“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.
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.”
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
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.
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’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.
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.
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 onGourmet 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!
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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 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.
People 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.
Decanterbills 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.
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.
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
The 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 muchbetter 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
Or 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.
Jonathan Nossiter’s new book inspires a research project.
Taste and Power — that’s what the wine business is all about. Or at least that is the thesis of the new book (Le goût et le pouvoir) by Mondovino director Jonathan Nossiter. Those with power can influence taste or even dictate it. The English translation will appear later this year. For now I am working my way through the original French. I’ll post a review when I finish.
A recent conversation with Tyler Colman, a.k.a. Dr. Vino, started me thinking about the influence of wine critics and how globalization is increasing their importance. Think about the number of wines you have to choose from. My local upscale supermarket stocks more than 1500 different wines from at least 15 different countries. This is an enormous and complex choice space that ranges from the familiar to the exotic and from inexpensive to near investment-grade. And the number of choices is unexceptional. A local farm store, with acres of space to fill, actually stocks more than 3500 wines from more than 25 countries.
An Embarassment of Riches
The simple fact of this embarrassment of riches makes wine critics useful and influential. How can you make an intelligent choice from among so many different wines? It is difficult to know what’s in the bottle without tasting and there are too many to taste. Wine critics are middlemen who do the tasting for us and arbitrage that information, reducing the uncertainty that is both the joy of wine and its curse. (Wine brands are another way to reduce uncertainty and increase sales, as I have discussed in earlier posts).
Wine critics and their descriptions and ratings would be useful if you have only 100 wines to choose from. With thousands of wines available, they become practically indispensable. The global expansion of wine trade increases choice and uncertainty and magnifies the value (and power?) of wine critics.
Wine critics are important for other reasons, too. Wine can be an investment as well as a consumable product and wine critics provide information to this forward-looking market. The question here is not what wine tastes like today, but what it will taste like in several years and, most importantly, what a buyer will pay for it in the future. Here, because there are so many unknowns, wine critics can have great influence. Some wines probably have investment value because the critics say they do, so much is the market driven by critic-inspired perceptions of value.
Critics are also important because wine is increasingly an identity investment, not just a financial investment. Individuals invest in both wines and in specialized knowledge about wine both for their own pleasure and to make a statement about their identities. To be very knowledgeable about wine is to display a specialized cultural sophistication. It isn’t the same as owning a Ferrari or a Renoir (it might be more expensive than owning a Ferrari or Renoir) but it makes a statement in the same way. The very best wine, not just good wine, can be an object of obsession, hence the outrageous prices that are paid. Wine critics both enable and encourage the quest.
Wine Critics and Wine Markets
The influence of wine critics are everywhere in the wine market, from budget buyers seeking good value to elite wine collectors. You can complain about their power and dispute their taste, as critics of Robert Parker frequently do, but they are here to stay. So I think we need to learn more about them.
Hence my current project. I’ve collected a number of wine publications (click on the photo above to see them) that evaluate and rate wines as well as provide other information about wine, including investment reports, wine tourism guides, winemaker biographies, food and wine pairing tips and so on. Rather than criticize their numerical ranking scales or bemoan their philistine tastes, I want to compare and contrast them, to try to figure out what wines they are rating, how, why and for whom? My working hypothesis is that wine critics are simultaneously influenced by the market segments they inhabit and shape them, too. If I’m right, then these publications should be very different, even when the wines they evaluate are the same.
The publications I’m studying are Wine Spectator, the best-selling American wine magazine and Robert Parkers Wine Advocate, which is said to be the most influential. I am also examining two other national publications, The Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits,Wine Press Northwest, a regional publication, and two very important foreign journals, Decanter (Great Britain) and Gambero Rosso (Italy). Watch this space for upcoming reports!