Wine Critics and Protecting the Retailer’s Authority

Maratenes copy A previous post on this blog in which I challenge the critics of the 100 Point Scoring system to make a compelling case against the system is up to 60 comments. What a surprise!!

While a number of very astute points have been made in the course of those 60 comments, one stands out as perhaps the most important thing a wine retailer or winery could take away from the discussion. The comment comes from Gregg Burke, owner of Maratene's Fine Wine in Waldwick, New Jersey:

"I own a small wine shop and I do not use points at all, for the simple reason that as the owner I can not afford to hand over my authority to a critic.The customer has to trust me, not a number."

This isn't an indictment of the 100 Point System, however it is a powerful reason for retailer not to use shelf talkers in their stores that display critics scores. The traditional appeal and great utility of a wine shop is that it is populated by wine lovers who love to sell wine and love to turn people on to the wines they love. That compulsion, when carried out with empathy and passion, is exactly what will keep the independent wine shop alive in a big box world that offers convenience, good pricing and pretty decent selection.

The corner wine shop, populated by the likes of Gregg Burke's, has for decades been the go-to place for wine lovers looking for camaraderie, new tastes, good taste and a relationship with an expert. And Gregg is correct. Giving over a shop to shelf talkers where the authority recommending wines isn't actually in the store negates one of great potentials of a wine shop.

Now, this is not to say that shelf talkers have not place in a well-conceieved wine shop. if it were me who owned the shop, I'd be writing my OWN shelf talkers, furthering my authority. However, in the course of writing those personal shelf talkers, I might mention a review of the wine by a critic I admire, but it would always come in a sideways manner to my own assessment and thoughts on the wine above the paper talker.

Many of those 60 some odd folks who have commented on the previous post concerning the 100 Point Rating System have suggested that consumers are to often mesmerized by the score without much concern for the words that always accompany the score. And I'll be the first to admit that all too often I see retailers who allow a shelf talker that simply states the score without the actual written review. I would agree that this practice can and does lead some consumers to buy only on numbers—something that while not evil in my opinion, probably is dumb and something that a good retailer shouldn't encourage.

But to return to Gregg's point, the practice is probably bad for business. The Wine shop that sells on scores is liklely little different from the wine shop down the street and maybe even less attractive.

Finally, Gregg had something else to say that bear repeating. Not because it's always true, but because it generates a damn good chuckle:

"I have always contended that critcs are just fountains of opinion and we all know that opinions are like A**holes, everyone has one and they all stink."

Well put, Gregg!




22 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - August 10, 2011

    I like Gregg Burke. He comments intelligently, and he runs a very thoughtful wine store. If I were he, and I owned a wine store, I would also not post wine scores. He wants his opinion to be the guiding light in his store, and he hopes to build up a supportive customer base using that model.
    But, when he says things like opiniions stink, he either understands that his opinions stink as unpleasantly as anyone else’s or he simply has no respect for nnyone else’s opinion but his own.
    I am not really taking issue with Gregg here, because I have always found his discussions to be reasonable and well-reasoned. But, the language of derision used in the final quote above strikes me as worthy of question.
    I hope Gregg does not think that the opinions of critics, who after all taste many more wines than he does, who taste broadly and have no axe to grind, univerally smell bad while his do not. That would put us back into the “my way or the highway” silliness that is being spouted by the Score Destructionists.
    Gregg, the ball is in your court. I am hoping that this is all just a bit of confusion caused by the limits of language and a slightly off-color joke.

  2. PaulG - August 10, 2011

    It’s easy to take the smug, attack-all-critics approach – a lowest common denominator populist slam; thus, “all opinions stink” (except of course, the opinions of the person who made the observation). Same with the suddenly-hip allegation (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a movement, other than perhaps a bowel movement) that the 100 point wine scoring system is flawed, worthless, disrespectful of terroir, etc. They are similar expressions of a certain type of holier-than-thou, my way or the highway arrogance that, oddly enough, critics are presumed to embody, but (at least in my view) rarely do. As a journalist/critic with many years of wine writing experience under my belt, I take special pains to keep my opinions lucid, helpful, inclusive, and as tactful as possible. If that stinks, so be it.

