While working the Friday rush hour at my local wine shop this summer, I came to notice the different kinds of buyers and their strategies. There's the browsers, the label shoppers, the knowledgeable folks who want to talk wine and take a recommendation and the folks who buy by the numbers. These wine shoppers limit their choices to the wines that have big scores from the big critics. Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer and The Wine Spectator are probably the most high profile critics in the business and they all use the 100 point scale. Now don't get me wrong, all of these professionals have been reviewing wine for a lot longer than me and they all have impeccable credentials. I follow Parker and Tanzer in particular, the former because he is the most influential and the latter because I love his tasting notes and the fact that he talks to a lot of the winemakers.
The problem I have is that in our numbers oriented society, the 100 point scale can lead consumers to wrong conclusions. These consumers spend their shopping time reading the "shelf talkers" that are put up by the reps for the wholesalers to tout their high scoring products. But there are many different styles of wine. So for example, 88 points for a Beaujolais and 88 points for a California Cabernet are two completely different worlds. A lighter styled and delicate Beaujolais will probably not please someone with a taste for bigger, brawnier Cali Cab, 88 point score or not. It's way more important to actually read the reviewer's comments on the wine than to focus on the number. Foxglove Chardonnay (which I have written up) from California's Central Coast received a 90 point score from Robert Parker for the '09 vintage. The '09 had sold through and the '10 was on the shelf. This one particular customer would not buy the '10 no matter how hard I tried to convince him that there was probably very little difference between the two vintages. California has remarkably consistent weather and thus has very few bad vintages. Factor in a reputable producer like Varner, the winery that makes Foxglove, and you have about a 90% chance of acquiring a very good to excellent wine. No 90 point score? Sorry, no sale. It's really disappointing to me when I see that. And, the '10 ended up getting a 90 from Parker anyway. Here's another example. A reviewer gives 90 point scores to both a $7.99 Spanish wine and an $80 red Burgundy. The consumer may think that the Spanish wine is the equal of that Burgundy. Not a chance. Again, these wines are from two different worlds. The Spanish wine will be fruity and basic while the Burgundy will have more elegance, complexity and staying power in terms of being able to age, all the while picking up more nuance and smoothing out it's components. Those two 90 point scores are not equal. What the reviewer says about the wine is much more important than the number itself.
In addition, having grown up in an educational system where numbers rule, some of these shoppers think that anything under 90 points is not even worth drinking. Will there really be an obvious difference between an 87 point wine and a 90 point wine? Probably not, and if so would one be able to pick out which is which in a blind tasting? I doubt it. It's sad because consumers consistently miss out on some really tasty juice simply because there is no number at all, or no big number attached to it. For me, wine is a living thing that changes and matures, even over the short term and even in the everyday category. And that means that it just can't be quantified, no matter how hard we try. Cheers.