Wine Ratings… part Deux!

Nicolay and I had a lovely…conversation… about his post over a glass of wine last Friday, so, here I am with my opinion, click the “back” button if you dislike people waxing poetic.

I’d like to start by saying that everything Nicolay stated is valid, and I think he makes some very strong points.  Of course we know the value of comparison shopping, and I can certainly see the effect that criticism has on the value, and resale value, of goods.

There is nothing wrong with listening to the opinions of informed experts–if that was such a terrible thing I wouldn’t have a job.  The issue that I take with the 90-point scale and the mainstream wine press is that by simplifying what should be a very complex analysis down to a point value ends up encouraging laziness, both at the consumer level and, much worse, at the professional level.

Of course tasting notes accompany these point scores, but often they seem so fanciful that I’d assume the author was a frustrated poet.  It’s one thing to read the notes, but when distributors and merchandisers put up signs advertising their products any notes present quite literally reside in the shadow of the “90 Points!” banner that could be read from across the room.  This is intended to function like a quick pitch telemarketer selling diet pills, and we all want to lose weight.

What you likely don’t see is that when we taste prospective wines and make decisions about what is going to be carried in our store, sales people (who are just doing their job) quote point scores to us as though we should bow down before the great Robert Parker’s titan palate.  Sometimes I agree with him about quality, and sometimes (I can think of one “apathetic” example) I cannot for the life of me understand his reasoning.  He’s entitled to his opinion either way, and it certainly seems that a lot of people like those that he offers, but I’m disturbed by the industry culture of selling based on one (or a handful) of opinions.  Sales staff preach his gospel, and I assume other liquor stores buy based on the scores they’ve been quoted. Retailers then turn around and sell it to the public… it’s a bolt of lightning straight through the supply chain, and it is positively cultish.  I tend not to like cults.

I pride myself on my ability, through a lot of study and training, to be able to offer a degree of objective, sensory analysis when someone asks my opinion about a wine, and I know that the two Nics at the store do as well.  Acidity, tannin, alcohol, these are things that your mouth can measure, and they have a big effect on not just how the wine tastes now, but how it will taste with food, and what it will taste like in 10 years.  Needless to say, not a lot of people pick wine tasting as a career path, so I don’t expect my customers to come in speaking jargon.  They shouldn’t have to; that’s what I’m here for.  It’s troubling, then, to see both consumers, distributors, and producers (the producer’s battle is a different article) ascribe to the simple solution –buying and selling on points– rather than trying to become informed first and understanding the wine’s style, goal, and appropriateness.

I offer this comparison, as a counterargument to Nicolay’s examples.  When election season comes around, I don’t make voting decisions based on endorsements, I do it by reading about the candidates and considering who would be most appropriate at this moment in history.  That takes a little bit more work, certainly, but frankly it’s just more responsible.  I understand that not everyone has the interest, time, or money to invest into wine study, and that’s fine, because I don’t have the interest, time, or money to invest in studying the intricacies of the law.  When I needed to evict my tenants, I hired a lawyer to help.  When you want a wine, read the notes, or better yet, ask us.  We, quite literally, make a living tasting wines and making decisions about their use.

I have respect and appreciation for capitalism, and I understand that everyone has to make a living.  There’s no reason for big companies not to advertise with point scores, because it gets results.  And I doubt Jackson Pollack would be well-regarded as an artist without the community of critics there to support and interpret his work.  But what happens when you buy by the number, or you read about Pollack and form a decision without looking at his painting?  Wine, like anything else, is something that must be experienced to understand, and when the difference between trying something new and sticking with the same old thing is the difference between the numbers 89 and 90, isn’t it worth taking the one-point risk?  I believe that by trying new things and being skeptical of quick pitches, I can learn a lot and live a bit better, and I hope that other wine drinkers will try approaching wine that way, as well.

4 thoughts on “Wine Ratings… part Deux!

  1. After reading both articles I am still left with the same level of knowledge in regards to wine ratings as I had prior to reading, but with a greater desire to express my opinion, as a consumer, not a wine expert. I believe most people who walk into a store, not just a liquor store, and are approached by employees wanting to help are more apt to respond with, “I’m just looking, thanks”. This could be because they are intimidated to ask questions or because they are simply too lazy to inquire about the appropriateness of the wine for the function or meal. Instead, they will select the “perfect” bottle by the number rating or more likely the label; bottles with fancy, sophisticated labels means better wine :). In my opinion, the same holds true for the average consumer at restaurants. Most will order the house Merlot without a second thought, whereas someone with a passion for wine will choose the restaurant based on the wine list alone. Wine ratings are just a simple and easy way for the average consumer, who has no desire to learn and appreciate wine, to purchase and be on their way.

    1. I agree and disagree with you. There are the customers that can’t be bothered to learn anything and depend on ratings to choose their wine, but their are customers, based on personal experience, that do know a thing or two about wine but still choose to use a rating system. It is surprising to talk to a customer who happens to be well educated in wine but come in with the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate in their hand. They know what they like and what is good, but they also know that the rater they use happens to have the same taste as they, which makes picking wines they haven’t had yet easier. Think of raters as a GPS that only has updates of highways and main roads, it will help you get from point A to point B, even if it isn’t the fastest route. With enough updates, however, it will not only show you the easiest route, it will also show you routes with or without tolls, the shortest possible distance, and the fastest. Given enough time all the raters will have had the opportunity to try every wine, even the very small production, family owned, pressed by feet wines. Its only a matter of time.

      1. You raise an interesting point; does it really matter if a customer seemingly well educated in wine has Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate in hand? That’s like saying a business professional shouldn’t be caught reading Business Week or the Wall Street Journal. In both instances, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to use credible publications to make informed decisions. You wouldn’t purchase a refrigerator without researching and reading reviews, I wouldn’t invest in stocks without researching the company, and some experienced consumers of wine wouldn’t purchase a bottle they have never had before without some degree of assurance they were going to like it. If they want to use raters that share their same taste in wine, so be it, as a person with a passion for wine I think you should encourage them to continue to explore the world of wine within their comfort zone. However, I do agree with you in regards to raters; over time they will all have had the chance to taste the vast majority of the wines of the world. Then, and only then, will those constrained by the views and opinions of Wine Spectacular or Wine Advocate feel comfortable enough to take a chance on a wine they otherwise would not have.

        1. It doesn’t matter if a well educated consumer uses a rater, they have tasted many more wines than the average consumer, which allows the reader the option of trying new wines based on their review. To repeat what I stated in the first part of the Ratings blog, I feel that one should use whomever or whatever they want, as long as they feel comfortable doing so, I wouldn’t invest in something without first researching it. Even myself and my colleagues use outside sources of info to help us pick wines we would like to taste, or for wines that are so rare not even we have the opportunity to try it. Raters are opportunists that saw a niche that needed to be filled and did so; luckily there are many different raters so you don’t have to be tied to just one.

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