Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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From Marco Polo to Eric Asimov: Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines

Kublai Khan is old and tired and his empire is vast and fraying at the edges. It is impossible for him personally to  know his great domain, so he studies his atlas and sends emissaries to be his eyes and ears and bring back reports. His favorite eye-witness correspondent is Marco Polo, with whom he sits for days on end in the palace garden, turning gestures and then words into vivid images of otherwise unseen cities via the advanced technology of the human imagination.

Are the stories and the cities they represent truth or fiction? It is impossible for Kublai Khan to know for sure since they cannot easily be verified. Some of the tales are fantastic and understandably raise doubts. But they all seem to contain an ehpemeral kernel of truth, which makes the invisible cities important even if they might only be figments of the imagination.

In any case, Marco Polo advises, the truth is in the hearing, not the telling, since each listener (or reader, I suppose) will shape the words to reflect their own experiences, anxieties and desires. The same accounts, he advises Kublai, will produce entirely different images when he eventually tells them again back home in Venice.

Invisible Cities, Invisible Wines

Do you recognize this story? It is the from one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). This is a book that I have read and re-read perhaps 10 times, with those bits of truth always just beyond my reach (perhaps this is why Kublai Khan spends so much time with Marco Polo).  It is a great book, but what does it have to do with wine?

I was inspired to dig out my copy of Invisible Cities by a recent column by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov called “Why Can’t You Find That Wine?”   Asimov uses the article to respond to readers who are frustrated that the fabulous wines he often praises turn out to be nearly impossible for them to actually experience. Asimov writes that,

Often plaintive and occasionally hostile, the missives arrive regularly by email, snail mail and phone: “You have an uncanny ability to discuss wines that are difficult if not impossible to find,” one California reader wrote in June.

And this from a reader in New York: “Once again, I have wasted more than a half-hour trying (in vain) to find where in New York City to buy wines mentioned in your column.”

Asimov is sympathetic to his readers’ frustration and explains how the almost hopelessly fragmented US wine market (a lasting legacy of Prohibition) makes it nearly impossible to talk about important wines if you limit your list to only those that can be found in all the nation’s many marketplaces. (He usefully provides hints and strategies for consumers to use to track down special wines.)

My goal is to explore what I think makes wine so thrilling. I’m seeking wines that inspire, with stories to tell and mysteries, perhaps, to conceal. Sometimes deliciousness is enough. But often, the flavors and aromas are only part of what a wine conveys. It’s the rest of the message that’s so fascinating. Part of the joy is for consumers to take part in this journey and make up their own minds. It hurts when they cannot.

Many of the wines that Asimov finds inspiring are produced or imported in tiny quantities with very limited distribution. The wines are real, but for most of Asimov’s readers they might as well be imaginary since their only chance to experience them is to imagine them much as Kublai Kahn imagined Marco Polo’s cities.

The Empire of Imaginary Wines

“I fervently wish all drinkers could find what they want. I sympathize with those who can’t,” he writes, ” But the simple solution — choosing only wines that are easy to find — is worse than the problem.”  That’s because Asimov sees his mission not just to report but to elevate and inspire — to excite our imaginations and to draw attention to those who somehow through their winemaking are able to bring us a bit closer to an ephemeral kernel of truth.

Those are my words, not his, but you get the drift. And do you see how how Asimov and Marco Polo are connected? They both tell us stories about a world too vast for us to ever really know. There are, I am told, about 80,000 different wines for sale in the United States today — far too many for any of us to really know and appreciate even if they were all available to us in one easy to shop aisle., which of course they are not. They are a bit like Kublai Kahn’s vast empire (and we are a bit like him, I suppose).

Eighty thousand wines? That seems like a lot, but there are probably even more. Wine Business Monthly reports that there are about 8,000 wineries in North America and if each produced just five different wines that would account for half the total.  Could the rest of the world with its many thousands of wineries supply the rest? My goodness yes.

Imaginary Wine: A New Wine Genre?

So we really are in Kublai Khan’s position, aren’t we? The difference, I suppose, is that unlike him we are not satisfied with a glimpse of the truth to inspire us — we really want to see the invisible cities and to taste the invisible wines and won’t be satisfied until we do.

