The Sub-Prime Wine Crisis

What does the sub-prime mortgage crisis have to in common with the market for wine today? More than you might think! Read on …

Liquidity Problems

Here’s a simplified version of the sub-prime mortgage crisis narrative. A housing bubble masked the inherent risk of the mortgaged-backed securities that financed the bubble itself. Investors were unable to fully assess risk because the complicated financial vehicles were not very “transparent” and the rating agencies did not prove to be trustworthy guides.

When the crisis came, liquidity dried up and the market deflated (crashing in some cases). The solution to the problem, many think, is to increase transparency — to make it easier to figure what is in a mortgage-backed security and how to assess its risk and return.

Some wine buyers will find it easy to relate to elements of this story, according to the Project Genome study recently released by Constellation Brands (I have written about Project Genome in my post “What are wine enthusiasts looking for?”).

According to this study, the largest single group of wine consumers are”overwhelmed” by the choices confronting them and cannot adequately assess the risk they face when staring down a crowded supermarket wine aisle or endless restaurant wine list. Their “liquidity crisis” is a real one — they are afraid to invest in complicated wine products due to a lack of confidence in their knowledge and lack of transparency regarding what’s really in the bottle. Intimidated, they buy a lot less wine than other groups. They lose and winemakers lose, too.

Project Genome estimates that overwhelmed consumers represent 23% of wine buyers, but make just 13% of all wine purchases. They are the “bottom of the pyramid” of wine and many industry people figure that a fortune awaits anyone who taps this market.

Making Wine More Transparent

So what’s the best way to make the wine buying process more transparent and end the overwhelmed consumer’s liquidity crisis? Better information is one approach. Wine critics are the bond rating agencies of the wine market. Their scores give many wine buyers the confidence they need to make what really is a risky purchase. At their best, wine critics serve a useful function of reducing uncertainty about what’s in that bottle and whether it is worth the price.

But there are dozens of wine critics and their ratings, using different scales and ranking protocols, do not always agree and are not always a clear guide. How many disappointing wines have you bought because of the “89-point” rating on the shelf tag? It only takes a few highly-rated losers to discourage an overwhelmed buyer from taking a chance.

Wine critics are part of the answer, but they are also part of the problem. What other options are available? The May 15, 2008 Wall Street Journal included an interesting article by Charles Passy (the “Cranky Consumer” columnist) that examined how some wine retailers are trying to demystify wine. “For Novice Shoppers, a Little Wine 101” describes four retailers, WineStyles, Total Wine & More, The Grape and Costco, and their different marketing strategies (I wrote about Costco’s system in an earlier post, “Costco and Global Wine“).

I’ve been to a WineStyles store so I can give a personal report. The store is arranged according to wine style profiles (crisp, silky, rich, etc.) rather than varietal type, production region or retail price. So if you know you like a crisp wine, you go to that wine rack and you find wines such as Washington Riesling, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and South African Chenin Blanc. You are directed to the style you like and hopefully encouraged to try unfamiliar types of wine. If consumers can actually figure out what they like about wine and if they develop confidence in the style categories, this system helps them make better and more self-assured choices.

Food and wine writer Cynthia Nims reports on another strategy on her blog, Mon Appétit. Cynthia discovered a line of branded wines called “Wine that Loves” that are intended to simplify the wine-food pairing choice. Are you looking for something to serve with roast chicken? Pick up “Wine that Loves Roast Chicken.” Fish tonight? Look for “Wine that Loves Grilled Salmon.”

The chicken wine is “Predominantly Garnacha” according to the label — not a wine that an overwhelmed consumer would probably risk as a varietal choice, but might try and like in this format. The salmon wine is a Pinot Grigio/Garganega/Chardonnay blend. I like this concept because it links wine to food, which is very important, and encourages experimentation. It will be interesting to see if buyers embrace it or if it is just a novelty that soon fades.

The British System of House Brands

Great Britian is the most important wine market in the world in part because British retailers have developed a number of successful strategies to increase wine buyer confidence. Supermarkets are the big players in the U.K, and house brands are key to their wine strategies. Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer all have their own brands of wine (sourced from around the world). Buyers are willing to try an unfamiliar wine because their confidence in the supermarket chain transfers over the the wine.

(It doesn’t hurt that at least some of the house brand wines are very good, of course. A M&S house brand wine is one of the highest-rated New World Sauvignon Blancs in the current Decanter ratings, for example.)

Trader Joe’s uses this strategy here in the U.S. (I have written about this in 300 Million Bottles of Two Buck Chuck). Trader Joe’s sells vast quantities of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) wine each year and the key is reputation. Not the wine’s reputation — the store’s. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for value and quality, which lends credibility to their house brand wine. As I have said before, the miracle of Two Buck Chuck isn’t that you can sell a wine for $1.99, it is that you can get anyone to buy it. The $1.99 price point just screams “rotgut.” But people happily buy wine at Trader Joe’s  at price points they would never think of considering at Safeway or Kroger because they have confidence in the TJ brand.

My local upscale grocer, Metropolitan Market, is trying the house brand route, apparently with success. For the last year or so they have occasionally stocked limited-release house brand wine specials such as the 2007 Columbia Valley “White Selection #1″ shown here. The wines go for $8 per bottle or $88 per case and they are stacked in big displays that remind me of, well, Trader Joe’s.

