott, as long as I get my dividend!

  13. Note to Paulg–

    It is a 90-95 point system for those who think that way. The best bargains are in the sub-90 point territory, however, because they tend to be wines that rise above their price point peers and offer lots and lots of enjoyment.

    Now, if we are talking about $100 wines, whatever the variety or provenance, than 90 points does not even begin to get in the door. Now, admittedly, I am not a points-only buyer, but unless a wine at that price is both up into the 90s and comes with a description that fits my palate, I am not interested.

    Good example: recent Ch. Angelus and Ch. Pavie-Maquin wines have rated in the 90s to upper 90s in past vintages, yet, both those wines are too ripe and fat for my personal taste. Yes, they are very deep, rich, mouthfilling wines, and I agree that they are great wines for some palates. Just not for mine.

    Scores, price and character factor into my buying descriptions, and while some retailers and some consumers chase points without discrimination, I suspect that most of us do not. Maybe that makes me Pollyanna, but I have more faith in the average punter than to think of them all as sheep.

  14. Gregg underscores the key point: bang for the buck. As you’ve noted in the past, Jerry Mead always awarded two scores, the second one reflecting value. I would even dispense with the absolute score, mostly because of the bias you describe built into the system. When wine is evaluated in a stand alone situation, a bigger, bolder, riper (plus balance) wine results in more points. But it doesn’t mean that this wine will pair best or even well with food as you point out. Since you appreciate this, why not change your method of scoring wines?

    This approach always set Warren Mason’s ~Sydney International Wine Competition~ apart. As they note in their ~About Us~ page: “WE ARE LOOKING FOR WINES THAT WILL AGREEABLY COMPLEMENT FOOD. One of the main aims of the Competition is to offer consumers independent information to help in their choice of wines more likely to enhance the pleasures of the daily dining experience and, by so doing, to add enjoyment and contentment to their everyday lives. This is the main service the Competition offers.” They also follow other enlightened procedures like moving away from varieties to style of wine by body.

  15. Charlie,

    It isn’t that I disagree with what you post, it’s just that after having had the experience of selling wine for decades, as opposed to just talking about how good or bad they are, I can say without hesitation that scores sell wine–and the higher the score, the better the sales are likely to be.

    The reasons for this are many, including but not limited to score (grade) inflation and the arbitrary nature of the whole concept of scoring, lazy distributors, lazy retailers, and lazy consumers.

    I predict that there’s money for the next person who creates the 500 point scale, but whoever does it should have it exquisitely timed so that when 450 becomes the established low point, the creator of the system should have but a few weeks left on this earth and can leave quietly without having to think in the thousands…

  16. Stop blaming distributors Steve! Critics, producers, distributors, and consumers alike are to blame for the infatuation with scores.

  17. Wines that are engineered from overipe grape get bigger scores. I agree with this statement Steve. Most reviewers are afraid of higher acid, lighter bodied, less oaky wines and thus rate them lower. The ironic thing is these are the wines one enjoys with dinner AND thse are the wines that will cellar for a much longer period than those of the massively constructed.

    Lower sugars = more natural acid = more stable wine = longer cellaring ability = more complex wine.

  18. Randy, I don’t think critics are “afraid” of lighter-bodied wines. I think the 100 point system has developed its own vernacular, as it were…100 points means very ripe, full-bodied and (probably) oaky in a table wine. As long as consumers understand that, there shouldn’t be a problem.

  19. Paul in Boca says:

    I work at a large wine store in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Yesterday, a customer came in with a sheet he had complied of 90+ ratings on wines he was interested in. He asked about a particular Shiraz from Australia that had a 91. I took him over to the wine, he looked at it and said, “Oh, I have had that wine and I don’t like it.” He did not purchase it. I had to laugh at the fact that he was willing to buy a wine with the rating that he wanted, until he realized he had drank it–and did not like it. It’s really a shame that wine buyers are so numbers driven, because, as I think you can see here, numbers don’t mean squat if you have already tasted a highly rated wine.

  20. Paul in Boca says:

    compiled, that is

  21. Steve, whoa, you just blew my mind. I feel like how Keanu Reeves always looks. Being cynical, I tend to think the 100 point rating is a measure of high ripeness, texture (oak, alcohol) and extract, with the highest ratings for wines that have large amounts of all these, yet are in (perhaps precarious, metastable) balance. So it’s not just my cynicism, it’s by design it works out like this.

