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

68 comments

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. Glenn Rizzelli says:

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Dear Mr. Heimoff:

    I used to work in the E. and J. Gallo Winery for many years and learned very quickley that every wine and every thing has a price. Quality
    versus value versus price is always a determining factor when selecting a good and very drinkable bottle of wine. Remember that Gallo built their wine business and the wine business that exists today buy producing some great valued and quality wines for the money. The American consumer gravitated towrds those low cost and fine quality wines and the wine business began to grow by leaps and bounds.

    In fact some of the wines that I have had over the years would be worthy of a another try because the first bottle was such a nice surprise. I would recommend using the surprise factor along with a low score / low price marketing campaign. Remember that we are living in some pretty tough economic times so that it should be easy to persuade value wine buyers to give these low scored wines a try.

    In addition, the on premise business or hotel and restaurant industry are beginning to change many of their restaurant menus and wine lists so that they can survive and compete in these tough economic times. I am sure that they would welcome the opportunity to learn about new wines that come with a low score and a low price along with the quality and value of a surprise purchase of the shelf or from the wine list.

    All the Best,

    Glenn Rizzelli

  2. I’m a little offended by many comments. First, I’m young (28) and work for a small, family-owned distributor (we do represent some of the wines made by commenters on this thread), so I’ll just get that out of the way. I work hard, north of 60 hours a week and on top of that, use most (all, according to my girlfriend) of my free time learning about wine through drinking, reading and discussing.

    You asked where the idea that anything below 90pts is dead on arrival? I would be willing to bet my yearly wage that our school system has something to do with this. Anything greater than or equal to a 90 was an “A,” thus making an 89 a “B” (please no kumbaya moment on the virtue of a “B,” I don’t remember job recruiters knocking down the door for guys with a 3.0 or lower). Not to forget, there is also a wide-ranging availability of 90pt wines from a slew of reviewers that allow the consumer to not dip below 90 if they so wish.

    To lob grenades at other sectors of the industry without having any introspection is a little naive. Let me ask you, is the Wine Enthusiast a worthwhile tool or publication? What is its value? Would the Wine Enthusiast still be in existence if not for its adherence to a 100-pt scoring system? I agree that wine ratings can be lazy and misused, but it smacks of hypocrisy for the editor of such a magazine to make these allegations. What is the Wine Enthusiast doing to change the current environment? Can I sort your wine reviews by style? No. Can I sort your reviews by rating? Yes. What does this tell me? The Wine Enthusiast thinks more highly of the rating than the style. Steve, you say (I’ll attempt to paraphrase) that big, ripe, over-oaked wines score higher. Can I ascertain that everything in the 83-86 point range is high acid and food-friendly (I’m aware I’m putting words in your mouth)? The answer is probably “no.”

    Instead of continuously blaming others for the failings of the system, I’ll offer up some solutions. I think a possibility is to create a stylistic system or other definition to distinguish the wine. Progressive wine lists have been incredibly popular in restaurants, can this system be used as a sortable tool of the on-line reviews? Also, Amazon is incredibly successful at making recommendations (using algorithms, which may not sound romantic, but is very useful), why can’t the Wine Enthusiast use this system to steer customers from one wine they enjoy to another similar wine? Some of these questions may have already been addressed, but if so, I am unaware. I offer these suggestions to you, instead of retailers because they usually don’t have the time or resources to make such changes. Retailers are hamstrung by the economies of scale, rarely having the time to completely explain each wine to each costumer without losing out on other sales. Also, they tend to be responders (to consumers needs) or followers (to demands coming downstream from producers), not leaders. Someone has to go first for the rest to follow, and why shouldn’t that person be someone in your position of power?

  3. Theo, I’m not suggesting abandoning the 100 point system. But I’m glad we’re having a conversation about it. As for Wine Enthusiast, I like to think that people also read words, not just look at numbers. I’m talking about the text of my reviews as well as the articles that I and the other writers write. So I believe that, yes, Wine Enthusiast still would be a good, widely read wine magazine even without a 100 point system.

