Wine Judges and their Discontents

“Do you trust me?” asks the hero in my favorite scene from the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The Princess hesitates (“What?)  as if trusting anyone is a radical idea. “Yes” she finally says and holds out her hand.

Who do you trust?

I think of this scene every time I read wine reviews or wine competition results. “Do you trust me?” is the obvious question when it comes to the scores and medals that wine critics and judges award. If we do trust we are more likely to reach out our hands to make a purchase. But trust does not always come easily with a product as ironically opaque as wine.

So do we trust wine critic Aladdins and should we trust them? I raised this question a few weeks ago in my report on “The Mother of All Wine Competitions,” which is the Decanter World Wine Awards and, after surveying the issues I promised an update from the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano, Italy. This is the promised report.

The session on wine judging (see details below) was very interesting in terms of the research presented, not very encouraging from a trust standpoint. Previous studies that showed that wine judges at major competitions are not very consistent in their assessments were confirmed and attempts to improve their performance have not been very successful so far, according to expert analyst Robert Hodgson. The same wine can get very different ratings from the same experienced judge. It’s hard to “trust” a gold medal despite all the effort that goes into the judging process.

The Trouble with Economists

“If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three opinions.” according to Winston Churchill. Hard to trust any of them when they disagree so much.

Wine critics suffer the same problem as economists, according to research by Dom and Arnie Cicchetti, who compared ratings of the 2004 Bordeaux vintage by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker and found a considerable lack of consensus. Two famous critics produced different opinions much of the time. Hard to know what to think or who to trust. Other presentations did little to increase the audience’s confidence in wine evaluators and their judgments.

Because tastes differ, wine enthusiasts are often advised to use good old trial and error methodology to find a critic with a similar palate — and then trust that critic’s recommendations. This conventional wisdom inspired Ömer Gökçekus and Dennis Nottebaum to compare ratings by major critics with “the peoples’ palate” as represented by CellarTracker ratings. CellarTracker lists almost 2 million individual wine reviews submitted by over 150,000 members.

Point / Counter-Point

Stephen Tanzer’s ratings correlate best to the CellarTracker crowd for the sample of 120 Bordeaux 2005 wines in the research database. But, as Ömer  suggested in his presentation, it is important to remember that the data can contain a lot of noise. Clearly the CellarTracker critics are well informed — they know what Parker, Tanzer, Robinson and the rest have written about these wines and their ratings may reflect positive and negative reactions to what the big names have to say.

The researchers detected a certain “in your face, Robert Parker” attitude, for example. In cases where Parker gave a disappointing score, CellarTracker users were likely to rate it just a bit higher while giving high-scoring Parker wines lower relative ratings. CellarTracker users apparently value their independence and, at least in some cases, use their wine scores to assert it. This is an interesting effect if it holds generally, but it also introduces certain perverse biases into the data stream.

Bottom line: The research presented in Bolzano suggests that there are limits to how much we do trust and how much we should trust wine critics and judges. The power of critics to shape the world of wine may be overstated or, as Andrew Jefford notes in the current issue of Decanter, simply over-generalized. “Opinion-formers are highly significant — for a tiny segment of the wine-drinking population.” he writes. “They remain irrelevant for most drinkers.”

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AAWE Conference Session #1B: Wine Judging / Chair: Mike Veseth, University of Puget Sound

  • Robert T. Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery), How to improve wine judge consistency using the ABS matrix
  • Dom Cicchetti (Yale U), Arnie Cicchetti (San Anselmo), As Wine Experts Disagree, Consumers’ Taste Buds Flourish: The 2004 Bordeaux Vintage
  • Ömer Gökçekus (Seton Hall U), Dennis Nottebaum (U of Münster), The buyer’s dilemma – Whose rating should a wine drinker pay attention to?
  • Jing Cao (Southern Methodist U), Lynne Stokes Southern Methodist U), What We Can Do to Improve Wine Tasting Results?
  • Giovanni Caggiano (U of Padova) Matteo Galizzi (London School of Economics, U of Brescia), Leone Leonida (Queen Mary U of London), Who is the Expert? On the Determinants Of Quality Awards to Italian Wines

Which Wine Magazine?

