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Spectator’s top wine a good choice, from a PR POV


I thought it was pretty clever for Wine Spectator to choose that Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $27, as their Wine of the Year.

The Spectator has gotten a heavy reputation over the years for being a snobby, rich man’s (emphasis on man’s) magazine that caters to collectors and puffed-up winemakers who want to sell to collectors at inflated prices. That reputation worked back in the old days (i.e. pre-Fourth Quarter 2008), when money was flowing and everybody wanted the latest cult wine. But it’s a lousy rep to have today, being totally inconsistent with the new national trend of modesty and inconspicuous consumption. I obviously have no way of knowing the internal workings at Wine Spectator, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the word hadn’t gone out to the effect that “Let there be something inexpensive this year.” And, lo and behold, there was something inexpensive, not to mention relatively accessible, and from a major commercial producer.

(For the record, Wine Enthusiast on Dec. 2 reveals our Top 100 Wines of the Year.)

To some extent this reputation for Spectator snobbery has never been a fair one. The magazine always has value lists and value articles, and I don’t think their staff shies away from reviewing inexpensive wines. But perception is reality, as they say, and whether fair or not, the Spectator has been saddled as the publication of, by and for the cults and triple-digit wines. When I began at Wine Enthusiast, fresh off my stint at Wine Spectator, the decision already had been made by our management to be a (hopefully refreshing) alternative, which is to say a magazine dedicated to the average wine consumer, not merely the collector. That was a philosophy I could buy into, because I have always been an average wine consumer, if by “average” you mean someone who doesn’t have the means to buy lots of expensive bottles. And, I must confess, I had been rather put off by the collector types I met while at the Spectator, who seemed to exist on a plane that was hard for me to relate to.

I think Wine Enthusiast has accomplished our goal. People, both in the industry and “just” consumers, tell me all the time they think the Enthusiast “shares their values” more than the Spectator, which often puts me in the odd position of defending the Spectator, even though they’re “the competition.” I suppose people think if they say something anti-Spectator I’ll like it, but I don’t, not really. It makes me uncomfortable.

Does the selection of the Columbia Crest signifies a sea change at the Spectator — a re-orientation toward more popularly priced wines? Probably not. I’m sure there will be upcoming verticals of Mouton, or the latest $400 garragiste wine, etc. But for the time being the Columbia Crest award removes the elitist bull’s-eye from the Spectator’s tuchas.

Incidentally, Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest Editor, Paul Gregutt, reviewed the C.C. 2005 Reserve Cab and gave it 89 points, a very good but not great score. On the Seattle Yelp page, public reaction to the award seemed proud that Washington State was honored, but at the same time, bemused. One person called the wine “very flat [and] one dimensional.” Another called it “boring,” while still another said “the choice really has made me wonder what the criteria were.” You can wonder whatever you want to about the selection, but this is true: it created buzz, it got people talking, and it’s better to have people talking about you — even controversially — than not.

  1. This ought to get some interesting “discussions” going in the WS on-line forums. Some of those guys are probably crapping themselves over that selection…

  2. Yeah but…only 1 white wine in the top ten? Still seems pretty out of touch to me.

  3. Steve, Not sure I agree that this is a true “value” selection (at $27 when released, it might seem like one by CA standards, but…). I’ve blogged about the whole thing, but the consensus in WA, as you say, is that it’s great that a WA wine – make that ANY WA wine – was given the #1 slot. I look forward to the comments sure to follow the Wine Enthusiast list next week, which, as you know, puts an even brighter spotlight on WA. And for the record, my own annual Top 100 – all WA wines – comes out in the Seattle Times on Sunday and on my blog on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving amigo!

  4. Samantha – You are right, but consistent with such an absurd premise.

  5. Steve,

    The WE “89” and the Wine Spectator “Wine of the Year” prove what is basically being discussed year round on blog sites, magazines, etc. over the years – wine rankings are all subjective and one person’s 80 is another person’s “perfect.” As you have discussed before on this very blog, there should be some way to figure out what a good wine is – you have said, and I’m paraphrasing, that evaluators, like you, because they taste so much wine, are likely a good barometer (ok, I’m paraphrasing).

