My stand against scores is well known, right down to the sign in my stores that says, “Scores don’t mean “sh%@!.” While my choice of language is designed to grab attention, my logic is quite sound. Using critical scores to buy wine over the recommendation of a professional is a mistake because the critic has no credibility. Now, before everyone sends me emails accusing me of libel, hear me out.
The greatest reason for listening to your local wine expert, be it a TWM staff member, franchisee or someone in another wine shop, is that we put our reputation at stake. If I, or any of the aforementioned experts, recommend a wine to you, you identify us with the selection. If we pick the right wine, you are happy, come back again and hopefully recommend us to your friends. If we pick wrong, you feel duped that you wasted money, never come back and most likely, tell your friends about the experience. Starvation is a powerful motivator with regard to customer service and credibility.
Now, if you buy a bottle of wine that you don’t like, based on the rating, do you have the same animosity? To be fair, do you even remember who the rating publication was? A recent survey of a warehouse wine section proved to me that the score is in big print, the rater credit is much smaller. Worse yet, the actual description of the wine was not present at all. If you like oak, but the wine doesn’t show that character, what good is a number and how would you know? If you actually talk to your local expert they are there to help match you to the best possible wine to suit your palate.
Consumers who use critics also make assumptions that the rater is qualified to even make assessments about wine. Look at the recent turmoil at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. For thirty years the reviews were the opinion of one man, Robert Parker. Love his reviews or hate them, he was consistent. In 2006 he started to allow the reviews of “qualified” experts in areas where he was either not qualified or not welcome to review. His selection of “experts” was a mix of friends, bloggers and part-time wine reviewers with little or no trade experience. Professional wine tasting and assessment is a skill that takes years to develop. It is not honed over a few bottles after work each week. I stopped subscribing to his publication after I realized that three of the reviewers had less combined years of experience in the business than me. Just because you can write copy doesn’t make you an expert any more than driving a car makes you a mechanic.
Since then he has seen a few of his “experts” come under scrutiny for their ethics with regard to trade groups and the influence they peddle. While now there is a statement of ethics and standards on his website, there is no independent auditor verifying compliance. The same goes for the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine News; how can they sell advertising to the very wineries they review without any sort of financial transparency? At least when you buy a recommendation from a retailer willing to stick their neck out, you know exactly what their motives are; your satisfaction and continued patronage.
So is Parker still significant? I think that in the absence of qualified guidance his reviews are better than nothing. But if you can find a wine person who learns your palate and preferences you are far better off. We all have an agenda but at least the salesman is accountable.