Wine enthusiasts spend a lot of time and money on magazines and guidebooks and I guess they are never sure if they’re getting the best advice. One of this blog’s most common referring links is the Google search query “world’s best wine magazine?” Want to know the answer? Read on.

If you were going to read just one wine magazine, which one would it be? I decided to use my university students to try to find out. They are plenty smart and know a lot about wine, but they don’t (yet) spend much of their time reading these publications.  Perfect subjects for a little media analysis experiment.

Three Ideas of Wine

I passed out copies of perhaps the three most influential wine magazines on the planet and asked my students to analyze them in terms of point of view, intended audience and, of course, which one they would want to read.

The three magazines are Wine Spectator, Decanter and Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator has the highest circulation of any wine magazine in the United States and probably the world. Decanter, a British publication, sells fewer copies, especially here in the U.S., but has global reach.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is a subscription-only publication; most people don’t actually read the Wine Advocate, they just see the rating numbers and blurbs on Wine Wall shelf talkers promoting particular bottles. It’s very influential despite its limited distribution.

The magazines are different in almost every way. They certainly represent three different ideas of wine. Which is best? Well, that depends.

Wine Spectator

My students quickly labeled Wine Spectator a “lifestyle” magazine and this isn’t just because it has non-wine or tangentially-related-to-wine  “lifestyle” articles about food, travel, celebrities and so forth. The advertisements were the giveaway to them. While many wine companies advertise in WS, so do the producers of many luxury and designer products.

(Most wine mags are lifestyle publications, they just have differing ratio and proportion of wine, wine-related and pure lifestyle editorial content. It would be interesting in give the students Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and, say, Wine & Spirits to analyze regarding wine versus lifestyle emphasis. Maybe next term.)

Taken together, the editorial content and the advertising (plus the “coffee table” large format) gave my students a strong sense of a plush lifestyle publication. Wine is part of that world, they said, but not the only part of it. Some were attracted to this lifestyle image and other repulsed. They all found it fascinating.

Decanter

Decanter’s cover boldly proclaims that it is “The World’s Best Wine Magazine.” Is it?

Decanter is a lifestyle magazine, too, but that’s not what struck my students. Compared to Wine Spectator they noted a more specific wine focus and talked about finding deeper analysis of wine regions and issues.  I’m not sure if this is really true or if it reflects Wine Spectator’s high advertisement page  count, which might make it seem like there is less wine content.

But for whatever reason Decanter seemed more seriously interested in wine as opposed to lifestyle, according to my students.

Decanter has a different approach to wine ratings, too. Whereas Wine Spectator has many wine reviews in the back covering new releases from the U.S. and many international regions, Decanter typically features in-depth review articles on just two regions. You get more breadth of coverage with Wine Spectator and more depth with Decanter.

Wine Spectator made good  browsing, one student said, and sometimes that’s just what you want, but Decanter would be better to read.

Wine Advocate

My students were shocked by Wine Advocate. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for a “just the facts, ma’am” wine publication. Black type on tan paper. No photos. No ads. Page after page of winery and wine reviews, focusing on three or four regions in each issue.

Not for browsing. Not for reading. You have to study Wine Advocate to get anything out of it they said.

Who reads Wine Advocate? No one would read it for pleasure, according to the students. (I disagree — geeky baseball fans read columns of statistics on their favorite sport. I think there is a similar wine reader.) You would read it for business — because you are a wine retailer, distributor, investor or maybe own a restaurant.  This, they said, was a magazine for readers with a serious professional purpose.

The World’s Best Wine Magazine?

So which one is the best?  I know my answer. If I could only read one it would be Decanter because I think  it is more focused on the supply and demand issues I write about. It’s a wine magazine written by and maybe for “Masters of Wine” who care a lot about commercial concerns.

Unfortunately, Decanter’s specific consumer wine advice is mainly irrelevant to me since the British market it covers is so different from my Wine Wall here in the United States. Very few U.S. wines (apart from the big multinationals) successfully break into the British market, for example, and so we get little space in Decanter compared to wines from Europe and Australia. The market here is just the reverse.

My students weren’t willing to choose a “world’s best wine magazine.” They could see strengths and weaknesses in all three.  One student said it boiled down to a trade-off between accessibility (Wine Spectator) and authenticity (the more detailed analysis of terroir you find in publications like Wine Advocate) and there’s no perfect balance between them.

