11 Things You Need to Know Now About Wine Criticism and the Wine Industry

Thetruth1Is technology, the emergence of the Millennial wine drinker and changing attitudes toward wine fundamentally altering the world of wine criticism and wine buying in such a way that we are seeing a wholesale change in the way we understand, buy and appreciate wine?

This would be the topic at hand in a number of articles issued of late by some very astute writers and observers of the American wine industry. If I am to believe many of them, this is exactly what is happening. Below are examples of this recent splurge of words on the topic, with one dissenter thrown in for good measure.

The Wine World is Changing and Some Wine Writers Are losing It (influence, that is) Colorado Wine Press

Want to Know the Future of Wine Writing? Look at the Present SteveHeimoff.com

Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future Jon Bonne, SF Chronicle

Gary Vaynerchuk and Joe Roberts on the Wine Media Revolution 1Winedude.com (listen at 20 minutes into the video)

How Wine Criticism is Changing David White, Palate Press

How could most of these very smart folks have either gotten it wrong, misinterpreted the industry, missed the obvious or over emphasized the trivial?

Much of what has recently been written is a reaction to the moves at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: Parker’s pull back from reviews, the installation of a new California critic, the sale of the Wine Advocate and the California critic’s resignation. Such moves at a high-profile wine publication spurs thinkers to think about what it all means. Combine this natural tendency with the sea change in publishing where business models have been up-ended by technological changes, as well as with the recognition that a damn big group of consumers (Millennials) has been identified and you have occasion for considering where the waves are taking the wine commentary and wine consuming industries.

But back to how they have it all wrong.

There are some points to be made about wine criticism, wine journalism, wine consumers and technology that need to be made and need to be explored. And they are important points if you are in the industry. To make this short (something I often have trouble doing), I’m just going to try to respond to much of what I’m reading of late with what I think are obvious points.

1.   The Wine Critic is here to stay and will be the primary guide for serious wine buyers because they serve a critical purpose: People want and need to know how to spend their wine dollars amidst a sea of wine…just like they have for the past 30 years.

2.   Ratings (including the 100 point type) are here to stay and will be the primary way wine critics communicate their recommendations because they serve a critical purpose: Serious wine lovers need an efficient way to compare wines they may want to spend their wine dollars on.

3.   Social Media has done very little to change the way the wine industry communicates with their customers, despite opinion to the contrary.

4.   The impact of Millennials on the wine industry has been minimal, at best.

5.   Millennial wine buying behavior isn’t much different from prior generations and we can expect them to grow up into wine consumers that look a great deal like their predecessors.

6.   Genuine “authority” within the wine writing/wine commentary community is earned, not launched. You can see that authority best on display in the usual places: Wine Magazines, established wine newsletters, daily newspapers.

7.   A wine rated highly  on the 100 point scale by a genuine wine authority still gets a boost in sales and sometimes becomes highly allocated, no matter what folks are saying about the 100 point rating system.

8.   The total time and effort it takes to attract enough friends and followers to a wine business’ social media outlets may not be worth it.

9.   The idea that wine lovers of today prefer to read stories to ratings and reviews by those that communicate about wine is probably true, however it was equally true 25 years ago, making this conclusion underwhelming.

10.   Despite the rise of social media and new platforms, it’s notable that today the most substantial online conversations about wine still occur on the wine chat boards (eRobertParker, Wine Berserkers, etc), which was exactly the case 20 years ago.

11.   It isn’t true that younger wine drinkers are turning away from critics and looking to friends. It’s true that younger wine drinkers, just like beginning and younger wine drinkers of the past, haven’t the disposable income to care what critics of higher priced wines have to say. But their income will increase. Then watch what happens.

64 Responses

  1. Mike Dunne - March 6, 2013

    What, no comments yet? Just wait, though there isn’t much to quibble about in your smart roundup and conclusions. May this put an end to all the wild speculation about the future of wine writing/criticism, but it won’t, in all likelihood. OK, one quibble: Though without any hard evidence, I feel intuitively that the 100-point scale is on its last legs. It’s dying from over-saturation and from exploitation by too many sources with conflicts of interest. It is handy, but it’s been so abused that it is losing its relevancy.

    • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013

      I just don’t see the end of the 100 Point scale. Particularly as long as the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits continue to to utilize it.

  2. tom merle - March 6, 2013

    All speculation and mostly wrong because your dicta are mostly half truths. Just like the other old guys like Heimoff and Olken you stubbornly fail to see or appreciate the shift in the way consumers are gathering their info to make purchasing decisions. There are critics in every field and their commentary is read. But such Words of Wisdom take a back seat to observations from peers–friends and those knowledgeable about products for sale. We are in a New World of hyper democratization where the People’s Choice counts for much more than it did five years ago. And it will only grow along with Chowhound, Trip Advisor, AirBnB, CellarTracker.com, etc., etc.

    • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013

      Mr. Merle….How are you?

      Where is the TripAdvisor for wine? We have Cellar Tracker, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact that TripAdvisor does, nor is it really designed to have that impact. Finally, you may be right that people are changing the way they make purchasing decisions. But show me some evidence. At the low end of the market it’s about price. As it always was. At that tiny high end part of the market it’s about recommendations from friends and critics, as it always was.

