I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.
That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)
There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”
As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”
Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.
I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.
But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.
This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.
So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.
Back in the 1990s I was supplementing my wine-writing income by doing a little healthcare reporting. As things turned out, I became known as something of an expert in the intersection of the U.S. healthcare industry–the nation’s biggest–and the emerging Internet. Everyone from pharmaceutical manufacturers to insurers, hospital administrators and individual doctors wanted to know what would happen when these two gigantic forces met, and how they could incorporate this new-fangled World Wide Web into their businesses. I didn’t have a clue, to tell you the truth, but I knew just enough more than most people (including my editors) to keep me gainfully employed and give my writing the semblance of expertise.
One memory stays with me of that period. Dot-com startups were as common in those days as the squirrels now gathering nuts in my neighborhood here in Oakland as Fall approaches. Here’s how it typically worked (and this is a fascinating and useful glimpse into the troubled, and troubling, nexus of marketing and reporting, as well). Someone starts a dot-com company; let’s say it purports to keep Internet-based communications between physicians secure. Somehow, that new business, which may not yet even exist (which would qualify it as “vaporware”), attracts the attention of one of the big investment banks. That bank would buy a piece of the company or otherwise associate itself with it. Then the bank would make its analysts available to journalists writing about that topic; the analysts would help the hapless reporters understand the finer points of whatever the topic was. If you’ve ever been a working reporter, you know how much we depend on the kindness of analysts whom we can quote with certain knowledge that the quotes are accurate, because after all, that analyst is an expert who works for an important investment bank.
Well, you see the obvious conflict of interest. The analyst talks up the new company, explaining how the product or service it provides is badly needed, and that this company (which he has analyzed in detail) is in a good position to succeed. The company is, according to the analyst, a sure thing. Meanwhile, the reporter–me–is typing all this down, to incorporate into the story. Next thing you know, a big, glossy healthcare magazine is running it, complete with the analyst’s spin (but now in my words) about how great this new startup company is. It’s a win-win-win for everybody: the startup’s owner, the investment bank, the analyst, me, and the publisher of the magazine who’s paying me.
Except for one little thing: in many cases, the analysts either lied or were entirely incorrect (for whatever reason) in their judgments. As we all know, the dot-com era crashed spectacularly in the early 2000s. A lot of “sure things” perished overnight; a lot of people lost everything. Many of the “sure thing” predictions turned out to be as premature as reports of Mark Twain’s demise. That horrible era taught me some important lessons I’ve carried through in my journalism ever since: Be skeptical of claims, even by so-called “experts” who seem so self-assured. I developed a B.S. radar that to this day serves me well. That radar always asks these questions of anyone giving information or advice: Does this person have a hidden agenda? What does he or she have to gain (or lose)? Is there solid evidence of this person’s claims?
When the dot-com collapse finally happened, I’d been out of healthcare writing for a few years. But I was shocked that my reporting had had something to do with instilling a sense of trust in these startup companies–trust that, as it turned out, they didn’t deserve. People all over the country had read my articles and made decisions based upon facts provided to me, and by me to readers, that had turned out not to be true. I vowed never to let that happen again.
We come now, after this somewhat labored intro, to the subject of today’s post. Over the last number of years, we’ve had many reports of the Death of the 100 Point System. These have mainly come from the wine blogosphere. We can now see that these reports have been characterized, not by critical judgment or factual data, but by wishful (and even magical) thinking. Typical of the genre is this blog post from last week that incorporates the standard memes:
- people, especially younger ones, don’t care about point scores
- they would rather get a recco from a friend than from some famous [old] critic
- wine criticism is subjective anyway, so giving it a number is crazy
- the only way to judge a wine is to experience it yourself
The writer then offers examples from his own experience to “prove” the truth of each assertion.
Well, of course, each of these bullet points is true in its own way. But they’re no truer now than they were pre-social media. Only a tiny percentage of wine consumers ever cared about point scores. But in fact, more people today are influenced by them than ever. More and more big retailers (Beverages & More, Costco) are using point scores (by people like me) to market their wines, so that more and more consumers are exposed to them. And believe me, these retailers wouldn’t use point scores if they didn’t know a high score moves SKUs.
And younger people, of course, always have been resistant to the advice of elders. That’s what it means to be young: There’s nothing inherently different about kids in their twenties today than at any other point in history. They’ve always been more inclined to respect the opinions of their friends than of their elders. Social media hasn’t changed that. The point is that young people will someday be middle-aged people (that’s the way it goes, kids), and when they have a little more money in their pockets, they’ll do what people with disposable incomes have always done: seek the advice of experts when it comes to buying things, like autos, high tech devices and, yes, wine.
There’s simply no evidence that the 100-point system is endangered or irrelevant. In fact it’s at the height of its impact. Virtually every major critic in the world uses it (or some variation of it). The writer of the blog post I referenced understands this full well: in his concluding paragraph (which is where you always want to make an important point to leave with the reader), he writes: “Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay.” That disclaimer, you’d think, would nullify everything he’d said up to that point. After all, you can’t be “here to stay” if you’re irrelevant, can you?
Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.
I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.
Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.
First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?
For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.
Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?
Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.
So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).
That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.
These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.
Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)
Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.
The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!