  4. “As for Wine Enthusiast, I like to think that people also read words, not just look at numbers.”

    Steve,

    Parker and other reviewers say the same thing about their readers. And yes, readers read the words, but distributors and retailers know that the majority of shoppers look at the numbers.

    Doesn’t it seem disingenuous to maintain a rating system and then complain about distributors wanting only high scoring wines from that rating system because, as has been said, scores sell wine?

    Maybe a reviewer should get a part time job under cover in a store, find out how consumers shop for wine and how retailers and distributors handle the matter of ratings.

  5. Vinny Solignac says:

    what’s the point of comparing rates between wines from different origin as you can see everywhere.
    Italian wine 100 rates can not be compared to 100 from a Rutherford !!! not even mentionning the varietal differences.
    All this scoring system is purely for commercial purposes . As a consumer, I don’t even know what’s is all about.
    The confusiong part is to make the consumer believes a better rate is a better wine as I have seen today when visiting Sebastiani winery in Sonoma.

    Please do not confuse consumer .

    we should not waste time and enjoy the wonderfull wines of this world.

  6. Let’s take a couple of steps back because the discussion has truly become deep and challenging and deserves a bit more perspective.

    If one looks at the wine writing in existence forty or fifty years ago, one sees rating systems. The Amerine book of forty years ago lists many of them and they range from 20 points to 200 points, and they included 100 points at that time–long before it gained its position as the widely accepted currency for wine ratings.

    Even those magazines that did not use points, did use a multi-tiered system. And the highest rated wines in those tiers were being sought out by the consumers of that day just as the highest rated wines are sought out today.

    I would love to be thirty (again), but since I am not and have been collecting for four decades and writing for three and a half, I can tell you that when Robert Balzer gave the Chappellet 1969 Cabernet his highest tier score among the elite of CA Cabs, that wine instantly become a cult item. Now, I am an older guy but I don’t go back much further than that in wine collecting but Mr. Balzer was not new to writing and rating at that point and there were several other publications in existence at the time including Robert Finigan and a newsletter whose name I no longer recall written by Francis Peterson and David Garbellano. Francis Peterson, among other things, is Joel Peterson’s mother.

    Wine evaluation goes back even further than that, of course. So, let’s at least agree that ratings are not a new thing.

    Secondly, ratings, as I pointed out have always sold wine. It matters not what the rating system was–Finigan’s four-tier system or the 20-point system in use at the Vintners’ Club whose blind tasting results were very central to the attitudes towards wine back in the day.

    So, Tom P, and others, no one would or has argued otherwise. Where I get off that train, however, is where Tom P says “the only reason that points can and do sell wine is through multi-layered laziness”. Sorry, my friend, but points also sell wine because they represent the considered, hard-won opinions of responsible critics. And every responsible critic I know and respect also publishes commentary of a sort that addresses your criticisms and also the question raised by Theo about the meaning of 83-86 points. If one wants to know the meaning, read the words. The points do not monolithically mean thin and green wines. They also mean overripe and without fruit or bothered by Brett or indistinguishable as to varietal character or out of balance or a whole host of other things. One has to read the words to know what the score means–and that even applies to baseball games.

    Now, I know that 90 points is a magic number for some wines. But, as I pointed out earlier in this discussion, 90 points is useless for wines costing over $100, of which I review quite a few. By the same token, wines in the 85 to 89 point range, for me at least, are often my wines of choice because the best of them deliver amazing QPR (quality to price ratio). The lower the price, the lower the rating needs to be to make the wine well worth buying and enjoying.

    The Castle Rock California Pinot Noir at 85 points and $10 is worth knowing about.

    And I know (KNOW ABSOLUTELY) that my readers care about wines I designate as “Good Value” because I have had to change my website and print presentation to highlight that designation. It is the single most popular request item in my world, and I am looking forward to automating its finding in my online data base.