      • tom merle - March 6, 2013

        Tom, How are you so sure that Cellar Tracker doesn’t have yes a lesser but very similar kind of impact that Trip Advisor has. Gradually more and more wine notes will also appear on Yelp. But this track of discussion is not as important as the more informal exchanges on Facebook, texting, emails and other ways from exchanging views. That’s what emerged from the Google Microsoft study of findings on meds. And all the offline critiques at wine tastings whether at dinner or a mega Ft. Mason event are much more important today, and the opportunites to try different wines more plentiful.

  3. Marcia Macomber - March 6, 2013

    Given the current dialogue on various sites on this very topic with which you state everyone else ‘has it wrong,’ I was wondering if I clicked on each of the 11 points I would see lengthy explanations of each point to go with your statements. Alas, no show/hide function in this post today! (I can see follow up posts coming on in the next few days….)

  4. Mike - March 6, 2013

    There were “wine chat boards” 20 years ago? Maybe a couple albeit with very very little “on-line conversations”.

  5. tom merle - March 6, 2013

    Using the same mode of argument (all anecdotal) one need only put a ‘not’ in most of your sentences, like #1 “The Wine Critic is NOT here to stay and will NOT be the primary guide for serious [a shrinking group anyway] wine buyers because they DO NOT serve a critical purpose: People want and need to know how to spend their wine dollars amidst a sea of wine…just like they have for the past 30 years.

    Younger people not the ageing 5% who read the mags and critics, turn as I say to their peers on and offline for recommendations–word of mouth is much more important. And they have many opportunities to put the juice in their mouths to make their final decisions.

  6. tom merle - March 6, 2013

    Using the same mode of argument (all anecdotal) one need only put a ‘not’ in most of your sentences, like #1 “The Wine Critic is NOT here to stay and will NOT be the primary guide for serious [a shrinking group anyway] wine buyers because they DO NOT serve a critical purpose: People want and need to know how to spend their wine dollars amidst a sea of wine…just like they have for the past 30 years.

    Younger people not the ageing 5% who read the mags and critics, turn as I say to their peers on and offline for recommendations–word of mouth is much more important. And they have many opportunities to put the juice in their mouths to make their final decisions.

  7. Charlie Olken - March 6, 2013

    Re chat boards–If twnnty years is too long, fifteen is not. There were chat boards both set up independently and with big followings on AOL and Compuserve. Those latter boards were eventually superseded by the more active chat board and now by blogs with their commentary sections.

    In fact, the AOL boards were so popular that they spun off into a couple of dozen topics in order to make sense of the chatter. The monitors on the AOL boards were Jerry Mead, Paul Wagner, Richard Peterson, Patrick Fegan, Craig Goldwyn and myself.

    • Mike - March 6, 2013

      But Charlie, even 15 years ago the masses did not have the readily available platforms of communication we have today. Sure AOL & Compuserve had their chat boards but they were used mostly by serious wine geeks. Unlike today the “casual consumer” was never being constantly hit-over- the-head with the electronic media blitz.

      • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013


        Today, the casual wine consumer still isn’t being hit over the head with anything concerning wine. They are walking into Walmart, CVS and the grocery store and picking up a couple of bottles of what is stacked at the end of the row. It’s important to remember that, as always, the groupl fo folks interested in much of what we are talking about is very small.

  8. Larry Chandler - March 6, 2013

    You mention that the way it’s been for 30 years won’t change. But 30 years ago people changed how they bought wine. You used to go to the wine shop, talk to the owner or salesman, and say “I need wine. Tell me what to buy.” So it will similarly break down now, perhaps as social media takes greater hold or new ways of communicating become available.

    In the mid 1980s, Apple released the Mac, the Laserwriter, and there was Pagemaker software. Someone used these items to create an ad, with the headline “Would you believe this ad was created on a Mac?” Well, it was the ugliest thing you ever saw. No focus, bad typography, and boring unreadable crap. The type industry laughed saying they had nothing to worry about. I told my boss “the hardware will get better, the software will get better, and people will learn how to use it”. And where’s the type industry now?

    Simply because social media hasn’t caused a sea-change yet, does not mean it can’t and won’t. It will evolve, people will use it better.

  9. tom merle - March 6, 2013

    There were always chat.bulletin boards of one kind of another from the dawn of the cyberage. The difference now is the pushing beyond these comments by the chattering class of wine enthusiasts–the .01% of wine drinkers. These have to be distinguished from the huge expansion of more informal observations shared on and offline without the filters of the experts, paid or not.

    I think this report on “personalized medicine’ vs. the gatekeepers like the FDA (bureaucratic critics) presented a kind of lose parallel to our topic http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/science/unreported-side-effects-of-drugs-found-using-internet-data-study-finds.html?hp&_r=0

    • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013


      Facebook says it has 132 million people that are 21 and older. Of those 132 million only 5% note “wine” as an interest.

      There’s not “pushing beyond the chattering classes” going on in any significant way. Social Media is being used by the industry to speak to that 5% and that 5% is talking among themselves.

      Finally, what is the evidence that experts are being consulted less and less among the 5%? I hear this. But I dont’ see the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate or Wine Enthusiast circulations declining. I still see shelf talkers online, in grocery stores and in wine shops that tout the experts.