  3. Doug Wilder - August 10, 2011

    I agree with you, Charlie about the value of consumers developing relationships with retailers who provide solid, early guidance. As I spent a good deal of time in wine retail in the 1990s, I know from experience what it means being the first to recommend a wine based on understanding your customer’s palate and preferences. The possibility that it may be reviewed favorably at a later time does nothing but strengthen that relationship.
    I’ve never cared for the usage of the “opinions are like…” comment. That’s all I have to say about it.

  4. Tish - August 11, 2011

    Great post, Tom. And beyond the shock-humor, Gregg’s point is indeed a breath of sanity. And it points toward a triumph of common sense.
    Other than a trusted peer-mentor, there is no substitute for a knowledgeable retailer when it come to wine education/appreciation. Lost in all the shouting and teeth-gnashing over ratings is the pure fact that, the only wine universe that matters is the one you have access to, and smart retailers will are asserting their authority in that universe. A good retailer, like Maratene’s, edits an unwieldy mass/mess down to manageable one, and then is able to deal directly with people based on both their taste/style preferences and what is available. The great thing about a good retailer-consumer relationship is that it is a two-way street. The critic-consumer relationship is a one-way street.
    I find it both ridiculous and telling how some wine critics (e.g., Paul) are getting all worked up over the Scorevolution and the Palate Press discussion. And others are completely mute. Both are signs of the same fear. A fear of common sense overtaking the brainwashing of many years. The faux authority of would-be uber critics is slipping faster than you can say “Where can I find that Walla Walla Merlot-Syrah blend that got 90 points in the Wine Bamboozlist?” The new winespeak is more along the lines of “Hi Gregg, I really liked that red blend you steered me toward last week. What else you got like that?”

  5. Charlie Olken - August 11, 2011

    Tish, you ought to know better than to use silly words like “would be uber critics”. There is no such thing. The market creates and accepts critics or it trashes them and tosses them aside like yesterday’s left over salad.
    There is zero proof that the world of written wine criticism is disappearing. Show me the statistics. Has WS slipped or WE or WA or CGCW? These kinds of emotional exaggerations prove nothing except that you can bring a very smart guy like Paul Greggutt off the sidelines to debate with folks who hold the opinions you so glibly toss about.
    But, Bill, old friend, the most amusing point you make is that whether critics speak up or remain silent, their actions, either way, are signs of living in fear.
    In other words, all critics live in fear. Bill, come on out here to Chez Olken. I don’t think you will find me cowering in the corner. But, I am saddened to see an old friend take up an exaggerated position that has zero to do with the evidence.

  6. Gregg Burke - August 11, 2011

    Thank you so much. This is very flattering. I do write all my own shelf talkers. With my ending line I was not in any way slighting critics. It is a funny, albeit off color, expression. Actually I wish people spent more time talking about the quality of the critics writing rather than just a score. Paul I in no way meant that all critics stink, some do. And that is also an opinion. I do not hold critics to any higher standards then the standards I hold for myself. Paul Charlie & Tish I read your blogs because I really enjoy your take on wine and your passion for it. I will admit I enjoy being a provocateur, so some comments are meant to just stir the pot. And Tom thank you. For a small business this type of exposure is amazing. Cheers

  7. Tish - August 11, 2011

    I have said before I have no problem with critics doing their jobs earnestly and honestly. But I have a huge problem with the reviews they produce being misused, threby turning a system that aims to guide consumers become just a tool of people selling wine.
    If people like you and Paul Gregutt were to at least admit that the system is being gamed, I would have more respect for your defense of the scale you use.
    I never said wine criticism is disappearing. It is changing rapidly, however. We are in a weird point in history, where one system is clearly flawed but another has not quite risen up to take its place.
    Meanwhile, anecdotally, I can say with certainty that blind devotion to the blind-taste-and-rate school of wine criticism is weaker than it has ever been. The proportion of wine lovers who accept and rely on ratings is lower than ever. Period. Considering how amazingly wine interest has grown in this nation, it is no surprise that circulation numbers of established publications are holding serve. But if they are still so important, why do they seem so routinely ignored by bloggers, non-wine media and online forums? When was the last time a magazine published anything that got people buzzing?

