Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How We Buy Wine

Like it or not, most American consumers buy wine on the basis of the shelf-talkers--those little cards like the one to the right--that greet us at our favorite wine shop, bargain warehouse, supermarket, or liquor store. Prominently displayed on most shelf-talkers is a point score, along with the name of a wine critic or a prestigious wine publication. Even if there is a knowledgeable and helpful staff person we trust roaming around offering assistance, seeing that number gives most consumers a warm and safe feeling, especially if you don't know the winemaker or the varietal. Seriously, is there any wine drinker who can honestly say they have NEVER looked at a shelf-talker and been influenced by the points noted on it? I know I can't say that. (shelf-talker from Ferrari-Carano)

But there is evidence that the influence of the major magazine's points-ratings and the handful of major critics who write them is beginning to play less of a role in the decisions consumers make, and that winery CEOs are showing less inclination to tailor their winemaking to suit the palates of a handful of critics and reviewers.

Jack Heeger reported in the Napa Valley Register that Scion Advisors, a Napa Valley research firm, conducted a survey of 500 wine business leaders to see if they thought that ratings helped to sell wine. I was surprised when the respondents were almost equally divided on the issue. 32% said the influence of ratings on consumers was the same as it was 5 years ago. 32% said the influence of ratings on consumers was greater than it had been 5 years ago. And 36% said that the influence of ratings was less than it was 5 years ago. Happily, 61% said that they "would not pursue a strategy specifically to increase scores."

As you know, I don't do scores on this blog. Crafty folks who frequent CellarTracker can probably find my scores there, and folks on Snooth will see my scores turned into stars for some of my tasting notes that have been added from CellarTracker to their growing database. Here, though, I've never felt that they were appropriate. I'm neither a professional, nor an expert. I'm just a dedicated amateur. But some in the blogosphere have been trying to get wine bloggers to join together under a common standard of ratings to increase our power with respect to the big critics and the big mags. And they make some good points about the value of a similar evaluation standard across the wine blogosphere.

But the survey results make me wonder if bloggers need to make this step. Te popularity of wine blogs indicates that consumers are finding alternative sources for wine information. Wine enthusiasts are finding wine bloggers, and wine bloggers are already shaping wine buying habits. More importantly, I don't agree with the fine details of the proposed ratings system, where 2 stars is an "average" wine. I drink a lot of "average" wine that I think is a pretty good buy and report on it on this site, but I can't imagine that 2/5 stars would encourage anyone to buy it.

What do you think? Would you find this blog more useful if I added a 5-star rating system to my QPR notation? You know I believe that wine scores of any sort tend to give wine reviews a false sense of objectivity in what is, after all, a completely subjective experience. All things considered, and much as I usually throw my hat in the blogging ring when a new idea comes about, I'm not inclined to make this move. But I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.


Richard Auffrey said...

I also do not see a necessity for the use of a 5 star system (either with or without half-stars). I think such a system can have some of the same problems as the 100 point system. I use a very basic rating on my own site (Drink & Buy; Drink But No Buy; No Drink No Buy) and it works for me.

I think something to consider is the nature of the audience we seek to reach. Are we reviewing for the average person, or are we reviewing for more of a wine fan? Or a combination? Does the audience affect how we should review wines?

The average person is probably not using Snooth or Cellartracker. That seems more the area for the established wine fan. The average person probably is familiar with the 100 point system. Would they really want to learn a 5 star system instead? Or would they rather just read a review, without a score, that tells them whether a wine is a good buy or not?

To me, I would rather have my viewers read my reviews, rather than just look for how many stars I rated it and ignore everything else I wrote. Reading the reviews will hopefully teach them more about the wine.

So Dr. Debs, I think you should keep on doing what you have been and don't adopt the 5 star system.

Anonymous said...

I think you should stick with the QPR ratings. They are the practical, easy to comprehend, and just as much an indication of your overall evaluation of the wine as stars would be (if not more).

It's tough. I will admit that as a consumer I've bought wines based on ratings, and as a retailer I've stocked wines in the store because I know people are looking for them (partly/mostly because of scores).

But our site tries to be 'points-free', and tries not to highlight ratings. We only infrequently publish them -- mostly as an 'I told you so', after a wine we bought before it had been scored by the press garners high Parker points.

Maybe we're losing business because of it, since people will see a wine on our site, then leave the site to research what scores it has received, then go find the wine on wine-searcher and possibly buy from somebody else (or be scared away by an 87). Hard to say.

But...if you really want to change the wine world, you've got to stick to your guns and be consistent, and have keep the integrity of the system you believe in. And this system of QPR works really really well.

And so, what I should have said without the very long preamble: please don't switch to points or stars!

Unknown said...

I think a 1 - 5 star rating comparable to how Morningstar rates mutual funds/stocks would be appropriate. Morningstar ratings are based on risk vs. expected returns. A stock that is expected to have a high return may only garner 2 stars, for example, if it is very risky/speculative as well. While a stock with fairly low returns potential may garner 4 stars if it is very low risk.

This could be equated into a 1 - 5 star rating for wines based on quality vs. value. A $10 wine that is above average quality may be rated higher than a $50 wine that is excellent quality.

This, in my opinion, would let the consumer weigh the two most important factors. Quality vs. price.

Gabriella Opaz said...

