Wine Economist Top 100

This is the Wine Economist‘s 100th post.  The idea of a Wine Economist Top 100 — my 100 best blog posts — is therefore kinda ridiculous.

But my wine enthusiast friends hungrily devour Top 50 and Top 100 wine lists even though the idea that it is possible to identify and rank the Top X [fill in the number] wines is kinda ridiculous, too, although in a different way. This provokes a digression on wine rankings and a brief report on what I’ve learned so far from writing this blog.

Supply and Demand

Ranking wines from 1 to 100 is certainly not an exact science; there are literally  thousands of wines on the market, so narrowing down the list to 100 and then actually ranking them from bottom to top (with no ties) is necessarily a problematic exercise when examined closely.

Individual tastes differ significantly and consumers are not uniformly able to detect even objective qualities in wine (much less make comparable subjective judgments), so it is hard to see why so many people take these ratings so very seriously. But they do.  It’s a matter of demand and supply.

Consumers demand wine rankings.  They use Top X lists as guides to shopping (or investing) and sometimes as a means to establish status or credibility with other wine enthusiasts.  This makes top wine lists a really useful tool for wine merchants and distributors, who supply what consumers demand (and sometimes try to help the demand along a little, too).

Wine critics must feel some pressure to supply what buyers and merchants want.   The Top X lists get so much attention that any critic who fails to issue a ranking must be a little bit concerned about the effect of this action in the crowded wine opinion marketplace. If I ranked wines, which I don’t, I’d sure want to publish a Top X list of some sort if only to draw attention to my other work. Everyone has an interest in these lists, so it’s no wonder they are so popular.

Winner-Take-All

It is interesting to consider how Top X lists and the attention they receive  may have invisibly shaped the wine world. Cornell economist Robert H. Frank has written two books that are worth reading in this regard.  The Winner-Take-All Society (co-authored by Philip J. Cook, 1995) looks at what happens when market attention is focused on a few top-rated products.  The result, not surprisingly, is that everyone wants the best (or what is rated the best) and the nearly-as-good and really-quite-pleasant are left behind. Who wants to drink pretty good Chardonnay when you can get a 90+ bottle for the same price (even if you cannot really taste the difference yourself)?

The book’s subtitle tells you where the argument goes: “How more and more Americans compete for fewer and bigger prizes, encouraging economic waste, income inequality and an impoverished cultural life.” If you’ve seen Mondovino, you know what Frank and Cook are talking about.

Frank’s 1999 book Luxury Fever continues the argument, looking more deeply at the impact of a world where status, identity and satisfaction are linked to money and the purchase of top-rated products.  Frank talks about the high price that some consumers will pay for goods that are just a little bit better or harder to get.  He calls it the “charm premium.”  Unsurprisingly, he cites the “charm premium” that highly rated ultra-premium wines receive as an important example (pp. 29-30).

Elite winemakers can mine the charm premium effect by offering increasing expensive variations on their main product: regular bottling, reserve, single-vineyard and so on. Each increase in perceived quality (or decrease in general availability) produces a disproportionate increase in price.  Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

Some wine merchants and producers see the charm premium in a different light.  Wines that get 95+ points sell out immediately — they essentially don’t exist.  Ultra-premium wines that receive less than 90 points are hard to sell, because no one wants a merely very good wine when they can get an apparently excellent one.  (I understand that there is at least one wine store that automatically discounts any wine that is cursed with an otherwise unsellable 89-point rating.) That just leaves the 90-94 point wines and large charm premiums are sometimes paid for what must be impossibly small absolute quality differences within this range.

Wine buyers are a diverse group and so it is dangerous to generalize, but a lot of them search not just for good wine, but for the best wine (or the best wine value).  For better or worse, Top 100 lists have evolved to satisfy that demand and have therefore helped spread luxury fever and create the winner-take-all wine market segments we see today.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been writing this blog for about a year and a half and it has been a great experience — I’ve met a lot of thoughtful, interesting people and had some great wine conversations.  Because my posts are a bit longer than most — about 900 words on average — the total 100-post output is equivalent to a short book.  What have I learned from this process?  Well, I know a little more about what internet wine readers are looking for.

