What usually happens when someone tells you something you really don’t want to hear? Is it a good outcome? Uh, yeah…no, not really.
But, I’m going to do it anyway – in the hope that maybe just one person might pick up (and adopt?) just one thing. So that’s where my bar is – one person, picking up one thing – and maybe actually adopting it.
If this seems extreme, or hyperbolic (or both), it’s simply how I feel, that the odds of me changing the way people look at something they ‘believe in’, are low. But I’ll try anyway. Apologies if this comes off as condescending, it’s not meant to be; shocking, jolting, an abrupt slap in the face, yes, that’s intended.
It’s been some weeks since I wrote an opinion piece, I had to scratch this itch. Had to.
Bars need to be low when we talk about (changing) personal belief systems. High bars, in my experience are non-starters…people believe what (they want to) believe; it’s just how it is, and people take it pretty damn seriously. And for the few people that can (i.e. are open to) change a belief system, they all have one thing in common, it took time to bring about change – also, they had to get there on their own (though with some help/inputs along the way), so I guess they had two things in common.
This post (in one form or another) has been floating around in my head for years. It took a box of crackers to get me to finally sit down and write it.
Marketing, it has all the empty calories of a potato chip. Actually, that’s an unnecessary slam against potato chips (they’re bad for you, but marketing is much, much worse). And yet, most people enjoy potato chips, and crackers, and other things that we know (even if deep down, in that place where we choose to consciously ignore that knowledge) are bad for us.
And yet, because marketing is everywhere, at all times (basically), it’s a part of our lives, and as natural as getting up and getting dressed, as ubiquitous as opinions. And, sadly, marketing knows we’re comfortable with it – how else do images of smoking camels and (the list is long, VERY, VERY long) become a part of the fabric of our lives?
So what does any of this have to do with wine, or, more specifically, fine wine? There are a lot of things, and I’ll start at the top, and go down.
Points (wine scores) are the same as sugar (worse, actually), and they’re bad for you.
Take a moment to study photo just above. Now, go look at the photo above that. Any inconsistencies? (rhetorical, forgive me)
The International conglomerate (read: MASTER of marketing) that owns Nabisco tells us, on the front of the box (in the largest font size) that what’s inside is 100% Whole Grain. That’s good, right, I mean 100% whole grain is tantamount to air – it’s just good for you, right?
The front of the box is the flowery prose of the wine review, the body of the note, if you will. You’re being told what you want to hear.
Look again at the side of the box, see the ‘includes 4g Added Sugars’? (wait, why do crackers – 100% whole grain crackers no less – need “added sugars”? They don’t. But, they taste better, and you’re more likely to repurchase. The “added sugars” are the (wine) points/scores – completely unnecessary for one stakeholder, and absolutely necessary for the other stakeholder. Want to guess in which stakeholder group the modern, point-tossing, pay-for-a-subscription wine critic belongs?
But like sugar, or marketing, oh hell, both, we’re used to them now. Yes, we’re used to things that are bad for us. We’re used to inconsistencies, half-truths, smoke and mirrors, etc., because they’re convenient – we hear what we want to hear. And who doesn’t want to drink a 96pt, or 98pt wine? Especially one for under $25 (or $100, or $500, it’s all relative to your comfort level). And points are convenient. Wal-Mart, that place where you can get pretty much everything you want, is convenient. Amazon is convenient. Blue Apron, Uber, etc., are convenient. We live in age of convenience, and the points guys/gals know it, have for decades, at least.
But here’s the thing. No one’s really consistent with the points, I mean look at wine (A), for example, one critic says 96 points!, and another critic (for the same wine), says 90 points (no exclamation mark anymore — years ago maybe, no longer), and then there’s a few others in between.
So if they’re inconsistent, who are we to believe? None of them, not if they use points. They’re trying to sell you something, they’re trying to build their brand, and the person that uses the highest scores gets published the most frequently. It’s a simple equation.
You might think to yourself (read: rationalize), “well, self, I know critic X’s palate, and so I just add/delete points so that it aligns with my own”, “I trust them”. So you’re saying you trust their inconsistencies, that you’re comfortable with it?
Points/scores, are numbers plucked from the air, again, based on one person’s satisfaction with a wine. A score, from the point of view of ‘professional reviewers’ is not about technical merits, or value, it’s about marketing, and nothing else.
But we’re used to points, they’re not threatening, and they sure make things convenient. Forget though that there’s absolutely no accountability on the part of the scorer – they get to pull a number out of the air, hold it out as fact, market/distribute it, though if the next 10,000 people that taste it rate it an average of 5 points less, oh well, you have no recourse, you have no place to vent and/or call out the scorer/reviewer/professional – it’s just not how it’s done. In fact, if you’re like most, you’ll chose another wine, based on its score, from the same reviewer with whom you’ve never/seldom agreed with (they-breathless enthusiasm, you– it was pretty nice, loved the price/quality ratio).
