I’VE GOT 100 POINTS IN MY POCKET, WANNA SEE? (TOSSING MY TWO CENTS INTO THE CESSPOOL TO SEE WHO GOES IN AFTER IT)

I recently joined something called the ScoREvolution, because 1) I am a habitual joiner, 2) I have never been a huge fan of wine scores, and 3) I can’t stress enough that there has to be a better way to review wines.  Now, in trying to keep up with the Joneses, I was surfing other wine blogs and happened upon Steve Heimoff’s latest, regarding comments on his Facebook page, comments that circle right around to the aforementioned ScoREvolution, begun by the folks at Hedges Family Estates.

The endless debate about wine scores is to use them or not to use them – a kind of “damned if I do/damned if I don’t” argument.  Those for seem to point out that it is hard to navigate the vast shelfscapes of wine that lie within the walls of all these brick-and-mortar stores, and indeed, for example in my store, there are around 3,000 different wines on the shelves; it is hard to make each one stand out from the other.  Yet the score is not the be-all-end-all descriptor:  I’ve been harping on that one to Dr. Jay Miller over at Wine Advocate, who somehow comes up with a score yet never has any tasting notes to accompany the score.  It reminds me of the whole American Bandstand thing (I am dating myself with this analogy) – “it’s got a good beat, I can dance to it… I give it an 87.”  Yet does all this quantifying really tell you about the wine itself?  We seem to want to treat wine like a commodity yet it truly defies simple commodity status; it is far too much an experience, an art form that transcends an arbitrary rating.  It can be argued that music, books, movies and art are quantified as well, yet there are enough people who are of a contrary position or belief to that of critics in those realms that sales of these items aren’t swayed too dramatically one way or another.  Yet in wine, a wine score can mean boom or bust.  I think that this is the fact that many in this business find ridiculous.  Only politics could be compared to the wine business with regards to its critics in that a low score almost assuredly spells certain death.

For years, I have been a tirade-prone maniac, and I actually was confronted by a very prominent editor of one of the wine magazines, who at length called into question my level of experience in this business, implying I didn’t quite know what I was going on about with relations to wine scores.  And in some regards, he was right.  What I mean by that is this obtuse state of denial I have been living in, believing that the scores don’t matter, because they do – to a point.  Like with any descriptor on any shelf talker that accompanies a particular wine, a wine score is just another barometer by which a person can gauge their interest in purchasing a particular wine on a particular moment.  The caveat should be that this score, and this tasting note is an opinion based on one reviewer’s palate, and however unbiased this review is portrayed, it can never be more than the opinion of the reviewer, unless you industry folks buy in to the rumors that there is a bit of “payola” in the wine biz and higher scores can be bought with more advertising revenue spent at any particular wine mag.

And hell, technically you could say I score with my ranking system of “Amazing,” “Outstanding,” “Average,” and “Sucks Ass.”  It’s essentially a 4-for-Amazing, 3-for-Outstanding and so on.  Sure it dodges the whole post-elementary-school-traumatic-stress-disorder but it is still technically a wine “score.”

The onus falls squarely upon the retailer how best to utilize these reviews and scores, I fully concede this.  After having been in this business in varying facets for around 20 years (both restaurant and retail), I find myself trying to utilize these reviews by integrating them with my own reviews, and those of fellow bloggers, and those of my staff.  And in educating the customers on what wines are more apt to glean the top scores from which magazine also go a long way in demonstrating to said customers that going solely by wine scores is not the way to go.

I still feel as if there is a better way to get the message across about a particular wine.  Indeed the number of wines that are reviewed in correspondence to how many wines are being made is extraordinarily disproportionate. 

I used to just jump all over critics like Steve Heimoff, James Laube at Wine Spectator, James Suckling (late of Wine Spectator), Robert Parker, et.al, but those days are passed for me.  I do think it is going to take a collective innovation to move us all into the next century when it comes to wine scores, but then again, we all take these things way too seriously, and it’s all just grape juice, right?  But then again, James Laube does resemble Dick Clark, with white hair and a mustache – or is that just another acid flashback of mine about to go down?

7 Comments

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  • Ken
    December 13, 2010 - 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Miller: “…..90, 90, 90…….” Dr. Jay would give a 90 to a glass of Welch’s!! He’s the worst of the worst.