By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?
This blog is generally religion-free, but I read this article yesterday in the Jewish Journal and, with the High Holidays coming up (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) I find myself thinking of how my Jewish ancestors really, in a way, invented wine, or at least our modern understanding of it.
That there are scores if not hundreds of references to wine in the Old Testament is well known. Of course they were not entirely positive: some people got drunk. But overall, wine was such an integral part of ancient Jewish (and even pre-Jewish, Semitic life; don’t forget Noah’s grapevine) that we don’t even know how far back it goes in the mists of pre-history. What is clear was that it was considered very important.
In my own family, wine wasn’t a big presence. Neither for that matter were beer or spirits; my family weren’t drinkers. Mom liked a Bloody Mary at a restaurant, and I can’t remember anymore what Dad drank, but it wasn’t very much. They were water drinkers.
The first wine I ever tried was given to me by my Uncle Teddy, at a Passover seder. I must have been around five. He gave me a glass of Manischevitz and, when I gagged and spat it out, everyone around the table laughed. (Torturing the kids was considered fun in our family.) It’s a wonder I ever tried wine again after that.
Notwithstanding the absence of booze in the household, I was raised to have a neutral to positive feeling about it. Certainly no one in my family ever expressed anything negative about alcohol or wine. I personally knew next to nothing about wine until I was in my early 30s; but when I began studying it, I was proud to discover the role the Jews had played. Later, Greeks and Romans spread viticulture throughout the river valleys of Europe, leading down the millennia and across the seas to our present day. Somehow, the two cultures that were so different in so many different ways–Jewish and Greco/Roman–found commonaility in their embrace of wine. Both cultures recognized its essential goodness and holiness, even though both were aware of its dangers in excess.
Anyway, if you’re of the Jewish persuasion, let me wish you a good Rosh Hashanah (which this year is Sept. 5-6, in the Jewish year 5774). Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, follows a week later. I am not particularly observant, myself, but I have set photos of my late mother and father in a central place in the livingroom, where I will do my best, in my inadequate way, to remember them. I cannot promise that the wine I toast them with will be kosher. I can, however, promise that it will be very good.
It may be somewhat brash for Tom Wark to call his new group the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) and make the claim that it “is the only national advocacy group that works to advance the interests of America’s wine consumers.”
I doubt that masses of consumers voluntarily gathered into a coalition and then asked Tom to run it. But you know what, folks? That’s how you get things done these days. You don’t wait for the public to organize themselves. Instead, you create a group that purports to represent the public, and then wait for them to join up.
There’s a big difference, though, between an Astroturf group and one with a valid claim to legitimacy, such as AWCC has. An Astroturf group is phony, like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that sound legitimate but are just false fronts designed to promote the [hidden] interests of [unidentified] sponsors. That’s bad (except that, in this post-Citizens United era, our SCOTUS has made it inevitable).
On the other hand, AWCC really does represent the interests of American consumers, even if it’s presently leading a parade with a very small following. I hope that changes.
Why do I say AWCC represents the interests of American consumers? It’s obvious: with all the stupid laws against direct shipping, particularly on the state level, consumers are ill-served by the present system, which is an anachronistic vestige of Prohibition and the Repeal laws that dissembled it, yet still left in place a very difficult situation for wineries to negotiate. It’s clear that behind the barriers to direct shipping lie two formidable forces: (1) an inherent anti-alcohol bias, and (2) the tremendous clout of Big Alcohol, especially Big Beer and Big Liquor, who really do not desire a truly free distribution system.
It’s fine for Big Alcohol to fight free and fair trade: they have their rights. The problem is that consumers, who should also have rights, have nobody to argue for them. In State capitals and in the nation’s capital, no paid lobbyists exist to argue for the rights of ordinary adult Americans to buy wine from anywhere they choose, and have it sent to them in the mail. That this is anti-consumer is clear, and it flies patently in the face of arguments, by Republicans and Democrats alike, who claim they’re in favor of the free market, competitive capitalism America loves to trumpet. I don’t see how any politician can claim to be in favor of free market capitalism and then say to little family wineries, in effect, “You’re free to market and sell your wine if you want to. But, oh, by the way, we’ll design the system in such a way as to make it impossible.”
I love that Tom writes, in the mission statement, his aim to “Gather under the AWCC roof a supportive and educated community of wine lovers who are willing to help advance a pro-consumer agenda where alcohol laws and regulations are concerned.” It will not be easy. One can look to past successful efforts to rally millions of Americans–the Civil Rights struggle was one, and so (regrettably) has been the advent of the Tea Party. Choice in purchasing alcohol, however, doesn’t rise to the level of such dramatic political upheavals; I doubt we’re going to see a mass movement of consumers to gather under AWCC’s roof, at least in numbers significant enough to make an impact on the addled attention of elected politicians. But I wonder why the libertarian wing of the Republican Party doesn’t support expanding these freedoms to Americans.
Still, I wish Tom and AWCC every good wish, and will do what I can to help. I hope Tom will reach out to those of us in the media and help us help him. This is potentially an important development, an opportunity for America to truly practice what it preaches when it comes to the freedom of choice in the marketplace. I think America is ready for it, and I congratulate Tom for spearheading the effort.