  8. tom wark - August 11, 2011

    Tish you wrote:
    “But I have a huge problem with the reviews they produce being misused, threby turning a system that aims to guide consumers become just a tool of people selling wine. If people like you and Paul Gregutt were to at least admit that the system is being gamed, I would have more respect for your defense of the scale you use. I never said wine criticism is disappearing. It is changing rapidly, however. We are in a weird point in history, where one system is clearly flawed but another has not quite risen up to take its place.”
    Does the misuse of reviews invalidate and discredit the system being used or does it speak to those misusing the system?
    How is the system “being gamed” and by whom?
    I don’t see how a system that provides a written description of a wine along with a score is flawed? What’s wrong with ranking joined with description?

  9. Tish - August 11, 2011

    You wrote “Does the misuse of reviews invalidate and discredit the system being used or does it speak to those misusing the system?”
    I say BOTH. Why don’t more critics insist on their scores not being stripped from reviews?
    You wrote “How is the system “being gamed” and by whom?”
    It’s being gamed by the publications, who coddle the industry by not publishing scores below 85, and it’s being gamed by re-sellers who draw from a large pool of potential scores and publicize only the ones over 90. Both of these practices have made it such that in the public arena, the scale itself is no longer about authentic consumer guidance but rather selective marketing.
    You wrote: “I don’t see how a system that provides a written description of a wine along with a score is flawed? What’s wrong with ranking joined with description?”
    Nothing. Nothing at all. Tell me where this is happening?… Oh, wait, it’s happening in the publications themselves! And if the scores and reviews stayed there, a bond between critics and subscribers, life would be grand. I think where you and I disagree most is that I hold the users of the scale responsible for the misuse as well. You separate them.
    Lots of critics using the same scale has turned it into lots of scales. If the defenders truly want to save the system, in my opinion they should be doing more to control or at least call out its misuse. If they don’t it will simply continue to be devalued.

  10. tom wark - August 11, 2011

    How does one control how their review is re-used?

  11. Tish - August 11, 2011

    I am not sure anyone can control how the reviews are re-used. It’s just another symptom of dysfunction. As an odd analogy, consider what El Bulli did when “foams” became a culinary rage. Ferran sut them out of his repertoire. The critics that will shape the future of wine guidance in this country are going to have — or going to have to have — more imagination than a system based on 85-95.

  12. Tom Wark - August 11, 2011

    Im still going to contend that if there is a dysfunction, it’s on the part of those using the reviews in a way that isn’t optimal.
    As for individual critics (as opposed to aggregated peer review), I’m not convinced there is a system that is radically different or better than a written review with a ranking. And I don’t see any cry among consumers for something different from the critic. Perhaps a cry for different critics, but not for a different type of criticism.