      • tom merle - March 6, 2013

        The mags are being supported by the boomers; but as they die off, informal shared views of the younger consumers will hold sway. Of course wineries and distributors will do what they can to support their product with shelf talkers and medal count, but from my perch they are being more and more ignored with each passing year by the youngsters.

  10. Jim Caudill - March 6, 2013

    The more things change….

    I’ve never agreed with you more. Delivery systems change and evolve, but the basic truths remain. Paying attention to the people who are actually buying your wine today is just as important as worrying about the people who may buy it in the future…and I’m confident they will.

    • Larry Chandler - March 6, 2013

      It’s actually more important to pay attention to the people who are buying your wines today. Someone who consistently buys cases of your reserve deserves this over someone who now and then buys a bottle of your introductory red blend. But some attention should be paid to potential future customers too. It’s important to keep an open mind and willingness to try new methods to capture new customers, rather than just assume today’s road map will always be current.

      • Tom Wark - March 6, 2013

        Larry, this goes without saying. You always try to pay deference to the future and the trends pointing to the future. And you are right about who to pay the most attention to. I’m not suggesting that what is will always be. However, somethings that are will indeed be.

        Take the Millennials. Where direct to consumer sales are concerned they are nearly inconsequential. That said, one day when they are in their peak earning years, they will be consequential. How much you want to bet that they take into consideration what the experts say when they are deciding which wine to spend $75 on?

        • Larry Chandler - March 6, 2013

          I admit it. I find the future fascinating (always have, even in the past). And yes, people who are spending $75 won’t just pick random bottles off the shelf. So the issue becomes who will be those “experts” they rely on? It’s possible it will be Steve Heimoff or Robert Parker (or their grandchildren), but is it also possible that the field will be much larger, maybe even huge. Perhaps as Facebook collapses of it’s own weight and splits up into factions (“FaceWineGlass” anyone?) people will discuss wines there with other aging millennials. And maybe the wine industry (wineries, retailers, restaurants, etc.) will learn how to educate and sell through tastings, parties and seminars in a really big way so that people become confident enough to trust their own palates (and perhaps those of others who have steered them in the right direction before).

          It’s not that the future (there I go again) holds that a tweet “Buy our Merlot. Mmm, so good. Only $75” will be how people buy, but that the established media will not be so dominant. People will have choices. Magazines (digital of course), wine columns, bloggers, friends, parties, formal tastings, and yes, social media in whatever form it will exist.

          Think of what’s happening with craft beer. 36% of US consumers drink craft beer but 50% of millennials do. Only 32% of boomers think it’s better than mass produced beer. No one really depends on reviews.

          • Jeff Gould - March 13, 2013

            I really agree with your point on the beer.

  11. tom merle - March 6, 2013

    E.G. Per the interest in tasting for oneself and the growing irrelevance of gatekeepers, except the literal ones (not so much for the Napa limited production wines). http://www.harpers.co.uk/news/news-headlines/13580-not-your-typical-tweed-and-tedium-wine-tasting-a-sell-out

  12. Michael DeLoach - March 6, 2013

    My observation is that while wine criticism will always have a place, especially with the “serious” wine drinker (you’ll have to define this somtime in a future article: is it the one who drinks the most? Spends the most in total over lifetime, or per bottle? The one who collects the most? Or the one who reads the most reviews before pulling the trigger? All of the above?) as long as there is a three-tier system, wine buyers at the trade level will continue to control what is available to the general consumer, and have a greater influence on what is sold than will any criticism online or in print. As far as the trade is influenced by criticism, they are more influenced by consumer demand — which in turn is driven by what “normal humans” see other “normal humans” purchasing, serving and drinking than by wine critics. “Moscato” of all flavors, colors, sugar levels, carbonation levels and origins have flourished — while “interesting” wines that you and I love to drink, talk, read and write about are nearly unavailable at retail. Cheers.

  13. Charlie Olken - March 6, 2013

    Wine media of the type in which expert criticism and commentary can be found has always been and will always be the bastion of the big-time collectors and the moneyed class that sees wine as part of the good life.

    I like to use my nieghbors as examples–all college educated, all employed at good jobs, all living in expensive houses. Yet not one of those wine-drinking, financially well-heeled individuals, ranging in age from late 30s to senior citizens pays to read any wine publication.

    Most Millenials would seem likely to follow their paths into more and more informed drinkers. Some will attend tastings at the local wine bar and buy wine there and at the thoughtfully stocked wine and cheese store here in town, but it is hard to posit that few or none of them will become serious collectors and seek out expert opinion.

    The diversity of opinion is not necessarily synonomous with the quality of opinion, and just as there are leaders and second-tier publications that are supported by subscribers, so too will there be in the future.

    To suggest otherwise is to suggest that people who become willing to spend a fair amount on wine will not care about drinking the best and that there will not be some critics (perhaps none with the power of Mr Parker) who will have substantial influence on what gets sold in stores and through the Internet.

    It is fair to say that my paid audience is older than younger, but it also fair to say that it has always had folks who age out of subscribing and are replaced by younger folks whose palates have matured and that they have “aged in” to the world of seeking expert opinion.

  14. NEWS FETCH – March 7, 2013 | Wine Industry Insight - March 7, 2013

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  15. Dave McIntyre - March 7, 2013

    Remember the good ol’ days when wine writers wrote about wine and not just about wine writing? The biggest problem with today’s batch of new media wine writers is they haven’t figured out that they are not the story. Well, that and they need to read Strunk & White.

