‘…only to let me smell one and I can tell positively its country, its kind, its flavor and soundness, the changes it will undergo and everything that appertains to a wine.”
… Sancho Panza, in the novel Don Quixote by Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
A Short History
Ever since the Scot, David Hume, an economic philosopher, authored ‘On the Standard of Taste and Other Essays’ in 1757, these two figures, Mr. Hume and Señor Panza, have been credited with being the fathers of modern wine criticism. How much, but perhaps how little has changed. Is past indeed prologue?
In the late 1970’s, just out of college and working for Disney in Florida, I was transferred from the Food & Beverage Department, where I had been the new restaurant project manager at Lake Buena Vista, to take over Lake Buena Vista Wines. The primary marketing outreach for the store was a wine club, supported by a monthly print newsletter. One of my first events was billed as the ‘Napa Valley Boys’, featuring Win Wilson of Cuvaison, and Jack Daniels of Chapellet. Win and Jack quickly became my mentors, and on my first trip to wine country and San Francisco, Win took me to a Vintner’s Club tasting in a room above Draper & Esquin Wine Merchants. The room was packed with well dressed San Francisco business professionals intent on tasting and writing notes on the 12 glasses of wine in front of them. The wines had all been decanted into carafes and covered by lettered brown paper bags; and, the wine glasses were on a sheet atop matching letters. The tasting protocol was explained, and silence during the tasting was expected. The then common Cal Davis 20 point system was used to evaluate each wine. At the conclusion, each wine was discussed before being reveled. Before this day, I had just noted whether I liked the wine, or not; but, from this day forward the question, at least for awhile, was where did the wine stand on a 20 point scale, and what were the descriptors. I started to read the newsletters of Robert Lawrence Balzer, and Robert Finigan, along with a San Diego based wine newspaper started by Bob Morrisey, The Wine Spectator. Also, on the reading list was the Connoisseurs Guide and the San Diego Grapevine. However, the magazines, while informing my choices, all of my purchase decisions were based on my tasting and evaluating the wine, and on my dynamic route to market business model.
During my stay at Disney, I started grad school, majoring in marketing, and decided to use my Disney wine industry contacts to line up internships in Burgundy and across Germany. At Labore Roi in Nuits St Georges, my real tasting education began. Labore Roi, was and is a negotiant, and as such received samples from courtiers, often numbering in the 100’s per day. The winemaker took me under his wing, and I tasted 1000’s of samples of the best and the worst that Burgundy had to offer. It was here in Nuits that I developed my tasting frame of reference for quality. This was only reinforced in Germany, where I worked in the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and the Franken, and once again tasted 50 to 100 wines per day.
Returning to Florida, I went to work for a small wine distributor with the task of putting together a portfolio of some of the then start-up wine companies: Kistler, Far Niente, Spring Mountain, Ch Montelena, Silver Oak, World Shippers (the genisis of Robert Katcher Selections), etc. I don’t remember scores ever being part of the decision. Sampling and tasting drove the process. I had returned to the States just as Robert Parker’s ‘The Wine Advocate’ started to gain circulation and influence based on initiating with his friend Victor Morgenroth a 100 point rating scale. In 1980, Marvin Shanken’s Wine Spectator started reviewing wines utilizing a tasting panel. The ascension of Robert Parker, and the growing influence of The Wine Spectator marked a significant change from the Balzer-Finigan era. The change was completed with Parker’s reviews on the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, and the shift in the Wine Spectator’s review process to reflect a 100 point scale. The die had been cast. Other publications quickly followed, such as The Wine Enthusiast, The Wine News, Wine & Spirits, and now, even The Connoisseurs Guide, all rate wines on a 100 points system. Soon retailers large and small adopted point ratings for their in-house POS. Restaurants, for a period of time noted Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast ratings for wines on their lists. And now here we are. We’re approaching the 30 year mark for the 100 point scale; so, the question is does it still influence wine sales. And, if so, who are the influencers, and what are the implications on winery marketing plans with the evolution of new media in a wine 2.0 world?
The Influence of Wine Ratings
Reviews and ratings do matter; but, perhaps in a different way than in the last 25-30 years. The impact of reviews has evolved, and there is not a one answer fits all situations solution. Samples submitted for review and the subsequent scoring should be part of the smallest, or the largest wineries integrated marketing plans.
As a start-up, small, medium or large wine company, the allocation of resources – human and capital, the sophistication of your channel strategy, your pricing and competitive frame positioning, your promotional, development and marketing budgets, and your work ethic will go a long way towards the building of a successful wine brand, even in this saturated, flat market, with or without reviews. But to ignore submission of samples for review at a time when you should be maximizing your marketing efforts, to rise above the noise, is perhaps folly. Taking a broad view, wine ratings do tend to influence wine sales.
Your wine media samples plan should be in concert with your product production and release plans, and market channel strategy. If you have a DTT or DTC distribution model limiting sales to a few markets, then your samples for review strategy may be different than if you have a three-tier, multi-state model. In the former case you should identify the influencers affecting gatekeepers and consumer behavior. In the latter case, it is important to provide material for POS and sell sheets that provide tools for the individual sales representatives of the distributors selling your brand. Also, note that reviews may be necessary to secure new distribution in club stores such as Sam’s and COSTCO; while distribution in BevMo is driven by in-house ratings, and pricing, selection and distribution play a larger role. If your sales are primarily cellar door at the winery tasting room, a review from one of the major publications (usually at least a 93+) will help sell your wine. If you produce Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, your samples for review plan would likely be different than that of a cult Napa Cabernet producer; i.e. Burghound, IWR, Pinot Report, vs eRobertParker, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast.
A new generation of smart, professional and independent sommeliers are now decision makers at many of the most prestigious single unit and multi-unit restaurants in major urban and resort communities. Their choices create buzz. They are the new trend shapers. While reviews assist in providing information, scores, no matter how grand, tend to carry little weight. This is also true in the independent retail market, where many of current retailers have adopted an effective web interface and/or a significant social media presence to inform their customers. A few well executed examples are J.J. Buckley Fine Wines, Wine Library, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, and Avalon Wine. Inaddition, the proliferation of wine specific search engines has empowered consumers and customers to write reviews for sites such as Snooth.com, winezap.com, CellarTracker.com, HelloVino.com, and wine-searcher.com. Your tech savvy customers should be encouraged in this practice.
While traditional wine centric media still holds sway, there is an erosion in their effect on consumer buying decisions. In my youth it was Balzer and Finigan. Over time they gave way to The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, et al; and, now consumers, merchants, sommeliers and bloggers are gaining traction, as traditional media outlets falter. In the identification of persuaders effecting wine purchase decisions, a discernable shift is occurring. Cruvee is tracking 600 dedicated wine bloggers; 2 million wine tweets (Twitter) a day; 50,000 registered wine site forum members; 100 million friend feed entries; and 100 Wine Social network sites (from cruvee.com’s web site social monitoring page). Change can be sudden, or, as this appears in this instance to be, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Change driven by consumers’ need to be integral to the conversation. Any effective, cogent media sample plan should now include a social media component.
While some segments of the traditional wine media still shape the behavior of the multitudes when it comes to wine purchasing decisions, consumers are now and will continue to be empowered in what is the new brand/consumer conversation paradigm.
Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.