Um, price/quality ratio? Based on the points vs. cost, or the quality of the wine vs cost? This is where things get blurry, our inability to differentiate between what we’ve paid, and the score that’s been exclaimed, or just as caustic, the label. Unless you’ve been served this wine blind, you’re drinking something you know, (or knew, at the time of purchase) that it had good points/score/label behind it, and it will affect your own commentary on the wine after you’ve enjoyed it – one way or another, it will affect your commentary.
But you don’t have a commentary, because you really don’t care; buying the highest scoring wine for the lowest price possible matters a hell of a lot more than actually sitting down and analyzing things – looking at the fact that someone else tells you what to drink, even if you think you tell yourself what to drink. You don’t, not if you’re like most wine consumers, anyway. Points are a drug that, like many, creates a comfortable numbness, they take away the need for learning, knowledge-based decision-making; no need to have any more skin in the game beyond paying for the bottle at checkout. This applies to the supermarket-wine shoppers, and those that see themselves as advanced/collectors, as well.
If you see yourself as having skin in the game (beyond paying for a bottle), and you have knowledge of the producer based on actually tasting his/her wines, then good for you, you’re part of a very small group of people (read: geeks) that see wine as a living thing, and no living thing (i.e. something constantly evolving) can be fitted with a static score, least of all one that’s based on (cough, sputter, bullshit) barrel tasting.
Professional reviewers would take issue with that last sentence, and then they’d go on to list why you need to trust/value their scores.
If you’ve read this far, you deserve a treat, a money and time saving treat: interested in a wine/producer you’ve known for years, but are waiting for the ‘score’ before you pull the trigger? Don’t, just buy it, but cancel your subscription to the producer of scores first – the wine is likely to be within +/- 2 points of last years score, anyway, and understanding (i.e. tasting) vintage variations is essential. We live in a 13 point world now, so +/- 2 points covers a lot of ground, but ultimately doesn’t really mean anything. At all. Sigh.
Ok, time for a breather, time to let some of this soak in, maybe re-read some of my thoughts/opinion (or add a comment that I’m deranged, etc.). It’s a lot to digest, more if you think points are groovy, and are the main focus/belief/strategy behind purchasing wine for your own consumption. (and please don’t say they’re an aid to buying, they’re not, they’re a crutch, the opposite of an aid, and they’re holding you back, and life is short). I think my first 8-10 years I believed in points, then I saw the center moving, and it all just became very clear; points are bad, they’re made up.
Something that’s pulled out of thin air (as ‘professional’ scores are) is not an aid, it’s marketing fluff, and it’s one person’s opinion, and they’re not any more qualified to tell you what you’ll like than you are, and they’re probably not very qualified to be talking about wine to begin with, or (even? especially!?) writing about it – great writing is like great wines, rare as hell. Which is another way of saying I’m not in the group of great writers, I’ll have to settle for good, at best). Here’s an example of some great writing. Even the comments are out of my league. Sigh.
Like I said, trying to change people’s belief systems is next to impossible, even if you point out things like facts. Maybe that’s the worst thing to do, introduce facts. Facts and opinions are sworn enemies, right?
Here’s a fact, your favorite wine critic doesn’t have any super powers – no extra sense of smell, and/or taste, just some points, and reams of breathlessly enthusiastic prose to support(?) the points. Sure, they’ve got more experience (tasting wines) than the average person, but they also have a serious conflict(s) of interest if they’re to be taken as “independent, authoritative” sources; and, by holding out their opinion as fact, they are, in a way, telling winemakers what (e.g. style) to produce.
So, we have an inconsistent person, telling us what it is they like to drink, i.e. what makes them score it so highly (or poorly, swings both ways), that may well have been selling cars the week before they were hired to issue points, erm, write wine notes, but is held out to be a “professional”. OK, got it.
Original. That’s good, right? Levi’s Originals, don’t they get a premium price for that, because they’re the real deal? Original means nothing, or in the case of the crackers, it means that it’s not the sun-dried tomato flavor, not the Original as in the original recipe for these crackers which doubtfully did not include 4g of Added Sugars. So Original has a context, an ambiguity. Marketers love ambiguity, almost as much as they love non-accountability.
And so, on the final side of the box, it’s pretty much all summed up for us:
- New Look! (value to you? none, but it has an exclamation point, and that’s the first sign you’re being marketed to – well, beyond scores/points, that is).
- 21g of whole grains per serving, with yet another message of 100% whole grains listed immediately (and in even bigger font) below it. Whole Grains are good, right? That’s what the modern marketing machines/pundits say (but what they also say that added sugars, or sugars in general are very, very, very bad for you, and that any amount of whole grains could never, EVER, make up for the added sugars, not in the context of actually eating healthy, anyway.
- You really should read through this thread if you can manage more than a page, and you still believe in critics that use points, you should really stop reading here, now.