    My question is, how do you explain, what I think is the huge discrepancy, between the WE ranking of 89 and the WS “Wine of the Year” award. Do you believe, as you say, that perhaps the CC Cab was the best inexpensive (in a manner of speaking – I realize $27 is not cheap) wine WS could find? Do you believe the powers that be at WS really believed a wine WE rated an 89 was that good? Not being cynical, just very interested.

    Think this will create even more confusion for the buying public – people simply aren’t that knowledgeable about wine and bet this one will be second guessed for years (well maybe days)…


  6. Richard, I couldn’t begin to explain their pick, except for my comments in my blog. Choosing a wine of the year is a complicated business and I”m sure a lot of things went into their decision.

  7. Of course, as always, the wine is long sold out. Is that like “People” magazine naming Heath Ledger “Sexiest Man Once Alive?”

    And, naturally, it is sheer coincidence that the first WA wine named “Wine of the Year” is from a major advertiser in Wine Spectator.

    Thirdly, does anyone actually care any more about Wine Spectator’s Top 100?

  8. Re: does anyone care about the WS Top 100? Speaking as one in the biz, both on a wholesale and retail level, yes — I know that over the coming days and weeks, I will be fielding inquiries as to availability of almost any wine on the list. It’s an annual occurrence, where I see customers walking into the store with list in hand and I must (gently)educate them to the realities of the wine supply chain. But it does get people in the door and then we can talk about suitable alternatives — of course, a number of them are a bit non-plussed to pissed that the wines aren’t sitting on the shelf.

    Re: a WS sea change? Maybe we can look forward to photos in the magazine of Mr. Shanken in jeans and a work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, toiling among the vines, as WS seeks to relate to the working class folk who buy 90% of the wine sold in this country…well, maybe not 😉

  9. Watching the buzz about this pick this last week has been quite interesting. Some are furious (from the bulletin boards “What is the Top 100 worth anymore?!?”…ummm, come on folks) and some, as Paul G suggested, are quite happy to see Washington receive some recognition. I fall in to the latter category, although I would have certainly picked any one of a number of other Washington wines.

    For those who are furious at the selection, I say look at Specator’s criteria: score, price, availability, and excitement. WS scored this high (personally I scored it as good not great, but to each his own), it’s reasonably priced, with good availability, and the score generated a lot of buzz at the time it came out. Certainly a reasonable selection by their criteria, if not necessarily a “classic” wine in my mind.

    For people who wanted a more “classic” selection, Spectator could have gone with the Antinori Toscana Solaia. This wine was highly rated (97 points), is highly available (6250 cases produced), and generated some excitement. However, the wine costs $285. In another day, many would not have batted their eyes at that number. It would have been a reasonable choice for Number 1. This year, it didn’t even make the Top 100. In today’s economy, this choice would have seemed craven, out of touch, and would have cemented Spectator’s reputation (deserved or not) as a snobby rich man’s magazine. And whatever buzz would have been generated would have been either limitied, negative, or both.

    So hat’s off to Spectator. This was a very good PR move as you suggest above. It got a lot of people talking and that’s part of the point. Hats of to Washington as well.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. Further to Sean’s comment; it is useful to quote directly from the WS website: “This annual list, which debuted in 1988, reflects significant trends, spotlights successful regions and recognizes outstanding producers…. We narrowed the [90 pt or above] list down based on four criteria: quality (represented by score); value (reflected by release price); availability (measured by case produced or imported); and an X-factor we call excitement. But no equation determines the final selections: These choices reflect our editors’ judgment and passion about the wines we tasted.

    Since 2009 was a year of economic retrenchment, we focused even more on value as we made our choices; the average price per bottle is $40, down from the past two years…”

    So #1 makes complete sense based on these criteria. And after all, the wine did receive a 95, so one can’t be too cynical about a “PR move”. Why wouldn’t Spectator change its focus to lower priced wines to reflect the changing marketplace.