In wine, as in many other areas of life, we want both accessibility and authenticity and I guess my students have already become both surprisingly self-aware of their position in this struggle and skilled at negotiating the complex space it  creates. Interesting.

World’s best wine magazine? No such thing. It depends on who you are, what you are looking for and your particular idea of wine.

Gourmet, Rachael Ray, Chardonnay Connection

1940-2009 RIP

I was trying to explain to my students the lasting importance of Robert Mondavi and I suddenly realized that Julia Child was the key. Mondavi tried to do for wine in America what Julia tried to do for food. This made me think about other parallels between our wine and food cultures — and the significance of the last issue of Gourmet magazine.

The End of Gourmet

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it was pulling the plug on Gourmet magazine, America’s signature culinary monthly since 1940. The cause of death, clearly, is the economic crisis, which has reduced advertising pages by over 30 percent. Gourmet‘s subscribers (there are nearly a million of them) will have to find something else to read on the still-cluttered Food & Lifestyles section of the newsstand. Bon Appétit (another Condé Nast title) is the obviously choice, although it is not a perfect substitute — more recipes I’m told, and less upscale travel and leisure.

Gourmet‘s obituary appeared everywhere — even on the front page of the New York Times. The Times made it clear that this wasn’t just a business decision (although Condé Nast assured us it was — the McKinsey consulting firm made the call). This is really the end of an era. And not a good end.

“It’s Rachael Ray’s world now,” the story declared, referring to the 30-minute-meal Food Network star; “we’re all just cooking in it.” Roll over, Julia Child (as Chuck Berry might have said) and tell Escoffier the news.

Rachel Ray Chardonnay?

Setting aside for a moment the premise of the Times article — that Gourmet defines the era — I wonder if what’s true for food in America is also true for wine? This must be a valid concern because it is he gist of the question that I’m most frequently asked by journalists — is the current slump in fine wine sales (especially wines selling for $20 or more in the shops) a temporary trend or a permanent shift in demand? Is this the end of an era for wine? When the economy perks up eventually, will people want to buy very expensive wines again? Or is the switch to cheaper, simpler wines (my made-up Rachel Ray Chardonnay) here to stay?

The question became more interesting as I read the Times article. I tried to substitute wine terms for food terms in the article and it seemed to make sense. Here’s what I mean.

The death of Gourmet [insert name of expensive wine] doesn’t mean people are cooking less [drinking less] or do not want food magazines [good wine], said Suzanne M. Grimes, who oversees Every Day With Rachael Ray, among other brands, for the Reader’s Digest Association.

“Cooking [wine drinking] is getting more democratic,” she said. “Food [wine] has become an emotional currency, not an aspiration.”

It has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray [Gary Vaynerchuck?] and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl [the Gourmet editor -- insert Robert Parker or maybe Jancis Robinson] is a celebrity in the food [wine] world, but of an elite type. She [or maybe he] “is one of those icons in chief,” said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks [budget conscious wine drinkers] want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal.

The substitution works, pretty well, don’t you think? And the McKinsey consultants surely did their job. Food and wine down the tubes. Maybe Robert Mondavi and Julia Child are both turning in their graves!

Exaggerated Rumors

But rumors of the death of both fine dining and fine wine are probably exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Gourmet is an iconic brand and the fact that Condé Nast cut it rather than Bon Appetit surely does mean something. But we have to remember that print magazines themselves are an endangered species in this internet age. What information we consume and in what form are both changing very rapidly. Magazines will change rather rapidly in the next few years to remain relevant or else they’ll fade away. Gourmet isn’t the first and won’t be the last to bite the dust.

So I am not willing to declare fine wine (or the Gourmet food lifestyles) dead on the basis of this news alone. The question of whether Americans will return to their old wine-drinking habits when the recession ends remains open for now.

Note: A lot of great wine writing appeared in Gourmet over the years. Look for a future post that tries to understand the changing American wine work through the Gourmet lens.

Prime Time for Fine Wine?

The Wall Street Journal reports that USDA Prime beef is now available in your supermarket meat case. Bad news for your cholesterol count, perhaps, but maybe good news for supermarket wine sales. Do you think it will last?

