Who To Trust?

Can you trust a wine retailer’s recommendation? They are, after all, in the business of selling wine and one presumes that a wine they have on their shelves can’t be ignored, let alone dissed by them.

This is the question at the heart of a very interesting story in the LA Times by Jerry Hirsch that focuses on Wilfred Wong, Beverage & More’s Online Cellarmaster and the person who reviews wines exclusively for BevMo and who’s reviews and ratings show up on shelf talkers at BevMo.

I’ve worked with Mr. Wong. I know him. I’ve judged with him at competitions. Let me say up front that this man has a killer palate. It’s perceptive, educated, experienced and nuanced.

Nevertheless, the question remains, can a retailer review of a wine it is carrying be trusted? And this is the underlying issue inside the LA Times article. It should be noted that this is not the first time Wilfred and his job as BevMo’s wine rater in chief has been covered in the media. Last year the SF Chronicle did a story focusing on Wilfred that touched on the issue

The answer to the question is Yes, a retailer’s rating can be trusted.

If one is going to discount the objectivity of Wilfred’s notes and ratings, then one is obliged to discount any and all ratings and reviews any retailer, anywhere in the world provides for a wine they carry in their store. If this is the perspective one is going to take, then the skeptic would at least ask the the retailer’s rating be written and determined by someone who is not focused on wine buying at the store.

That’s exactly the situation with Wilfred Wong. He does not report to BevMo’s buyers.

This had to be a touchy PR situation for the folks at BevMo and I think they acquitted themselves well. Calling into question the objectivity of a rating system, be it a retailers or publishers, is just about the worst thing that can happen. Every publisher of wine scores knows this. This is also why I’ve always viewed those who claim the Wine Spectator skews its scores toward advertisers as simply not looking at the big picture. Do the mental exercise. Imagine the Wine Spectator or Wine & Spirits being caught red handed manipulating scores to give bigger numbers to advertisers. How would you react?…OK….Now, how would others react…OK….Now, what happens when a wine publication’s reviews no longer have any credibility? Is there anything a publisher could do that would be dumber than skew scores for advertisers?

If one chose not to trust BevMo’s Wilfred Wong-rated wines, I’d want to know specifically why? I want to know upon what basis they believed them compromised. Without such a detailed explanation then I’d prefer to stick with what I know: BevMo made a very smart moving hiring one of the best palates in California.


17 Responses

  1. Randy - March 3, 2008

    I immediately drew the parallel to Gary Vaynerchuk, who of course is a retailer (Wine Library) and reviews (via Wine Library TV) the wines that he sells.
    Of course, he is very up-front about his scores and that they are his opinion. In fact, he goes on to say that scores are bunk and that you shouldn’t listen to them. Interesting dichotomy.
    So, I generally agree that Mr. Wong is okay reviewing wines that BevMo sells.
    That being said, I don’t make it a point to buy my wine at BevMo, so I expect the impact to my wine buying to be next to zero. YMMV.

  2. Arthur - March 3, 2008

    “this man has a killer palate. It’s perceptive, educated, experienced and nuanced”
    Quite possibly, still his recommendations are all over the place and inconsistent.
    My biggest gripe with BevMo (I go there when I know they have a better price on a wine I know and want) is the lack of knowledge on the part of their staff: they are at times no more informed than midnight shift stockboys. Never mind that they seem bent on slashing, slicing and scratching as many labels as they ossibly can.

  3. Craig Camp - March 3, 2008

    I think it’s great to have a retailer putting their own opinions out front instead of relying on Parker and The Wine Spectator. It was the traditional role of a true wine merchant to put their own selections in their stores instead of someone else’s.

  4. Richard Dustin - March 3, 2008

    In a follow the money environment, it’s not about what Wilfred Wong objectively reviews and rates, he obviously is eons above and beyond most with concern to the palate. For me, it’s how his conclusions are presented by his employer and for what purposes. It appears BevMo is taking the high road in this circumstance though I’ve never been there. I’ve been to Total Wines and do not feel any sense of trust concerning their operation, face to face engagement or shelf talkers, other than you can trust it’s all about the volume.
    If it’s to educate and enlighten to gain trust and loyalty, then I’m on board. If it’s about how many boxes you can get out the door before the end of the month, then I’m not. I trust Mr Wong to be objective. I don’t trust just any retailer to not manipulate that objectivity including WS.
    We as unbox retailers have a huge uphill climb if we are to divert attention away from the bland and generic to gain objective trust.

