Recently, a more-than-credible wine competition recognized one of our wineries. Weingut Rabl was named best white wine winery and awarded best Grüner Veltliner at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London for 2019. Masters of Wine review for seven months of the year to determine their choices. But when we searched for Rabl reviews on the main review sites, the fields returned “no matches found” responses. The one site that had something showed less than a handful of decade-old reviews. (The sites we checked were Spectator, Parker, Vinous, Decanter, Suckling, Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and Halliday.) How does a well-established winery earn this recognition yet have next to no coverage elsewhere? When great wine is pointless, what do we miss?
How the point system is used
Retail and hospitality buyers, everyday drinkers, and importers and distributors have come to use reviews and scores out of 100 to guide their buying decisions or influence their customers. We see shelf talkers and “90+ points” sections in stores, and the more diligent salespeople can quote the rating of any given wine.
But it’s the online world that has exploded the practice of pursuing points. It’s quick and easy to find scores, compare them, and weigh them against the price a retailer is offering the wine for. Combine this with the ability for frictionless online buying and POP! You can hear the money appearing in the account. Indeed, online and Direct-to-Consumer sales are growing quickly amid shrinking consumption.
When a wine gets rated
To have a wine reviewed by most established publications, there is almost always some kind of fee to submit. And by “fee”, we mean a cost beyond the two bottles the reviewer requires. Different publications have different models. For some, it’s an administration fee per wine. For others, it’s more-than-the-necessary two bottles. Other rumours suggest the more advertising a wine company buys, the more favourable the reviews can be or the more frequently their products appear. And then there are the perks we don’t see or know about—trips paid for, wining and dining, and other temptations we won’t list. That said, there are reviewers who maintain that they buy most of their samples, receive unsolicited samples at no cost, and do not allow advertising on their sites or in their publications.
On the other side of it, these review shops have a lot to do. They have to organize and manage the samples and cover their own costs. One publication claims to review over 15,000 wines a year, and that most of these reviews appear in their magazine, newsletters, or online. They also say they spend thousands of dollars themselves buying wine to taste and assess.
To submit or not to submit
Wineries choose or not to have their wines reviewed for their own reasons. Those who choose to submit no doubt find value in the exposure and consider the cost a marketing expense. It’s not without risk, since there is no guarantee of a good score (in theory). That said, the process does favour those with the means—the more you submit, the more it costs. So the more you can pay, the more exposure your wines get.
Conversely, those who choose not to submit may not:
- agree with the practice in principle.
- find value in the cost-to-exposure ratio.
- be savvy or organized—many are family farmers living in small hamlets working their land, vines, and cellars.
- be confident that their wines will earn good scores.
Because reviewers receive so many unsolicited wines, there is little to no impetus for them to chase these wineries who don’t send samples. The exception is likely that certain wineries carry a prestige or intrigue that benefits the publication to seek out.
Making good and bad points
This points system can be useful depending on one’s business model, buying motivation, or definition of pleasure. It can help a consumer avoid spending money on wine they may not like. Those who buy to invest can use it to hedge their risk. Some can use it to learn about what they like, while others can use it to self-congratulate for their station in life. And it certainly helps sell billions in wine.
However, like all aesthetic experiences under measurement, scoring wine is philosophically problematic. The arguments against the practice include that:
- Scoring art is ugly.
- The system doesn’t account for the context most wine is intended to be experienced.
- The collective act of scoring has changed that context producers make wine for. That is, they make it to stand out when judged against its peers rather than to subtly enhance a total experience.
- The drinker’s experience changes because of the expectation the review creates. They are now coming at it with something different than if a friend had just brought it over, cracked it, and poured it.
There are also practical problems for the reseller, drinker, and distributor who overdo it on the score hounding.
Missed opportunities and murky motivations
The first issue is that because not all great wines get rated (like Rabl), you’re missing tremendous drinking opportunities. On top of that, you’re hijacking your curiosity and handing your opinion, and thereby your ability to form your own, over to others.
Next, the retailer can fall into the trap of training their customers to shop only the rated wines they feature on sale. Because those change every week or two, the store ends up moving volumes of new purchases while the shelf stock sees less rotation. Meanwhile, the importer may end up having to drop a line of amazing wines because the buyers won’t bite.
Of course, when a wine is unsuccessful in a market it is not merely because it lacks ratings. The price, branding, market trends, and distributor’s sales ability all play a role. But all too often we hear, “Does it have points?” when discussing a potential buy.
Finally, we have to question the reviewer’s motivation and how that affects the ratings. Some score tougher and want to maintain the integrity of their standards. But, the higher the scores you give, the more your name appears in the media. The winery, the distributors, the retailers, and the conversations on social platforms mention the score and the name over and over and over and over.
For example: here are two reviews of San Felice Campogiovanni 2014 Brunello di Montalcino
These motivations plus the “pay to play” model add up to a question of trust around what is being reviewed and why, and if the product reflects its supposed rank.
Now, we’re not saying don’t ever follow scores. Heck—we use them all the time. It’s great to see our hard-working, passionate farmers get recognized for their greatness. It reaffirms that we’re working with outstanding talent. We’re just saying use them intentionally, not as a default decision guide.
Wine is still a people business
As much as scores help sell wine, it’s still a people business. Many good restaurants rely far less on scores because diners are there specifically for the total experience. Wine managers buy based on how the wine works in their overall model—the restaurant’s style, the wine-program design, the food, and the price of the wine. They also tend to work more with the people they get along with and whose portfolios match their model. And retailers still have sections to fill and clients who come to talk to them.
We have a winery from Barolo called Ellena Giuseppe. The wines are amazing. They have farmed their five hectares with great care since 1966. Two brothers bought the land back then and for the last five decades, have sold their wine to the local cooperative to be blended. One of the grandsons, Matteo, learned winemaking at two of Barolo’s great estates. And in 2009, the three generations realized a collective 50-year dream: they bottled their wine under their own estate name.
They have no ratings. We’d love to hear what you think.