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I am not a sausage


We learn, via The Wine Skewer blog, which itself learned it from The Wine Curmudgen blog, that giant retailer Costco “has told its vendors that it will only buy wines that will retail for $15 or less and have scored at least 90 points.” Curmudgeon calls the policy “silly” and “bad business,” and he is, of course, entitled to his opinion, although as far as wine sales strategies go, it seems like a pretty good idea for a Big Box.

Now, Wine Skewer, preferring the lower road, escalates Curmudgeon’s relatively mild critique to full-attack mode with a derisive rant that pretty much insults me personally — and thick as my skin is (blogging does toughen you up), I’m forced to respond.

First, for background, you should know that Costco uses the recommendations of just three periodicals: Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as Tom Wark’s Fermentation reported nearly three years ago. When Costco added us, it was the cause of much joy at our magazine. It’s always nice to be recognized for the quality and diligence of your efforts, and I would hope no one would begrudge us that pride.

(By the way, I can’t personally vouch for the truthiness of this report about Costco. I went to their website and saw wines there that scored below 90 points. For example, they’re selling a Cline 2008 Mourvedre rosé I gave 85 points and a Dry Creek 2005 “Mariner” Meritage I gave 87 points. But regardless of whether or not the report is true, I need to make these points.)

Wine Skewer lifts, or rather lowers, Curmudgeon’s critique to demagoguery. It’s not enough for him to advance the argument that Costco’s floor staff should be “able to express what they actually think of the wines they sell” (although I’m not certain that Costco’s staff is or could be trained to do that — a Big Box cannot have the same business model as a boutique wine shop). No, Wine Skewer then says that “the usual 90-point suspects [Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast] are all sausage factories, taking wine in one end and spitting numbers out the other.” Moreover, he asserts, “not one of these ‘critical’ media offers transparency as to its methods.”

I shake my head. There you go again. It’s the same old bogus, McCarthyite  j’accuse, against which any response is unlistened to and unheeded, because the accuser hears only what he wants to hear.

I can’t speak for Wine Spectator or for Robert Parker. They have their own ‘splainin’ to do and will have more in the future. I can only speak for myself and my magazine. I have been, in my blog, in my words and in my practices, “transparent.” If I were any more transparent , you’d be able to see what I had for breakfast this morning.

Don’t get me wrong. There certainly are issues we can discuss. Costco’s decision per se (if, in fact, they made it) may be worthy of debate. The 100-point system is not perfect; no system is. A wine that scores 85 points or 88 points can be terrific, and better with whatever you’re eating than a 100-point wine. But let’s discuss these things civilly.

I have striven, in my blogging, to keep the tone of the discussion at a high level. We can disagree, to be sure — but sausage factory? What’s the difference between a blogger like Sonadora (Wannabe Wino) or 1WineDude tasting a few dozen wines a month (or whatever the number is) and me tasting 400? Is it merely that they are dainty little cocktail weiners while I am a big fat kielbasa?

I’m happy to say that the blogosphere has been pretty respectful lately. There are a few people who are perennially grinding their axes, but there’s nothing I can tell these finger-wagging scolds that will change their minds, so why bother. Let those of us who wish to have honest, adult debates about real issues take the high road, be polite and lift the blogosphere up.

  1. I have no issue at all with how many wines one tastes per month (though maybe I’d say if anyone were tasting 400 a day their palate might tend to be shot before the end of that kind of session) but I do think that with a blanket 90 or above policy (if that is indeed the policy), Costco would be missing out on a lot of really good values that fall below that mark! I would hope they have a wine director of some sort that decides what to include in their portfolio who would be able to decide what to put on the shelves. I’m trying to think of the last time I saw say, a Rose get a 90 or above…maybe a few, but it seems like you could miss out on a whole lot of variation since overall from reviews I read it seems (in my perception anyway) to be that more reds than whites score in the 90s and above and most definitely more reds and whites than Roses achieving those results.

  2. Sorry to hear about the bit of back & forth here – I’ve much respect for both you and Tish so I hope this can come to a mutually respectful conclusion.

    As for sausage types, can I be a small sweet Italian sausage instead of a cocktail weenie?

  3. Steve, I am actually not sure why you took such offense. Perhaps your whole rant here would have been better left as a comment there. I find it very odd that you say now: “It’s the same old bogus, McCarthyite j’accuse, against which any response is unlistened to and unheeded, because the accuser hears only what he wants to hear.” Your whole post is, alas, your response; and I am listening and heeding.

    I chose “sausage factory” as a metaphor, and in no way was impugning your ability to review wines. (FWIW, I have also in my writings compared various “buying guides” to puppy mills and tattoo parlors and havens for hidden advertising as well.)