Honestly, like tasting notes, ratings are completely subject. We use the 5 star system with 1/2 points and it seems to work for us. Is it helpful to the reader, yeah, I think so if the reader falls in line the general points I allocate as to what is a good wine for me and what isn't. Nothing in life will communicate with perfect clarity exactly how we feel about a wine, but if we can remain consistent with system that works well for us, I think people are smart enough to follow along accordingly. And as Richard so eloquently mentioned, my experience with the wine should be taken with much more weight than the rating itself. Long story short, rate however you want consistently, and beyond all else, continue to share your experiences with a wine so that we can share the moment!

zinFAN said...

hi Dr. Debs,

Great blog! You touch on many vexing issues in the wine world; it's great to stop & ponder over these with a glass of vino after work.

imho, ratings are irrelevant unless you can properly assess the taster's preferences & consistency. So much of food & wine's pleasure are derived from the company you keep, the social setting, the ambiance, the Occassion that it's futile to give a Score.

I read wine blogs to find interesting bottles I can drink & enjoy with food & friends, not to judge them in tasting flights searching for flaws. I'm sure there are afficionados who revel in the hunt for the perfect Cab that tastes like 100 points, and I think that's fine if that's your passion. But that isn't mine.

Rating systems are good for professional tasting magazines or journals that review thousands of bottles every year. They need a way to separate the chaffe from the wheat.

But for your typical wine-loving blogger who only drinks a few bottles a week, it's overkill and maybe traps them into a way of thinking & reporting on wines that damages the sheer spontaneity of their journal.

Moreover, I fear that bloggers may passover sharing bottles that are lower alcohol, more balanced, food-friendlier since they won't garner the 90+ points that many readers crave.

Just a little food for thought. Happy blogging!

Orion Slayer said...

I think that the large number of people who like to drink wine, but aren't deeply into it would use the 100 point system. It makes sense if you don't have deep knowledge about wine to get all the help you can in making a wine selection. It makes more sense to trust a critic from a nationally known magazine that an employee at Safeway (substitute your local grocery store) who may or may not know anything about wine.

For the wine geek, the point scale makes little difference. We have to get to know the preferences of the person rating the wines, try the wines they rate highly, and then see if our palates are more or less in line. It doesn't matter if you rate wines with 100 points or 5; if I don't like what Wine Blogger A likes, I won't like his or her hightly rated wines.

I think the best part of wine blogs is that it exposes me to wines I might not ever have learned about. Plus, it's cool to read other people's impressions about wine and share a common passion.

Keep up the good work, Dr. Debs, and don't change a thing! Thanks for all the great posts, fellow wine lovers!!!

Ken and Theresa Hoggins said...

I think people should trust the system that works for them. Your system is unique and you should not change. My system of consolidating the scores and narrowing the choices to the best concensus wines has led me and my readers to many terrific wines over the years. It is really about educatiing those that want to be educated and helping them find the very good wines that they do not have the time to research. Cheers,

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks for all these great comments, which are worthy of a blog post of their own.

First of all welcome, Chris-Cleveland. You should check out Gabriella Opaz and Ryan Opaz 5-star system over at Catavino, since I think you would really like it. Not as complicated as the one you mention, but it has the graphic clarity you refer to.

I found myself nodding along with Jill and Zinfan, who are worried that points make people overlook some wines, and with Orion and RichardA who point out that the 100-point system may be most popular among people who don't know much about wine yet, or who don't trust their own palate. And I totally agree with Ken, the point of wine blogs is education and helping people learn about what they like.

It left me thinking that in addition to timeliness, one of the great things about the blogosphere is that we DON'T all use the same system. Instead, you can find a 5-star rating from Gabriella, a QPR rating for me, a synthesis of scores from Ken, and then buy the wine from Jill! That's a lot of good, varied information, and it must be one of the things making the blogosphere good for wine lovers.

Anonymous said...

By all means, STAY THE COURSE! Your system is your system, and it works perfectly well for anyone who visits your blog. The QPR ratings give info at a glance and your reviews fill in relevant details. What more can anyone ask for?

I believe that wine mentors - whether they be bloggers, friends/colleagues as suggested in the Jack Heeger article, sommeliers or insightful retailers - are the only way to get wine advice that really works for one's own tastes.

Magazine buying gudes are horrible in terms of actual advice. I would not be surprised if some tipping point occurs in the next several years (maybe a scandal, maybe just a celebrity comment, maybe a winery announcing it will no longer send out samples...) that turns people away from wine ratings. It makes sense, actually. We don't need ratings to find the art, music, literature, food etc. that we like. All we need is to use our heads!

Anonymous said...

"Dance with those that brought you," to use a turn of phrase.

This ratings thing is something I've given a fair amount of thought to and I can really see the benefit of using a unified 5 star system if for no other reason than it unifies the blogosphere as a body.

That said, however, because everybody has some ego involved, it would take more than a couple of posts to get something implemented like this.

My choice: use a hybrid approach so I'm supporting what could become a standard, but doing it my way. Yes, I have ego, too.

I think your QPR is fine, but perhaps a hybrid approach might work for you, too?

Dr. Debs said...

Hi Tish and Jeff. I think I'm going to hold fast and keep doing what I've been doing. I do think that Tish is right that we are moving away from ratings. The blogosphere is helping that process and I think for us to start rating wines in a unified fashion actually would undermine the progress we've made in this direction. But, I look forward to seeing how this develops and how "hybrids" like the one Jeff describes take off, too.

Joe said...

The way I use a blogger's recommendations is simple - read their stuff, buy a wine they recommend, if it works I go back. I don't think the score matters. I publish scores, but I think they are simply for my amusement (I like to taste wines over and again and see if I change my scores). Cheers!

Raghav said...

As long as the 5-star system is explained, what's the risk in breaking the norm? We anchor our decisions too much on the past, especially in the wine industry. i think simplicity is key to acceptance, especially if your segments of your audience are novice drinkers.

Do you agree?