  16. Tom WArk - March 7, 2013


    What’s this Strunk thing you refer to????

    I write about wine writing because is among the things I’m familiar with and interested in due to my work. Others that write about writing may do so for a number of reasons including a desire to post often, it’s what they are involved in and know, and because they are blog watchers due to being bloggers.

    But I don’t disagree with you.

    • Samantha Dugan - March 7, 2013

      I write about wine writing, (when I do that even) on the blog because my day job requires me to write and talk about wine, like all day and junk, therefore it’s the other stuff that I crave sharing and talking about on my off time. Also when talking about bloggers I think we might be careful to not use the term “wine writers” I mean, just because I have sex it doesn’t make me a porn star if you get my meaning….

  17. 1winedude - March 7, 2013

    Tom – I’m pretty sure that of all of your points above, only one I’d pertinent to the discussion Gary V and I had, which is

    Social Media has done very little to change the way the wine industry communicates with their customers, despite opinion to the contrary.”

    This is actually a reverse of how the topic ought to be viewed. The question ought to be, why hasn’t the wine industry evolved in its social media use at pace with other industries? Or, why hasn’t the wine Biz utilized SM as effectively as other industries that have seen more measurable results?

    Here’s an example: I used to work for a huge cpg company, a lot of their brands are candy and they cost a lot less than a bottle of wine. That company had brands that are in the top 5 in most social media counters worldwide. People have fairly deep and loyal relationships with those brands. If a $2 candy can do that, why can’t wine?

    Because they don’t know how, they haven’t acknowledged the changes in consumer relationship interactions in time, and therefore haven’t given the consumer relationships any real priority, attention, funding, etc. It’s NOT that the brands don’t have the potential, it’s that no one has tried to realize that potential. Respectfully, I’d submit that your position on the industry makes you too close to this problem to see it for what it really is, which is a failure to recognize change and utilize the tools that are a part of that change.

    I would revise my previous statements of the wine Biz being six years behind that change, I think it’s more like eight years behind it. And that’s just… SAD.

  18. Tom Wark - March 7, 2013


    How goes it?

    Don’t underestimate my appreciation for what social media deployment in the wine industry can achieve. I believe it is an important tool.

    But the fact is, the nature of the wine business is such that a number of other tools are not only equally useful, but in most cases more useful than Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and others.

    Imagine a 10K case winery located in on highway 29 or the Trail in Napa or on Highway 12 in Sonoma or on Westside Road in N. Sonoma. Their wines sell for between $30 and $70. They sell 50% of their wine direct to a wine club or out of their tasting room. The rest goes mostly three tier and some direct to the trade, but not much. That winery will have a GM, a Dir of Sales and Marketing, a Dir. of Hospitality, a couple people in the office, maybe a jr. marketing person, 3 or 4 tasting room personnel, a winemaker and a couple maybe 3 cellar folks.

    They have to manage a tasting room, a wine club, events on and off the premises, deal with three tier compliance, direct to trade compliance, personnel management, payroll, public relations, and maybe manage a couple contractors. Additionally, they have to manage a wholesale network, constantly dealing with depleations, and staying on top of their wholesale network. The Dir. of Sales, GM/owner and sometimes the winemaker will have to travel to the markets. The tasting room has two people on the weekdays and three or four on the weekends.Inventory needs to be managed. And we haven’t even begun to think about the winemaking staff or any vineyard staff.

    Here’s my question, who is going to be working social media and how much time do they have to put into it in order to make social media the kind of significant brand building tool that provides a better ROI than investing in more tasting room staff or tasting room training or telephone sales, or enhanced wine club activity or in-house tastings while on the road or more events or enhanced media outreach?

    Is a couple tweets and facebook posts and maybe an active instagram account all you are looking for? Or are you suggesting some much more intensive social media outreach be deployed?

    The domestic wine industry has continued to grow at a good 3-4% annually for more than 25 years now. Would it have grown more if the industry adopted an much more aggressive use of social media—which means other activities would have to be sacrificed?

    The direct to consumer marketplace has been growing at a brisk pace of somewhere around 10%-12% annually for the past 10 years. Would that have been 15%-20% had a much more aggressive social media outreach effort been made, and to do that, what direct to consumer marketing efforts should they have dropped?

    Finally, with regard to wine’s use of social media, keep in mind that with Facebook, for example, we know that a mere 5% of people over 21 using facebook identify wine as an interest. 5%. We aren’t talking about music or movies or candy or fashion or high tech here. We are talking about a product that relatively few people are interested in, particularly when that product reaches the $20 mark and over.

    Social media is a great tool. But it’s not necessarily the silver bullet. Wineries use. All my clients do and have. But the key is balance the effort one puts into social media. The fact is, the effort one must put into social media activity to make it work and the other efforts one must give up on to accommodate the time necessary to make it work means it may not be worth it to dive head long in.

  19. tom merle - March 7, 2013


    I think the more central issue, as reflected in your 11 points, goes well beyond SM. It really has more to do with the roles of the Wine Critic vs that of peers. In every domain the world is more democratic when it comes to opinions about services and products, whether dentists or dolcetto. The Voices from on High are growing fainter with each passing month. SM is only one channel, albeit an efficient one. Millennials have been forever changed in the ways they source information. The cycle you describe won’t be repeated, IMHO.