These house brand wines are kind of interesting. The first release of the year was a Rosé — hardly an easy sale given upmarket consumer resistance to pink wines (too close to White Zin!) and the chilly spring we have had — and now a white that turns out on close inspection to be an oak-free Semillon blend. I like Semillon quite a bit, but I don’t think you could sell it by the case at a neighborhood grocery store with a traditional brand name and varietal label. But “Met Market White #1″ and the Rosé are products that buyers seem to embrace as safe bets and good values because of the store’s reputation for quality.

They fly out the door, according to the satisfied customers in line with me last week. You might have trouble selling them as ordinary branded varietals, but they go down easy as trusted house brand wines. The British know the wine game really well. We are smart to learn from them.

Confidence Game

Everyone is trying to solve the overwhelmed consumers’ liquidity problem. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have consumer friendly labels like House Wine (produced by the Magnificent Wine Company) and Wine By Joe, an Oregon brand. Like the Met Market generics, these are good quality upmarket answers to the question, what should I buy to drink tonight? The reputations these brands have developed for value and quality makes buying their wines a comfortable experience for many consumers. (My Costco sells the House Wines brands by the case.)

Take a close look at your supermarket wine aisle and I think you will see a lot of products designed to make wine easier to understand and buy. With so much creative energy at work here, I am confident that the needs of overwhelmed wine buyer market are being well served. Maybe they’ll stop being overwhelmed and their liquidity crisis will end. I wish I had the same confidence about the financial markets!

The [New] Emperor of Wine

I met the guy everyone thinks is the New Emperor of Wine last week at the Taste Washington event. He’s a thirty-ish fellow from Belarus via New Jersey. He was walking around in a white and green New York Jets jersey and people treated him like a god. Wine is changing and the New Emperor is part of the story. Here is my report.

The Old Emperor

The Old Emperor of Wine is Robert Parker, of course. That’s the title that Elin McCoy gave him on the cover of her book, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker and the Reign of American Taste. Parker is often cited as the most influential wine critic in the world. His writing on Bordeaux wines helped make these products objects of global interest. Jacques Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honor for his service to France and her wine industry. Parker is controversial because of the perceived power of his palate. Parker has particular tastes, it is argued, and winemakers who cater to those tastes receive big Parker numbers and are rewarded handsomely in the marketplace. Those who go their own way suffer.

And yet the French hate him. Parker is one of several villains we meet in the film Mondovino. Here’s what he looks like according to an illustration I found in Slate. He looks more like a devil here than an Emperor, shoving his idea of wine down the public’s throat (or over their heads, actually).

Robert Parker is more than a wine critic, he is a business model. Parker scrupulously avoids conflicts of interest, accepting no payment from anyone with a financial stake in wine, so he must sell his knowledge and opinions to pay the bills. He does this successfully in a variety of ways including subscriptions to his magazine Wine Advocate ($75 per year in the U.S.), his frequently updated internet wine site, eRobertParker.com ($99 per year) and sales of his many books and buyers guides ($30 to $75). People will clearly pay a lot to learn Parker’s opinions. They will pay even more to meet him in person. Dinner with Robert Parker appears frequently on charity wine auction lists. I don’t think I have ever seen it go for less than $10,000 although I admit I don’t follow these things closely.

Parker’s reign is coming to an end, however, according to an article by Michael Steinberger in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine ($300 per year in the U.S. – wow!). Parker is getting older and slowing down, Steinberger writes, overwhelmed by the global expansion of the wine industry. He’s slowly turning over the chores to a stable of hired tasters with regional specialization and in the process losing his hegemony over global wine.

The X-Emperor

The New Emperor, the one I met in Seattle, represents a different business model and a different idea of wine. His name is Gary Vaynerchuk and he is director of operations at the Wine Library, a wine store in Springfield, New Jersey that is owned by his family, immigrants from Belarus. This is what he looks like, based on an image that appeared in another Slate story.

You don’t have to settle for the illustration, however, because you can see him in action on the web at his website, Wine Library TV. His daily 10-20 minute wine tasting webcasts draw a growing audience — I have seen estimates that range from 60,000 to 90,000 viewers a day. They come for a completely different experience of wine.

Click on the link above and watch one of Vaynerchuk’s wine reviews right now. Yes, do it now. His real-time reviews may change the way that you think about wine. The narrative is zany and over the top. The “tasting notes” are instant, personal, confident and detailed. I admit they make me wish that I could taste as much in a glass of wine as he does. But it’s his business and he does it with gusto. The surround sound experience (complete with the splurt as he spits into a NY Jets bucket) will either delight you or appall you, but it probably will not leave you unmoved.

Gary Vaynerchuk is to traditional wine criticism as the X-games are to the Olympics. It’s the same game, more or less, but intentionally taken to a new level. Like the X-games, I’m not sure it is to my taste, but it fascinates me. Like the X-games, I suspect it is an experience that will appeal instantly to young people who are drawn by the combination of extreme bungy-jumping pure adrenalin rush and geeky technical detail. Like the X-games, I think it is probably here to stay.

Wine Empire 2.0

The New Emperor embodies a new business model, too. Parker studiously avoids conflict of interest. Vaynerchuk accepts such conflicts as inevitable and moves on. Wine Library TV is given away free on the internet, not sold on a subscription basis (another appealing factor for young people, who often resent being asked to pay for web content). The webcasts generate business for the store, however, and for other enterprises, including a forthcoming book (101 wines guaranteed to “bring thunder” to your world).

One particularly interesting part of the New Emperor’s empire is Cork’d, a wine social networking website (Facebook for wine geeks, I guess). Cork’d aims, like Cellar Tracker, to turn the tables on wine critics by collecting reviews from wine drinkers themselves, many of whom are very knowledgeable, so that the ratings are free, interactive, and reflect the tastes of an (hopefully) informed consensus. Is it working? It is too soon for me to tell — I’ve only been experimenting with Cork’d for a few days.