The most popular Wine Economist article in its 100-post history is my piece on Decanter magazine (The World’s Best Wine Magazine?), part of an occasional series on wine critics.  This post gets a lot of hits because the web is crawling with people searching for “best wine,” “best wine magazine” and “world’s best wine.”  The winner-take-all dynamic this represents shows up everywhere, even in my blog stats.

Almost as many readers are searching for the best wine value, which   explains why my posts on[Yellow Tail] Tales and Costco and Global Wine are the second and third most read articles on this blog.

Wine industry readers are worried about the future, as most of us are in this economic environment.  This helps explain why How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine? and Big Trouble Down Under: Crisis in Australian Wine receive so many hits.

Finally, many readers come here looking to unlock the mysteries of the wine buying experience.  What do the ratings mean?  Who are the most credible wine authorities?   This search leads them to posts onWine by the Numbers and Masters of Wine (and Economics), which get dozens of hits each week.

Thanks for reading The Wine Economist.  I’ll give an update on trends in reader interests and concerns in a few months, when I published the Wine Economist Top 150.

The Bottle Shock Effect

First Sideways, then Bridget Jones.  Now Bottle Shock.  How will the new film about the 1976 Paris tastings affect the wine market?

The Sideways Effect

Sideways (a 2004 film by Alexander Payne) is famous for helping to provoke a global Pinot Noir boom.  A soliloquy (see below) on the thoughtful, fragile glories of Pinot spoken by an equally thoughtful, fragile character named Miles was enough to get thousands of wine enthusiasts to set aside their usual glass of Merlot and pull the cork on a bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Um, it’s a hard grape to grow … it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early … it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention … it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked- away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Movie messages matter when it comes to wine, I guess.  This conclusion was recently reinforced by the Bridget Jones effect, noted in Britain, where the film character’s tendency to drown her sorrows in glasses of Aussie Chardonnay caused the market for these wines to tank.  Apparently wine drinkers want to be thoughtful and fragile (Pinot) not pathetic (Chardonnay) and movies are where they pick up their cues. Who knew?

This makes me wonder how a new film called Bottle Shock will affect the wine market.  Bottle Shock is loosely based on Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Paris tasting of French and California wines, which George M. Taber wrote about so well in his book The Judgment of Paris. Napa Valley wines (Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon) were top rated at the tasting and this surprising result is said to have put California wine on the map.  It is interesting to speculate if Bottle Shock will have as much influence as Sideways.

Bottle Schlock

I have my doubts.  Sideways was actually a pretty good movie (not that I am qualified to judge) whereas Bottle Shock strikes me as a less serious effort.  A fruit bomb of a movie, if you know what I mean, but not a lot of depth or complexity.  It is Merlot to Sideways‘ Pinot Noir.

Alan Rickman is funny in a sort of Terry-Thomas way as Spurrier, but the two main male characters seem to be slightly modified younger versions of the Sideways cast – one is an oversexed surfer dude with a good heart while the other is, well, fragile and thoughtful. Do you see the resemblance? The female love interest is obviously a younger version of the Sideways Maya character. Not much character development here and many of the plot elements are predictable and cartoonish.  This is not necessarily a barrier to commercial success, however.

The movie says that it is based upon a real story (the one that Taber covered for Time magazine), but it takes incredible liberties with the facts.  Most of the nouns (people, places, things) are wrong in some way although some of the numbers are correct (1976 – check – got the right year).

1976 Paris Tasting Scores

Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, Mike Grgich, is left out entirely even though he is a central figure in the true story. Warren Winiarski, the winemaker at Stag’s Leap, is nearly as invisible.  I feel sorry for others, like George Taber and Paul Draper (who made the Ridge Monte Bello), who appear only as crude caricatures. Artistic license, I suppose.

Perhaps the biggest error is the most basic: who won?  Although California wines came out on top in both red and white competitions, they also came dead last (see the actual rankings and judges’ scores at right).  In fact the bottom two Chardonnays were from California (Veedercrest and David Bruce) as were the four (out of 10) bottom Cabs (Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas and Freemark Abbey).