    What is confusing, as was mentioned, is the discrepancy with the WE score. All the more reason to seek out many opinions and determine the average/mean/median with standard deviation. The CellarTracker median # based on 119 (!) notes gives it 92 pts, putting it right in the middle between the two magazine critics. {8^D

  11. Michael Donohue says:

    I think it’s a fair choice especially when you consider the advertising dollars they have spent…we can almost all aspire to a $27 splurge…which isn’t to say there aren’t better wines out there for $15-20…Rhone & Languedoc come to mind – or Chile since we’re in Cab mode!

  12. steve stevens says:

    I’m a little disappointed by the Spectator’s choice for No. 1.

    That’s not a criticism, by the way, of the top wine or of the editors that chose it. As Steve wrote, it’s complicated putting together these types of lists. I would, however, quibble with how much value seemed to drive the choices.

    In my opinion, a year-end “best of” wines list should be weighted heavily toward quality (taste) and less toward value and availability. Those latter two attributes, while important, are ancillary to the wine’s chief aspect: the quality and nature of its sensual components.

    It’s true that “the best” means different things to different people. That’s a given. But the goal of the entire process of tasting, reviewing and scoring wines is to assess–as accurately as possible–the quality of the wine in the bottle. Should a year-end list that is presumably a summing up of that process reflect something else?

    But to be clear, I don’t blame the Spectator. They don’t publish in a vacuum, so they make choices about these things for a variety of reasons and, as has already been said, this may be a brilliant public relations move. I’m just not sure it’s best for their readers.

  13. Any Press is Good Press…right?
    I was told that of the few local (SB and Slo county) labels who made the top 100 list, all were sold out and currently unavailable.
    obviously, being on the top 100 list from wine spectator means a lot in the public preception.
    I find it suprising that a larger quantity production came in number one. Maybe they had an agenda.
    I think it would be a good idea to have “reader’s choice” awards.

  14. For better or for worse, for reality or imagination, the Spectator has always said that quality relative to price plays a big role in making their top 100 list.

    Here is a wine that they ranked at 95 points. Whether a large body of indedpendent evaluators would agree or not is of no moment to the Spectator. It ranked the wine at 95, and it is a wine that costs $27.

    Those two facts by themselves dictate that the wine would be in their top 100. Brett wonders if they have an agenda.

    Well, here is my guess. In this lousy economic year, when we have been treated to story after story of folks trading down from higher priced trophy bottlings, it would be a natural to choose a wine like the Columbia Crest for extra attention. How silly would it have looked to choose one of those three-digit priced wines at this time? Whatever else the folks who run the Spectator might or might not be, unbusinesslike is not one of them.

  15. “The times they are a changing…” Or are they? No, better yet, for how long? As Charles says, WS knows their business – selling magazines. I’ve been a subscriber for close to three decades and every issue that comes out, I swear I will cancel if they feature one more wine that only 72 cases were produced – or some number, any number that means only Marv and industry insiders, not us mere mortals, will ever have access to.

    I can deal with wines that fetch triple-digit prices, some are actually worth it. I accept that the ratings game drives market behavior, but really, what’s the point of filling pages with wines that no one (okay, maybe a 100 or so readers out of what – a few million, will never see the cork let alone sip the wine?

    And…? Every year, I renew my subscription. So whether Steve or the rest of us think WS may be playing to the market and to the masses, they’re right! BTW, how many of us would love to blind taste the nine reds in the Top Ten and discover our own #1. Where do I sign up!

  16. The uproar from some is quite humorous. This is opinion folks not fact. Yes the Spectator calls this the number one wine of the year but that is the opinion of a very small group of people. Sure it is interesting, great for the Washington wine industry and a nice trend change from historical lists but it does not really change anything. Just an interesting opinion, like reading the op-ed page in the Times.

  17. steve stevens says:

    Phil has a good point. A list is just a list, a collation of a person’s or group’s opinion. And most people think of them simply as good ways to draw reader attention and they’d be right.