Cork’d is classed Web 2.0 — shifting power from a small number of content providers to a huge user base. Lead by Emperor Vaynerchuk, the Cork’d army could seize control of the idea of wine from Parker and the others. Imagine what Parker’s staid critics would say about that! I’ll have to watch Gary Vaynerchuk to see how his empire unfolds.

What are wine enthusiasts looking for?

The Search for Wine Drinker DNA

According to the data that WordPress collects about visitors to this website, the three most frequently viewed posts on The Wine Economist are

  • The World’s Best Wine Magazine?, an analysis of Decanter magazine, part of the ongoing series on wine critics and publications;
  • Costco and Global Wine, which examines Costco’s wine strategy in the context of the three most important global wine markets, the U.S., Great Britain and Germany, and
  • Masters of Wine (and Economics), which is about the prestigious Masters of Wine (MW) qualification and the importance of wine economics in its curriculum.

(Other popular posts include my discussions of global climate change, problems in Australia, rising wine prices, and the Hong Kong and Chinese markets.)

What can we learn from the fact that these three posts get the most hits? A closer examination of the WordPress data show that many visitors to this site are looking for information about the “Best” – the best wine, the best wine price, the best wine magazine and so forth. The search for the best and not just the good seems to be very important.

Wine enthusiasts also seem to be searching for credible authorities – people and publications that can guide them and tell them what to buy and drink.

Not unrelated to this is in the interest in Costco (and Trader Joe’s) and other retailers that seem to make the choice concerning good wine or good value wine a little simpler. Costco is now the largest wine retailer in the U.S., as the blog post explains, and it does this in an unexpected way – by giving consumers fewer choices than a typical upscale supermarket (about 120 different wines at typical Costco versus more than 1200 different wines at your supermarket), but also giving them more confidence in the choices that they make.

Project Genome

Visitors to The Wine Economist reflect many qualities that research by Constellations Brands (the largest wine company in the world) has uncovered. The study is called Project Genome, which suggests that it is an attempt to sequence wine drinker DNA. Wines and Vines reports that

The original 2005 study of 3,500 wine drinkers was one of the largest consumer research projects ever conducted by the wine industry. The new study examined the purchases of 10,000 premium-wine consumers–defined as those who purchased wine priced at $5 and higher–over an 18-month period. While the first Project Genome study asked online survey participants to recall their wine purchases during the last 30 days, the Home & Habits study tracked the actual purchases of Nielsen Co.’s Homescan® consumer purchase panel, which employs in-home bar code scanners and surveys to map consumer buying behavior across a demographically balance

Nielsen measured consumer attitudes and purchase behavior within multiple purchase channels, including warehouse clubs, supermarkets, mass merchandisers, drug stores, liquor stores and wine shops. The scan data were supplemented with online interviews to classify consumers by Project Genome consumer segments identified in Constellation’s original study: Enthusiasts, Image Seekers, Savvy Shoppers, Traditionalists, Satisfied Sippers and Overwhelmed.

The largest group of wine consumers are the Overwhelmed (23% of consumers). They are described as

  • Overwhelmed by sheer volume of choices on store shelves
  • Like to drink wine, but don’t know what kind to buy and may select by label
  • Looking for wine information in retail settings that’s easy to understand
  • Very open to advice, but frustrated when there is no one in the wine section to help
  • If information is confusing, they won’t buy anything at all.

The second largest group are Image Seekers (20% of consumers). They

  • View wine as a status symbol
  • Are just discovering wine and have a basic knowledge of it
  • Like to be the first to try a new wine, and are open to innovative packaging
  • Prefer Merlot as their No. 1 most-purchased variety; despite “Sideways,” Pinot Noir is not high on their list
  • Use the Internet as key information source, including checking restaurant wine lists before they dine out so they can research scores
  • Millennials and males often fall into this category.

Traditionalists (16% of consumers)

  • Enjoy wines from established wineries
  • Think wine makes an occasion more formal, and prefer entertaining friends and family at home to going out
  • Like to be offered a wide variety of well known national brands
  • Won’t often try new wine brands
  • Shop at retail locations that make it easy to find favorite brands.

The Savy Shoppers (16% of consumers)

  • Enjoy shopping for wine and discovering new varietal s on their own
  • Have a few favorite wines to supplement new discoveries
  • Shop in a variety of stores each week to find best deals, and like specials and discounts
  • Are heavy coupon users, and know what’s on sale before they walk into a store
  • Typically buy a glass of the house wine when dining out, due to the value.

Satisfied Sippers make up 14% of consumers. They

  • Don’t know much about wine, just know what they like to drink
  • Typically buy the same brand–usually domestic–and consider wine an everyday beverage
  • Don’t enjoy the wine-buying experience, so buy 1.5L bottles to have more wine on hand
  • Second-largest category of warehouse shoppers, buying 16% of their wine in club stores
  • Don’t worry about wine and food pairing
  • Don’t dine out often, but likely to order the house wine when they do.

And, finally, Wine Enthusiasts are the smallest group, accounting for just 12% of all wine buyers. They

  • Entertain at home with friends, and consider themselves knowledgeable about wine
  • Live in cosmopolitan centers, affluent suburban spreads or comfortable country settings
  • Like to browse the wine section, publications, and are influenced by wine ratings and reviews
  • 47% buy wine in 1.5L size as “everyday wine” to supplement their “weekend wine”
  • 98% buy wine over $6 per bottle, which accounts for 56% of what they buy on a volume basis.