- No Artificial flavors or Colors – in bold blue font, on a white background, with little rays of sunshine circling it, drawing your attention. Borrowing from the above-linked thread, and with some of my own, here’s the same treatment, i.e. listing things you (or someone) wants to hear (and once they hear it, their purchase decision has pretty much been decided): gobs, tons, boasts, sports, rock star, best ever, prodigious, lip-smacking, unctuous, massively endowed, and hedonistic, yet impeccably balanced, etc., etc. Sigh.
- Original – (see above)
These (above-bolded) nuggets we’re given, to help make our purchasing decisions easier, more confident/safe, are bullshit. You’re being told what you want to hear in the format you’re most comfortable with – brief, hollow, convenient, safe. The average tasting note from a Pro is no different – you like blueberries, and mocha/chocolate, and vanilla, great, this wine’s got ’em, and the points prove it!!
If you come across this, or anything even vaguely similar, realize you’re being marketed to: “piquant peach kernel“, or worse (from one of the mainstream’s most recognized writers, erm, scorers ” super-finessed Chardonnay built on total finesse” Really? That’s the bar?
Look, I know I don’t have the answers (the answer is that points/scores have already been accepted as fact), but I do have some observations. Observations from the point of view of a consumer, first, and perhaps a critic, second. Wine, like a lot of things boils down to four different ‘groups’. You can put these groups in a pyramid if you like (visuals, they’re easy to digest, agree/disagree with, etc.), and I’ve done it (though without the visual aid), in a sense by ordering/ranking wines based on my experience with a wine, not on the label, or price, or both, or worse, my paid-subscribers.
My four categories: (1)forgettable, (2)good, (3)very good, (4)epic. These four categories are why I’ll never be a mainstream critic, (e.g. published/printed on shelf-talkers, magazines, etc.); because I simplify things my way, and not the mainstream/accepted way. But my way doesn’t raise prices, even if it does sell wine. If you use/believe in points, you’re ok with higher pricing. Yes, you are.
I’m guessing 90+% of all wines produced fall into the first two categories, even if the modern points system would suggest otherwise (i.e. it’s way less than 90%, the world is (now) full of 92!,93!,94!,95!,96! point gems). It’s not a slam, and I’m not a hater. Further, the first category (forgettable) is likely in the neighborhood of 75% of the world’s wines. That’s not saying they’re bad, or incorrect/flaws/etc., just saying they’re a simple beverage, born without a soul, if you will. They are a distinction without a difference.
NR – for one reason or another, there’s no reason to recommend the wine (it’s simple, completely forgettable, pretty much a waste of time/money if you’re serious about your wines, or maybe the wine’s just too young (or old) and doesn’t have enough to say., could be many reasons. To add some (more? as if…) snobish-ness, this rating, NR, probably applies to 85% of all wines sold in grocery stores, anywhere (NR=No Recommendation)
R – this is a wine that I’d confidently, and gladly, recommend to a friend; it’s something I’d l’d buy for my own cellar if the timing were right, but wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to procure. Most people would likely find that the price paid compared to the quality experienced are fair; it was worth their time, and money. (R=Recommended)
HR – ok, this (wine) is exciting, it’s clearly able to stand apart from its peers (i.e. region/price/style, etc), and do so in a way that it calls out to be enjoyed again – maybe even again, and again, and again. Not too many wines in this space, but with each passing year (progress in vineyards/cellars), there seem to be more and more, and that’s a very good thing. (HR=Highly Recommended)
VHR – this is a wine that makes you take note of the time and place, it forces you live in the moment, to observe, to listen, to having nothing at all to say, because to talk would mean you’re not listening, and you have to listen, the story an emotional one. (VHR=Very Highly Recommended)
but even this four-category system leaves room for ambiguity, so I’ve taken to using the plus sign (+) to denote that a wine within a category really stands out for exceptional value compared to its peers (i.e. not all $20 (Chianti, Rioja, Chilean, etc.) wines are equal. A minus sign (-) says the opposite.
So there you have it, four ways to talk about/think about wine rating that could have little/no effect on the price you’ll pay. These ways may cause you to become more familiar with a producer before you buy it, or you may become more familiar after – but it’ll be your opinion, no some anonymous person (carnival barker comes to mind) whose job it is to get you to “step right up, ladies and gentlemen“. But there’s no sugar, and we (Americans, at least) love, love, love sugar. Even if it’s very, very bad for us.
(header photo: in between appointments/visits in (San Marzano, Manduria, etc.) Puglia, I took some time to catch up one notes/work, this was my view from the empty parking lot I’d chosen)
In my next post, I think I’ll talk about Key Success Factors (KSF) for fine wine enjoyment. Less brow-beating, or at least a more palatable sermon, I hope. After that, I’ll be getting in depth on the dozens of visits/one-on-one with winemakers/winegrowers from my three month trip to Italy’s wine regions earlier this year.