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Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.

  1. You had the truth about grade inflation in wine criticism. It rolled off your pen in screaming black and white–and then you dismissed it.

    It is all about exposure.

    We had an otherwise dear friend and PR person (yes, they can sometimes be friends) complain that one of his clients’ inexpensive wines never got 90 points from my rag. It is his job to make his clients happy, and he somehow thinks we are supposed to be cheerleaders.

    The problem is that one cannot account for all those 100-point Parker scores through better wines alone. Go taste some older Bordeaux from a good vintage. They were great then, and the ones that have held up are great now.

    It is all “attention-seeking”, meaning that if one gives the highest scores, then it is your publication that gets quoted all the time.

    But this is not a new phenomenon. Back twenty years ago or so, when the late Jerry Mead started handing out 95 point scores like they were Halloween candy corn, some of the winewriting community questioned his ethics. His response, “I get more attention that way”.

  2. Grade inflation is nothing new – I wrote about it back in 2011 when it was pointed out by Tom Wark that 78% of the 2009 California Pinot Noirs rated by Robert Parker, Jr., were given a score of 90 points or better. Laube gave 55% of the 350 2009 Pinot Noirs a score of 90 or above. I have been tasting California Pinot Noir for the better part of 40 years, and I can tell you much of this grade inflation is due to increase in quality of California Pinot Noir. That said, the increasing number of wines scored 90 or above is all the more reason not to chase high scoring wines but rather pursue a producer with a broad work of excellence. As an added note, price inflation has followed in step with grade inflation. What is your preference with domestic Pinot Noir – double or triple digits?

  3. Patrick says:

    A great many stores over-rely on point scores. Very often I see the ads: “90-point Napa Cab, $35” and I read down and it’s some unknown person or blog giving it that score. All the store wants is for SOMEbody to give the wine 90 points. In my Whole Foods they have a shelf of “90-points-or-more” wines, but many of them are not the vintages that earned those scores. Once upon a time the wine got 90 (from SOMEbody) but not the one on the shelf. Lots of stores push those scores. I think it shows laziness on their part because by relying on scores, they don’t have to cultivate relationships with their customers. I wonder if these uses are what the wine writers had in mind.

  4. Hi Charlie, I don’t think I dismissed it. I offered what I think is a context. And I tried to explain that, before concluding that it’s all venal, there are other explanations. It’s a complicated topic.

  5. True enough. It is not all venal. The rise in single-vineyard bottlings from top producers does mean that there are more top-rated wines, albeit in limited-size bottlings, than ever before. And there have been improvements across the board in winemaking both in the spread of knowledge and in the technology of production such that “faulted” bottlings are very much rarer than when you and I started writing.

    Still, the proliferation of 95 to 100 points scores relative to what existed two decades ago, is pure “grade inflation” and leads to things like people wondering why their $18 blends are not getting 90 points. That, to me, is the worst aspect of the 100-point system–many wines receiving 90-point scores these days would have been 86-87 a few years ago. Thus 90 points from some reviewers means only clean and presentable, while others who have consistently used scores over the years find their 90-point high recommendation being treated as barely passing the desirable test.

  6. Charlie, the deeper I get into tasting (using old Enthusiast critic models and newer Jackson methodology), the more I think there is no answer to the mysteries and complexities of tasting. Each tasting should be geared specifically toward a single purpose.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    The narrower the focus of a comparison tasting, the more insights you derive.

    Mixing different AVAs and vintages within a single grape variety diffuses rather than focuses.

    That’s what “the scientific method” is all about: optimally, one “variable” and multiple “controls.”

    ~~ Bob

    Postscript. Recall the insights you derived from your write-up of the DRC red Burgundies:

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2009/02/13/the-2006-wines-from-the-domaine-de-la-romanee-conti/

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