    Wine is not points alone. Sure points or any other accepted rating methodology sells wine. A few years ago, we designated a very good Cabernet as the CGCW Wine of The Year. The winery told me later that its sales of that wine went faster than any wine in its forty year history. Ratings and recommendations count. Of course they count. How else do you explain the fact that millions of people around the world read them. But, Tom, it is not the points alone for consumers.

    Someone, either here on perhaps on Tom Wark’s blog, commented that he does not always like the highest rated CGCW wines, but that he is able to use the descriptions to find well-regarded wines that fit his individual preferences. That is why folks like Steve and I write descriptions.

    A final note to Theo: Very thoughtful comments. I would suggest, as I have above, that the words that make up the review are in fact useful to consumers to find other wines that interest them. Wine magazines do not sell wine so they have a very different set of needs than does Amazon. Amazon is not unlike the local men’s clothing store I was in the other day. I was looking for a new suit. Before I got out of the store, they had also tried me with new shoes (“here, these will look better with the suits you are trying on”), new jeans, sweaters and several combinations of shirts and ties that supposedly went with the suit. Ultimately, too much hard sell for me, and I left that store just as I would recommend that anyone leave any wine store that does not get that it is about my needs, not about theirs.

    Enough. More to Tom P in the next post.

  7. Further to Tom P re Davis 20 Points.

    Yes, the original development of the Davis system was pseudo-scientific. I use that term advisedly because there were no “scientific measures” being done. All of the various point awards had to do with observable and thus judgmental and thus subjective analysis.

    Now, to be sure, where the defintion of color was “correct for the age and variety of wine”, there was a standard. And where the definition of aroma was “clean, correct for the varietal, free from flaw”, that also was a standard. And, Tom, there was a range of points possible that allowed the observer to decide not only about “correct” but also about attractiveness. Thus, aroma did not score max points just for being free from flaw. A thin Pinot can be free from flaw, but even in the Davis system, an attractive, deep, correct Pinot would score more than a thin, clean, correct Pinot.

    The Davis system, however, in its purest form, was developed to help focus the minds of enology students on how to judge the wines they were making. Cleanliness, correctness, balance were the standards, and the wines to which they were directed at the time were not fancy coastal varietals but the jug wine industry that was the most likely place that Davis graduates were going to find employment back then.

    Now, for the confusion. The Davis scale was the first widely used scale around here to my recollection, and it very quickly became a hedonistic scale in which a mass of points for correct color no longer was part of the way the 20-point system worked.

    Writers of the day who used that system were simply using a precursor to the 100-point system. Anything 18.5 (87.5) and above was hot stuff. That, in fact, was how Parker used the 100-point system when he started. Getting 90 points was a big deal. Now, with grade inflation pushed by the recognition of the 90-point barrier, the percentage of wines scoring 90 and above has reached up to 40% of all wines tasted in some publications.

    It seems to me that such a circumstance is a far greater sin against the consumer than the mere existence of the 100 point scale.

  8. Charlie,

    I believe you have missed my point–or I have not been clear about it.

    When I say that the reason points sell wine is because of multi-level laziness, I am not talking about the reviewer’s talents. I am talking about the industry’s (and many consumer’s) sheep-like grabbing at those wines with certain ratings–at the expense of all other wines which may or may not have even been rated.

    Producers, distributors, and retailers know the power of those numbers and so, when they complain that certain wines were unfairly scored by a certain reviewer, they simply are pressing their laziness, seeking to get someone else to sell the wine for them: the magazine or reviewer.

    You have a long-standing life in the business, and a long-standing view of it. Have you worked on the distribution and retail side? If so, you must be aware that over the decades it is the rare–not the rule–to find interested, passionate retailers who do the legwork. Things have indeed changed on that score and have gotten better, but humans is humans. If you construct a system that claims to be the arbiter of taste, then the general consumer is apt to follow that system rabidly. The distributors and retailers are also apt to make full use of the sales potential of that system.

    If you are a reviewer, and you are the baseliune of that system, it is disinegnuous of you to complain when the industry, at whichever level, tries hard to get you to play ball and give the highest rating.