  13. Charlie Olken - August 11, 2011

    I am happy to use any other system of comparative notation that makes sense to the marketplace for my evaluations. Today, that system is one-hundred points, which I use in conjunction with our long-time convention of five tiers capped by recommendations of one, two and three stars in direct parallel to Guide Michelin. We have not abandoned that system, even though your earlier editiorial on the subject asked rather nastily, “what happened to connoisseurship”?
    I’ll tell you what happened. It did not change. The marketplace wanted a clearer way to differentiate wines. So, we now have four gradations with our star levels. And, I like it because the top of one-star is not light years removed from the bottom of two stars anymore. Now they are 90 vs 91 points, and people know that there are levels of one-star goodness.
    I found the same problem in using the Guide Mich in France. I would never choose a one-star restaurant for a special meal–only two and three stars. But, clearly, over the years, I have discovered that there are significant differences in one-star restaurants.
    Wine works the same way. There are wines at the cusps in our evaluations, and no matter what we wrote about them, a one-star wine never seemed good enough–especially if it were not relatively low-priced. That confusion no longer happens at the margin between one and two stars. I suppose we could have used plusses and minusses to accomplish the same thing, but that is just a distinction without a difference in real function.
    I understand that folks misuse our ratings at times in order sell wine without reference to our words, but that is their blunder. The bulk of my readers are not retailers or engaged in other parts of the industry; they are consumers. They is the focus of my work, and they speak with their readership.
    Your assumption, indeed, your assertion that wine mags make up an increasingly smaller part of the winebuying public is, first of all, unproven and, secondly, is more or less irrelevant without also examining whether those consumers reading wine mags with scores are the majority, the mimority and at what rate they are shrinking, if they are at all.
    I hear that readership is up after a brief fall during the deepest days of the recession, and it is my experience that readership patterns have generally risen and fallen with the patterns of fine wine consumption. That has happened to CGCW in early economic downturns and recoveries and it is happening today regardless of the short term volatility in the stock market.
    So, old friend, I see no proof of any of your assertions, just a continuing dislike of folks whose work product is being misused. You want someone to excoriate. Try starting with those who are the abusers.
    For my part, I have an accepted system, and I see you wanting to throw it ou–not on philosophical grounds apparently but because some people misuse it.
    People also misuse alcohol. Shall we stop sales of wine because of it?

  14. Tish - August 12, 2011

    You mistake my criticism as “dislike of folks whose work product is being misused.” Do I wish the keepers of the hallowed 100-pt scale spoke out more against its misuse. Absolutely. But I break glasses and clink bread with people who use the scale all the time.
    As for my impressions of wine-mag readership, indeed, I have not stats. But I do intereact with consumers ona regular basis; the interest I see in ratings is waning significantly in my estimation. And in terms of sheer buzz, I would like to hear of any wine magazine article or review that caused any real buzz in the past couple years. The shift to online media, and media not based on rated reviews is under way.
    Charlie, you go about your business the right way — consistently, honestly, with ample support of numbers via text. I subscribed at one time, and though I did not review, I was certainly satisfied with the product. That is the way the system is supposed to work: people should follow critics they care about, and the information shared therein should stay in that context. It is not your fault that the scale has been misused, but that is the reality I see, and that reality is holding back the maturation of the U.S. as a wine culture, so I think we should both continue expressing ourselves coherently and intelligently on the topic.

  15. Charlie Olken - August 12, 2011

    Tish, fair dinkum. Agreeing to disagree is just fine. Let’s avoid the value-loaded language when we do it, and we can break bread any time. After all, what unites us is a love of wine, and that will not change regardless of evaluation system.