  • December 13, 2010 - 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Here here. Not sure how he still has a job.

  • December 14, 2010 - 8:52 am | Permalink

    Just for your information, sonny boy, Dick Clark never had a mustache.

    Furthermore, the wine biz revels in scores – scores form the basis of the retail sales strategy at many stores, eg, Wine Library. First thing Gary V’s buyers want to know is: What’s the score? Who gave it?

    Average Joe Consumer seems to take comfort in seeing those scores posted all over the store.

    I don’t think scoremania is as intense as it was 5, 10 years ago, but it ain’t going away any time soon.

  • December 14, 2010 - 9:44 am | Permalink

    I think it’s funny how Steve Heimoff loves fanning the flames of this debate even more than anti-100ers. Truth be told: only RP and WS scores matter these days, and even then, the ratings are only really grabbing attention when the scores are 94+ for pricey bottles, or pat-on-the-back 90-pt scores given to <$12 wines.

    People are catching on to the fact that MOST WINES ARE PRETTY DARN GOOD THESE DAYS (sorry for the CAPS, but this needs to be yelled), and that style, personal taste and context trump ratings in real life.

    Strappo's point about number-reveling is well taken, but I think that aspect of scoremania is waning a bit too. Retailers are the key to moving forward. Zachys full-page ads screaming "every wine rated 90 or higher" and Gary V's "RP92!" eblasts reek of laziness. On the other hand, I see more and more retail newsletters exuding genuine excitement and information about deserving wines.

    People are also catching on to the fact that the numbers themselves are selling tools, not qualitative standards. So-called "buying guides" are really marketing guides. If they were actually buying guides, they would tell people where wines are actually purchaseable. (WE gets 90 points for crassness by turning its end of year Top 100 lists advertorials by selling label reproductions — proof that the 100pt scale is more about marketing than about journalism.)

    In general, the Web is helping eveyone move toward a more functional forms of wine info-sharing (not just "criticism"). Via blogs and mobile devices and simply so much more information sharing, the points are taking a backseat to real-world situations. I see person-to-person advice — whether on a retail floor, at a resto, or via blogs/twitter/peers — stepping up. I also sense a greater appreaction for emphasis on what you want in a wine and what you can actually buy — as opposed to what some middle-aged man somewhere weeks ago rate a wine (that you probably can't even find) while trying it blind and without a crumb of food.

    I am not a fan of anonymous "revolutions" such as the one that sparked Heimoff's post, and yours. We all need to realize that consumers will always look for guidance. But railing anonymously against 100pt scale ratings is not the anwser. We should be ignoring the aspects of the 100pt scale that we don't like, and supporting other forms of criticism that are more realistic/civilized.

    I respect your system because it's served up genuinely and with wine context in mind. Keep up the good fight. Soon enough, the numbers junikies will enter the happy world of reality…. It's just juice. Most of it's good. Some of it please us more than others. It tastes better with food. And no matter what you think of one wine, there is plenty more where that one came from.

  • December 14, 2010 - 11:34 am | Permalink

    Tish,

    Thanks for that. I was really just pondering aloud more than anything else. I agree with you that the Web is changing the wine world – as it is everything else. Sites like Snooth bring the wine community into the Tech Age and there are honestly far more important things to worry about than the 100 point system. It does sell wine, but I have at least a dozen examples I can fire off right now that are wines with absolutely no reviews that I can’t keep stocked in the stores. However, like Strappo pointed out, there is still a particular vanguard of retailers that see the scores as the be-all-end-all of their buying strategy, and I think that is ultimately what separates the good stores from the great stores. Thinking beyond the press and bringing a more personable approach to the wines carried and recommended in the stores is what all of us in the retail biz need to strive for, not filling the shelves with big ratings. If everything had a 90+ score on the shelves, what would be the distinguishing factor for each brand at that point?

  • December 14, 2010 - 11:35 am | Permalink

    I hear ya. Steve’s post just sort of struck me as funny. And I am aware that Dick Clark never had a mustache. I was just thinking you strip Laube of his white hair and ‘stache, you get Dick Clark without a tan. Or maybe I was sniffing too much glue as a child.

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