I am sure that Asimov is right — it is best for him to tell us about inspiring wines even if we can never really know them, since the accounts may inspire us even if they also frustrate us. (There is a place, however, for accounts of the visible wines, too, don’t you think?) But perhaps we need to take the next step. Asimov’s wines are real, but if we cannot taste them ourselves wouldn’t inspiring stories about fictional wines be just as good — or maybe even better?

I guess what I am asking is if there is a place the wine world for fantastically fictional descriptions of imaginary wines (and  not just those fake bottles that Rudy K produced) that would make us rethink wine the way that Marco Polo’s stories made Kublai Khan rethink his (and our) world? We could never actually taste the wines, but perhaps they might still  elevate and inspire. Life does at least sometimes imitate art!

What do you think? If you were Marco Polo describing an imaginary wine to Kublai Kahn, what would you say?

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

Money, Power and Wine


Wine is about flavor and aroma, of course, but it’s also about money and power. Anyone who has studied the wine business knows about the money that’s at stake and the power that a few key actors have to shape the market or exploit its peculiar structure.

Every couple of years Decanter magazine publishes a list of the 50 most powerful people in the world of wine, which gives everyone an opportunity to think about how wine has changed and how those changes have altered the distribution of power.  I wrote about the 2009 Decanter Wine Power List two years ago and now the 2011 list has appeared. You can read all about it here: Decanter Wine Power List 2011.

Lewis Perdue, editor of Wine Industry Insight responded to the new Decanter rankings almost immediately, saying the list is based on “snobbery rather than power.”  Perdue writes that

Decanter’s annual “Powerful” list is based not so much on power, clout, or the ability to move markets, but on a snobbish gaze at a small self-indulgent world that is increasingly irrelevant to the vast majority of the globe’s wine drinkers.

Indeed, the wine industry’s obsession with the navel-gazing worship of sacred grapes blessed by the gods since 1855 is one key reason wine remains  a self-marginalized beverage.

Small wonder that so many people who have a real life choose to punt on haut vin’s rituals and mumbo-jumbo and order a vodka or an IPA instead.

What’s bugging Perdue? As someone who has recently asked “Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?” I can appreciate his point of view, which becomes clearer when you compare the 2011 ratings with the 2009 power list. I’ll reproduce the top tens from both years here.

2009 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
  2. Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
  3. Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
  4. Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
  5. Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
  6. Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
  7. Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
  8. Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
  9. Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
  10. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard

The 2009 power structure reflected a certain rationalization of the wine business — by which I mean a movement towards de-mystified wine that consumers buy because they can understand it. Sands (#1) and Dick (#4) are in the business of selling and distributing wines to the masses — they are forces of democratization, if you will allow me to use this term very loosely.

Fischer Boel (#3) is the EU official who in 2009 was working on reforms to make the EU market more rational, more like the American market, so that European winemakers could compete with the Sands and Dicks of the world (and stop producing surplus wine that no one will buy).

Alvarez-Peters and  Jago (#5 and #6 respectively) are part of that system, too. Costco and Tesco are the largest wine merchants in the U.S. (Costco) and the world (Tesco); key leaders in wine’s expanding (rationalized) retail domain.

Even Robert Parker (#2) is sometimes seen as part of the wine democratization movement, at least to the extent that he has weakened the hold of Old World elites on wine criticism. His 100-point scale is often characterized by critiques as rationalization taken to an extreme. (FYI French President Sarkozy made the list at #9 because his anti-alcohol policies represented a powerful and widespread threat to the wine business.)

The 2009 ratings, in this admittedly superficial analysis, were all about how power has moved not so much to the masses as to people with an interest in selling wine to the masses by reconfiguring the structure of the wine industry to that end. You can see from the part of Perdue’s remarks that I quoted above that he is probably sympathetic with the direction the 2009 power list points (except the Sarko element, of course).

2011 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard
  2. Eric de Rothschild, Chateau Lafite Rothschild
  3. Robert Parker, Wine Advocate
  4. Mel Dick, Southern Wine & Spirits
  5. Robert Sands, Constellation Brands
  6. Annette Alvarez-Peters, Costco
  7. Don St Pierre Jr, CEO of China-based distributor ASC
  8. Wu Fei , general manager of Chinese wine company Cofco wine and spirits
  9. Eduardo Guilisasti, Chief Executive Officer of Concha y Toro Winery
  10. Jancis Robinson MW OBE , wine critic and author

Decanter explains the significance of its new rankings in the video I have inserted at the top of this post and also on its website:

Pierre Pringuet, CEO of ‘arguably today’s most diverse, far-reaching major wine producer’ has knocked Constellation’s Robert Sands from the number one slot.