Steak-Out at Ruth’s Chris

USDA Prime beef is usually almost impossible to get outside of restaurants. Prime is the grade reserved for the top 1-3% of all beef — it is sort of like beef with a 93+ rating from Robert Parker. Fine dining establishments, including steak houses like Ruth’s Chris (which advertises itself as “The Best Prime Steakhouse Restaurant”), pay a premium for the limited supplies of this top quality beef. It is unusual, therefore, to find much Prime beef in the regular retail food distribution chain (USDA Choice is usually the top grade you will find at your store). It is especially rare to discover choice cuts like Filet Mignon in a supermarket meat case.

So then why did some shoppers recently find USDA Prime ribeye steaks at Costco for $9.99 per pound? The answer, according to the WSJ article, is the slump in high end restaurant sales. (I don’t know how Ruth’s Chris in particular is doing, but the fine dining industry overall is taking a beating. due to the economic crisis.)

The recession is bad news for restaurants and for the businesses that supply them. I have already written about the effect on wine.  Some hard-to-get, winery-list and restaurant-only wines are now relatively easy to find — a few have even shown up at Costco — because distributors are diverting the wine that restaurants won’t buy to their other selling channels. The same thing, apparently, has happened to Prime beef.

Prime Time on the Wine Wall

Some of the folks who used to splurge on expensive restaurant meals are now sometimes treating themselves to  fancy home-cooked meals, which can be less expensive even when they use similar ingredients because high restaurant labor costs are supplied in house for free (or lower cost, anyway, if you have to pay your children to be waiters, prep-cooks or dishwashers).  Prime beef and excellent wines are now more readily available to these home chefs, as the WSJ article indicates and, while they may be expensive in an absolute sense (compared to Kraft Macaroni Dinner, for example) they are still cheap relative to the restaurant experience. Good food and wine at home can cushion the recession’s hard knocks.

My friend Patrick, wine manager at a local upscale supermarket, has a front row seat as these shoppers assemble ingredients for a special meal. His  Wine Wall is located strategically at the corner of Meat, Fish and Produce, so aspiring gourmet chefs inevitably pass through his territory once or twice and he is happy to help them select a nice wine to complement their home creations.

Patrick thinks that this fine-dining shift from restaurants to residences may not be a temporary phenomenon. People are educating themselves about food, ingredients, cooking methods — and wine of course — and they may find themselves drawn more deeply into the home dining experience. As they become more skilled and knowledgeable they may begin to identify themselves as “foodies” who enjoy planning menus, shopping for and preparing food, not just eating it, and change their fine dining behavior for good.

I’m sure this won’t happen to everyone everywhere, but I think I agree with Patrick that a noticeable structural shift could occur. If sustained, this trend could have important implications for several industries, including wine. A major shift in sales from restaurants to supermarkets, specialty stores and big box retailers would force some winemakers to reevaluate their business plans and perhaps shake up the whole wine market.

Now, where are my car keys? I feel an urge to go to Costco …

Wine Critics and their Discontents

The Principal-Agent Problem

You might think that the job of wine critic would be heavenly – traveling the world, tasting wines and talking and writing about them.  What could be better?  But there are downsides and trade-offs to the job.  One is that your credibility depends upon objectivity – if your ratings are thought to be biased, your advice is correspondingly discounted.  But, on the other hand, you need income to work as a critic or to publish magazines and websites and the most obvious source of income is the wine industry itself.  How can we trust wine critics when the potential conflicts of interest are so obvious?

This situation is not at all unlike that faced by candidates for political office, who receive money from “special interests” but still need to serve (and appear to serve) the general interest. It isn’t impossible to walk this tightrope, but it isn’t always easy either.  You probably can think of many politicians who have done it successfully and a few who fell off.

In economics we see this as an example of the principal-agent problem.  You understand the principal-agent problem if you’ve ever wondered if the cab driver was really taking the shortest route back to the hotel.  Although cab driver and rider have entered into a mutually advantageous contract, interests are not fully aligned and the fact of asymmetric information means you may not be sure that you are getting a fair deal.

Wine enthusiasts (the principals) hire critics (the agents) to give us objective advice, but we know that the critics may have their own interests as well as ours in mind.  How can we trust them to place our interests above their own?