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Not surprisingly, Wine Enthusiasts and Image Seekers account for nearly half of all wine sales while Overwhelmed consumers purchase disproportionately little wine. While wine magazines find a ready market at the top of the pyramid, retailers and wine companies probably view the Overwhlemed as the potential “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” There is a lot of money that can be made if wine can be simplified (or these consumers educated) so that they move up the wine buying ladder.

Visitors to The Wine Economists seem to fall into three of Constellation’s categories: Enthusiasts, Image Seekers and the Overwhelmed based upon the limited and superficial “most popular post” data reported here. It will be interesting to track further Project Genome results as they are released and to see how Constellation Brands uses this information in its wine market strategies.

Wine in Restaurants: Recent Trends

mainpage_april08.jpgEach year Wine & Spirits publishes a special issue that reports the results of their annual survey of wine sales in restaurants — information of more use to trade professionals, I imagine, than to wine lifestyle readers. Although the sample is relatively small — 309 Zagat -ranked U.S. restaurants participated in the 2008 survey — and restaurant wine sales are probably unrepresentative of broader market sales, I still find the trends reported here to be of interest, especially since many of them reinforce data I have found elsewhere.

More and More.

Some of the trends are unsurprising to any restaurant wine-drinker. The importance of wine in restaurants continues to grow — over 70% of the restaurants reported that wine was a larger percentage of their total sales in 2007 compared with 2006. More restaurants are paying more attention to wine and wine-drinkers and increasing sales accordingly. A second non-surprise is this: restaurant wine costs more. More than 60 percent of the surveyed restaurants reported that the average price of the wine they sold increased in the last year. Personally I have been staggered at the price of wine in some restaurants recently. There are both demand and supply drivers behind this trend.

Restaurants have an incentive to raise wine prices, of course, but nobody forces diners to buy the stuff. Some of the price increase is demand-side — educated (or status-seeking) wine consumers choosing more prestigious and expensive bottles. Smart restauranteurs and their sommeliers take advantage of the wine boom by offering interesting and hard-to-find wines, which attract wine enthusiast diners and generate higher revenues. So higher prices are the result of education, enthusiasm and strategic behavior. We pay more because we are willing to pay more, up to a point at least.

Even Less is More

The falling dollar is another part of this trend. Cheap dollars mean that restaurants have to pay more for imported wines, which drives up costs and prices. The pass through effect of the exchange rate changes is not yet complete, however, so you can expect even higher prices in the future. Rising wine costs are a supply-side driver of higher wine prices generally. The recent trend to more wines from Argentina and Chile is partly a reflection of the fact that the dollar has not fallen quite so far relative to these currencies, so South American wine is a relative bargain.

The weak dollar also affects the demand side. Many of the surveyed restaurants are located in transnational hub cities where international travelers are a significant factor. Foreign tourists and business travelers take advantage of the weak dollar to treat themselves to otherwise more expensive wines when they dine in the U.S., thus driving up the price averages. This is not an insignificant factor for many of the upscale urban eateries that participate in the Wine & Spirits survey.

Prices continue to rise for even the most inexpensive restaurant wines. About 35 percent of the restaurants reported that they have increased the price of the least expensive wine on their list in the last year. In my experience, however, no one ever orders the least expensive bottle on a wine list. The real indicator would be the price of the second cheapest bottle. I imagine that it costs more now, too.With the price of wine edging up relentlessly it is not surprising to find that restaurants and wine drinkers are paying more attention to by-the-glass sales. More restaurants are offering more wines (and more interesting wines) by the glass as well as the bottle. The average price reported by the survey rose to a new high of $11.05.

The trend toward rising wine prices is not likely to slow very much in the future (see my previous post about The End of Cheap Wine), but this trend is not uniform across the entire wine list. Surveyed restaurants reported steep declines in sales of Merlot and Chardonnay, for example, and flat sales of Cabernet Sauvignon. Average sales prices actually declined for Cab and Merlot. Pinto Noir prices and sales have increased again, as you might expect.

Hot or Not?

No sales trend data were reported for two supposed “hot” wines: Riesling and Syrah. Riesling is the sommelier’s favorite, according the Wine & Spirits (and I don’t disagree), because it is so food-friendly, but it does not seem to be an important factor in restaurants sales. I have my own theories about this, but no facts, so I won’t speculate at this time. I’ll try to find out more at the Riesling Rendezvous that Ste Michelle Wine Estates is organizing this summer.

The case of Syrah is interesting, too. Wine & Spirits says that there was a Syrah/Shiraz boom a few years ago, but that it has faded and Syrah has now settled into a minor niche-role on the restaurant wine list. I suppose that this reflects the changing circumstances of Australian wine (see The Wizards of Oz) more than anything else since so many people identify Australian wine with Shiraz and vice versa.

The fact that Riesling and Syrah don’t figure prominently in restaurant sales suggests to me that restaurant buyers as a group are less adventurous than you might think. Rather than using an unfamiliar wine list as an open invitation to experimentation I think they might on average be looking to avoid making a faux pas, either in terms of the wine they choose or the social signals that they send to the others seated around the table with them. Wine trends in restaurants might, therefore, lag behind wine trends generally rather than leading them. Or it could be that restaurants believe that their patrons are unadventurous and wine lists reflect this, focusing mainly on old standbys rather than hot trends. The result would be the same in either case.