The 60-year-old executive, number 10 in 2009’s Power List, presides over the world’s fourth biggest wine company, owner of brands from Champagne Mumm and Perrier-Jouet to Jacob’s Creek and New Zealand’s Brancott Estate.

Pernod Ricard spans both the mass-market and premium end of the global wine market, giving it ‘an enviable perspective on the rate of change currently affecting the wine world,’ Decanter argues.

In second place is Eric de Rothschild, who has looked after the diverse portfolio of Domaines Barons de Rothschild for 37 years.

He has shot up from number 20 on the basis of Chateau Lafite’s huge influence in China: ‘as the world’s premium producers blaze a trail east, it is in Lafite’s footsteps they tread.’

The 2011 rankings present a different picture of wine power. Parker, Sands and Alvarez-Peters still appear in the top 10, reflecting the continued relevance of an American idea of wine markets, but Pernod Ricard replaces Constellation Brands at the top.  Constellation was #1 in the world in 2009 and is #2 now, behind Gallo. Pernod Ricard is #4 by sales today. (Gina Gallo appears further down the list a few positions ahead of her husband, Jean-Charles Boisset — a real wine power couple!)

But the real story is about the new faces in the top 10 list. China is the emerging market powerhouse and power is shifting, Decanter is telling us, to those who can ride that tiger most successfully. Rothschild’s #2 position is all about China. His Chateau Lafite Rothschild’s soaring prices are driven by Chinese buyers who cannot seem to get enough 0f that wine, no matter how much it costs (or how likely it is to be fake!).

Assessing the Power Shifts

It certainly is the case that wine market power is shifting. The U.S. appears to be the wine market of the present (it is now the largest national wine market) although it is hard to argue with the idea that China may be the market of the future. But the future could be a long way off. Still, I understand that everyone is looking for growing markets and The Next Big Thing, which is probably why there was so much attention given my series on wine in the BRIC nations.

Britain has always had a “special relationship” with Bordeaux (one that is hundreds of years older than its U.S. link), so it is perhaps understandable that Decanter’s editors would see the world through a different lens than some of the rest of us. Power has already shifted to Asia in certain segments of the wine auction market and for some Bordeaux wines, so if we define the universe of wine this way (which is what Perdue objects to) then Decanter’s strong focus on Asia makes perfect sense. If you take a different view of what is relevant in wine today and what isn’t, then your sense of where the power lies changes.

Power to the People?

Decanter says that one message in the power list bottle is the democratization of wine. Gary Vaynerchuck, the “people’s wine critic,” makes the list  again (he ranks higher than Hugh Johnson) and “the amateur wine bloggers” make their first appearance in the #16 slot — behind Dan Jago and Gina Gallo but a couple of positions ahead of Michel Rolland.

I like the idea of recognizing the power of the internet. My university students get most of their information about wine from web sources — they don’t pay much attention to the traditional gatekeepers. But power transmitted through the web is different in nature from the ability to control wine distribution, for example. It is much like the distinction I make in my political economy courses between “hard power” and “soft power.” Both are important, but which is more effective depends on the context.

There are some wine bloggers with great influence (I wouldn’t call their efforts amateur, however), but I think Decanter missed the target here. It is probably not the bloggers who represent soft power in wine so much as the thousands of contributors to CellarTracker.com and similiar websites.  Their influence surely trickles up, although the long term impact remains (like that of China) yet to be revealed.

The Mother of All Wine Competitions

Decanter, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” organizes the mother of all wine competitions each year. The results of the 2011 judging are out — you can read them here.

I think that the Decanter World Wine Awards is the largest and most comprehensive wine competition in the world. The press release proclaims that “This year a staggering 12,252 wines from 44 countries were tasted in the DWWA, with 8,327 medals awarded.” Staggering is right! That’s a lot of wine from a lot of places and a lot of awards, too.

Can you imagine a wine competition with more than 8000 winners (two thirds of all wines entered)? What an incredible undertaking.

Suspicious Minds

Wine economists are suspicious of wine competitions. This is partly because economists are suspicious people in the first place, always looking for the dark dismal cloud whenever they spy a silver lining. But there are other reasons, too. De gustibus non est disputadum is the economists’ motto;  everyone is entitled to her own opinion on matters of taste. The idea that anyone, even experienced judges,  could objectively rank something as inherently subjective as wine runs against an economist’s nature, so you can imagine how suspicious we are about big competitions where thousands of wines are tasted and rated.

