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Wine scores and reviews: those who write them and those who need them

Wine scores: This was one of my very first stories on my wine blog… It was written on February 5, 2006. And, it was a very daring move for the time, because I knew it could enrage a few people.

I wrote it, because I was so frustrated with salespeople who wanted to just take orders and not really hand sell the wine… their job, by the way. So, I wrote the following. Let’s see if it’s still relevant today. And I do have an afterthought at the end…


The frustrations and irony of wine scores…

Frustration 1) “We need a 90 point score, Jo. We can’t sell the wine without it.” [I think to myself, “No, you HAVE to sell the wine without it, and you’d rather be on the golf links.”]

Frustration 2) “Jo, if it’s NOT a score from Parker or Wine Spectator, we can’t sell the wine. Nobody cares about Joe Schmoe from Idaho.” [This declaration always put me over the edge.]

Every time I hear those words, I have to go through this explanation over and over, again: Local U.S. writers are a connection between the wines and their readers. These writers have valuable opinions and are providing a wonderful service to their readers and to the wineries. To compile a list of all these opinions provides insight, and important third party endorsements, that take us beyond only two opinions.

Here’s the really BIG irony.

I’ve always been frustrated with these sales declarations, so I wanted to write a business-2-business story. The point of it would be to show sales people how off the mark they had become, and realign their sales pitch to include all third party endorsements as a very powerful tool, while trying to promote their wine. To do this I would have to prove that if writers were given the same exact wine to taste, the results would be diverse, not seamlessly the same.

So, I convinced six of my trusted wine writer sources to help me with an experiment, explaining what I was trying to do. I was given an awesome Petite Sirah by Robert Biale Vineyards. I then had each writer taste the wine and tell me his or her impressions. I knew there’d be a full range, and was dead on. Each one liked the wine, but the descriptions of what they tasted were very diverse… as diverse as their palates.

Another reason I did this was that I’ve become close to many writers, and was hearing from some of them how hard it is to make a living reviewing wine. In fact, one very prominent writer said that it’s so difficult being an independent writer that he periodically thinks about just giving it all up. I know that if these writers simply go away, we’re not going to have a wide range of opinions anymore, and it’s that wide range that gives a creative sales person the endorsements that make a difference with successful sales.

So, off I went. I had a publisher willing to print the story. I even rewrote it with a different twist, but it still wasn’t in print, yet. So, I created this blog, because I wanted this story out there. Once it was up on the World Wide Web, I let each writer know about my blog and the story.

An amazing thing happened. The writers who have confided in me that it’s tough to make a living got right back to me with applause… And like wine where everybody has an opinion and a palate, one of my sources was very upset with me. Here are the problems this writer was having:

  1. Question: “What are you trying to say here?” I knew what was meant, because I soft pedaled and skirted the issues in my process. I really didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes or hurt anyone’s feelings. (Remember my Frustration 2: “Jo, if it’s NOT a score from Parker or Spectator, we can’t sell the wine… Nobody cares about Joe Schmoe from Idaho.”)
  2. Question: “If writers are having a hard time making a living at being a wine writer, then they should just get outta the business!” Then, this writer went on to name a couple of prominent writers who would be appalled at what I had written. The irony? These two writers were within the group who were part of the story… the very ones who told me that it’s difficult to make a living as an independent writer not on anyone’s payroll. [The ultimate irony]
  3. Exclamation: “The reviews are all over the place!” [My point exactly]
  4. Question: “Who’s your audience?” Initially, I wanted it to be business-2-business, but I still don’t know where this blog is headed; however, I’m not going to shut it down while I continue to ponder that question. I’m willing to give more clarity to my writing, and not soft pedal anymore. Also suggested was that I don’t rant and rave. I know I won’t do that, as I already have that luxury available to me without making a public spectacle of myself in the process. [Well, I have ranted a few times, I’m happy to say.]

Here are the reviews.

  1. 5+ An outstanding Petite Sirah, in full, ripe style. Opaque black purple color. Very full-bodied, concentrated, and powerful in style; a massive wine, which is ripe and lightly oaky in aroma/flavor (blackberry, boysenberry jam, black licorice, toast, roasted nut, nutmeg, and tobacco). Very young; should age well for another ten+ years. 15.5% alcohol. 75 cases. Drink 2008-2014.
  2. Biale Zinfandel from the historic Napa Valley, gravelly Dr. Crane Vineyard is sumptuous and expectations, therefore, run high for the Petite Sirah. It delivered with concentrated dark fruit aromas, complex and layered flavors on an agreeable framework with a long, dark fruit-laden finish, simultaneously depthful yet elegant. Expensive by Petite Sirah standards , but worth it. Rating: Outstanding.
  3. Typically inky, this Petite Sirah exhibits strong flavor profiles which do soften and open with aeration. Heavy on the blackcurrant, blackberry and sweet cherry, the wine’s high alcoholic content is tempered by caramel and chocolate over notes. Will be better in a few years, but drinks well already, especially when paired with strong and spicy foods.
  4. The wine is dark and richly flavored, lots of blueberry and ultra-ripe flavors, thick and rich on the tongue. The alcohol is high, but the flavor’s quite accessible.
  5. 89: Deep in color and generously endowed with ripe, somewhat jammy blackberry and black pepper fruit aromas, this full-bodied, weighty wine impresses in the mouth for its full-bore, densely packed, ripe grape character and for the peppery, spicy, smoky seasonings that extend its range dramatically. Unavoidably hot in the finish (15.5% alcohol), but long and tasty as well and only moderately charged with firming tannins, this Petite Sirah drifts a bit towards the over-sized side while scoring big points for accessibility. Limited availability. Drink now to 2012 with full-flavored foods.
  6. Powerful wine. Big, even for a Petite Sirah. Lots of Blackberry flavor with some briary notes. Pepperiness in the background. Many foods would be overwhelmed by such a wine, but we enjoyed it with T-bone steaks given a spicy dry rub before grilling over charcoal.