    Then, your reviews have two parts: numbers for the collectors, and descriptions for the drinkers. In that case, don’t change what you’re doing. I like prices where they are for the stuff I like. Hopefully the producers who get 89’d will stay afloat while offering good value.

  22. Steve,

    As long as consumers understand that the 100 point system is rating only certain wines produced in a certain style everything is fine?

    Are you saying that anyone who prefers another style of wine should not read WE, WS, WA and all the other 100-point reviewers?

    If so, that’s a breath of fresh air on the subject that I haven’t experienced before. Thanks for that.

  23. Thomas, I’m not saying that. People should understand the context of the 100 point system. To give an extreme example, Mouton might get 100 points even though it’s nowhere near ready to drink, while a 5th Growth might get 89 points and be far better tonight with the beef.

  24. Greg, not sure why I blew your mind, but that’s cool. For me, when I taste an inexpensive wine that gets a good score I’m just as happy as when I taste something I give high 90s to. Just had some of the new Bogle wines and the 07 Cabernet, with a California appellation, was wonderful. It costs $11 officially and you can probably find it for less. It’s what I call a “sommelier wine,” as in, “Sommeliers, buy this by the case.”

  25. Oh, I see, Steve.

    Your Mouton/5th Growth example shines a beautiful light on the value of those numbers. 100 if you can show promise–89 if you can deliver tonight.

    Who’s the system catering too, or in what context does it matter?

  26. I have to agree with the statement that scores are a tool of lazy distributors, retailers, and consumers. I want to know how did people sell wines before the 100 point system became so popular? We all know the answer, the small independant wine broker who cared enough to know the wines he was selling. The problem is that the wal mart mentality has made everything about price. Service and knowledge is what is lacking and that is why scores are so relied upon. The system will not change until retailers begin to take a stand, and sell wines that they believe are good and fit what a person is looking for wheather it be a everyday or collectible. And to Adam I love your wine and will always drink them and sell them no matter the score.

  27. TJ: wine critics need a short-hand way to communicate their feelings about a wine…right now the 100-pt system rules. The abusers of the system (should it actually exist) are not the critics but the producers, distributors, and retailers. While the critics’ ability can be called into question should his scores diverge too much from the rest of the scorers, it is not about money for them. For the other folks, money is certainly the most obvious thing that is affected by the score.

    Steve: do you have a separate 100-pt scale for each variety? or are more obscure whites and reds calibrated against a Chard and Cab/Pinot scale?

  28. George Parkinson says:

    Lets face it. The industry on the whole, Producers, Wholsalers, Retailers both on-premise and off premise got fat and lazy. It used to be that retailers had first hand knowledge of flavor profile, Waiters, Chefs, Sommeliers, wine shop stewards and Wineries explained the wine in terms defined by flavor and balance, knowledge of pedigree, Chateau, history and vintage events.

    Professionals were employed and kept heir paychecks by continually educating self on vintage, prodution,vinification & viticultural methods. Passion for quality of the juice drove the market place. Shelf talkers were descriptive anecdotes of the shop keeper and through all this the consumer became educated when they bought a bottle of wine; weather it was value, mid-range or collectable.

    Then we got lazy, applied a number to a bottle of grape juice that summed up its totality from vine to wine. Waiters, Chefs, Sales Reps, shop owners, and consumers know less today about the how and why of any particular wine because we stopped at the score and forgot how to speak of, describe, and pair wine for the consumer to enhance their selection and experience.

    Ask a waiter at any restaurant and 80% will refer to a score. Ask a wine shop steward and 80% will refer to a score. The sales rep sells 100% of the time using a score the buyers will always ask about scores and the winery presentation will always 100% of the time include the score.

    It has become a crutch that deters ones belief in ones self about their knowledge of and willingness to learn about wine and help others expand their own opinion, knowledge, and experience. It has made us all numb and dumb and if he was alive today, Shakespear may have substituted, “critic” for “lawyer” in Henery the VI.

  29. Steven: “do you have a separate 100-pt scale for each variety?” great question. I’m working on that.

  30. I feel like I just walked into the middle of Fellini movie. A guy tells us that waiters are lazy, chefs and everyone else in the sales chain know less about wine than they used to. I would dispute those assertions, but where I find myself wandering in the imagery wilderness is how those conclusions lead to a suggestion to kill all the critics.