Richard Hodgson, a winemaker and retired statistics professor, was for many years a judge at the Mother of All American Wine Competitions, the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. California State Fair judges evaluated more than 3000 wines from 600 wineries in 2009. It’s a huge competition, although nothing compared to the Decanter contest. Hodgson’s analysis of raw data from wine judges suggests that they are only human after all and likely to suffer the sort of tasting inconsistencies that you would expect (if you are a suspicious-minded economist).

Hodgson and his colleague G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski, California State Fair Wine Competition manager and chief wine judge discussed their findings at the 2010 meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Davis, California. Here’s a summary taken from the Wine Business Monthly report on the session.

Hodgson served as a judge in the California State Fair competition, and is now on the competition’s Wine Advisory Task Force working with Pucilowski to try to improve judging quality and consistency.

With Pucilowski’s assistance, Hodgson has been evaluating the competition judges since 2005 with trials that place three samples from the same wine bottle in one flight of judged wines to see if the judges ranked each sample consistently. Hodgson, who taught statistics at Humboldt State University, said, “Fewer than 10% of judges could judge the three wines and maintain consistency in their scores.” He added, “Some of the same wines received ratings that ranged from no award to gold.” When the study, “An Examination of Judge Reliabiity at a Major U.S. Wine Competition,” was published in the JWE, it received significant media attention and created a stir among wine judges and within the wine industry.

Pucilowski, who has managed the State Fair competition 25 years and often serves as a judge in other competitions, openly admits that his competition and all wine judging events are highly subjective. To his credit, he is constantly looking at ways to improve the competition and to help judges improve their abilities.

The Value of Wine Competitions

So it seems like there is good reason to be skeptical about wine competition results. Why, then,  do winemakers enter these competitions, given that they are the people who are most likely to know when their wines are scored too high or low compared with others? Ego may have something to do with it, but the obvious answer is that there is commercial value in a gold medal and the attention it receives, although I don’t know how much a medal is really worth — probably depends upon the circumstances. I noticed, for example, that the Achaval Ferrer Malbec that was the top wine last year in Decanter’s  big comparative tasting of Argentinean Malbec did not receive a medal at DWWA. I’ll bet that’s because it wasn’t entered.  Nothing to gain for this famous (and probably sold-out) wine.

Some wine producers probably enter competitions on the theory that they might win a medal in at least one of them, which gives them bragging rights. There has been a medal on the label of every bottle of Gallo’s value-priced Barefoot wines that I’ve ever seen, for example. A medal gives the cautious bargain-buyer some assurance of quality. Three non-vintage Barefoot wines — Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Moscato — earned “commended” medals in this year’s Decanter competition.

Even Two Buck Chuck wins gold medals, according to an article in the Napa Valley Register.

The Charles Shaw 2005 California chardonnay (yes, the $1.99 “Two Buck Chuck” made by Bronco Wine Company sold at Trader Joe’s)  was judged Best Chardonnay from California at California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

The chardonnay received 98 points, a double gold, with accolades of Best of California and Best of Class.


Decanter’s Value

As the video above shows, Decanter (like the California State Fair competition) goes to great lengths to overcome the inherently problematic elements of wine judging. This makes sense since there is so much at stake, both for the winemakers and for Decanter itself, which puts its reputation on the line. The Decanter awards probably have more commercial value than most because the Decanter name has credibility, especially in the U.K.  Decanter sells colorful foil medals to decorate winning bottles and the decorations sell the wine, the magazine and, well, the whole enterprise.

Winning a medal is good, but perhaps the biggest prize for many wineries is winning distribution. Making good wines is often easier than getting them into consumer hands, both here in the U.S. where our fragmented three-tier system creates many obstacles, and also in Great Britain, where the big supermarket chains dominate. Scrolling through the online winner lists I notice that a lot of the wines that are received medals in the competition  aren’t currently sold in the UK. Perhaps that’s the point of entering — to get distributor attention and break into the market.

Thick and Thin

Wine competitions are fun, but I admit that I don’t take the results too seriously since they depend on so many uncontrollable factors, including which particular wines are entered and which (like the Achaval Ferrer Malbec) are held out. I do, however, find the Decanter results worth careful study because  they have some important stories to tell.