If the Paris tasting was judged as a team competition, France versus California, rather than a rating of individual wines, I think you might reasonably conclude that the whites were a dead heat while the French won the battle for the reds, depending upon how you calculated the team scores.  As you can see here,  however, the variations among the judges was almost as  great as among the wines, so clear winners and losers are difficult to determine. Toss out a couple of judges or bring in some new ones and the rankings could change quite a bit.

The movie didn’t do anything to correct the record in this regard, but that would be asking too much of a simple film. Instead it concludes with the Spurrier character’s prediction (with 20/20 foresight) that soon we’d be drinking wines from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and so on.  So globalization was the real winner of the competition.

The Bottle Shock Effect?

It is unclear as yet if there will be a Bottle Shock effect in the wine market of any kind, but if there is, what will it be?

One thing that we can predict is that the specific wines featured in the film will experience a boom.  This means Chateau Montelena more than any other wine because it is the focus of the film.  It is hard to say if this effect will extend to the other Paris tasting wines or to quality California wines more generally.  A local wine shop organized a tasting of recent releases of all the California wines in the 1976 competition in celebration of the film, so perhaps Bottle Shock will encourage events like this on various scales and have a broader effect.  Even so, the world of quality California wine extends far beyond the few wines that went to Paris thirty years ago.

Perhaps the best possible result would be if Bottle Shock somehow helped demystify wine, taking it out of the hands of the critics, who do so badly in the film story, and empowering ordinary people to trust their own tastes.  That would make Bottle Shock a really useful film.

But I doubt it will happen — it is hard to break away from our acquired dependency on wine critics.  We tasted the famous California wines “blind” at the Bottle Shock event I attended, for example, which naturally encourages you to think for yourself (a good thing, even if it isn’t my favorite way to taste wine).  But we were also given a set of “expert” tasting notes and challenged to smell and taste the same things the critics did, (as a way to identify wines none of us had previously tasted), which kind of defeats the purpose.

Mark Twain warned his readers to think for themselves and not to get “drunk on the smell of another man’s cork.”  It seems to me that’s the most important message of Bottle Shock.  I hope it gets through.

The Wine Spectator Award Hoax

It has been a couple of weeks now since the Wine Spectator hoax hit the news. Robin Goldstein (a.k.a. fearlesscritic.com) “blew the whistle” on Wine Spectator in a session that I happened to chair at the American Association of Wine Economists meetings in Portland. (Robin actually revealed his hoax as an unscheduled prelude to a completely different presentation at the meetings.)

The wine media quickly picked up the story and now it is everywhere. The story has generated a certain amount of embarrassment for Wine Spectator and given Robin and his new book a lot of  publicity.

What Robin did was to create a fake Italian restaurant (Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano) along with a made-up menu and wine list. Then, following directions on the Wine Spectator website, he applied for an Award of Excellence, which is the way that Wine Spectator recognizes and encourages restaurants with strong wine programs. Wine Spectator tried but was not able independently to confirm the facts about the fake restaurant; they took the application on trust as an honest entry and presented it with the appropriate award in the August 31, 2008 special restaurant issue (see page 181). You can read all about it on Robin’s website for the fake restaurant, http://osterialintrepido.wordpress.com/

Where is the Outrage?

How upset should we be to discover that Wine Spectator can be tricked into giving its wine award to a fake restaurant?  Michael Morrell, my chief cheap wine research assistant, was outraged.  Although price is the most important factor for him in choosing wine, he admits that he is also influenced by wine ratings. The award hoax undermines his trust in wine critics in general and the ratings and advice they produce.

I can understand Michael’s concern, so I consider this a very serious matter, but I don’t think the fact that Wine Spectator fell for a hoax is reason for us to doubt its integrity.  Here is my report.

The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence is given to restaurants to recognize their wine programs.  Although the actual criteria for receiving an award seem very modest to me (you can read them on page 97 of the special restaurant wine issue), it is a fact that about 30% of the new entries each year fail to meet them (the success rate is obviously higher for establishments who enter and receive an award year after year).

There are three levels of award.  3254 restaurants received the base level recommendation.  802 second tier “Best of Award” ratings were given to restaurants with more comprehensive wine lists. 73 top of the line “Grand Awards” were bestowed.  The people at Wine Spectator are proud of their award program and believe that it has encouraged restaurants to upgrade their wine programs.