    Apparently, the writer is unaware that the 100-point system was not invented by Mr. Parker but existed 50 years ago. Apparently, the writer is unaware that there was also a 200 point system or that a very large part of the wine criticism community fifty years ago routinely used the 20 point system and that debates about its value and whether it was meant to be a hedonistic system or scientific system were as much a part of the wine discussions of the day as it is today.

    Kill all the critics? Sure, right after we kill all the sommeliers, chefs, sales reps, restaurant owners and retailers who misuse the 100 point system and apparently don’t know anything about wine.

    Sorry, but all of this is too surreal for prime time.

  31. You can’t hand-sell everything and we all know that most sales people, whether at the distributor or retail level, will take the path to least resistance when making a sale.

    For us small-ish wineries, we don’t need this path as we can focus on independent retail that can hand sell our wines until there is a foothold with the consumer and they start to repeat. In fact, this is our exact model of evangelical consumer that has far more influence than any critic. Sorry, Steve. The number one motivator to drive an sale in our market is, “I tried it. I liked it. I bought it.” Followed by, “A friend turned me on to this wine.” Way down on the list of motivators are scores and accolades.

    Not long ago at a trade tasting, the winery next to me went on and on about points this wine scored and medals this other wine won. The buyer, after trying his wines, shuffled next door to my table at which time I told him our wines have no medals and no scores whatsoever. He thanked me.

  32. The system is obscure and corrupt. It is like all other mathematical configurations to try to analyze and frame subjective taste from individual to individual to maximize general mass consumption and manipulation.

    It is a paid marketing tool and it should be eliminated all together.

    It is not a guidance tool it is instead a blinding instrument that underestimates the power that each one of us has to able to say whatever they feel about a specific wine.

    And try to be forgiven if you state in public that a 98 point wine sucks…

    Drink and enjoy whatever you like and do not feel guilty if someone tells you that it only got a 82!

  33. David Cole says:

    This is exactly why I have not submitted any of my wines for scores these first two years! The system does not work, except for lazy sales people! Why do I come to your store, restaurant etc, let you try the wine, offer to come and meet with staff? It’s so you all can talk about the wine, how it taste, what you like about it etc, etc!

    I was in a retailer the other day poring 2005 Syrah. Before they tasted I heard comments spoken out loud, while I was right there saying “another old Syarh”, “We don’t need anymore Syarh”. Then they tried it. It got quite, they looked around at each other, drank some more. Then one asked, “How much is this?” I said, do you like it? “yes, I love it! What is it blended with?” I said, no blend. How much do you think it should retail? “This is 100% Syrah?” I said yes, it retails for $21.00, your cost is $14. The main buyer, then says ‘Yeah but it’s still Syrah and we can’t sell Syrah unless Parker or someone gave it a 90 plus!” My point here is simple. All three guys liked or loved the wine, yet none, believed they could sell it! There is so much belief that it’s got to have a score or be a cab for them to sell it. And I can show you many retailers like this.

    But I believe in my wines! I believe there is more to wine the Cab or Chard. But we, the industry needs to show the people the way. It sad, but this person than contacted you Steve is right! If it’s under an 88, it’s a low score by the standards of the system.

  34. I find melding Greg’s “Walmart” description and George’s “fat and lazy” comments best serves my arguement. Yes, there’s many, many more labels out there for dist’s and shops to become familiar with but we have become complacent in this industry. Lazy, possibly but look at the macro culture we wade through daily as a measure of our little micro world of wine.

    We as American consumers “want it all”. As we pull up in our 9,000 pound SUV up to parking spots that used to fit, we ooze from our chinese leather into our favorite all-in-one wineshop where we expect spoon-fed “90+ pointers” all day long. Almost like the fast-food of fine wine. The rating scale should market to the fat and lazy. It’s right up their alley.

  35. David, your sad story serves as a morality tale for our times. The behavior of that retail staff is shocking. I feel bad for you. The answer, as I’ve always said, lies in educating gatekeepers (including retailers) to educate customers. If the retailers are too lazy to do that, I don’t know what to say.

  36. Not sure why you focused on the wine distributors. They play a role in this tragi-comedy, as we all do, but it is only one role.

    I have worked in most aspects of the wine business: restaurant buyer, retail manager, distributor rep, Distributor manager, national accounts manager, and now launching my own online retail shop and CA wholesale business.