The wine world is very broad but the world wine market surprisingly thin and uneven. Looking at the award list, it is interesting to see the large number of countries (44, including India, China and Thailand) that sent wine to London for the judging. As someone who writes about the globalization of wine, it is great to see evidence of the world wine web’s continuing expansion.

But the list of entries is also relatively thin and uneven in some respects, even with more than 12,000 entries, reflecting the fact that the British market is difficult to break into and so not everyone sees value in entering Decanter’s competition.

If you search for U.S. award winners, for example, I think you will be a bit puzzled by the long list of wineries that result, both in terms of the wines that appear and those that are missing, probably because they were not entered in the competition.  There are affordable wines from large scale producers (like Gallo’s Barefoot noted above) and some expensive boutique ones, too, but much of America’s vast middle kingdom of wine, which is in many ways the country’s great strength,  is under-represented. Not interested in the award because not represented in the British market, I suspect.

The U.S. Medal Count

This perhaps accounts for the odd showing of American wines on the Award league table. Only four U.S. wines earned top awards in 2011 (many more earned Silver, Bronze and Commended medals, however). The top four are:

Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Huerhuero Estate 2008 (Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo County) earned a regional trophy (second only to an international trophy in Decanter’s galaxy of awards). It was the top U.S. wine. No U.S. wine earned an international trophy.

Three wines earned gold medals: Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage 2007 (Columbia Valley, Washington State), Justin Justification 2008 (Paso Robles. SLO) and the Silverado Vineyards Estate Cab 2008 (Napa Valley).

Are you surprised? I’ll bet this isn’t the list you were expecting. And it is interesting that none of the American wines made the highest level of awards.

Is four a good medal count? Not compared to Argentina, which received almost 20  gold medals and nine regional trophies. Why the big difference? Perhaps the judging panels applied different standards or maybe there just aren’t as many really good wines from the U.S. these days, but I think it has something to do with the intensity of Argentina’s export drive and the importance they attach to Decanter’s international reputation compared with producers from the United States.

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I’ve been asked to chair the session on wine competitions at the annual meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists later in the month. It will be interesting to see shat new insights the panelists will provide. Watch this space for a report.

Open That Bottle Night 2010

Cam watches Ken nurse the cork out of a bottle of 1960 Taylor Vintage Port.

The last Saturday of February is a holiday for wine lovers: Open That Bottle Night (OTBN). It’s the evening when wine enthusiasts come together to share wine and stories.

Although the wines are the official reason for these gatherings, the people and their stories are what it is really all about.

This year Sue and I will be getting together with Bonnie & Richard, Ron & Mary and Michael & Lauri at Ken & Rosemary’s house in Seattle. Everyone’s bringing wine and a story about the wine and Rosemary is making another of her spectacular meals. I’ll report the specifics in a note at the bottom of this post.

Vino Exceptionalism

The premise of OTBN is that wine is different — or maybe that we are different when it comes to wine.  Americans are famously interested in instant gratification — we want what we want when we want it. That’s one reason the U.S. saving rate is sometimes a negative number. Can’t wait — gotta have it now. That’s our typical consumption profile.

Isn’t it interesting, then, that we sometimes behave in exactly the opposite way when it comes to wine. Yes, I know that 70% of wine is consumed within a few hours of its purchase. That is unexceptional.

No, what I’m talking about is our counter-stereotype tendency to tuck special bottles away and save them for … for what? For the right occasion, I suppose. For the moment when they will mean more than they do just now.  Sometimes it is about proper aging of the wine, but usually there is an intangible component that transcends the bottle’s contents. For whatever reason, it seems we need to be reminded once a year to get these wines out and enjoy them!

Frequently (in my case, at least) we hold them too long so that when the cork is finally pulled the wine within is a shadow of its former self.

Liquid Memory

The interesting thing is that it usually doesn’t matter that the wine has faded away. Turns out it was the story that mattered most. Liquid memory!

Dottie & John

John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter invented OTBN in 2000 as a way to celebrate wine by releasing its pent up stories. Dottie and John wrote the weekly wine column for the Wall Street Journal until quite recently and each year they invited readers to send them accounts of their experiences, some of which appeared in post-OTBN columns.