    It is the wine-rating/reviewing system that is the problem. And, like it or not, the metaphor is apt. Wines come in, ratings come out; no telling what goes on inside. The post by Jeff Siegel at the Wine Curmudgeon was the inspirtation for my post, but in addition to criticizing the apparent Costco policy (no new placements of <$15 unless 90 points), I was making the point that people have no idea of how differently (besides un-transparently) the different magazines churn out the numbers that retailers frequently misuse. Those differences have gotten lost in the 90-point sauce (to use another metaphor). And that is just one problem with the system. If you’d like to correct that impression, please do. But I still believe that the metaphor worked perfectly well in the context of my blog post. Again, the sausages were the ratings, not the rater, Steve. It was not a personal characterization.

    As an update, please note that Jeff Siegel has updated the Costco story on his blog. One important clarification is in order here, with repsect to the content of your post here: as Jeff and I both stated, the <$15/90pt situation involved only NEW placements; there are plenty of sub-90 wines already available at Costco. As there should be, which Sonadora aptly notes with her rose example.

  4. Steve,

    I think you’re overreacting a BIT here. Maybe taking something personally that was meant more as a generality?

    Also, for someone who touts a “thick skin” you sure seem to have a thin skin in this instance, no?

  5. No, Steve, you are NOT a sausage nor does The Wine Skewer say you are. The whole point of the Wine Skewer post was to argue that the big wine media (like The Wine Enthusiast, the company you work for, NOT you, or is there some internalization going on here?) “consume” vast numbers of wines and spit out rating numbers that often aren’t very consistent – over time or across wines.

    That’s a pretty good point made by Tish and one of his real bugbears. If no numbers were involved and you wrote the same tasting notes, Tish probably would be happy. Why? Because then people would have to READ what you say (as you clearly didn’t – or at least didn’t comprehend – what Tish wrote), not simply (and blindly) follow the numbers as many often do.

    The real problem with numerical ratings is slavishly following the numbers. Many people think 95 is very good; 85 is not very good but acceptable. But it depends on the taster. Your 95 might be my 85 but I suspect that both of us would find something to like in that wine, we would just enjoy it to a greater or lesser extent. But I might give some of your 85 point wines 95 points because I reacted differently to that wine. If someone chooses only your 90+ wines, they might miss some really good wines. Perhaps some wines they would like better than your 90+ pointers.

    While I find that numerical ratings aren’t too helpful, the words that appear with each rating can give me an idea of what the wine is like (for that taster). And if I try enough wines that an individual taster has tried, I can calibrate the words to MY palate.

    I also find that you can largely ignore most wines rated below 80 points because, for reasons most wine drinkers would agree on, the wines just aren’t that good. Whether they rate 79 points or 81 points isn’t the real issue, it’s that the words used (when wines below 80 are listed at all) that make the wines sound unappealing – as indeed, they probably are.

    While I have a tendency to use some ratings (including some you write) on my website, I do so for the benefit of many of my customers who find comfort in them. Actually, in a way, I do, too, but that’s based on the WORDS of the rating, not the numbers.

    So don’t be offended by the analogy Tish makes to big wine media and sausage factory. You, after all, aren’t the product of the media; you’re part of the factory.

  6. Steve-

    Another good entry, your blog is quickly becoming a favorite read because of your willingness to engage readers directly and thoughtfully. Even when there are clearly differing perspectives. Although things aren’t always fully civil, there’s some real dialogue going on.

  7. Greg, dialogue isn’t always easy but it’s necessary.

  8. And now that we are all talking nicely to each other, it is my turn to question Paula. Your comments on ratings versus language are so nearly spot on that if I were in jolly olde, I would be beating a path to your door. Your little town of Chipping Marlow is a delight, but I once had a terrible meal at a pub in High Wycombe and now avoid the area if I can.

    But, and pardon my quibble, the English language, whether Americanized or not, is an imperfect vehicle for making finite separations in evaluations of artistic endeavours (note the English spelling please). That is why virtually all systems of wine or restaurant analysis have some form of rating system attached to them. And there is not one rating system yet devised that is perfect. Neither are words. Frank Prial, the now-retired wine eminence of the New York Times once famously said, “I know what the difference is between a wine I rate at 86 and a wine I rate at 87. It means that I like the 87 a little more than I liked the 86.”

    So, I apologize for quibbling a bit because I greatly enjoyed your comments about wine descriptions and how you have come to understand what each writer’s words mean. I would only suggest that the same is true for ratings. The individual critics may use the numbers differently, but so do we also use language differently.

    I like the Michelin Guide system of stars and essentially copied it for my own rag, but it is not the system that is now the currency in which wine ratings are expressed. It is true that Jay Miller’s 95s might be someone else’s 89s and that my 83s might be someone else’s 88s, but so what. The people who actually pay to gain access to those ratings bring two things to the table. They generally know what those ratings mean and where on the scale our ratings are likely to fall.

    For example, my rag does not, will not rate any wine over 98. No need to go into why here, but we are lower in point scores than many folks, especially for wines in the mid-range. Our readers know that. The wineries know that. So, my 95 or 96 is understood to people who read me and Parker, to name just one other service and to leave Steve out of this for a moment, to be more or less equivalent to Parkers’ 98 to 100.