  5. Pamela - March 3, 2008

    Could you give us an example of what you mean by “recommendations are all over the place and inconsistent”??

  6. Arthur - March 3, 2008

    I should have stated that differently:
    I feel he is inconsistent and unreliable in his scores for BevMo. If his 100 point scale is to reflect quality, he’ll give an 89 to a wine that is a better quality wine than one he gives a score in the low to mid -90s. His scale appears to be preference-based at times, at other times, it seems he’s just giving points to stuff that needs to sell.
    BevMo once had a link to their wine rating scale. I cannot find that right now. As I recall, the large bulk of the scale (like two block of 20 – 30 points each) were coming from a vague and general preference-based score.
    My point is not to disparage Wong. It is to point to the fact that he has a master to serve and all of us in that arrangement have to make a decision of whether we toea the party line or find another job.

  7. Taster B - March 3, 2008

    Hi Tom,
    Great points here. Wondering what your take is on some of the wine magazines branching out into the area of wine promotion?
    For example, Wine Spectator online now has “Wine Everyday-Pairings of Outstanding and Affordable Wines with Quick and Delicious Recipes” which showcases several nationally distributed wine brands. Also, Wine Enthusiast has gotten their wine ratings placed in Costco and is partnering with wine retailer Wineexpress.com.
    Do you think the above examples compromise consumer confidence in Wine Enthusiast or WS ratings? Or, might they actually encourage consumers to depend even more on their guidance? Or, are conflict of interest claims leveled at such examples of “synergistic” marketing simply irrelevant in the Martha Stewart® Omnimedia / Web 2.0 age??

  8. Tom Wark - March 3, 2008

    Wine Express is owned by Wine Enthusiast. It’s the Costco connection that is a real coup for them.
    I’m not familiar with the “Wine Everyday-Pairings of Outstanding and Affordable Wines with Quick and Delicious Recipes” program, but it sounds like on the one hand it’s a nice little service for both readers as well as any advertisers that might be paying to be a part of it.
    I don’t think the reputation of either is effected by these programs. There is such an extraordinary thirst among folks for anything that will help them choose among the thousands of wines available that they are grateful to have anything.

  9. Ben - March 3, 2008

    Here’s the way that I see it (since I sell wine at a retail store as well).
    If a customer walks into the store and says: “Can I have Wine XXX, I heard WS gave it 97 points.” When that customer goes home, tastes the wine, and doesn’t like it, the Wine Spectator is in no worse of a position. Maybe this customer will opt for Parker rated wines instead, but the Wine Spectator will still sell advertising and will still have a huge influence on the wine market. Plus, the customer will return to the store that sold them the wine and will not hold the store accountable for the 97 points of garbage in a bottle.
    If, on the other hand, a customer walks into the store and I say “You would really like this wine YYY, you should try it.” When the customer goes home, tries the wine, and doesn’t like it then I am out a direct customer. However, if the customer likes my recommendation, then I have gained a solid, loyal customer who will come to my store and ask for my recommendations from now on.
    In other words, there is much more on the line for retailers making recommendations (whether in the form of “scores” or advice) than for publications. And, in both instances, the “scoring” is truly subjective. So, again, why not review with images!!??
    Benjamin Saltzman
    Wine Reviews at Chateau Petrogasm

  10. Pamela - March 3, 2008

    Thanks for the clarification Arthur.
    I am not certain if Wong blind tastes his wines – does any one know? I can’t speak for Wong when it comes to tasting wines for BevMo, but my personal preference is to taste blindly; I find that blind tastings are the best avenue to judge subjectively an honestly.
    I see your point about inconsistency, but isn’t this a personal preference? You might think one wine deserves better marks for quality than the next reviewer does. As for preference-based, wine is a personal experience, isn’t it? I mean, I might love the wines that Parker recommends whereas I despise recommendations coming from the Wine Spectator. Isn’t this what generates a consumer/reviewer following?
    I don’t particularly agree that Wong raises scores to sell product; like Tom, I have worked with Wilfred at judging competitions and it’s not in his nature to inflate or misrepresent product. Ethically, it’s not in his nature.