    The other Tom

  20. Bill Klapp - March 8, 2013

    Tom, all of those people did not get it wrong (well, at least not totally). You did. Ten bald, unsupported assertions do not a wine world reality make. But at least Parker, the lion in winter whose influence declines almost by the minute these days (a pace that might have been slowed had he hired you in your day-job capacity), agrees with you. An ego stroke for you, but unfortunately, confirmation that you have completely missed the boat. Again.

  21. Bill Klapp - March 8, 2013

    Excuse me, I missed the last one…11 bald, unsupported assertions. My apologies.

  22. 1winedude - March 8, 2013

    Tom – every business is insanely busy already. They doesn’t obviate the fact that more, not less, consumers will move online over time.

    If a business chooses to ignore that, then eventually they’ll be in deep crap financially. The balance of how much time to put into it will be different for each biz. Consumer outreach isn’t easy, which is why do many fail to do it properly. And yet with a 70+ hour a week career, a family, a band, etc, etc, etc, I used sm – and only sm – to go from nobody to somebody in the wine world. If I can do it, surely some other busy folks can do it. The cost avoidance/reductions in traditional advertising alone might justify the time expense!

    If you agree that sm is a potentially powerful tool for that, and agree that more consumers will move online over time, then you cannot also postulate that there is a failed promise of sm as a tool, unless you also postulate that the wine Biz is so fundamentally different from all other commerce that it’s immune to the good and bad impacts of the trends impacting NEARLY EVERY OTHER type of business markets. Personally, I refuse to believe that last part, it’s got to be one of the worst bets anyone could make.

    As for the silver bullet – I agree, though there’s no shortage of examples of small producers who only use online and sm to sell. But there is are definitely a shortage of examples of pundits who are saying that sm is a silvery bullet (no one had been able to give me one credible example of such a person, ever) in this tiresome argument.

    My advice to any producers who are listening is this: stop worrying about if or how much and start worrying about how and how smartly.

    • 1winedude - March 8, 2013

      Tom, i know that you know a lot of what I’m saying here already. And look, I know that I sound like angry young man on all of this, but I’m not actually that young and I am actually a little angry that this ground continues to get retread. The reality is that we do not need any more polemics “protecting” wineries or consumers from a fictional failed promise of SM. Those who don’t know how to drive ought to just stay off the road and not rail against the drivers and cars for going so much faster than horses, etc.

  23. Tom Wark - March 8, 2013

    The ground always gets re-tred. Always.

    No one is protecting anyone from anything. But from the business side of the ledger this is always the question of what works best. That conversation will always occur. It better, at least. SM isn’t a failed tool. I have evidence of that. But I also have evidence that in many cases it’s a tool that is less much less important than other tools.

    Finally, you aren’t the first person to criticize my driving. Sit down with Kathy one day and ask her about it.

    • 1WineDude - March 8, 2013

      Tom – ha! I will definitely have to ask her about the driving! 🙂

    • 1WineDude - March 8, 2013

      Not sure I fully get what you’re saying about the business ledger.

      Of course a return on the time investment has to happen, logically – god help those who don’t operate that way.

      But… if I don’t know how to use an electric screwdriver because I couldn’t be bothered to read the manual, if I then curse the screwdriver for being a bad investment that doesn’t make me a frugal business person; it makes me a moron. If SM is an effective tool, then dialing in the right amount of it will give you some form of return (increased foot traffic, increased sales, advertising savings, whatever). Not knowing how to do that doesn’t make SM ineffective.

      Anyway, maybe we’ll simply have to agree to agree to disagree on this. If wine brands listening in leave with the take away that SM is a waste of time, so be it; it’s their business to erode any way they deem appropriate….

  24. Tom Wark - March 8, 2013

    @Bill Klapp

    ” Ten bald, unsupported assertions do not a wine world reality make.”

    True….but what would a wine blog be without unsupported assertions?

  25. tom merle - March 8, 2013

    Re: the 11 prognostications: again, just insert a NOT in each declarative sentence and you have a pretty good synopsis of what the future holds…

  26. Tom Wark - March 8, 2013

    Tom (merle)

    You don’t think in the future that serious wine buyers will seek out the advice of established wine critics on the nature of, say, a Bordeaux or Burgundy vintage? #1

    Really? What leads you to believe this?

  27. El Jefe - March 8, 2013

    There is a set of wineries, wine regions and wine types (call it Set W) that have benefited greatly from Traditional Wine Criticism (call it TWC), and will continue to do so for a long time.

    Outside of Set W, not so much. For “Not Set W” entities, good ratings and the occasional mention by TWC, while nice, does not cause a massive bump in sales. New entities may find admittance to Set W over time, if TWC writes about them often and regularly enough.

    It is likely that these new entities will be discovered by TWC and gain admittance to that exclusive club, by a combination of making excellent wine, by putting it out there and getting it tasted (and yes, rated), and quite likely, exposure on social media.

    Since they are not on the radar of those whose purchases are dictated by the ratings, “Not Set W” has to find other ways of reaching their potential constituencies. For those not on Highway 29 etc., social media is one of many viable options.