It was quite an experience reading what other people were inspired to say by the wines they opened that night. Kind of a peek into their souls. I think that was the point, however. As Dottie and John wrote in their final column on January 26, 2010.

Wine isn’t a spectator sport. It’s utterly intimate. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should like, including us. Try wines broadly—there have never been so many good ones, at all prices, on shelves—and keep raising your personal bar for what is truly memorable, so that you are always looking for the next wine that will touch your soul and make you feel you’ve gone someplace you’ve never been before. It’s not about delicious wines. It’s about delicious experiences. May your life be filled with them.

Two Buck Chuck to Chateau LaTour

Dottie and John didn’t explain why they left the WSJ — word on the wine blogger street is that it was a simple cost-cutting move by Journal management — but many of us are interested to learn what will happen next.  The old WSJ wine column took a very broad view of wine, with reports that ranged from inexpensive bottlings like Two Buck Chuck to icons like Chateau LaTour.

John and Dottie were not very traditional or pretentious — they constantly pushed readers to try new wines, re-visit old favorites and think for themselves. I hope to see them reemerge on the wine scene soon. (Perhaps on cable TV?)

The Journal hasn’t given up on wine. The wine page has been filled by a variety of writers and topics since the first of the year. I suspect this is a short term measure until a permanent replacement is found.

Wine for Davos Man

It seems to me that the WSJ is very ambitious and is trying quite hard to become the Financial Times, rated by many as the world’s best business newspaper. The FT features a weekly column by Jancis Robinson, rated by some as the world’s most influential wine critic.  I expect Rupert Murdoch, the Journal‘s owner, to seek out someone of similar stature to anchor the Weekend Journal section (and attract wine-enthusiast readers).

Dr. Vino reports that the new columnist will be Jay McInerney, novelist and former wine columnist for House & Garden magazine. It will be interesting to see what direction McInerney (or whoever gets the job) takes at the WSJ. It is one of the world’s great “bully pulpits” when it comes to wine.

Jancis Robinson uses her position at the FT to promote fine wine in a global context to her audience of “Davos Man” global elites. She has been very effective at raising wine’s profile around the world.

Dottie and John embraced wine and globalization, too, but in a very American way for a broad American audience. They were effective, too, in the American context.

It will be interesting to see what direction the Wall Street Journal chooses, what idea of wine they embrace and what audience they hope to serve. In the meantime, it’s time to open that bottle.

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Update 3/26/10

This report just in from the New York Times dining blog:

The Wall Street Journal has confirmed rumors that Jay McInerney will be a wine columnist for the paper, but it throws in an unexpected curveball: his column will alternate, Saturday to Saturday, with one written by Lettie Teague.

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We had great wine, spectacular food and fascinating stories on Open That Bottle Night 2010. By the numbers: five and a half hours, ten people, thirteen wines, 75 wine glasses. Here are the food and wine menus — you will have to imagine the stories. Special thanks to Rosemary and Ken for hosting. And thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN.

Wine Menu (listed by vintage year, not the order tasted)

Solter Rheingau Riesling Brut Sekt 2006

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2004

Callaghan Vineyards Sonoita (Arizona) Padres 2003

Shanxi Grace Vineyards (China) Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2003

Racines Les Cailloux du Paradis (Loire) 2003

Chateau Haut Brion Blanc 1998

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (magnum) 1997

Champagne Charles Ellner Brut 1996

Chateau d’Yquem 1996

Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1990

Chateau Figeac St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru 1967

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961

Taylor Vintage Port 1960

Dinner menu

Rosemary Flatbread with Artichoke and Green Olive Spread

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Wild American Shrimp and Fennel Salad

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Roasted Tenderloin of “Wild Idea” Buffalo

Polenta with Cremini and Porcini Mushrooms and Mascarpone

Green Beans with Sautéed Shallots

Cranberries and Cherries in Madeira sauce

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“The Cheese Cellar” Cheeses

Gorgonzola Hand Picked by Luigi Guffanti

Piave High Mountain Cow Cheese

Sottocenere with Truffles, Clove and Cinnamon Rub with Ash Rind

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Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote

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Chocolate Biscotti

Soft Amoretti Cookies Sandwiched with Chocolate Ganache or Raspberry Jam

Do Advertised Wines Get Higher Ratings?

That’s the question that Boston College economist Jonathan Reuter asks in a new article in the Journal of Wine Economics titled “Does Advertising Bias Product Reviews. An Analysis of Wine Ratings.”