    I have found that the retail buyers are your staunchest supporters, Steve, in the scores debacle. Many will flat out tell you they only buy wines with 90 pts or above. I won’t name names but many well known retail chains increasingly have this policy (except for their own private labels or direct import brands).

    They have decided that anything below 90 pts or (god forbid) no scores, is a handsell to the consumer and they don’t want handsells.

    The critic scores have historically helped overwhelmed wine consumers navigate a busy playing field of wine choices. But I feel a slow, long wave coming to shore.
    The access to instant online information and increase in user reviews are starting to make an impression. As well as a new generation of wine lovers who are not as invested in traditional press and wine scoring.

    I believe there will be a slow shift away from complete reliance on 90 pts scores from wine critics. They will remain part of the equation but will not determine buying decisions as they have previously.

    I sell wines based on their story and their taste.
    If a buyer specifically requests it, I provide critic scores.
    Amy Atwood

  37. Amy, I agree that a younger generation is turning away from scores and more towards peer recommendations and online reviews. What I wonder is if their behavior will change and become more traditional as they age? After all, that’s what usually happens when people in the 20s hit their 30s and 40s. They become more like their parents (even if they hate to admit it). So I wouldn’t be surprised if point scores are around for quite some time.

  38. larry varni says:

    Consumers who choose wines on their own, are looking for a guide. If wine marketers can do no better than to let this”guide’ be the point system, then who is to blame? I don’t believe that the current system is any more or less an “indicator” for the average end-user than advice from a knowledgeable retailer or sommelier. It is based on someone’s opinion, and like so many opinions and body parts…we all have them. I think an answer might be to have wine makers and marketers give the consumer a better, more fully developed interpretation of why they believe their products taste a certain way and why they do or do not go with food, etc.(maybe a label addendum)Then upon tasting, consumers can then decide who has the same basic opinions of product that they do and use that source as a guide in future purchases. Thus moving people more into descriptors and less into arbitrary scoring. Knowledge and trust.Trust is a sure-fire way to build and hold consumers.

  39. Steve and David–

    The answer is simple. Go to a different wine store as fast as you can. There are loads and loads of good retailers in the San Francisco area and elsewhere. This is not a monolithic tale.

    And, these peeps complaining that the industry has become lazy don’t have a clue. Those of you old enough to remember fair trade will also remember that those were the days when no one had to compete and no one did.

    Rnady and David chose to enter a marketplace in which there are 3000 bonded wineries in CA alone and thousands more in WA and OR and tens of thousands more around the globe. If you want to compete in that market, with all of its warts and imperfections, stop complaining and work harder.

    Ask yourselves how it is that some wineries can find their ways to places like Solano Cellars and Weimax and Traverso’s and Vintage Wine and Spirits and you cannot. Ask yourselves why some wineries can sell their wines all the time, recession or not. The scoring systems that you deride have been in existence for decades. They obviously help consumers work their ways through tens of thousands of choices, and by so doing, they sell a hell of a lot of wine.

    We can all agree that a lazy wine merchant is no merchant at all. No one is going to argue that point with you. It is obvious on its face. So, when you encounter one, do the smart thing and get out of that store as fast as you can. Need a list of twenty good stores locally? Just ask Steve–this is his house and he knows the answer to that question.

    Need a list of a hundred good wine merchants around the country? Just ask the fans of this blog. They know. But for goodness sake, stop complaining about the louts and about how badly the world is treating you. No one owes you a living–least of all the consumers who actually think that wine evaluations help them drink better wine.

  40. Charlie: Harsh.

  41. Steve, re: mind blown, I was just surprised how matter of factly you describe the points system as having its own vernacular. You didn’t say high point wines are superior, or that you even prefer them. Maybe you do, but my interpretation is thus that points are not wholly a hedonic rating. You are comparing a wine against a set of ‘ideal’ characteristics in the system. If one asked a different critic about how they use points, especially one who uses hedonistic and pleasure commonly in reviews, I suspect the idea of a 100 point vernacular would not come up at all.

    Have you worked out a 100 point scale for Cabernet Franc yet? Curious minds inquire. Would Cheval Blanc in a Franc-dominated vintage be the benchmark?

  42. Harsh? I suppose that is one way to look at it. Honest and balanced would be another way.

    This particular blog entry has seen everyone and his brother all up and down the chain called lazy, stupid, unknowing and uncaring–and by the way, Steve, that includes thee and me.