Okay, I proved my point. Every wine writer has a different perspective, so to settle in on what only person says, is probably going to restrict the learning process for those not daring…

But what none of us could really envision in 2006, was what effect social media was also going to have regarding wine scores and or points. … In some ways, I saw the future; in other ways, I stepped onto a diving board and many have followed… Someone just had to dare to say it. I think if that one writer who had someone else call me and tell me, “Don’t ever call him again. He doesn’t want to talk to you,” hadn’t happened, I might never have written this story.

While at face value, this person might be judged as being a bit rude; when in fact, it was a great learning curve for me… Go where media people are friendly, and where I don’t tick them off so badly that they can’t even have a tête–à–tête with me, because I’m so objectionable. (Do I have body odor?) I honestly appreciate the lesson, because it drove me toward some really special people that have also become mutual friends, and I nurture those relationships. The importance of all wine critics have now all been a bit diluted… and social media has played an important role in the changing of the guard.

3 Responses to “Wine scores and reviews: those who write them and those who need them”

  1. Jo, this column seems particularly apropos right now following last week’s Wine Blogger’s Conference where this topic tends to come up around the tables and there is a controversy about the “advice” the print wine writers panel gave the bloggers (see Mary Cressler’s blog; I have a post on the topic coming up too). Also this week a new list of wine influencers from Wine Wankers came out that show bloggers trounce many of the established print writers (for example, I am higher than Robert Parker!).

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    That’s what inspired this one, Gwendolyn. I believe there’s a fine line/balance between what has been established and what’s emerging. It’s always the been this way… through all of the ages. Granted, the Internet and social media have sped up the process, but it still takes the same amount of time to bake a loaf of bread. What we’ve just had happen in 2004ish is the oven (social media) being invented.

    Think about lions, for instance, where only one male beast can rule his pride. That goes on until he’s had enough, and a younger male comes in to claim the pride. I don’t believe that Robert Parker is anywhere near done yet, however. The Chinese have put him onto a pedestal that’s not measured by our American ranking systems for who’s on first and what’s on second.

    The world has always be ruled by gold, since it was first discovered by the Romans as a bargaining chip. Whatever country has got it, that’s the ruler of the world. Today, the Chinese are buying up our American gold reserves… And they’ve invested in Robert Parker’s company. As they say, he’s laughing all of the way to the bank right now, because the world is his oyster… and our wine blogging influence is mainly only here in the US.

    They jury is still out. Parker’s not off the top of the heap yet. He’s a powerful influencer. I have a client – who still tells me in this day and age of wine bloggers – that it’s Parker, Spectator, Enthusiast, and Tanzer scores that are going to make the difference with his with wholesalers, as regards who will bring his wines into their states, and place them onto their shelves.

    It’s a very complicated matter, and still has a long evolution ahead of it.

    I encourage all bloggers to keep going… Their day will come. Within the wine business, but the old guard is still on very solid ground, within the industry for which we all work. Remember the city of Evora? The wall around the town, and only so many people can enter through those gates at any given period… and the town can only support so many? That’s been going on since the town was built. The addition of cars has allowed more people to enter than ever before; but still, the town itself can only support so many people with its services at any given time… When the restaurants and hotels are full, they’ve reached their limit… Others must wait until something lightens up. This is how the wholesalers heads are constructed. They can only handle so much at any given time, the rest of the wineries must sell directly, and pray they get noticed by the first line of writers, if they’re still looking for a wholesaler to help move their wines… It’s those writers and publications mentioned about with established creds, that still make those decisions.

    Smaller wine companies have a terrific struggle on their hands right now… Too much wine left over from the days when they DID have national distribution, a staff that’s become bare bones, and looking for someone to jump start their direct sales… While bloggers help with this one, it’s not the world it used to be… Wineries are having to shrink, as the big guys take over, and the big guys give bloggers some credibility, but the balance still goes to the big guys.

    What I’m saying here is that evolution takes time, a shift has happened, and we’re in the middle of a major upheaval (like an earthquake). Rebuilding takes time, but there’s not nearly competed city yet… The strong will survive.

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