It seems to me that all the wine critics I have surveyed confront this problem openly and honestly, although they arrive at different strategies to deal with the problem.  All the examples I will cite below are effective, in my view,  so I have come away from this little study well satisfied, but the fact that they are so different can create some confusion for wine enthusiasts who fail to read the fine print.

Parker and Vaynerchuck

Robert Parker’s solution to the problem of potential economic conflict of interest at the Wine Advocate is simply to refuse all advertising and to charge his principals fees for web access, hard copy subscriptions, books and so forth.  Who does Parker work for?  He works for us.  It is pretty hard to criticize this model, although interestingly he is probably the most criticized wine critic.  People don’t complain about economic conflict of interest, however, but rather that Parker’s particular idea of wine favors particular styles of wine and particular producers.

Gary Vaynerchuck at Wine Library TV takes a different approach.  His family owns a major wine retailer in New Jersey, so in fact he has a very direct financial interest in the sales of some of the wine he reviews.  Rather than trying to build a firewall between the wine critic business and the wine retailer business, however, he tries to be completely transparent about it and to accentuate his personal credibility as an objective reviewer.  Unexpectedly, this seems to work.  Reputation matters. Accepting the conflict of interest and being open about it is a risky strategy, but Gary pulls it off.

There was one case of a potential conflict of interest a few months ago that shows that he is not unaware of the risks.  The top wine in a particular tasting turned out to be a proprietary label of Gary’s store.  Apparently Gary didn’t know this when the tasting was recorded and when he found out he immediately took the video down from the internet so that he could not gain financially from his honest appraisal of the wines. We only know about it now because of his online apology and explanation.  I think this case shows just how very important it is to wine critics to maintain their reputations as honest objective agents.


Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been studying how wine magazines handle reviews and the images that sometimes appear with them because it seems to me that a review that is shown along with a photo of the bottle or label is a lot more memorable than the plain text, so the choice of which wines to favor with an image is important..  Some of the magazines use these images to generate advertising revenue, others do not.  This is potentially confusing for readers who may mix up editorial content (the review) with paid advertising (the label image).

Britain’s Decanter magazine keeps its paid advertising and editorial wine ratings reasonably separated.  The top rated four- and five-star wines are featured with bottle photographs while the rest (three stars and below) have simple text listings. It is clear that the photos reflect editorial evaluation. Advertising pages bookend each set of ratings, but they are labeled “Decanter Promotion” so it is pretty clear that the wineries have paid for the space.

Wine & Spirits magazine has a different system (clearly explained in each issue).  After it has rated a group of wines it invites the wineries to purchase feature space in the form of wine label images that are included with the relevant reviews.  You might assume that the editors picked the wines to receive more attention this way, but you are wrong — stop assuming!  The label images are product placements and I appreciate Wine & Spirits’ honesty in revealing it.

Wine Enthusiast has a similar policy according to the explanation I found on page 182 of the September 2008 issue.  All the rated wines appear in long unadorned columns of reviews, but some wines also show up along with label images in the colorful pages that precede the main review text.  Some of these are top-rated wines, but others are not.  Like Wine & Spirits, producers are invited to buy image space in this section of the magazine, but only after the wines have been rated so that it is clear that they are buying the image space not the review — a good policy.

Wine Spectator doesn’t sell image space.  There are highlighted pages of wine reviews with labels at the front of the ratings sections, but these are editorial endorsements rather than paid placements.  Otherwise all the listings get equal treatment in the magazine.

Mixed Messages

If you see a bottle or label image alongside a review in Wine Spectator or Decanter, it means that the editors recommend the wine.  Label/review combinations in Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits are product placements. Each publication is very clear about this to protect its reputation – and I believe them when they say that their reviews are not influenced by advertising.  But the fact that there is more than one system means that readers of Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits and other magazines with similar practices may sometimes confuse paid product placement with editorial endorsement.

Solution?  I think all the critics cited above are honest agents and they have the right to choose different strategies to protect their reputations while generating needed revenues.  The burden falls on us, the wine buying “principals,” to understand what sort of “contract” we have with our critic “agents” so that we know when we are viewing paid product placements.

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.

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.

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