Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Do Wine Points Matter?

I've been asked to sit on a panel and blind wine tasting today at the Society of Wine Educators conference in Sacramento. The panel is titled "Do Points Matter"? Given I founded Savvy Cellar Wines using points as a screening criteria for wines we bring into inventory - only 90 points or higher - it got me thinking about the role that wine ratings and scores play.

Do Wine Points Matter? Yes . . .
  1. Helps Lesser Knowns. As the wine industry experiences the trend of consolidation of wineries as part of "uber-brands" and large, well-financed holding companies, we all run the risk of being subject to the almighty marketing dollar. Ratings help those wineries who are not as large, well-established or with deep pockets to secure distribution and marketing reach to the consumer.
  2. Helps Consumers. For those who are not wine enthusiasts and painstakingly study and taste wine extensively, points are a way to help consumers navigate the myriad of varietals, brands, regions and price points. Points provide guidance and can instill confidence in consumers - helping drive demand.
  3. Helps the Trade. As a small retailer and wine bar, like consumers, we too face a plethora of choice in what wines to purchase. While we like to think our team has sophisticated palates and a deep understanding of what our consumers will enjoy, we can only stock so many wines and using established point ratings from leading wine critics helps to simplify our operational challenge.

Do Wine Points Matter? No . . .
  1. Homogenizes Differences Among Wine. Any point rating scale inherently buries or internalizes what are really material differences among wines (e.g. varietal, style, geography, "terroir", etc.) How does a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand really compare to a Chianti from Italy?
  2. Puts Too Much Power/Influence in a Few. Point ratings are often the opinion of a single critic. Given the diversity in peoples' collective palates, this means that many will not be well served by another's singular point of view.
  3. Creates Irregular Patterns in Demand. Once a wine receives a positive rating from a prominent critic, it will spike demand for that wine. Great for a particular wine maker who receives a 90+ point score (and retailers who are fortunate enough to have access to that product). So the 92 point Napa Cab sells quickly often at premium prices, while the 89 point Napa Cab, which to many would be just as good or even better, languishes on the shelves even at discounted prices.
I'm most excited about the discussion with my fellow panelists: David Glancy and Reggie Narito Jr.

We will be tasting eight (8) wines blind - four rated 88 points and four rated 92 points to see if we can assess the differences. Will post the results later.


thinkwine said...

John Corcoran
Hey, Jennifer, a continual discussion in winery marcom circles. Here's a link to an earlier post from April 22, on my take on do points matter:

Brent Harrison said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the comment - I recall that blog post. Jennifer's take is that for folks in the industry a long time, there is still resistance to the point issue. But for newbie's, this is not really an emotional hot point. Most of the turnout for the session seemed interested in testing their own palates to see if they could identify the 88 vs 92 point rated wine.


richard said...

Hi Jennifer
They would mean something if you have faith that the tasters providing the score could actually give the same score to the same wine on a different day. Easy? Not according to this research published in the leading scientific wine journal - The Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research (and republished as an authors version on the authors private website)

Very few experienced wine commentators allow themselves to be tested like this as they have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Cheers Richard

About The Savvy Sommelier said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for the comment and the link to the very interesting scientific study - I had not seen that before.

I agree with your premise in a sense. But because everyone's chemistry is different, tasting is always going to be subjective. Professional tasters, judges and raters taste wines for a living and presumably have a much broader comparative palate than the "masses". They're are trained to discern flavors on a constant/ongoing basis.

Points just give consumers a basic starting criteria. Usually if a wine is scored high by several of the reputable tasters, we can safely say at least that it's a well made and balanced wine. Whether you like it or not is another story.