  16. David Boyer - August 12, 2011

    Dear Tom,
    I have read your blog for a number of years but have not written you until now. I write about wine at and have long appreciated your voice on many issues in the industry. This issue of scoring wine seems to be recurring and even heated at time, which is all good in a First Amendment sort of way but the fine folks behind ScRev really reveal how desperate they are to have their wines scored above 90 points. There is so much wrong with this so-called ‘revolution’ and perhaps we need to stop giving it power by publicizing its untenable posture.
    I recently tasted through nearly 2000 wines to rate and write tasting notes for Better Wine Guide and although the scoring is five stars instead of 100 points, it is a score with tasting notes. I did this because out of the 310 million cases of wine sold in the US last year, over 90% of these wines retail for less than $25 per bottle and no major critic has ever rated this segment in depth.
    When I buy Classified Bordeaux (or Napa, Ribera del Duero, or fill-in-the-blank), I like checking out opinions of those that know wine, for reference, including scores. Consumers in the under $25 category until now have had pretty much no reliable information about the wines they purchase, which explains why these same consumers usually select wine based on what the label looks like! If they, or I, choose to utilize scores and enjoy wine, what can be wrong with that unless your winery didn’t make the grade?
    Here’s what I want to say to ScRev (say it out loud – it’s kind of fun):
    – your arguments for the ‘revolution’ are sophomoric at best and really kind of sad. I don’t doubt that you work very hard and are ‘very passionate about wine’ but in the end, if you don’t make wine worthy of attention, sometimes it’s actually okay to quit your day job. When I first began tasting critically, I wrestled with myself about giving a low score to flawed or otherwise poorly made wine. I thought, “If I was the winemaker, could I really do any better?” and realized probably not. But then I thought, if I were a winemaker and trying to sell this plonk to public, I’d pull it off the market until I could make better wine so unfortunately, anyone that is trying to sell rubbish to a consumer does not deserve a good score. It solved the problem of scoring bad wine.
    – not everyone in the world wants to be educated about wine and could care less if your fruit set was great this year, you have old vines that produce amazing concentration, you dry farm your organic winery, that it rained during harvest (like it matters anymore), that you use micro oxygenation and spinning cone technology, etc, ad nauseum. Understand clearly that most people just don’t care and only want to be guided to what’s good and that’s it: should I buy this wine or not? Just ask Jancis Robinson.
    – most people do not have the time or financial resources to taste through thousands of wines each year, and thus rely on the subjective evaluation of others. If you want to buy a new washing machine, perhaps gathering some opinions from an entity like Consumers Reports would be helpful, or checking into the reviews on CNET for a new laptop would save you some time or money. Do you want to buy 45 washing machines and use them for 90 days to determine which one best suits your needs? It’s just ridiculous to think that anyone would do that. No one is playing god here but only trying to provide useful information to consumers that request information. If there was no market for such information, critics would not exist.
    – people, even knowledgeable people, rely on wine critics and if they ultimately find they disagree with a critic over some personally specified period of time, they will no longer engage the services of that critic. Do you think the ubiquitous ‘two thumbs up’ is any different than a 100 point score? It’s not. People use it or not but it’s a consumer choice, not an industry choice.
    – there are few wineries, distributors, importers, or retailers that have any credibility with me whatsoever (probably the same with most consumers) because there is so much conflict of interest built into the equation. Consumers are pretty smart these days and writing magniloquent notes on the back label simply doesn’t work anymore – they’ve all tried the swill after the notes described the wine as ‘a monumental effort combining great vineyards and winemaking expertise that produces a balanced and gorgeous wine redolent of black raspberries and blueberries that coat the palate with a perfectly balanced wine and a long finish of dark chocolate, dusted with espresso’. Of course there are exceptions but most retailers attempt to move wine based on SPIFF money and once a consumer is burned, the trust goes out the window and they look to other independent sources of information. Even CellarTracker can be more useful, which accounts for why gazillions of people go there.
    – International style wines? I so much more worry about great French wines trying to create wine for America than the other way around. I spoke with Oz Clarke at the Unions des Grands Crus de Bordeaux in June and that was his biggest concern about the ’10 vintage. He sees classic châteaux moving more toward the New World and it worries him deeply (me too). Personally, I think Mr. Clarke is more than qualified to make a statement like that.
    Tom, I truly thank you for the great work that you do in our industry and hope that you continue with your great efforts. I hold you in the highest regard.
    Best Regards,
    David Boyer