Caution: Economics Content

I’m sure this is true, but I tend to view the matter in economic theory terms.  Consumers have lots of restaurant options and are uncertain which ones might have good wine choices. The restaurants know how good their wine selections are but have trouble effectively communicating this to potential customers. This is the classic economic problem of “asymmetric information” and the classic economic solution is “signaling” – where one side of a potential transaction finds a way to reveal key information to the other side to help seal the deal.

Restaurants that want to attract wine enthusiast customers need a way to “signal” them about their wine programs and the Award of Excellence is one way to do this.  Restaurants that think sending this signal is worth meeting the criteria and paying the entry fee do it and get on the list.  Others, even some that have strong  wine programs, don’t bother. They have other ways to send the message, I guess.

Wine Spectator fell for the Osteria L’Intrepido hoax because it relied upon the honesty of applicants, assuming, I suppose, that no one would go to the trouble and expense of applying without a conventional commercial purpose. This is another side of asymmetric information — Robin presumably knew his motives in setting the fake restaurant “sting” and Wine Spectator could only guess or assume.

In Vino Veritas

Truth is especially important in the wine world and, because of the problem of asymmetric information, it is particular difficult to know with confidence.  We depend upon the honesty of self-interested actors and the truthfulness of their signals. When we read wine ratings or see wine competition awards, for example, we assume that the judges and critics are tasting the same wines that we buy in the market. But it would be easy for a dishonest producer or distributor to put special wines in the bottles sent to the critics or wine award competitions. The easiest switch would be to put some of last year’s highly ranked wine in place of this year’s weak effort. Most wine critics rate products that are sent to them by makers and distributors and rely upon the honesty of the sender.  Only a few – Gaiter and Brecher at the Wall Street Journal come to mind – seek out and purchase their wines through normal retail channels.

Doctored “critic cuvee” wines are a potential hoax problem.  I am not aware of any wine publications that have been hoaxed in this manner, but I have read and heard speculation about special “award cuvee” wines being entered in competitions.  The nature of the situation makes us all vulnerable to hoaxes.

Wine Spectator fell for this hoax but it wasn’t because its editors are dishonest in giving their awards.  I think most of the criticism of Wine Spectator in this situation is a bum rap, especially since the magazine’s editors seem to be unusually careful in avoiding advertising conflicts of interest.  That’s the subject of my next post.

Fielding Hills Strikes Gold

A quick update on Fielding Hills winery (see below). Mike and Karen Wade earned three gold medals for their 2004 wines — the Merlot, Syrah and RiverBend blend — in the recent Seattle Wine Awards competition.

What does it mean to win a gold at a wine competition? Karen Wade pointed out to me that it means different things to different people. To the Wades, for example, wine competitions are a way for them to see how they are doing relative to other boutique wineries (Fielding Hills bottles just 800 cases per year). Winning a gold is good for them, but what it really means depends upon what other wineries also entered the competition and which of their wines they entered. It would be possible, I suppose,for the Wades to win a meaningless gold medal if there were no other boutique wineries in the competition. I notice a number of high-end wineries represented on the Seattle Wine Awards list, so this is probably a satisfying win for the Wades.

I naturally think about wine competitions in terms of their market value. Success in wine competitions is one of several factors that can be used to differentiate a wine in the marketplace and so sell more of it or charge a premium price. Since most buyers are not able to taste wines before they buy them, I think that they look for independent quality indicators, such as wine magazine ratings, wine competition medals and regional or vineyard designations, to assure them that they are making a good choice.

I’d like to know what a gold medal is worth — how much does a medal increase the demand for a given wine? My intuition is that it is a complex problem. Some wine competitions are probably more important to buyers than others. And a medal is probably worth more to a wine that has not received any other distinction than to one that has plenty of laurels. And I suspect that all the medals in the world are not as economically significant as a good rating from or The Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator. But it would be interesting to know what the numbers look like. I notice that some of the judges at the Seattle Wine Awards competition head up the wine programs at prestigious Pacific Northwest restaurants including Salty’s, Canlis, Rover’s, Ray’s Boathouse and The Herbfarm. They are people who know wine, obviously, but they are also people who can influence wine sales.