Depending on Score Whores: A Cautionary Tale

A Cautionary Tale

What’s the impact of building a winery marketing strategy that relies on receiving only great scores and ratings from the most important wine critics? Consider this cautionary tale.

A few years ago a very fine winemaker decides it’s time to make their own wines, rather than make someone else’s wine. So the winery is born. Well, actually they lease space at another winery to make about 400 cases of wine. They get fruit from great vineyards and set out to make the kind of wine that gets BIG scores from the critics.

These are big wines. Fat wines. Wines of girth and strength. And the critics…..LOVE THEM.

92 Points!  95 Points. 93 Points.  The wines, at a price somewhere north of $60, sell out. Nearly all the wine is sold direct at around $60 a bottle. Do the math. Yep….very nice little business and not a little bit of acclaim to go with it.

In fact after the first vintage sells out to score whores
,  the next few vintages sell out, again on the strength of very good scores for these behemoths. Production slowly increases. We are now at about 700 cases….mostly sold direct.

The strategy has worked.

Then….one year…something happens.  88 Points. 87 Points. 89 Points. Small changes in scores, but very big meaning. The nicely written and complimentary reviews are irrelevant. The problem is the scores are too low for the score whores to bite.

Now what? Now you’ve got 700 cases of an 88 Point wines that sell for $60 to $70 a bottle.

A number of people on the mailing list still want the wine. But a number of them don’t order. The wine’s not moving that fast. At first the winemaker tries something he’s never really tried before…selling it. He talks to retailers and presents them with an 88 point wine that retails for $65. The retailer walks them over to the aisles and shows them a $20 wine that got 89 Points.

The winemaker gets the same tour at a number of different retail and restaurant establishments. So, the next best thing is undertaken. Find distribution. But they want to know what the scores are too. And they show the winemaker 89 pint wines that sell for $20.

Luckily the winemaker has lots of wine on his hands….because he needs a drink.

5 Responses

  1. John - June 14, 2006

    Very well put.
    When I drink a wine that later “scores” well, I can only think, “hmmm, that’s nice, I’m glad you (the “critic”) can see that you’ve made the same enjoyable, responsible, intelligent choice that I did. Welcome aboard.”
    Other than that, I never buy the score, I buy the wine I like. If “they” happen to like it too, so be it.

  2. Fredric Koeppel - June 15, 2006

    Whether this is a hypothetical situation or a true one doesn’t really matter, though one wonders, with all the effort that went into making and marketing the wine, why did the scores dip from mid 90s to forgettable mid to high 80s? Somebody screwed up somewhere, whether in the vineyard or the winery. What I’m really interested in, however, is how you, Tom, as an experienced wine marketer in California, would have handled the situation from beginning to end? Would you have encouraged the winery owner not to charge so much for the wines on first release? How would you have dealt with the falling scores?

  3. Jim Caudill - June 15, 2006

    Hey John, that’s what Tom gets paid for!
    Advice is…priceless.

  4. Mary Baker - June 15, 2006

    I have seen this happen to three different winemakers–in each case they had previously worked for wineries where they had no involvement in pricing and marketing. The launch of their initial efforts coincided with stellar vintages and were priced according to critics scores. When their scores took severe dips (not just -5 points) in a more difficult vintage, the new winemakers found themselves explaining prices north of $60. It’s still definitely doable, but certainly a crash course in marketing and business planning for some young talents.

  5. Gerald Weisl - June 16, 2006

    Aside from buyers who are purchasing “points” and not “wines,” these new vintners should also be aware that their first vintage, or three, is a phase when they’re “the new kid on the block.” Many people who have purchased these wines are doing so in hopes of finding the latest discovery. But after tasting the first vintages, this brand is no longer “new”. There is some other bottle sporting a new, un-tasted label.
    Once the curiosity of the consumer has been satisfied, the wines have to be of supremely fine quality and properly priced to continue to have a customer purchasing the product.
    There are many start-ups that have been issued over the past few vintages which will be lucky to still be viable in a few years.
    The 90 point scores may help keep a brand going, but these days the market is full of good wines with optimistic price tags.

Leave a Reply