  28. doug wilder - March 8, 2013

    I have been drafting a longer post over the last couple days but i did want to offer my read on one of the points stated earlier, specifically about CellarTracker!

    First, I consider Eric a friend in wine, and have watched this community grow in prominence from the early stages and find the true power of the resource is that it provides a set of data from differerent users that allows the possibility of reading constantly changing and expanding up to date viewpoints when a wine is opened and consumed. I say possibility because of the relative objectiveness of any particular poster. Granted, there are some well-established voices here, but some are better than others.

    The point I want to make is that fundamentally, CellarTracker!, as a resource is a trailing indicator. What I mean by that is until a wine is released, it isn’t going to show up in a retailer or a wine consumers table. For established brands that have a legacy of consumer loyalty (mailing lists) that isn’t so crucial, as over time that information will be assimilated into CT.

    However, the situation is different if it is a premiere from a new producer, or wines for an upcoming release. What drives the awareness of that wine? More often than not it will come via a published review from a wine critic who talks about it first and has built credibility among the wine drinking community.

  29. tom merle - March 8, 2013

    Tom: For the .01% of serious wealthy wine enthusiasts, they’ll check with the “authorities” But just as likely they will put equal weight on the opinion of their buds who, for example, are also members of “Medical friends of wine? or the “Vintners Club” Again PtoP.

    Doug: with some tweaking CT can become more up to date with additional input, The infrastructure is there to capture expanded consumer opinions. This is already happening for current releases, particularly those with larger production numbers. And then there is Snooth. And soon Yelp will have more evaluations of wine in addition to the winery tasting rooms. Plues the various phone apps. More and more bottoms up input.

  30. doug wilder - March 8, 2013

    From Tom Merle:

    Doug: with some tweaking CT can become more up to date with additional input, The infrastructure is there to capture expanded consumer opinions. This is already happening for current releases, particularly those with larger production numbers. And then there is Snooth. And soon Yelp will have more evaluations of wine in addition to the winery tasting rooms. Plues the various phone apps. More and more bottoms up input.

    Tom, I want to emphasize that I am not referring to adding even more layerrs of anonymous opinion. I follow Yelp and blog posts for the winery I work at and most are not that well informed, even after they have visited our tasting room and carefully walked through the wines. Also I am not talking about large production wines, rather small producers, under 500 cases, and because of that have the added interest of rarity, but only if the quality is there. I recently encountered a couple producers that fit in this category where nothing had been written about the wines.

    Not everyone is going to listen to a professional critic, and even those who do usually exercise a preference. for a particular palate. Believe me there is plenty of room in the world of wine writing for different approaches, and coverage. And far from being anonymous, across the board, critics are easily identified by their publication and can be reached for comment or clarification either by website or phone.

  31. Eric LeVine - March 8, 2013

    OK, so we have established that Tom (W) is not much of a beleiver in CellarTracker. I would just point out that 9 years in, it;s still early in the movement. That said, every metric has more than doubled in the last 2.75 years for whatever that is work.


  32. Eric LeVine - March 8, 2013

    Oyy, could I make more typos in one post? For whatever that is worth…

  33. Tom Wark - March 8, 2013


    Au contraire….

    There are a number of folks that I follow on Cellar Tracker and often check to see if they have reviewed wines I’m considering buying or wines of clients or potential clients. In addition, I use CT regularly to try to get a sense of the movement of a particular wine among high end consumers.

    However, CT has not had the impact on the industry that TripAdvisor and Yelp have had on the travel and restaurant industries. That’s not saying I’m not a fan. That’s saying that the impact of Trip Advisor and yelp have been MONUMENTAL. Few group review sites have had the kind of impact on specific industries the way TripAdvisor and Yelp have. Maybe Amazon reviews where books in particular are concerned.

  34. doug wilder - March 8, 2013

    Intersting comment, Tom regarding Trip Advisor and Yelp. I have never logged on to the former, or used the latter to search for reviews, beyond those that pertain to my day job. Obviously it is a very small sample size but what I find is a good amount of inaccuracy and when delivered from afar without much in the way of recourse due to relative anonymity…

  35. Eric LeVine - March 8, 2013

    Right now CT is targeted PURELY at consumers. It is not a trade thing at this point. I am not trying to monetize wineries and retailers. Longer term, I would like to give them ways to interact with the consumers, to the extent that the consumers are interested in the interaction. Longer term I want to give the trade the opportunity to use the community data in structured, automated ways to help them sell products (to the extent that a user has not opted out of having their tasting notes syndicated). Both of these area will create implications and challenges, and I am not in a hurry to get there yet or before I am ready to do it in a deep and thoughtful fashion. My goal is not to use the data to drive commerce in an overt fashion ala TripAdvisor or Yelp. Rather, my goal is to cement CellarTracker as THE CONSUMER RATING SYSTEM for wine. To do that means I need to share those consumers and data as a industry resource.

    As I said, the movement is early. Give it time.

    • Tom Wark - March 9, 2013

      I think you’ve established CT as THE consumer rating system. And by the way I can attest to the fact that CT IS used by the trade. I’ve used it for research on a number of occasions.

      Creating a formal stucture for interaction between the trade and CT users or incorporating commercial functionality would seem tricky to me on a number of levels. I’m sure it can be done and I’m sure there are number of ways to do it. But thinking carefully as to how you want to let that happen is probably very smart.