    It is also a given under a system, where more and more people seem to be experts, and more and more wines hit the market, and more and more consumers drink wine, that score inflation will take place. Hell, I remember when it was great fun to watch baseball if the game was a 1 to nothing, because the tension usually was the issue. Now, however, it’s the big hitter that matters and so 60 home runs a years is passe (it was, until this years when most players couldn’t locate their steroid pusher).

    It seems in human nature to continue to “up” the ante. We are never quiet happy with things as they are, even if they are wonderful as they are.

    In this discussion, I am not arguing against the rating system (although I dislike it). I am arguing against Steve’s premise that he can change thinking about it, or that he should try, since he, as a reviewer, is part of why it is the way it is.

  9. I presume, Tom, that you brought baseball into this because you are a New Yorker and are laughing up your sleeve about the current situation facing my Red Sox.

    Other than that, thanks for the clarification.

  10. Charlie,

    I didn’t know your fondness for the Red Sox, but glad to oblige 😉 In any case, I’ve never been a Yankee fan–how could I? I grew up in Brooklyn, and was a die-hard young fan until the bastards went to L.A. Never got over that one.

    The baseball thing came up because I noticed that this season produced no high number home run hitters, and I believe we all know why.

    Thinking of the steroid pusher also gave me this idea–after I posted the above–that a reviewer complaining about distributors using scores to sell wine is like a pusher claiming that he doesn’t create junkies, just provides them with heroin…

  11. Dave Yuhas says:

    “Thomas, I’m not saying that. People should understand the context of the 100 point system.”

    There is NO context. The average wine buyer thinks of the 100 point system as a quality index. It’s that simple.

    The industry uses the 100 point system because, if they didn’t, the wine business would be a fraction of the size it is now.

    The point about people “read the words” as well as the score is true for the tiny percentage of the wine buying public who read the WE, WS, etc. I’d be shocked to discover that even 1% of the wine buying public subscribe to any wine-related publication.

  12. I think it is also being forgotten the reason for the rise of reviewers and the resulting 100-pt system. As Elin McCoy clearly states in her book on Parker, Parker rose to fame in the context of a Ralph Nader-esque consumer advocate for the wine world. Consumers are incredibly skeptical of retailers, for much the same reason Charlie mentioned he walked out of a clothing store–they distrust the sellers opinion based on a perceived conflict of their financial obligation. Wine reviewers, and their scores, are supposedly an objective third party source. Why do people trust Consumer Reports when buying a car? The opinion of people like Charlie and Steve is paramount.

    On other note, if I walked into a retailer and the retailer was doing a wonderful job of explaining the wines through verbiage, but I was on a limited budget and couldn’t decide between two wines, my next question (as I assume for most people) would be, “what does the retailer like best?” If the retailer replies, “I think they’re both great, but I like this one a little more,” isn’t that equivalent to rating the wines? The 100pt system is just the ultimate form of this–or in Steve’s hopes maybe the penultimate form.

    Also, we need to discuss the flow of information and time requirement to fully understand a subject matter. Wine is an esoteric subject and requires years of hard work and dedication through research, whether it be reading, drinking or discussing. The people who are usually motivated enough to undertake this monumental task are not typically satisfied with the resulting low pay of retail, or even restaurant, work. To use a cliche, the cream always rises to the top, and in the wine trade that usually means distribution, supply, production, or critiquing. Now, I know there are some dedicated retailers, but in general they are the exception, not the rule. In my limited experience, those with the most knowledge are the most removed from consumers.

  13. Steve-

    Another problem with the 100 point scale? I did not see that one coming.

    As a wine retailer for (only) 3 1/2 years now, I must admit that my shelves are littered with 83-88 point wine. To me these are some of the absolute best deals in the wine world. The majority of the wine tasting world cannot distinguish between a 92 and a 96 point wine, yet they are often very eager to pay extra for those four points.