If this is true then Riesling and Syrah will move up on the restaurant wine lists, if they do at all, only after they have become more prominent in other wine venues. Or at least winegrowers in Washington State should hope that this will happen. Because, my goodness, we seem to be making a lot of Riesling and Syrah!

Masters of Wine (and Economics)

imwlogo.gifPeople always seem surprised when I tell them that I’m a wine economist, that there is an American Association of Wine Economists and even a Journal of Wine Economics. I don’t know exactly how they think about wine, but they don’t seem to consider it in economic terms — until they start talking to me, of course.

Wine is a business and if you want to understand what’s in your wine glass, where it comes from, how it got here, and why you paid so much (or so little) for it, you have to learn a little wine economics. This is true even for the most famous names in wine.

Masters of Wine

The most respected title in the world of wine is Master of Wine (MW). It is a title that you wear proudly, appending it to your name like this: Jane Hunter, MW. I would say that it is the Ph.D. of the wine world except that it seems to be harder to get than a Ph.D.

The MW is not a degree given by Harvard or Yale. It is a special designation created by the Institute of Masters of Wine, a 50-year old London-based, industry-supported non-profit organization dedicated to wine education. The MW program was originally created for British wine traders, who obviously needed to be very knowledgeable to succeed in their profession, but it eventually expanded both in occupational and geographic terms. Today there are 264 Masters of Wine in the world scattered across 22 countries. Not surprisingly, Britain remains the center of MW membership and activities, reflecting its central position in the world wine market generally.

Some of the world’s most famous wine critics and winemakers hold the MW designation. Jancis Robinson, Michael Broadbent, David Peppercorn and Serena Sutcliffe are famous MW wine critics, for example. Among the winemakers who have earned the MW title are Steve Smith and Jane Hunter in New Zealand and David Lake and Bob Betz here in Washington State.

It’s hard to get a Masters of Wine. You need to work in the wine industry for at least 5 years and take preliminary studies at a major wine research center such as UC Davis, the University of Bordeaux, Geisenheim University in Germany or the University of Adelaide. Then, once admitted to the MW program, you have to pass exams in four theory areas, stagger successfully through three 12-wine blind tastings, and write a 10,000 word dissertation on a topic relevant to the wine industry. (Jancis Robinson’s dissertation, I understand, was a very complete study of the world’s grapes and wines which was published in book form as Vines, Grapes and Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties. It is one of my favorite wine reference volumes.)

Master of Wine Economics

I’m not planning to apply for a MW myself (I’m quite sure that I would not survive the blind tasting trials), but I’m interested in knowing what wine experts think they need to know about wine economics, so I’ve been reading the MW syllabus. It is full of wine economics.

The first two papers MW candidates must write deal with the theory and practice of wine production. The syllabus says that …

The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ knowledge and understanding of wine production. An understanding of the processes of grape growing and wine making should be complemented by knowledge of the science which underlies the practical issues. Candidates should be aware of the implications for wine style, quality and costs of decisions taken at each stage of wine production. An awareness of areas of active research in topics relevant to wine production will be necessary. Whilst region specific questions are unlikely, candidates will require a broad background knowledge of the world’s wine regions and wine styles. The examples given in answers should demonstrate a familiarity with a variety of wine regions. Candidates should know how issues such as finance, economics, law, general management, quality assurance/quality control and the environment bear on wine production.

You can see how much the business of wine enters into the understanding of wine. The third paper is even more closely focused on wine economics:

The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

The fourth paper is written on contemporary issues. Then comes the blind tasting and dissertation. You can see why the MW is so hard to get and why it is so valuable. MW holders understand wine from the vine roots up to the global market structures. I can’t say that wine economics is the most important element in the curriculum, but it certainly is a key component.

It looks like wine economics accounts for about a third of the MW syllabus. That makes sense to me, both given the MW’s clearly commercial original purpose and more generally given the influence of economics on the wine industry today.

A New Wine Designation

Robert Parker does not have a MW, but he and Kevin Zraly have recently launched their own wine certification program. I haven’t looked into the Parker/Zraly program in detail but it seems to be aimed at wine enthusiasts more than wine professionals and I’m not sure how much wine economics is included. Here is a brief description.

The Parker & Zraly Wine Certification Program consists of three certification levels. After completing all eight examinations of Level I – Aficionado of Wine (AW) (launching September 20, 2007 with the Wines of France exam), wine lovers can gear up for the March 2008 launch of Level II – Connoisseur of Wine (CW). The most advanced, Level III – Expert of Wine (EW), will debut in September 2008 and will challenge even wine experts and professionals. Levels I and II consist entirely of online examinations. Level III will include a written exam as well as a meeting with Robert Parker and Kevin Zraly for a blind wine tasting and oral examination on wine.

I hope Parker and Zraly include a good dose of wine economics in their EW exams. I don’t see how you can really understand the world of wine without it.

The World’s Best Wine Magazine?

decanter-china.jpgDecanter bills itself as “The World’s Best Wine Magazine” and is sometimes referred to as the bible of wine. It is probably the most influential wine magazine in the world, too, although that could be a contested claim. It is the most-read wine magazine in the world’s most important wine market: Great Britain. Founded in 1975, it is based in London and published monthly in more than 90 countries including, since 2005, China. The Chinese Decanter (click on the image to see the Chinese cover) includes about 30% special content for the growing East Asian market.