      The TripAdvisor/Yelp thing is interesting. These two sites have changed the travel industry and the restaurant industry. The consternation that is felt by hoteliers over their TripAdvisor ratings and reviews is huge. It’s a different level that no one in the wine industry has had to confront.

  36. Paul Mabray - March 11, 2013

    You are a great friend and one of the elite group of wine industry professionals I hold in the highest esteem. Over the last week since you wrote this article I’ve gone through a roller-coaster of emotions about the resonance of the content of this post. After much thought I have come back to respond. First, I understand your role as a PR professional requires that you do not attack the professionals who you need to work with on a continual basis. It would never serve you to tear apart the institution that is the traditional wine critic or 100 pt system. The fact that we have a declining population of super critics (wine writers with an audience of 100K or more), more publications abandoning their wine columns, and a wine writing industry in peril as it competes with “free content” and digital distribution can not be ignored. The wine writing industry (in fact all writing) is at odds with the digital revolution. Let’s also not forget that we are in the most difficult competitive environment the wine industry has ever seen in human history. In an infinite ocean of wine choices, how does a brand stand out?

    That being said, I feel you do have a responsibility as one of the top 10 business wine bloggers in the world to present an objective view and also point to what will help the industry using facts and inspiration. I really think you missed the mark being objective.

    The best way to respond is to counter the key points that you mentioned.

    1. There is always a role for the professional critic. But the quantity of great wine increases faster than the wine writers can accommodate rating them. There are over 160K wines released annually in the US (and more in the world) and maybe, maybe 45K wines rated by professional publications. This leaves a virtual ocean of wine unrated.
    2. Ratings are always here but can take many, many forms. Who’s to say that the 5 star system which is more common with millions and millions of Amazon and iTunes users won’t someday be the law of the land. It only takes one major e-tailer to start publishing different reviews to get them to stick. Or maybe a Gary Vaynerchuk and group of influential bloggers to band together for a new rating system . . . It’s been done before in other industries. Ours is not immune especially with the aging publications and writers that dominate our industry today. My personal opinion is that the new critic is the LIKE, Share, Pin and the +1 button. See my wine and social media presentation on Scribd to get a visual of what I mean.
    3. This one really bothered me Tom. It is like blaming the tools for user error. Social media has done everything to change the way we communicate in every industry. A shovel doesn’t dig a hole, a person does and we don’t blame the shovel when the hole doesn’t get dug.
    4. That is especially true in the luxury wine category ($20+). That being said all the “experts” and the dream of acquiring them has the industry working hard to find methods to attract these customers even if they are not ready for the wineries chasing them.
    5. Agreed.
    6. Gary Vaynerchuk and Joe Roberts proved that wrong. The model is ready for disruption.
    7. That is true. But ten years ago a 95+ would do the same and twenty years ago a 90+ would do the same. The scale has truly become warped.
    8. Another statement that truly bothered me. It is ALWAYS worth it to speak to your customers. Moreover in an ocean of infinite wine choices, it is more important than ever to speak with the customers and social media provide unprecedented access to consumers never before seen in our history and definitely not available since the invention of the 3-tier system. The cost is far less than every makes it out to be but it is hard work. ALL sales and marketing in the modern wine industry is HARD WORK. ALL OF IT. The Mondavi playbook no longer works and just making great wine is the ticket to ride. And don’t get me started on all the other activities our industry spends energy and money on that are definitely not worth the money. Yet we still do them . . .
    9. The problem is now there are more stories and less storytellers. No other consumable product has that level of selection from a product that may not have that same diversity in stories.
    10. You should have called me before this one. The largest amount of wine conversations happen on social media. Currently we analyze 750K – 1.4M conversations per day about wine. Over 350 million conversations to date across 100’s of channels but the majority of our volume (85%+) being from Twitter. We have profiled over 14 million social wine customers and every month 450K new social consumers are added to our database. Pandora’s box is opened, who will be the wineries that truly understand and leverage this new goldmine of customers and data?
    11. I want to agree with this statement but candidly I think the world has changed around us and so has the critic. Just look at the movie industry. Now there is the “meta-critic” aka sites like Rotten Tomatoes and the everyman critic that is alive and well on sites like Amazon, Yelp, and more. Just because it hasn’t happened in wine yet, it will. The wine industry has many, many, many more challenges than wine (mostly around data and distribution). When the Millennial’s emerge into the “affluence curve” I am confident that we will have joined the rest of the world as it relates to modern criticism (and even ways we don’t yet imagine) despite our inertia.
    Eric, CellarTracker is the Yelp/Tripadvisor of wine and you already have created a B2B service: your partnership with VinTank. We serve your reviews up to 4500 brands on a daily basis. #respect

    Again, answering with mad respect but I think you have a duty to help wineries see that ignoring social media, bloggers, digital et al is at their own peril and that the institution of chasing traditional wine critics, while still successful, is a model that works for very, very few. Hard work and using the tools that make you efficient will be the keys to helping them be successful. There are too many people criticizing the tools rather than helping the users (I admit that I sometimes suffer from the reverse). This is our responsibility and our burden my friend and I hope you take a more objective approach when tackling social media in your posts.

