The Trouble with Wine Porn

Not for everyone.

Sometimes I have doubts.  Here at The Wine Economist we seem to be interested in what you might call everyday wines. Not that you necessarily drink them every day, but they are generally available and you can buy them if you can afford them. It’s a matter of choice. Everyman wines might be a better term if it didn’t sound just a little bit sexist.

Wine Porn

But much of the wine world seems preoccupied with impossibly expensive or incredibly rare trophy wines. A lot of attention is given to stories, ratings, tasting notes and images of wines that only a lucky few of us will ever have an opportunity to taste.

I’m tempted to call this wine pornography,  mirroring the well-documented phenomenon of food porn. Stare if you like, drool if you must, but never, never  touch!  (I didn’t coin the term; I found it in Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Porn of the Highest Order.“) The whole Bordeaux en primeur phenomenon strikes me as borderline wine porn, if only the soft-core kind.

Wine porn may be a harmless vicarious thrill for the most part, but like pornography generally it can be a problem when people become compulsively attracted to it. I’m worried that all the fuss that trophy wines receive really does divert us from the excellent Everyman wines on offer and the problems and delights of everyday wine life.

Broadbent to the Rescue

Well, thank goodness for Michael Broadbent. I realize that this is an unlikely thing for me to say at this point because it would be easy to make the case that Broadbent is one of the inventors of wine porn. As the director of the wine department at Christie’s auction house in London, he certainly helped create the winner-take-all economic environment that fuels the wine porn industry now.

And then there’s his writing. Gosh! Broadbent’s tasting notes are extraordinary. Some, dare I say,  are voluptuous! My glasses steam up when I read them. But it turns out that he shares many of my distinctly non-pornographic concerns about wine.

Broadbent recently published his 400th consecutive monthly column for Decanter magazine and he used the occasion to talk about the state of the wine world, very much focusing on Everyman and her wines. “My feeling is that consumers have never had so much choice but they have never been so confused,” he said. ‘”The whole world is making a good standard of wine today and they need some guidance.”

The Perfect Disguise Below

This embarrassment of riches sounds like good news, but Broadbent is concerned that the democratization of wine has created a power vacuum that big players will rush to fill. “Big business seems to be taking over and I don’t like the way things are going,'” he says. He’s concerned about the fate of small producers.

Head-spinning number of choices

Well, I certainly agree with Broadbent’s premise. Globalization has spread wine and wine expertise around the world. The discipline of global markets is slowly driving technically flawed wines from the market place (some still hang on, justifying their existence on the basis of low price or disguising their flaws as terroir).   More wines, from more places, with a higher overall quality standard: good news for Everyman.

But globalization really has created problems. More choice is good, but only up to a point. Some times too much is too much, especially as wine draws in new consumers.  The Constellation Brands study of American wine buyers found that 23% of potential buyers were “overwhelmed” by the choice and frequently walked away empty handed. Broadbent’s right about the confusion factor.

Globalization has changed the problem from making good wine to distributing and marketing it. Here (especially in distribution) large firms really do have an advantage, but this is not a new thing. Power in the wine world shifted to those who could manage distribution long ago — with the introduction of the railroad system in France in the 19th Century.

Beyond Wine Porn

Broadbent is concerned that the corporations will destroy wine as they try to simplify it for the mass market. This is contrary to their own business interests, of course, since people pay more for distinctive products. Building a wine portfolio ladder that starts buyers in Two Buck Chuck territory and leads them up to a higher (or at least more expensive) shelf only works if wine’s diversity is preserved.

Dumbing down to create a simple flat wine world is economic suicide as much as it would be an aesthetic tragedy of the commons. But these are desperate times for some large wine businesses and desperate CEOs do desperate things, so I do not rule this out absolutely.

I guess I am more optimistic about the future than Broadbent, even if I share his concerns. I think there is a pretty large middle ground between the bland corporate wine that worries him and the spicy wine porn that troubles me. This probably suggests that the state of wine today is quite good!

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Congratulations to Michael Broadbent on his 400th Decanter column and his extraordinary life in wine.

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.

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