  17. Michael Teer - August 13, 2011

    You make some valid points but what prompts me to comment are two of your statements.
    First, I find your lack of trust of any winery, distributor, importer or retailer rather unusual for a wine blogger. In my 35 years as a retailer I come to know and trust many people that I work with, and not trust others. Does it mean I blindly buy whatever they want to sell me? No. But we have a healthy business relationship that allows agreements and disagreements.
    Secondly, your comment about “most” retailers moving wine is offensive and wrong. Not saying it doesn’t happen but the reality is that it is much more common with other consumer products than alcohol. Spiffs to retailers are not allowed in Washington State and, even if they were, the wines connected to spiffs are not the wines I want to sell. I work my tail off every day being as straight with my customers as I can be and there are plenty of others like me.
    Michael Teer
    Pike and Western Wine Shop
    Soul Wine

  18. David Boyer - August 13, 2011

    Understood and noted. Please move into my neighborhood.

  19. David Boyer - August 14, 2011

    Sorry. I started thinking about your comments and wanted to say a couple of things: first, I’m truly glad that there are people in retail that actually care about wine and work at building relationships based on getting to know their clientele. If I owned a wine shop I would aspire to your standards. But at what point do you not get to engage with every customer that walks through the door? There is presumably only one of you, so when you’re busy helping one person, others either wait in line or just help themselves. Now imagine if you owned two stores, or twenty stores or 100 stores. You can centralize the buying process and a lot of administration issues so one of your biggest problems then becomes hiring enough warm bodies to stock, answer a few basic questions, and take payment. Few of these people are not going to do what you do nor do many of them have the knowledge or ability to do what you do.
    I think you and I will agree that there are vast differences between an independent one shop, owner-operated store, and the larger chains that permeate our cities. I know I would have a better attitude about retail if every shop had people like you that owned the place but that’s not the rule, only the exception.
    As far as wineries are concerned, I know there many wonderful winemakers (these are the true rock stars to me) that work very hard to make the best product they can but then the rest is turned over to a marketing company and that’s where things run off the rails. A marketer’s job is obviously to sell wine and if that means sucking in consumers with amazing label design and text, whether it’s an accurate representation or not, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s part of the food chain so to speak and I accept that but I don’t like it. The rest of the chain is also in the business of selling wine and I’m all for free enterprise but a shelf-talker written by Glazers or Southern just doesn’t have the same meaning as someone that has nothing to gain from the transaction – an independent assessment of the quality of wine. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded and cynical but that probably comes from years of learning things the hard way.
    Today’s wine consumers are becoming ever more knowledgable, thanks to people like you, which in my opinion makes for a better wine experience and grows from there. Thank you for taking the time to comment and challenge my thinking.

  20. Michael Teer - August 14, 2011

    Having just opened my second store I fully understand the challenges you mention. Fortunately I have a great staff at the first stores, with tenures ranging from 3 years to 25 years. To say I have been lucky in hiring is an understatement. Every one that works for me is a wine and food lover and I have always encouraged my employees to develop their own relationships. Everyone tastes everything that is presented to us and decisions are made as a group. And they have a monthly allowance to take wine home. Call me crazy but it has worked for me.
    You and I are actually in agreement on many things and I am no fan of big mega stores of any kind. I just had to speak up for us little guys that so often get overlooked by much of the wine media or lumped in with the big guys that that we actually have little in common with.
    Michael Teer
    Pike and Western Wine Shop
    Soul Wine

  21. Sam @ Fast Food Delivery - August 17, 2011

    I agree with Charlie Olken “Let’s avoid the value-loaded language when we do it, and we can break bread any time. After all, what unites us is a love of wine, and that will not change regardless of evaluation system.”

  22. Jeremy Gilbert - August 29, 2011

    Cheap Wine? It’s not about the price… it’s about the pairing… and I’m not talking food pairings… I am a self-proclaimed drinker of wine and I offer heart warming suggestions of how to match wines not with food, but with the friends and family that might pair best with those perfect bottles that are under $10. I hope you’ll enjoy some wine with me at The Cheap Wine Chronicles blog. This new vintage was just released so grab your glass and enjoy as we discover that wines’ best pairing is with people…

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