  11. Tish - March 4, 2008

    I believe Wilfred Wong to be upright in his tasting and scoring, but that doesn’t make his scores any more useful than another layer of fog. THe sad thing here is that he is even compelled to add his own scores to the Ratings Soup the store is already serving up. Ratings have become more about marketing than about wine. When Wilfred likes a wine and wants to push it, but the wine does not already have a 90-point score from WS or RP, he slaps his own number on it. The end result is that all the numbers become more suspect, and Wilfred runs the risk of appearing disingenuous. The only honest way for retailers to use ratings is to consistently show every score possible from a consistent group of sources. They won’t do that because the numbers will inevitably reveal wild variations. ANd people would catch on to just how unreliable numbers in general have become.

  12. Ryan - March 4, 2008

    Sorry if I’m answering a rhetorical question. A Publication like the Wine Spectator doesn’t need to worry about readership credibility as much as you might hope. Unfortunately, the bulk of revenue does not come from consumers buying individual copies of the magazine. Instead, the periodical is printed with the large sum of advertising revenue and TONS of copies are sent out to bookstores and news stands. Those copies rarely sell out which is why bookstores and news stands know they can destroy the leftover copies and receive refunds from the publishers. With many publications, most copies sent out will be destroyed. They are sent out at a loss to increase circulation because advertisers want circulation numbers. More people see Wine Spectator ratings on shelf talkers than they do in the actual pages of the magazine. Strange world.
    On the other hand, if a publication like Wine Spectator ignored one of its advertisers and simply failed to review it at all, that advertiser could easily walk out the door losing the publication millions. WS clearly doesn’t give a 99 to anybody with a checkbook, but it’s an easy way to cut in line and at least get a rating or a six page article.
    That said, WS reviewed my wines without any ad payment or bribery. So I’m not miffed. I just think it’s important for people to remember where the money can come from in certain massive distribution models.

  13. Arthur - March 4, 2008

    Pamela, Benjamin:
    Enjoyment is subjective. Qulaity is not. If it were, we’d be paying the same prices for BMWs and Yogos.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - March 4, 2008

    Too many people simply don’t understand the nature of objective and subjective wine evaluation.
    Put simply: objective evaluations are ones that can be duplicated in a laboratory; subjective evaluations are personal, and that, unfortunately, is what ratings systems are: subjective, personal opinions with about as much meaning as Tish points out: fog!
    Having said that, and having once been a wine retailer, a good wine merchant should and does make recommendations, and they are made not on the basis of their subjective likes, but on what is known about the customer’s preferences. At least that’s what I believe.
    It escapes me why anyone should follow an online subjective wine opinion/rating. But then, I’ve been known to take the contrary view.

  15. epicuria - March 4, 2008

    I tend to think that composite scores make a significant contribution to insight about the appeal of different wines. The leading contributor has to be cellartracker.com, since they attrack so many evaluators. Then there is snooth and winezap.
    The problem with Wilfred’s scores, if problem is the right word, is that they are skewed toward the larger producers i.e., the wineries whose current releases the stores carry. He used to be the chief buyer too, but I don’t know the arrangement at the moment. Also he can’t give out anything below an 85.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - March 4, 2008

    If you watch carefully, hardly any of the powerful critics give scores below 85 these days. Score inflation is the cost of believing in wine ratings…

  17. [email protected] - November 3, 2009

    I’ve found Wilfred’s ratings to be hit and miss. The recent ones we’ve gone with – particularly an 07 Notre Dame de Cousignac was (in our opinion) most certainly not worthy of a high rating or the price tag ($20). Skip it!

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