When I first got into wine, back in the 1990s, I discovered a book in a friend’s toilet that was to prove inspirational.
It was Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, the book version of his increasingly successful wine review newsletter, The Wine Advocate.
The thing about this book that grabbed me was its utility. It was written for me, the consumer, and all the other people like me who wanted unbiased commentary on all the wines out there.
Parker’s big strength was that he was clear who he was writing for: the consumer. It came across clearly in his reviews. He described himself as a consumer champion.
There was a large spread of scores. It was clear which wines he liked, and whether or not your palate correlated with his, you knew what he thought. He put his neck on the block. When he liked a wine, he was effusive; when he disliked one he made it very clear.
[In retrospect, he had a lot of strengths, but when he strayed from his familiar territory he was sometimes weak. I remember his notes on Portuguese wines (he hadn’t tried many), and from my small knowledge base on this country they looked well off the mark. But this is an aside.]
The current critic territory looks quite different. There has been a subtle shift in emphasis. I don’t think the leading critics always read like they are on the side of the consumer. It seems like they have their eyes on the producer as well as the consumer. They give the impression that they are part of the wine trade.
Part of this is because now a lot of wine critics make a good portion of their income from the wine trade. There are critic-organization-sponsored events, where producers pay to show their wines to consumers. There are stickers to be sold.
Now the wine world is deemed too big for single critics to cover, wine criticism for each publication is invariably done by teams, and many of the critics become advocates for the regions that they cover. We have this strange hybrid creation: half critic, half promotional advocate/specialist for a particular wine region.
And then there’s the self-marketing. If you are dishing out high scores you are more likely to get quoted by producers, thus boosting your brand equity. And 100 point scores are now often used by critics a marketing tool: a few well targeted top scores creates a buzz and helps sell the report or magazine. Perfection is tactical!
All this has incentivised higher scoring, and this inflatory boost has seen the scores for fine wines rise to the point where the 100 point scale no longer has much discriminatory power at the high end. Compare the Wine Buyers’ Guide from the 1990s with the current tightly banded points, and there is no doubt that the spread of scores is much lower than it used to be, rendering the scale less useful for consumers, but more useful for those trying to sell wine or market their region – pretty much everyone who shows up is a winner.
The wine producers are delighted, at least at first. The high score they were awarded is a validation for their work. That is, until they realise that all their neighbours have also been amply rewarded too. As I’ve said before: it’s like going to the school disco age 15 and being thrilled that the girl you’ve had a crush on for ages has given you a kiss, only for your euphoria to be shattered when the next day you rock up to school and find out she also kissed five of your friends the same evening.
The root of the problem is that while many critics think they are still on the side of the consumer, the fact that they are targeting the trade for cash and are making money from wine producers and regional marketing associations means that their attention is diverted.
Something has to change.
We really need new consumer champions offering good buying advice, whose business model doesn’t involve tapping the wineries they are reviewing for cash. It’s all become a bit stale. Are there any fresh voices out there? Is wine criticism needed? Is it dead?
Something has to change.
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