    However, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The New York Times has greater responsibility to be fair and accurate than does a neighborhood newspaper in rural Nebraska. Why? Because the Times opinion can have dramatic effects in the marketplace. You might say the Spectator has a loosely similar role in the wine industry.

    So, while I agree with Phil that some people get themselves far too worked up over lists, I also think we can’t dismiss their ripple effects. Publications like the Spectator and the Enthusiast have an obligation to take their lists more seriously than some others just as an athlete who achieves great professional success is a role model whether he or she wants to be a role model or doesn’t.

    Having said that, the Spectator’s editors seem to have done a good job meeting that obligation. Some of the rigmarole, I think, comes not from some error on their part but perhaps from misuse of the list in question by the general public. There’s a huge difference between a buying guide and a “best of” list. And if people use a thing in a way that it was not intended to be used, well, then things might not go smoothly.

  18. Bob Johnston says:

    There is only one problem with the Spectator’s No. 1 pick. It is sold out & impossible to get. They are geniuses at promoting wines which are no longer available.

  19. steve stevens says:

    @ Bob-I guess that’s my point. If these wines are supposed to be the best of the year, maybe we should expect them to be gone. I don’t think the list is meant to be a shopping list.

  20. It is a sea change for the Spectator. I suspect the choice was less about the wine itself and more about frugal-chic. i was ecpecting cheaper paper too on the top 100 list page. But if CC Cab at #, why not then a truly good wine, like a good Rioja or Gigondas for the same money that has so many more layers than a WA cab?

  21. Strange that Clos Apalta was not on the list this year. The wine did not take a price increase and still scored very well. Oh well.

  22. Joyce Stavert says:

    What this all points to is that scores are an ineffective way of reviewing a wine. There are too many variables – is the score based on taste only, price, availability, excitement etc? If it is based on all of those things, how are they weighted? It is all so subjective it becomes downright silly to even think a score can actually be useful in whether or not an individual consumer will like a particular wine or find it to be a good value. With all due respect to all the publications who use a score system, we need to find a better way. In my twenty years of interacting with wine consumers, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had them complain about buying very expensive wines with high scores only to be ultimately disappointed because the wine did not appeal to their personal taste.

  23. It’s not about the price of the Columbia Crest nor is it about the wine being “good” as opposed to “very good”. It’s the top ranked wine because the Wine Spectator supports those that support them. This is the wine business after all.

  24. CA Winediva says:

    Well, we tasted old #1 over the weekend, and wern’t very impressed. Although we had to pretend to be. A friend who is a *collector*, brought several bottles over to share, he was so proud. He bought cases of the stuff on release. It’s a very average bottle of wine, and at 27 bucks I think overpriced. No complexity going on at all. We’re not big fans of WS, as they are a bit full of themselves. WE is more to our taste. Is it fair or scary to say *fair and balanced*?

    With so much really good wine out in the world at good prices, think Buheler Napa Cab, or, Hess Mt. Veeder Cuvee…….ya gotta wonder why they picked that one?

  25. CA Winediva, thanks for the compliment to Wine Enthusiast. Always nice to hear somebody likes us.

  26. Steve Wino says:

    I walked away from the WS Top 100 list this year totally befuddled. I have the #1 and about 6 or 7 of other wines on the list in my cellar, some of which are cheap, some of which are more expensive, and none of which are over $70. I cannot for the life of me see why those that I have opened – and no, I am not opening my Renatto Ratti or Cayuse yet – are in the list. My conclusion is that it is silly to take the whole Top 100 seriously. Change the title to “100 Interesting Wines for 2009” and don’t spin it as an ultimate award, even on the broad criteria on which WS bases its decision.

  27. So here is a question. Agree or not we all just spent days talking about the top 100 list and the Columbia Crest brand. Agree or not I think the choice of this wine perked up everyone’s ears to take a look at this years list. If they had said Caymus SS, Pegu, Latour, or something over $200 from Piedmont do you think any of us would have batted an eye. Don’t they say something like all press is good press.

  28. Like I said, it created buzz. And buzz is good.

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