Critical Mass

Keeping Score on the Wine Critic

For some a saviour, for others a villain; the alpha critic plays a pivotal role in the wines we drink today. But why and for how long?

Keeping Score on the Wine Critic

When Robert Parker rated the 1982 Bordeaux vintage as stellar, heads turned. Other mainstream critics believed the wines weren’t much to write home about, but the vintage turned out to be one of the greatest of modern winemaking. And Parker? He changed the entire game from the ground up. But now that the august critic has announced his retirement, who (or what) is going to take over his throne?

Inspired by Parker’s glossy The Wine Advocate magazine and his easy-to-decipher 100-point system, vinous publications sprung up like mushrooms in the ’80s and ’90s, giving life to bottles otherwise uncelebrated and obscure. When distributors started selling off stranded stocks of a wine nobody had ever heard of, producers took note that building a relationship with critics was not only favourable but inevitable for success. Consumers were purchasing both the publications and the wines (“give me everything you’ve got above 90 points”), making it a win-win for both critics and vintners.

When once a wine rated 95 points might have stood out, today there are no guarantees. The exponential increase in score hounds is evenly matched by consumers’ ever shallower attention spans. There are those who contend Parker’s scale is now overused, misleading and perhaps worthless; paradoxically, now, more than ever, 100-point scores and medals are seemingly jumping out of cereal boxes, while a new wave of wine experts have plastered themselves all over social media feeds and direct mailers. This just speaks volumes for the noise consumers are wading into.

“The danger that consumers would be overwhelmed by award designations or critic scores, I believe, is present,” says wine writer Panos Kakaviatos.

“However, numerous trade representatives argue that having a high score or a medal designation on your label gives consumers more confidence in deciding between two bottles that cost the same amount of money.” 

A lot of wine drinkers are indeed eager for a simple benchmark, even if it’s presented by the most minor of wine competitions. The reason is simple: Unless you work in the trade and vast tastings are your daily grind, there is little opportunity for the average consumer to build up their own taste repository. The majority will need to rely on a fairly reasonable indicator to make a purchase decision, especially in the case of up-and-coming premium wine labels.

It is the producers who have the biggest love-hate relationship with scores and medals. Some profess not to care, but there’s no denying that the romantic insignia has its draw. It has long driven and still drives consumer behaviour, principally in markets overflooded with large retailers, supermarket chains and online shops, providing them with solid security in the process. 

Wine competitions also carry weight in winemaking countries where the industry has yet to reach maturity in terms of viticultural practices, winemaking proficiency or business decisions and planning. Many less experienced winemakers desperately need to see where they (and their wines) stand compared to the rest of the world, and competitions can do this for them. Medals can be an important feedback in this process.

“A competition is only as good as its judges,” says Caro Maurer, a Decanter World Wine Awards judge. 

“An obscure competition taking everyone who is willing to taste the wines is worth nothing. Awareness of this is crucial, but as long as producers are willing to put any gold on their bottles, there is no chance to raise this awareness. Consumers will continue to be misled.”

Where a human touch exists, for example, in a boutique wine shop, it is much easier to educate the consumer without turning to mere stickers. Here, sales staff are instrumental in influencing customer opinion by offering tastings and wine knowledge — such as information on the winemaker, region and food pairings a wine would excel in — through face-to-face interaction. Sales are made on how a wine is perceived, rather than how it’s judged or rated. This is arguably the best way for consumers to form their own opinions and, ultimately, palate, which will serve them well through the seas of appellations, styles and vintages. 

The circumstances in a supermarket are entirely different. Faced with bleak, impersonal aisles of wine, one is clueless as to what to buy. A score, or even better, a medal, performs well because it’s lingua franca. It is exposed to anyone’s (dis)approval. 

But without providing context, the act of reducing the arduous labour of a winemaker into a mere number or sticker means nothing and is justly contemptuous.

So where is the middle ground in all this? Let’s break it down: A critic wants integrity and independence, a winemaker wants fairness, and the consumer wants to be told a good story without having to burn a hole in his pocket. Maturity and improvement, on all counts, are therefore essential. Today, more and more wineries are carefully calculating the impact and cost of each and every wine competition, while also turning to other promotional tools — mobile apps, social media and the rapid expansion of the sommelier culture. 

“More and more, consumers are becoming aware of wines through waves of opinion on social media, rather than a single review or show result,” says Australian Neil Prentice, Moondarra Wines’ winemaker. “I think CellarTracker and Vivino are apps for an older generation of consumers that are tech aware, but who are shouting in an echo chamber. I believe wine is becoming much more of an everyday experience and that consumers are influenced more strongly by Instagram and Facebook. Clever use of social media is key.”

“Apps can compete with official critics for low to lower mid-range wines, but not so much against mid to upper level priced wines, especially prestige wines that cost over US$75 ($103) a bottle,” adds Kakaviatos. 

“Expensive wines rely on established critics — Vinous, Jancis Robinson, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate — more than Vivino, to be sold.” 

It is undeniable that we are living in a democratic world of wine critique and anybody with access to a keyboard can voice his opinion. Be it influencer or educator, the industry should not be put off by this; it should embrace it. Of course, as with established critics, there should be filters or protocol on how to determine who is truly knowledgeable and who is just there to talk the talk.

Will the smartphone win over the traditional critic’s audience? At the rapid pace the wine world is progressing in step with technology, a considerable shift is imminent. Winemakers are bound to look for fresher ways of engagement beyond frenetic tasting tables and magic digits, while consumers seem willing to guide and be guided in their vinous affairs. That said, nothing will ever prove as equivalent to assessing their own tastes as the constant learning experience of trial and error. Now that is the beauty of this beverage.

This article first appeared in the July issue of A.

Related Stories