    Now, we are big boys and will continue to do honest evaluations of wines, complete with the very descriptions that some of the commenters here seem to find lacking in wine writing. I have to wonder if some of these fine folk have ever read your reviews. Lazy? No. Unknowing? No. Uncaring? No. Focused only on points? No.

    I don’t find it harsh to point out reality to these folks who are blissfully unaware of the world they live in, who have no seeming knowledge of how moribund the wine sales world was three or four decades ago, who somehow think that Robert Parker invented wine criticism and scoring systems.

    I just don’t get why Randy, for instance, who has a perfectly strong and consistent manner of making wine, would essentially attack all those who do not agree with him. I don’t get why he, even in exaggeration, insults all wine consumers with visions of 9,000 point Hummers pulling up in front of wine stores.

    The wine-loving world is made up of millions of consumers. They need not be insulted. The wine selling world is made up of all kinds of people–many of them absolutely concerned and informed and willing and eager to share their knowledge and opinions. You wrote about one of your favorite merchants just weeks ago. Yet, he and everyone else in the trade has been belittled in the remarks above. I object to that kind of broadside.

    Funny thing is, I would be very surprised if you do not share much of that opinion given our conversations both privately and here regarding ethics, the value of thoughtful wine evaluations, the good people who we have met and continue to meet in this industry.

    Harsh? Oh, well. Sometimes the truth is not pretty.

  43. Charlie,

    Nothing you posted addresses the fact that points sell wine. And the only reason that points can and do sell wine is through multi-layered laziness.

    You are 100 % correct when you suggest to others to shop elsewhere when the retailer is an idiot. But that still doesn’t change the fact that points sell wine.

    You are 100% correct about the history of points, critics, and how wine has been sold throughout the decades. But that does not change the fact that points sell wine.

    You are 100% correct that many people spouting off don’t have a clue how the industry operates–I am not one of those people, and I’m telling you that points sell wine.

    Again, I ask: why do wine reviewers refuse not to believe that points sell wine? If points did not sell wine, why would wineries, distributors, retailers, and sycophant consumers salivate over the next WA issue and the shelf talkers that follow?

    PS: as I understand it, the 20-point system promoted by Amerine, et al., was an attempt to marry science with knowledge that concerned itself with identified quality. It was not designed to use as a base for wine reviews in magazines. It still is used as a more technical measure than the 100-point system, which no matter how it may have been designed, has become a hedonistic, personal-opinion system. It is what it is, and it sells wine.

  44. Sorry, “refuse to believe…”

  45. Thomas: You asked “why do wine reviewers refuse not to believe that points sell wine?” (You have an extra “not” in there but I think I know what you meant.) Since I’m a wine reviewer, I can answer. I don’t refuse to believe it. I know it’s true. I think it’s carried to extremes sometimes, and if I had a wine store, I would use only my own (and my staff’s) recommendations.

  46. Steve,

    When I owned a wine store in Manhattan my partner and I refused to carry any wines that were rated by anyone. We did the traveling, we did the tasting, we selected, and we were responsible for talking to and selling the wines to our customers. If something on the shelf happened to get rated, we stopped shelving it, buying only as special order for people who came to love it before the ratings.

    Every staff member was involved in the tasting and selecting process, which we did by consensus, and which we came to after discussing the wine’s merits and how it might go over with our customer base, and for its price.

    We gave every customer a print out that told them about the wine, the region, and the food pairings that we thought would work.

    Maybe we didn’t make any money because we didn’t have the magazine-rated wines to attract the cherry pickers, but after years of selling wine to retailers, I couldn’t operate any other way and maintain a passion for the product.

  47. If a lazy wine merchant is no merchant at all than I guess they are Cosco?

  48. Charlie points sell wine straight through the chain. I have worked in both wholsale and retail and witnessed it first hand. To say that they do not is just turning a blind eye. Go into your local wine merchant, better yet go in to a big box store or super market nad just listen to the other shoppers talk. You will hear someone say “buy this one it got 90 points”

  49. Reliance on scores would not be as great as it is if wine stores would do more sampling events a la a Farmers Market (that’s another story when it comes to wine). The Wine House in LA does tasting “festivals” all the time and their patrons use them to determine which wines they enjoy most.

  50. David Cole says:

    Charlie, not harsh. It’s fact you share! that’s why I’m out here one store, one restaurant, one customer at a time! I love wine, the diversity of the people that drink it, the stories that get shared. Maybe we’ll get a chance to share a glass!

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