We just republished a piece we did more than a year ago that we called ‘score wars’ that spoke of our concerns as merchants about how more reviewers were tossing more and bigger scores into the collective well and how that might adversely affect the public psyche moving forward. In other pieces we have tried to present balanced views of what a ‘score’ actually meant and how the process of evaluating wines en mass, as most of the writers do, can yield much different results than someone evaluating them one or two at a time.
We realize there is no perfect system. But the massive amounts of information that most of scribes have generated over the years is of definite benefit to the consumer in terms of education and guidance. We can still remember the days when most wine reviews came out in the local newspaper on a Thursday (usually as a part of a high-end lunch paid for by the purveyor) or as some adjunct list in a monthly non-wine publication (which were usually way too late for any real market relevance as many of the selections were long gone or blatantly commercial).
The current review environment that has served the industry and consumers reasonably well over the last couple of decades is however at something of a crossroads. Previously consumers had a narrower but more predictable group of reviewers to rely upon. There weren’t that many publications that had significant impact, and you knew the ‘players’.
Whether or not you agreed with, say, Robert Parker, you knew where he was coming from and could calibrate the information within your own tastes.
Nowadays there are many more voices hurling a wide and sometimes disparate range of scores. Also there are significantly greater numbers of wines coming to market, so the amount of information the consumer has to digest to be really informed is daunting. We can tell you this. A few years ago, we didn’t have to know when a publication was due to release a new report (though we usually did). The phones would tells us. Nowadays a publication coming out and causing the switchboard to light up are extremely rare. Why is that?
Granted a lot of publications have changed the personnel doing the reviews and there are more reviewers out there being quoted. That can certainly be numbing to the consumer, especially those that are just getting into it. We like to think we do a lot to parse that sea of info and present it in digestible nuggets. But there is so much. Also, thirty years ago a great friend and mentor told me that ‘great wine is like a bus…if you miss one another will be along.’ That has never been truer than right now. There is an astonishing amount of great wine out there now, and maybe the sense of urgency in light of that is ebbing a little.
We are still believers in the reviewer-based info simply because, for better or worse, you have a body of knowledge and a track record that provides a consistency. We are very specific when purveyors present us score that they show us in print. Far too many times the truth gets ‘lost in transmission’. In the end though, you find out who said it and can calibrate accordingly.
While we are still on board with reviews, however, there are some disturbing trends that could derail a publication’s relevance, particularly with new consumers. Elitism seems to be growing among the ranks of reviewers, particularly if you believe as we do that they are beholden to their subscribers. It is bad enough that the same few labels always seem to come out on top, and they are usually the rarest and most expensive. But lately the ‘historic tasting’ is on the rise. Just who exactly is an article like “Drink Your Idols: Roumier’s Musigny 1976-2008” supposed to appeal to? It’s a small group to be sure.
Another review site has been a little slow on posting their reviews because they are spending a great amount of energy hawking their ‘glamorous’, globetrotting wine shows. No offense but we subscribed to get wine reviews, not to get sold on some other agenda. As Bill Belichick might say, “Do your job.”
In the ‘old days’ competitions and fairs were more relevant. But you don’t know who the people judging the competition are so the ‘findings’ are somehow less significant. However if the reviewer ‘system’ continues to degrade or collapses altogether, what will people do? As we look at the world around us, and the current proliferation of the ‘public forum’ for everything from doctors to mechanics to restaurants, the prospects are a little chilling.
Things like ‘Yelp’, while we have some personal misgivings about the system overall, can be useful in finding certain things. Auto mechanics, for one. Someone can tell if their car runs correctly or not. It’s something everybody has some experience with. Allowing for the fact that the ‘naysayer’ types will respond disproportionately, the public forum may provide useful information in making a decision.
But when the subject is less black and white, and more subjective, the public opinions provided must be taken with a few grains of salt. Like those judges at the country fair wine competition, you have no idea who the people posting on a restaurant on Yelp-like sites are or what their experience/expertise is. A guy could bag on a place just because he didn’t get a free dessert, or say it is ‘hideously expensive’ because he usually eats at Olive Garden.
For all of the reasons we named, and many more we didn’t get into, it is quite possible that the world of ‘wine reviewers’ might not resonate with the next generation. It may well cease to be highly relevant with the current one if things continue as is. Then what? Wine reviews in the public forum where anyone with a keyboard can anonymously pass judgement whether they are knowledgeable or not? Vinous Yelp? Oy!