    With respect,
    Your friend Paul

  37. tom merle - March 11, 2013

    Since Paul has reopened this exchange and underscores the democratization of opinion, with Social Media playing a major role, one because it is social and moves vino into its proper context of communal sharing domain, and, two, because it is so efficient, I wanted to use the occasion to mention the trend setter.

    We are constantly citing CT, Yelp, Trip Advisor, Rotten Tomatoes, Engadget, Amazon reviews, etc. but forget the role that one husband and wife team played to create citizen criticism or to bring critiquing back to the consumer. I refer of course to…Zagat.

    These pioneers showed that a high rating with some incisive snappy copy gradually became more imporant than the local newspaper restaurant reviewer, with a few notable exceptions (I think of Gael Greene who wrote for New York mag or years and managed to maintain her anonymity, whose writing style was such a joy to read, like Pauline Kael for the flicks). Now Yelp has overshadowed Zagat, but the grand daddy still reflects more integrity and still carries a lot of weight in the restaurant world followed by Chowhound–a more SM entity).

  38. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Brown Bag - March 12, 2013

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  39. Tom Wark - March 12, 2013


    How dare you. I mean, HOW DARE you respond to this post with your informed opinion!!!!

    That said, I’ll respond to a few things, again by the numbers:

    2. It’s possible another paradigm could overtake the 100 Point rating system used by most top critics and top publications that the serious wine buyers and industry players have become accustomed to and understand. Of course it is. However, I see no evidence that this is happening at this time. But again, it could happen.

    3. Social Media is a secondary shovel, not the primary shovel. The primary shovel is the Tasting Room, the post office and email. Could social media be used more efficiently and with a greater ROI? Probably. But is it possible that a more profitable brand building effort would suffer? That’s very possible too.

    4. The Millennial generation will arrive eventually. They need more disposable income before they become a legitimate focus on the vast majority of wineries. Today, they are far less important than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. But eventually, the Millennials will drive the industry and I’d bet here and now that they respond to wine and interact with wine at that time in a way that is absolutely similar to the way today’s Baby Boomers interact with with.

    6. Didn’t Gary V. and Joe earn their authority? I think they did. That said, those wine authorities are overwhelmingly located in the wine publications, large dailies and traditional wine newsletters.

    8. No winery can or should use every tool in the wine marketing tool kit. One must pick and choose. Socail Media is cheap. But utilize this tool effectively and to the greatest return on investment it does take time. So you ask yourself, given the time it takes to undertake a social media campaign that has impact, is their another tool that, given the same amount of time and attention, would deliver greater ROI? I think you’ll agree that this assessment must be done, just as it should be done for any marketing too. My suggestion is that Social Media, while a key marketing tool, isn’t always the best choice.

    10. Great info. But here’s the thing. I don’t remember a real, SUBSTANTIAL conversation about wine taking place on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I may have missed it. However, if you do want to engage in a substantial conversation about wine on a regular basis, head to Wine Berserkers, eRobertParker and other Wine Chat boards.


  40. Paul Mabray - March 12, 2013

    Oh, I dare. I dare. LOL.

    Two quick counters:

    #3 – Social media IS email/mail for many. many, many customers (and growing) and should be treated with the same priority.

    #8 – I don’t disagree that they shouldn’t use every marketing tool BUT a winery has an obligation to use the same communication tools as their customers. Your statement is analogous to telling a winery that you don’t need a phone, email, or a mail box because it takes time to check those communication lines. I can’t subscribe to that. When a customer calls, no matter what channel, we need to listen and when/where appropriate, respond.

    10. I think the problem with this statement is the qualifier “substantial.” There are many, many key conversations going on in Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Tumblr, and more. Yes, the Oenophiles tend to really cluster in the forums you mentioned but these same people use Facebook and other forums that are more “friendly” to have meaningful wine conversations. Just looking for only two seconds today I found: http://www.facebook.com/groups/169324946513268/permalink/341501649295596/ which is a conversation happening on both Facebook and a blog (both SM). Here is another: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=588511797844547&set=a.494131203949274.126388.446527092043019&type=1 and that is with only a tiny bit of peeking.

    Phew. I am not trying to say social media is the end all, be all. But I will always posit that SM is now a foundational element of your communication tool set and is no longer a nice to have but a must have like email, the phone, a website, etc, etc, etc.

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  42. tom merle - March 13, 2013

    You don’t recall substantial conversation taking place on Fb and Twitter, Tom, because you have little to recall. By definition these discussions don’t occur like those on the Bulletin Boards which occur among the elite wine enthusiasts, an infitestimally small part of the wine buying public. SM exchanges occur in much more informal ways in thousands of exchanges a day, as Paul’s data show. This friend-to-friend posting and texting or even shared through, yes, voice, can’t really be observed like you could, for example, on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers site or the WS forum. But again these cognescenti/hobbyists don’t really matter when it comes to sales….

  43. Jean @ RelaxAtHome - March 13, 2013

    Wine industry is strongly growing and more people in Australia is becoming more passionate about wines. A proven evidence is the growing number of participants on different wine festivals all throughout Australia.

  44. Sean - March 14, 2013

    Tom, I believe the excellent points and views (yours and other) express the importance of our previous discussions. Great opportunities abound. Kudos on on a great article!!!

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