This week is the annual Wine Writers Symposium held at the Meadowood Restort in Napa Valley. Once again, I failed to be invited or even attend. Instead I’ve attended the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium and the Unified, but really I should be at this event. Anyhow, I am using twitter to kind of keep tabs on the event and the discussions. And there are quite a few bloggers sending out missives on what the hot topics are. One such topic that I felt the need to weigh in on was the future of the wine critic and that wine review notes should be written in a manner that allows them to be shelf talkers.
Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle made mention of the shelf talker concept. He tweeted something about wine writers becoming comfortable with their wine reviews and notes becoming shelf talkers. I blanched and responded that plays right into the marketers hands. Jon is correct and he was not condoning this but rather just advising budding wine critics and writers at the symposium. My ‘blanching’ response tweet got a bunch of responses and a bit of a ‘debate’ started between Howard Goldberg and W Blake Gray along with some input from W. R. Tish, Jon Bonne and André Darlington. All this back and forth was based on the power achieved by The Wine Advocate and Robert Parker via the trade. I have said for many years that the power that Robert Parker gained in the wine industry was created by those in the trade (and laziness). A wine distributor introduces a new wine to its sales staff and touts the RP score of 90+ points, not the words written about the wine, the score. The sales people then repeat this to the retail tier and they in turn use that as a selling point (aka the crutch).
I do not blame Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, The Wine Spectator or any other critics or wine publications that review wines and rate them for the shelf talker, I blame a lazy wine trade. Why does our industry (consumers, producers, writers…) allow a beautiful nuanced culture to be co-opted by a big lazy business. Wine is full of great stories. Places that the grapes grow are beautiful and interesting, the way the wine is produced can be interesting and certainly the lunatics that own wineries or are making wine are fascinating. Watch Mondovino for some examples and see Randall Grahm for a specific example. Why is wine being distilled down to a couple of sentences and a number? Because that is easier to slam down a buyers throat. That’s why. As a wine educator I have seen the knowledge that our industries sales teams have and it is shameful. Granted there are many well-educated wine people working at restaurants and small distributors and retailers, but the volume of wine is sold through places where there is vague wine knowledge on the part of the sales people. Southern Wines wants outsiders to believe their sales teams are knowledgeable but the more knowledgeable those people are the less likely they are to sell the big brands that make Southern the biggest wine distributor in the country. Wine knowledge doesn’t sell brands it sells wine as a culture, ain’t much culture in Yellowtail, plenty of volume though & profit.
Unfortunately I believe this cycle will continue regardless of Parker selling the Advocate or Galloni leaving and starting his own wine review platform. The reason the cycle will continue is due to the volume of wine that needs to be sold at places like Costco and other big box places that don’t have the time or interest in some cool little Côte du Rhône with a 1000 case production.
My dream though is that social media for wine becomes so strong, that we can pull off a boycott that rattles the industry. A boycott of all wines with a shelf talker nationwide might make retail wine places consider actually working to tell the story of a wine they want to sell to the consumer. Might make wine retailers want to work to get repeat business based on the culture and nuance of wine not the rating and discount.
Dream on silly man! Dream on.