    I am often reminded of the time a young couple came into the wine room, with the Advocate and the Spectator in hand (I remember the exact issue, it was the issue that Casanova di Neri was hailed as Wine of the Year), and preceded to look up the score for any wine they were interested in. If they couldn’t find a score in those two publications, they moved on to the next bottle. I tried to intervene and offer some advice but they were set on finding the highest rated wine. (I was, however, able to get out of them that they were looking for a bottle to take to dinner with her father that night) They ended up taking a fresh bottle of Brunello, the freshest we had, and only a few dollars less than the Casanova.

    That night these two opened an expensive bottle of young wine that was more likely to assault their tongues than compliment their meal. This is why I believe that without proper education on how to use these 100 point scales they will continue to be relatively useless to the consumer while simultaneously controlling the direction of the wine industry.

    As for my own wine shop, I will continue to buy wines on their own merit and not according to what certain individuals deem worthy of an “A”. And to all your winemakers out there stuck in the mediocrity of the mid-80’s: Please! Keep fighting the good fight! Let your wines be judged on the fact that the average consumer continues to come back and pick up your bottles expecting to get exactly what they pay for and not be judged by the single individual that in one moment puts a characterless number beside your name.

  14. Leanu, I wish you well. Your message is very important and I hope it will be read and understood.

  15. Charlie,

    A final word- The correlation I was attempting to make a correlation between high scores and the SUV driving public. We’ve already agreed that high scores usually accompany very high octane (if you will) big bodied, flabby wines (in a few short years in bottle). These high scoring wines ARE for people who don’t want to think (see Leanu’s piece above) or be conscious of what’s going on around them, i.e most environmentally conscious people DON’T drive huge over bearing SUV’s. They care and think about their purchases. They’re conscious of their purchases. Big wines like big cars appeal to the hedonistic animal in us perhaps. However, this model is unsustainable, similar to the point system.

    Harse? Nah. Charlie, as an older cat in this industry, I’m not willing nor do I desire to disrespect your opinion. I state my opinion as a grower, maker and marketer. I do not seek out sales from corporate, for-profit reviewers, not do I sell my wines to wine shops, distributors who dictate the need for scores. Not for anything, Charlie you’ll be hard pressed to find any one person who works harder and longer hours than a youngish Kid who grows it, makes it AND markets it 100% from his small 12’X16′ tasting room. By your comment, I do take exception. I doubt you have bank loans against your role in this business like I do. Do you “lay it on the line” like we do daily? I believe that we without scores or shop placement work HARDER than our number chasing counterparts. It’s easy to hit scores and sell wine. Believe me, I hit a few huge scores in the beginning of my career, until I “saw the light”-er side of wine and how pretty they can be with lower sugars, higher acids arriving at the crushpad. Try and make wines that don’t garner the big points and sell them like we used to do… Hand sell bottle-by-bottle and establish personal relationships with clients. I promise that hand sold wines capture more customer loyalty than numbers or one’s ability to get on a “list”.

    Like many in this wine world, we’re frustrated in a system that awards neglect of the fruit and ultimately rewards engineers, not winemakers.

    I wish you all could see the condition of the fruit arriving at “cult” wineries crushpads. I have on more than 5 occasions. It’s unbelievable, the absolute decimated condition the clusters were in.

  16. I think a lot of people miss the point here, and that is that a score is just one persons opinion on a bottle of wine on a certain day. As we all know, especially in those of us in the trade, different bottles look differently on different days notwithstanding all of the other factors that may be in play, which are too numerous to outline. There are plenty of wines that may get a 90+ from one reviewer and a high 70s or low 80s scores from another. I can think of numerous examples and all from the major wine reviewers. Who is right? Really no one, Its just opinions and they all have wines that they prefer. I think we are all guilty of letting scores interfere with what we actually like.

  17. Quote “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. Steve” end quote.

    Ok- so how does one get 50 million wine drinkers to understand that? The distributors? The Wineries? – hmmm- seems to me that the point puffery comes from critics and blogers anyway, so it should be their responsibility to make sure that distributors are reading articles like this so they get what real customers are wanting or are lacking in knowledge. imho.

  18. Good points, David, but how do I “make sure” distributors read my articles?

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