The Most Important Wine Market

How can Great Britain (and not the United States) be the world’s most important wine market? The simple answer is that the British produce little of their own wine and import quite a lot, so just about every winemaker in the world wants to compete for British sales. The German market is large, too, but it’s a cut-throat pricing environment with emphasis on discounted price. The American market is big, but it is tough for international winemakers to compete with American wines at most segments of the market (especially for popularly priced branded varietal wines).

A slightly more complex answer is that entry into the British market is relatively straightforward, because it is for all intents and purposes an integrated national market with one set of rules and distribution channels. The American market is a maze, with 50 (plus the District of Columbia) different sets of rules and regulations to understand and comply with plus the nightmarish “three-tier” distribution system (retail/wholesale/producer) that adds cost and increases the mark-up at each stage.

You want national distribution in the U.S.? Better hook up with one of the big brand managers such as Constellation Brands or Cobrands. And you’d better have a lot of product to sell. Otherwise you should settle for regional distribution and hope for the best. No wonder many international sellers focus on the British market or go there first.

Decanter is published by a company called IPC Inspire, which produces a number of lifestyle monthlies including Country Life, Horse & Hound, Rugby World, SuperBike, Shoot Monthly and Yachting World. It is Britain’s largest specialist magazine publisher.

Although Decanter really is arguably the most important wine magazine in the world, it is not as ubiquitous as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast here in the United States. You won’t find it on many supermarket racks. Like Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, it attracts a specialist audience in America.

Mrs. Thatcher and the Rise of the British Wine Market

Decanter was founded in 1975, just at the moment when the British wine market was becoming the world’s most important. Most American’s think of the British as a beer and spirits drinking nation, but this has not always been the case. The British preference for ales and whiskey was partly the result of a tax and regulatory regime that biased the system against consumption of imported wine. High tariffs made wine expensive and retail sales regulation made it inconvenient to purchase.

Britain’s entry into what is now the European Union resulted in tariff rates more favorable to wine imports. Mrs. Thatcher’s programs of retail industry deregulation opened up the opportunity for cheaper wine and more convenient distribution, especially though the supermarket chains. These supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose among them – became world’s most important wine distribution channels. The produce of the world’s vineyards are now sourced to these British stores and, having made an impact there, have passed into the global market. Costco, I have argued elsewhere, is beginning to play a similar role in the United States.

Ironically, U.S. wines are underrepresented on the British market.  The U.S. and British distribution and marketing systems are so different as to represent a barrier to entry, at least for now.

Decanter was created to serve the consumer market created by the explosion of wine in Britain. As the global market has grown, Decanter’s distribution has followed (and sometimes, I suspect, leads the way).

If Decanter is so important, why doesn’t it have a stronger presence in the United States? The answer, I would argue, is that the British wine market is global and dominated in terms of volume by the large national supermarket chains selling wines from all over the world. The U.S. market is far more local (favoring American wines) with a far more fragmented distribution system and large firms like Gallo and Constellation Brands leading the way, selling branded wines from their large portfolios. Simply put, you won’t find a lot of the wines reviewed in Decanter in American stores. As vast as our selection is here in the U.S.A., it’s just a slice of what the global market offers. Really.

Uncorking Decanter

Decanter is a full service wine publication with something to offer almost any British wine enthusiast. There are interviews, topical essays and regional travel surveys (drink this, stay here, try this place for dinner). Columnists include such notables as Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier and Andrew Jefford. Decanter obviously includes wine investors among its readers because it contains very detailed monthly reports on wine auction sales prices. Bordeaux reds and the main focus (vintages dating back to 1961), but white Bordeaux, Burgundy and Port prices are also listed. It even publishes a wine auction index. This probably reflects Broadbent’s influence – he was for years head of the wine auction practice at Christie’s.

The monthly wine ratings are very interesting. Rather than try to sample a selection of all the new wines on offer each month as some American publications do (an impossible task in Britain, I reckon, with so many wines), one or two types of wines are chosen and about 100-150 wines from each of those segments of British market are tasted and rated.

The February 2008 issue, for example, has comparative ratings of just two types of wines, South Australian Shiraz and Loire (France) Reds (Cabernet Franc to Americans). Wines are first rating using a 20-point scale (with average scores from several tasters reported) and then grouped together into quality classes ranging from one to five stars. The five star (18.5 points or more) and four star wines (16.5-18.49 points) are listed along with photos of their bottles for easy identification in the shops. Three star wines get nice write-ups – this, after all, is where the real market is – and lesser wines are listed in appropriately grim tombstone format. It’s hard to imagine a Decanter reader buying a “fair” or “poor” wine except by accident.

How Decanter Rates Wine

I am impressed with the information provided for each wine. Besides the average 20-point rating, we learn the retail price, the degree of age-worthiness, receive brief tasting notes and find out where to buy it. Good value wines receive a gold £-sign designation. Thus, for example, the 2006 Shingleback Cellar Door McLaren Vale is rated at 14.75 points and sells for £7.99, which is a good value. Is has short term aging potential and can be purchased at Tesco. “Dark cassis jam notes. Medium body. Nice spicy notes. Fine velvet texture. Ripe and well-balanced fruit. 3-8 years.” Sounds good to me. Lots of useful consumer information here about these particular wines, although each monthly issue rates only a small slice of the British market.

The “stockist” listings are noteworthy. Wine Spectator will tell you what to buy, but not where to buy it. That would be nearly impossible in the U.S. The reason Decanter can tell you where to buy this wine is that the British wine system favors a relatively small number of national distributors and retailers, many of whom feature their own brands, much as Costco does here in the U.S. with the Kirkland label. The best value in the Shiraz tasting, for example. Was Berry’s Own Selection Elderton Australian Shiraz Barossa Valley 2006 (£8.50 and 16.5 points). “Big yet somehow seductive.” Berry isn’t a person, it is Berry Brothers & Rudd, a major British retailer.