    The problem of what those scores mean is more acute at your level than at the level of those who actually pay for them for their own personal use. Your customers have no way of knowing the scoring predilictiions of each reviewer, as you have pointed out. But, on the other hand, you don’t use scores all that much anyhow. Do you, by the way, use Decanter ratings? They are not even in the common language.

  9. Steve,

    I think what lies at the heart of the debate is not really being protested as much as it should, and that is that what all reviewers are doing is a SERVICE, and for retailer buyers, it should be used as a tool to help them in purchasing wines they know they can sell. But more times than not, due to an ill-informed buyer, or a lazy one, or even no real wine buyer, the retail stores lean too heavily on ratings and end up with a stilted or uneven array of wines for their customers. You are right that the 100-point scale isn’t perfect – how could it be when it deals with the subjective? Yet as much as I sometimes gnash my tongue when I say this, it does sell wine. I cannot speak for the industry as a whole, but I for one do not and cannot rely simply on scores when buying wine. It takes a long time to get a casual understanding of what your customer base really wants and even then, it’s a never ending learning process. If indeed Costco has resorted to buying only under $15 only 90+ wines, then they are doing a grave disservice to their customers. You need a staff that can decipher the scores and interpret them to the customers, and also have a staff educated on the wines that do not have scores because, no one rates every wine out there. BTW, the sausage thing gave me a chuckle, and it should you too, because that is a fairly ridiculous thing to use as an analogy (though I get why they did).

  10. Kevin, I don’t know the ins-and-outs of how Costco or other Big Boxes work. But I’m pretty sure it would be difficult if not impossible for them to have wine-trained floor staff! That’s one of the trade-offs customers make when they choose to save money in a discount store: They give up service for price. So it’s not fair to say Costco should have employees that can “decipher the scores and interpret them to their customers.” Isn’t gonna happen.

  11. Paige Granback says:

    My feelings on making purchasing decisions soley based on scores, even at the bottom end, have been documented elsewhere so I won’t bother to heap on.

    But what I am curious about is why Costco chose not to capitalize on their own brand in favor of the ratings of these three publications? Anyone who shops at Costco has already bought into the Costco “brand” –and what this game is really all about is customer loyalty. Why not make them loyal to you first? I feel they’ve missed an opportunity to market their own wine director as a personality a la Wilfred Wong/BevMo.

    Besides, as someone did mention, not every wine actually gets rated. And in the case of some of these publications (WS and WA) the ratings sometimes come well after the wine has sold out.

    Total side note: Does anyone have a guess as to what percentage of WS and WA are devoted to wines under $15? Steve, how about with WE?

  12. Paige, I never did the math. I would guess about 15% of my WE reviews are under $15. I also think your idea about a Costco version of Wilfred Wong is great. Maybe someone at Costco HQ will read this.

  13. Once again, intelligent comments in response to a thoughtful post.

    I still think the validity of the original post needs to be verified. Count me skeptical.

    Has Costco management really decided to only stock wines <$15 with 90+ scores?

    Steve, being called a sausage is not a bad deal in the blogosphere. I can think of worse. Beef jerky comes to mind. Plus who doesn’t like a good sausage with Napa mustards?

  14. The real injustice at Costco for wine writers and consumers alike is featuring previous vintage scores for current release inventory. That is a travesty often practiced in the warehouses and it ought to come with warnings that “past perfromance can’t be relied on for future releases”. It’s a requirement in financial industry marketing, it should to be the same for wine marketing

    Costco is battling a 0.2% retail profit margin on shrinking sales volume. The new conservative consumerism that is plaguing all retailers has produced a 28% decline in operating results on a per share basis for their third quarter compared to the same quarter last year. They need to look for pennies everywhere and exclusively inventorying wine at the right price points and rating levels also makes sense if it turns more wine. Costco should not care less about the injustice of the 100 point system for exacting communications about a wine’s stuffing. It might disadvantage unfairly impact some, but that’s the breaks with consumer advocacy and open capitalism.

  15. Duncan Williams says:

    While it’s true that numbers sell wine, I’m hoping that it’s mostly novices who rely on scores for purchasing decisions.BTW, are all Costco wines over 15 bucks 90+ points? Are all ratings for the current vintage? What about all the unrated wines [maybe half]? My local Costco experience may not be typical, but I suspect it may be.

  16. The problem with employing your own wine reviewer (Bevmo/Wong) is the possible conflict of interest. Suppose the retailer wants to move a wine they got a good deal on (or bad deal) – just have the reviewer give it a good score. I’m not implying this is happening, but there is an obvious conflict of interest, which is why I believe Costco uses independent scores.

    Also, as far as I know, regional and even store buyers have authority to bring in their own wines.

  17. I agree with Steve that I it’s unlikely a service which prides itself on low-costs has the funds to train its floor staff in similar fashion to a boutique shop. On the bright side of this, Steve, you eat a very healthy breakfast.

  18. James Rego says:

    Oh well, shall we move on?

  19. Steve,

    One last thing – and it borders on the whole shameless self-promotion thing, but at our stores we DON’T sacrifice service for price – we have BOTH. It’s hard work but it can happen.

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