In January of last year we put out this piece, but we think the message is still relevant as well as a background for a couple of things we will be generating as the next chapter of this ‘story’.
It wasn’t that long ago, in a place not so far away, that we expressed concern about what would happen to the wine world as the media continued to expand. This was pretty much back when James Suckling left the Wine Spectator to set up his own shop, and our fear at the time was that there might be a certain rise in overall scoring as this new entity tried to garner a readership. After all, it is axiomatic that consumers do not concern themselves with wines that get a B+ (89 point scores), so one of the ways to get your name in front of a new audience was to become more ‘quotable’. How does one achieve that? One way is to issue ‘enthusiastic’ scores on certain wines that would surely be quoted by those of us trying to sell said wine, which in turn would give a certain credibility to the reviewer.
Selling by third party endorsement became a growing industry
tool back in the late 1980s as certain wine media sources, mainly the Wine
Advocate and Wine Spectator, made inroads into consumer wine awareness by
virtue of their easy to digest 100 point scales. Yes there were words, too. But the familiarity of the general populace
with number grading because most experienced it in school, and the quick
evaluation a consumer could make just by quickly looking up a number, embedded
the system in the collective wine psyche.
It didn’t help that most merchants were lazy and quick to
adapt to someone else providing sales avenues via published reviews. Using third-party press relieved them of the
responsibility of actually doing their own work and removed their liability in
actually giving their customers their own opinions. This indemnification made the retail trade
the writers’ biggest fans and the constant attention that the majority of
retailers gave to third party reviews gave the media tremendous power.
Remembering back however, what was different back then was
that the scores themselves seemed to have honest intention on the part of the
media to give the consumer the appropriate perspective. Back in the day, a 93 point score was a
pretty enthusiastic endorsement, a 95 was a must have, and ‘88’ and ‘89’ were
still viewed as positive prose for wines that were value priced. There were shockwaves in the industry when
Robert Parker issues his first ‘100-point’ score for a domestic wine, the 1985
Groth Cabernet Reserve. Such scores were
quite rare then.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and the value of
individual scores gradually depreciated.
Sadly after the turn of the century, no matter how glowing the prose, a
90 point score barely elicited a response from buyers and ‘92’ became the new ‘90’
for value wines. Giving a wine ‘89’ these days is like a
witness protection program…no one will find the wine because they won’t look
that for down the list. All kidding
aside, this is what we have observed behaviorally for a while now. But the worst it seems is not over.
Part of it has been predictable given the way the James
Suckling site established itself.
Suddenly however there are a lot more ‘players’ competing for consumer
attention. Antonio Galloni worked for
Wine Advocate, then left to set up shop on his own, subsequently purchasing
Stephan Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and incorporating that writing team
into the fold. Most recently he hired
away the Advocate Bordeaux specialist Neal Martin.
Jeb Dunnuck was brought on to Wine Advocate to focus on
Rhones and then got other responsibilities on the domestic front. Jeb left to set up his own service (or more
correctly re-setup as he had his own service prior to his engagement with Wine
Advocate), knowing full well that his own service would benefit from his
exposure with wine’s most influential review source. He just recently kicked off his own program. Given the ‘defections’ and the fact that
Robert Parker himself has greatly scaled back his post-sale involvement, editor
Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW expanded her role in the Wine Advocate review writing.
So where are we now? Well it is fair to say that previously there were two main review services being followed, 2.5 if you count the respected but not always ‘quotable’ Tanzer publication. Now there are five that directly resulted from the initial two and a number of others that are at varied stages ‘market penetration’, but arguably have much less clout. There are likely some ‘startups’ we haven’t even run across yet that are U.S. based. All of them have plans to become, or in some cases retain a powerful voice among wine consumers. Sadly, it appears that another dangerous score escalation may be in the offing. It has been coming for a while.
A few years back, after the sale of the Advocate, Robert Parker did a ‘second look piece’ on 2002s from Napa Valley. Now here was one of the most powerful critics of any kind, someone who had been generally judicious in handing out triple digit reviews (with the possible exception of elite Bordeaux and Guigal and Chapoutier speicalty bottlings). But in this particular issue in June, 2012, in one section, ‘The Bob’ handed out nineteen 100 point scores! Now granted, one could argue that this was the beginning of Parker’s ‘farewell tour’ after a storied career and he was making friends. One could also point to the lineup (Abreu, Harlan, Sloan, Schrader) as the Napa Cabernet version of the ’27 Yankees. So what’s a few 100s among friends. That was unprecedented at the time and we saw it as a departure from the conscientiousness of Advocate’s prior history.
But it is what has been happening recently, with reviewers operating in new positions or trying to establish new services, really has us concerned. Lisa Perotti-Brown’s first significant foray into the Napa Valley generated fifteen 100-point final scores and 32 that were either 99 or had a range score that touched perfection (98-100). Perhaps a little surprising to some is that three Chardonnays were awarded triple digits. Pretty rarified stuff.
Not to be outdone, there was plenty of firepower to Jeb Dunnuck’s opening report of the Napa Valley. Now one of Robert Parker’s strengths was his enthusiasm which he could convey through the written word. Jeb showed plenty of numerical excitement in his inaugural work, handing out no less than 31 ‘100s’ and a good slug of ‘99s’ (21 actually). Thirty one ‘perfect’ wines? In a single category? Really? Someone used the term ‘jumping the shark’ for this opening salvo/love fest. More important, if the perfect score becomes commonplace, it also will seem less special and have less impact, not to mention how it undermines all of those poor souls that only got ‘96’ which, ‘back in the day’, was a very good review.
We could make a few, albeit less sensational examples to illustrate what we are talking about with respect to the current round of ‘score wars’, but it’s the overall impact that is the problem. With more publications slinging around more 100s and other lofty marks, perspective goes out the window. The consumer will start getting confused, even numbed (a number of the trade already have), and sensationalism will rule the day. With so many more items pushed up against that finite ceiling (since you can’t have more than 100 points) separation becomes much less clear and it all starts to lose meaning.
In the end, if this proliferation of over the moon scoring
continues, where does it end? People
thinking the only way to get a decent bottle of wine is to pay $300-500 on
somebody’s mailing list? Does ‘95’ become the new ‘89’?
Is there really that much perfection in the world or are all
these writers trying to win friends and influence the marketplace for their own
agenda? It’s hard to say but it is clear
we are entering dangerous territory.
These publications are supposedly designed to help consumers sort through the myriad of wine choices out there. Passing out big scores like Halloween candy might get the writer ‘in big’ with the wine elite. It might help Andy Beckstoffer charge even more for his grapes. But we fail to see how it helps the consumer very much, and they, my dear reviewers, are the ones that pay your bills. If, for whatever reason, your audience stops listening, it’s nearly impossible to get them back.