Decanter wine critics are tough, by the way, stingy with the highest grades (the 4-5 star As and Bs) but generous in giving Cs that seem to really mean something.

Decanter and Global Wine
Decanter reflects the unique features of its main market, Great Britain, which makes me realize that this is probably true about all wine publications. Gambero Rosso has a strong regional focus because the Italian national wine market is less important there and regional identities matter more. U.S. magazines will be different because the U.S. market is so different.

Britain’s market is national in scale and global in reach so Decanter‘s strengths and weaknesses (particularly its inability to evaluate the majority of wines that are available) reflect this. I am not surprised that it would appeal to wine-drinking elites around the world, but it makes sense that it would not have a big market in the United States. The market is just too different over here.

Wine by the Numbers

Rating the Wine Rating Systems

People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.

I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.

Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More

winescales.jpgThe first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine(click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.

In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. ( Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)

The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.

The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.

A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.

Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).

The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.

Which System if Best?

It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.

Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.

In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15” wine to the second.

Wine and Figure Skating?

So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurment that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.

Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how much better A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.

To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.

So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.

This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.

Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.

Lessons of the Judgment of Paris

paris2.jpgOr maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.

The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.

A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?

Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.

And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.

References:

Dennis V. Lindley, “Analysis of a Wine Tasting.” Journal of Wine Economics 1:1 (May 2006) 33-41.

George M. Taber, Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the History 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. Scribner, 2005.

Wine Critics Reviewed: Gambero Rosso

The first in a series on the actors and institutions that shape the wine world.

gambero.jpg

I’m interested in the role of wine critics (and their publications) in shaping the global wine market. This is the first of several entries that will examine a few of the most influential publications. I’m not entirely sure where this process will take me, but I’m pretty interested to find out what I will learn. So let’s begin.

I want to start with Gambero Rosso, which is a very influential Italian publication. It is the Italian equivalent of Wine Spectator, but it goes well beyond WS in its coverage of food and wine culture and tourism. It publishes a number of important guides to Italian regional restaurants, food and wine that I have found to be extremely useful when I have lived in or visited Italy. The Italian monthly magazine is physically imposing – the issue that appears in the photo above weighs in at more than 400 pages and was filled with ads. I subscribe to the much thinner abridged quarterly English edition, but my comments here concern the Italian original.

Birth of the Red Prawn

The name Gambero Rosso means red prawn, so it is easy to imagine that the magazine started out with a focus on seafood and expanded from there. The true explanation is a bit more Italian and a bit more political (I wrote about it in Chapter 7 of my book, Globaloney.) A group of young revolutionaries found themselves working on a Northern Italian newspaper called il manifesto in the 1970s. They formed a social club, which later evolved into the Slow Food movement, on the theory that political revolution needed to have deep social roots and to draw upon important economic sources in order to succeed (the status quo they opposed, after all, was political, social and economic, too). It is hard to imagine a better way to bring people into a political movement than through food and wine. And so their project thrived.

Gambero Rosso first appeared as a slim culinary supplement to il manifesto, so I imagine the name made reference to both its “red” politics and its shrimpy size. The magazine grew to become an independent publication, spawned a number of books and guides, and now even includes a television network. It is no shrimp any more.

Gambero Rosso is unique among the wine critic publications I am examining here in that it is almost entirely focused on the wines of a single nation, Italy. Although other publications may emphasize one country or region over others, all attempt some form of international coverage (this is even true of Wine Press Northwest, which covers the Washington, Oregon and British Columbia wine industries). In this as in many other things Gambero Rosso is different.

Mario Batali has said that there is no such thing as Italian cuisine, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. Gambero Rosso takes this view of Italian wines, locating each wine within its particular region and quietly seeking to reinforce regional wine identities and to resist the industrialization and homogenization of wine. It thus holds true to its Slow Food roots. Gambero Rosso has an agenda, as its il manifesto origins might suggest, and it promotes it effectively by identifying the very best regional products and local producers. Other wine critics have agendas, too, I think, but are not always so transparent as Gambero Rosso.

The Italian Way of Wine

Each monthly issue of Gambero Rosso features a major section on wine, usually devoted to a particular regional wine. Winemaker profiles and interviews are accompanied by ratings and tasting notes. The ratings use the usual 100-point scale, although it is applied a bit more rigorously than in U.S. publications, I think, judging by the relatively small number of 90+ wines that appear. A surprisingly small number of wines are rated each month given the thousands and thousands of Italian wines produced. This is because the most important ratings appear in an annual guide called ViniD’Italia (one word), which is the bible of Italian wine. You can purchase an English translation, ItalianWines. The 2004 edition that I have here ran 864 pages and rated 14,208 wines from 1,937 producers. The new 2008 edition (due out later this month) is probably even bigger.

Several features of ViniD’Italia are noteworthy. First, it eschews the 100-point rating system in favor a simple scale of zero, one, two or three wine glasses. The three glass or tre bicchieri wines are the best in Italy. There were only 254 of them in 2004, so this really is a high distinction and I am sure it is a tremendous market advantage to receive the highest rating. I admit that I think the wineglass rating system is refreshing and usefully informative. Tasting wine is not really rocket science at my level of (un)sophistication. Robert Parker probably really can tell the difference between an 88-point merlot and one rated 87, but I’m not sure I can. Good, better and best ratings meet my needs pretty well.