The Answer is No

Using data from Wine Spectator (which sells advertising) and comparing them to ratings from ad-free Wine Advocate, Reuter fails to find significant systematic bias in favor of advertised wines. In fact, a comparison of the average scores given to advertised and non-advertised wines shows a slight difference the other way, with non-advertisers receiving higher average scores.

Wine Spectator advertisers = 87.50

Wine Spectator non-advertisers = 87.58

Wine Advocate (the control in this experiment) also rated the wines that weren’t advertised in WS slightly higher than those that were, although it also gave higher average scores to all wines in the data set and the gap between the two groups was larger.

Wine Advocate scores of WS advertisers = 88.15

Wine Advocate scores of WS non-advertisers = 88.65

Reuter concludes that

Overall, the tests for biased ratings and biased awards produce little consistent evidence that Wine Spectator favors advertisers. At worst, the tests for biased ratings suggest that Wine Spectator rates wines from advertisers almost one point higher than wines from nonadvertisers. However, selective retastings can explain at most half of this bias and only within the set of U.S. wines rated by both Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. Given Wine Spectator’s claim that it rates wines blind, the remaining difference in ratings may simply reflect consistent differences in how the two publications rate quality. The fact that tests for biased awards provide no evidence of bias suggests that there is little bias overall. Therefore, despite the fact that Wine Spectator is dependent on advertising revenue, the long-run value of producing credible reviews appears to limit bias.

Reuter’s analysis obviously goes far beyond a simple comparison of means. Click on the link in the first paragraph to read the full article.

Dog Bites Man?

Most people are likely to see this as a classic  “dog bites man” non-story — the reason we pay attention to wine ratings is because we trust that they are unbiased, so it is not particularly newsworthy to discover that our trust is well placed.

But there is theoretical interest in the question because of the Principal-Agent problem. We the principals hire wine critics (by subscribing to their publications) to be our agents in evaluating wine quality. They have an interest in honoring this contract and assigning ratings with integrity in order to keep our business. On the other hand, however, they also have an incentive to act in their own narrow interests and exchange good ratings for advertising revenues.

Theory says agents will tend to cheat on our agreement if they can keep us from finding out. Hence we are suspicious of agents even as we put our trust in them. So you can see why economists might be surprised that wine critics, at least in this study, seem to put integrity first.

Reuter concludes that a reputation for honesty is worth more than potential gains from a pay-for-points regime. It is understandable that wine critics would be  offended that their life work is reduced to a simple balance of economic interests, but that’s how economists see the world.

Splitting Hairs

I appreciate the interest in wine rating scores — economists are attracted to data sets the way television-junkies go for reality shows. Since Wine Spectator rates the most wines of any publication it is unsurprising that we want to use them in our analysis.

I have always been uncomfortable with this. The temptation is to treat wine ratings as a consistent and reliable metric to measure quality (or at least perceived quality). But I’m not sure this is really a valid analytical technique.  I don’t rate wines, but I do rate students and I know that grades are not a perfect measure of the quality of student performance. Grades (even when given blind like the WS scores) are subject to any number of distorting factors. The scale is affected by context, of course, and changes over time.

I’m not saying that critics shouldn’t rate wines any more than I would advocate getting rid of student grades. I’m just saying that we ought to be very careful when we use wine scores (or student grades) in substantive research.

I know that comparing average grades for different types of classes taught by different professors at different times is problematic, so it is understandable that I think similar problems exist for wines ratings. I always take the conclusions  of empirical economic analysis based upon wine ratings — even when it is very good — with a grain of salt. To his credit, Reuter acknowledges the empirical limitations of his study.

How is Wine Spectator Different from Goldman Sachs?

Newspapers these days are full of stories of financial industry executives who are keen to raise cash and pay back TARP funds so that they are free to pay themselves generous bonuses. Although a closer investigation might make me alter my views, it sure seems to me that the collective interests of the principals (taxpayers, corporate shareholders) are being sacrificed in order to further the particular interests of the agents.

If Goldman Sachs does it, why should we think that Wine Spectator does not?  No wonder we are surprised by evidence that they don’t. Maybe the more interesting question, from an economic theory standpoint, is why Wine Spectator is different from Goldman Sachs when both face principal-agent problems in businesses where uncertainty and asymmetric information prevail? That would make a really interesting study!

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