Monday, February 27, 2012

Rant: Blame The Wine Distributors

It is a subtle means of mind control, and the blame must go to certain wine distributor representatives.

Some recent wine tastings, run by wine distributor representatives, have brought this issue once again before my eyes. These were small tastings, with only about 3-6 wines, that were held in local wine stores. For consumers, these are great opportunities to taste and learn about wine, to get a better idea of their own palate. I always recommend that consumers taste all of the wines available, as you never know which wines you might find appealing. Expand your palate and take a chance on something different.

When a consumer buys a wine without tasting it first, they must rely on other factors to determine whether they might enjoy the wine or not. They might take the advice of a wine store employee, or like what they see on a shelf talker. They might be relying on the recommendations of friends, or have seen a review of the wine elsewhere.  Whether or not you agree with it, some people also rely on wine scores in helping to make their decision.

But, if you get to taste the wine first, then wine scores should be irrelevant to your decision. It shouldn't matter how many points Robert Parker might have awarded a wine. All that is important is what you think about the wine, whether you enjoy the taste or not. It all revolves around your own palate, your own preferences. The unknown has been removed from the equation so you don't need many of the other factors to help you decide on selecting a wine.

So why do many wine distributor representatives presiding at a tasting feel the need to tell people the scores of the wines they are pouring? It should be irrelevant to the customers' decision to purchase the wines, as the key should be what they think about the taste. Instead, information on scores may be seen more as a form of mind manipulation, and may also cause to intimidate customers. All directed to the goal of selling more wine rather than the promotion of a wine drinking community. That is wrong.

For example, a customer might be told by a wine distributor representative of a wine's high score before he actually tastes the wine. That can manipulate a customer's perception of a wine, making him think that he should like the wine because it received a high score. The customer's personal taste becomes less important than the palate of a professional wine critic. If the person actually dislikes the wine, then he might feel bad about it, intimidated that he actually does not "get wine" because his experience is so different from the wine professionals who scored the wine highly. We should not be intimidating consumers, but rather instead should be making wine more friendly.

So, though the goal of the wine distributors is to sell more wine, their promotion of wine scores might actually cause the opposite reaction. Maybe they sell a few more wines at that tasting, but they might also be turning away future purchases from those consumers they have intimidated. If those same consumers learn to trust their own palates, without concern for wine scores, they are more likely to buy more wine in the future. They will feel more confident in their abilities, and more likely to experiment and expand their palates. But if they feel inadequate because their tastes do not conform to the scores the wine distributor representative stated, then they are less likely to expand their buying.

Wine distributors, if you hold a tasting, then don't discuss wine scores. Let the consumers taste the wines, and rely on their own palate and preferences. Stop manipulating them, making wine more intimidating.


Vim said...

I think one thing is true and that's when we look at points particularly Parker points, the power of suggestion seems to carry the most weight. I can't help but think that a 100pt wine from Parker will already have international tasters heralding the wine without even trying it.

Vim ( Fine Wine Blog)

Mark Goldberger said...

It's a fair argument, except that oftentimes the consumer wine taster is purchasing wine as a gift or for another person such as a spouse or friend, and for those instances, a score or review may be exactly the professional guidance needed.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Vim and Mark for your comments.

Mark, then all the consumer needs to do is ask for the scores. I don't think that is sufficient reason for a distributor to always mention the scores at a tasting. If the scores matter, then a consumer is going to ask about them.

Rebecca said...

I agree, a rating should be irrelevant and I personally do not base any decision making based on rating; to me it's all too subjective and biased dt times. However, in fefrense of the wine reps, Esp those who have small portfolios, the ratings give their portfolio credibity in the consumers mind most especially if they are lesser known brands. Does it make the juice in the bottle better? No, of course not. But if a consumer is gifting, it may be important and it may encourage a consumer to sample a wine they might but have otherwise tried. I personally don't think it should be mentioned at all, unless it's a higher end bottle over the average table wine, but i can understand why they do it.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Rebecca:
Thanks for commenting. I understand why distributors do it, but I think it actually causes more harm than good. I think the distributors should tell people scores only when they are asked for that info.

Beau said...

I would only like to point out that this behavior isn't solely from the distributors..Wineries pull it all the time, especially at large tastings. The sad reliance on numerical scores continues..

With that said, I feel like everyday consumers still do put a lot of stock in wine scores, rightly or wrongly..And while a rep from a winery or distributorship may quote a score, I don't think there are nefarious motives or malicious intent...

Just my $.02

John Kafarski said...

Enjoyable post, Richard. During the daytime, I work for an importer/distributor in New York / New Jersey. We are at best a medium-sized fish compared to the giants out there. We do what we can to avoid relying on scores, as anyone trying to sell solid, authentic wine should do. Many distributors rely on scores because they can't rely on anything else - they are either selling products that are score driven or have salespeople that know next to nothing about wine as they are often receive incentives to sell commodity wines. Same is true with many retail accounts - the big box retailers treat their wines as nothing more than a commodity and if they stick a rating from a reputable critic on the case stack, the wine sells itself. It's my least favorite part of the business, but for many wine consumers - it's the only way they know how to purchase wine.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your comments. I understand placing a score on a shelf talker, and how it can appeal to some consumers. My primary gripe here is though more limited, just to wine tastings. I think wine scores are far less justified under that circumstance, because the consumer is actually tasting the wine, and thus will know if they like it or not.