ViniD’Italia is noteworthy in other ways in comparison with other wine guides I have seen. It is organized by wine region (and then by wine town) rather than wine type, producer or some other system. The idea seems to be that regional identity really counts and so you should be thinking about comparing wines based on their terroir and the qualities of the people who make them rather than just grape varietal or brand name (there is no emphasis on brands here at all). Within regions, each important producer gets a single page. Terse but data-packed text evaluates the winemaker’s progress since the last publication and surveys briefly the changes the tasters perceive. Then a small number of wines are rated and compared to some of the same wines from the same producer in previous years, with relative cost noted to provide a quick index of value.

(The focus on identifying quality producers (and not just exceptional wines) reminds me of the winery rating system that Paul Gregutt developed in his recent book about Washington wines. Click here to read my book review.)

If you want to know about the wines of Venica & Venica, for example, you turn to the chapter on the Friuli Venezia Giulia province, find their town, Dolegna del Collio, and learn that their reserve Tocai Friulano, the Ronco delle Cima, received three glasses for the 2002 vintage. Venica & Venica are quality producers, according to the text, and their wines are reliably good — you really cannot go wrong. One or another of their wines usually receives the highest rating and they generally receive several two glass ratings as well. This is useful information. (By the way, because of its geographical organization, this guide is a great resource if you plan to do any wine touring in Italy.)

A Critical Agenda

The book is frankly hard to use if you are standing in a wine store, flipping back and forth trying to find out how different wines (from different provinces and cities, made in different vintages) come out in the ratings. But I doubt that the editors really care. You are supposed to learn to use it their way, not your way. They want you to stop thinking about wines except in terms of their regional and local identities and to make more disciplined and informed choices, taking the long term development of quality producers into consideration.

The Gambero Rosso publications want you to think about wine in a particular way that reflects its original political agenda and distinctive Italian roots. In many ways it is exactly the opposite of the wine guide I’ll consider next, Decanter.

Taste and Power

Jonathan Nossiter’s new book inspires a research project.

legout.jpg

Taste and Power — that’s what the wine business is all about. Or at least that is the thesis of the new book (Le goût et le pouvoir) by Mondovino director Jonathan Nossiter. Those with power can influence taste or even dictate it. The English translation will appear later this year. For now I am working my way through the original French. I’ll post a review when I finish.

A recent conversation with Tyler Colman, a.k.a. Dr. Vino, started me thinking about the influence of wine critics and how globalization is increasing their importance. Think about the number of wines you have to choose from. My local upscale supermarket stocks more than 1500 different wines from at least 15 different countries. This is an enormous and complex choice space that ranges from the familiar to the exotic and from inexpensive to near investment-grade. And the number of choices is unexceptional. A local farm store, with acres of space to fill, actually stocks more than 3500 wines from more than 25 countries.

 

An Embarassment of Riches

The simple fact of this embarrassment of riches makes wine critics useful and influential. How can you make an intelligent choice from among so many different wines? It is difficult to know what’s in the bottle without tasting and there are too many to taste. Wine critics are middlemen who do the tasting for us and arbitrage that information, reducing the uncertainty that is both the joy of wine and its curse. (Wine brands are another way to reduce uncertainty and increase sales, as I have discussed in earlier posts).

Wine critics and their descriptions and ratings would be useful if you have only 100 wines to choose from. With thousands of wines available, they become practically indispensable. The global expansion of wine trade increases choice and uncertainty and magnifies the value (and power?) of wine critics.

 

Wine critics are important for other reasons, too. Wine can be an investment as well as a consumable product and wine critics provide information to this forward-looking market. The question here is not what wine tastes like today, but what it will taste like in several years and, most importantly, what a buyer will pay for it in the future. Here, because there are so many unknowns, wine critics can have great influence. Some wines probably have investment value because the critics say they do, so much is the market driven by critic-inspired perceptions of value.

winemags.jpg

Critics are also important because wine is increasingly an identity investment, not just a financial investment. Individuals invest in both wines and in specialized knowledge about wine both for their own pleasure and to make a statement about their identities. To be very knowledgeable about wine is to display a specialized cultural sophistication. It isn’t the same as owning a Ferrari or a Renoir (it might be more expensive than owning a Ferrari or Renoir) but it makes a statement in the same way. The very best wine, not just good wine, can be an object of obsession, hence the outrageous prices that are paid. Wine critics both enable and encourage the quest.

Wine Critics and Wine Markets

The influence of wine critics are everywhere in the wine market, from budget buyers seeking good value to elite wine collectors. You can complain about their power and dispute their taste, as critics of Robert Parker frequently do, but they are here to stay. So I think we need to learn more about them.

Hence my current project. I’ve collected a number of wine publications (click on the photo above to see them) that evaluate and rate wines as well as provide other information about wine, including investment reports, wine tourism guides, winemaker biographies, food and wine pairing tips and so on. Rather than criticize their numerical ranking scales or bemoan their philistine tastes, I want to compare and contrast them, to try to figure out what wines they are rating, how, why and for whom? My working hypothesis is that wine critics are simultaneously influenced by the market segments they inhabit and shape them, too. If I’m right, then these publications should be very different, even when the wines they evaluate are the same.

The publications I’m studying are Wine Spectator, the best-selling American wine magazine and Robert Parkers Wine Advocate, which is said to be the most influential. I am also examining two other national publications, The Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, Wine Press Northwest, a regional publication, and two very important foreign journals, Decanter (Great Britain) and Gambero Rosso (Italy). Watch this space for upcoming reports!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,761 other followers