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The patchwork quilt of wine retailers across America and traditional (print) wine media enjoy a rather peculiar relationship. It began to take shape, like the wine boom itself, in the 1990s, when several magazines decided that their primary role was to respond to the burgeoning supply of wines by pouring on the ratings. Many (but not all) retailers grew content to pluck scores (usually without tasting notes) and use as a sales tool.

The 20th-century crescendo of the phenomenon has continued into this century. Ratings-dependence remains common in retail venues as huge as Costco {see post here} and as small as the corner store; as established as Morrell & Co. (whose catalog has a boxed guide to the initials representing multiple rating sources) and as mod as Wine Library (sure, Gary V. is all about passion, but 9 out of 10 email blasts from Wine Library re-trumpet wines already blessed with a 90+ by WS and RP).  

While this media-retail relationship works to a degree—in the sense that many very good wines are “highly rated” and sell well—in the process, a few things have happened:

  • It has encouraged the widespread and wholly unrealistic impression that wine quality can be boiled down to numbers
  • As a result of both grade inflation and a profusion of sources, the 100-point scale in general has lost its edge; these days, it’s 90 or not {no matter whose 90 it is}
  • Certain wines (e.g., rosé, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio), whose inherent characters rarely earn widespread 90+ scores, have become de facto second-class citizens
  • Less expensive wines, which are usually less intense and/or complex than pricier ones, have become numerically inferior as well.

Perhaps most important of all, however, reliance on ratings has led retailers to surrender their own sense of authority. Rather than make their own standards evident in their merchandising, many (not all, but yes, too many) wine merchants let the broad and steady stream of EZ ##s do their (shelf-)talking. In short, they seem to have assumed the role of {pardon my French} bitch to the various points-wielding media. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Costco:

I was alarmed yesterday to learn from a colleague—the estimable Jeff Siegel, aka winecurmudgeon.com—that Costco has drawn a new line in the 100-point-scale sand, and henceforth will not stock any new wine retailing for $15 or under unless the wine has earned a rating of 90 points or higher.

Presuming this to be the case (and Curmudg is a professional journalist; I trust his sourcing), I must ask: Have you lost your palate and your mind? Was the Costco wine director sidelined by a sizzling hors d’oeuvre, or have you just decided to toss in the towel on having any sense of authority as a wine purveyor?

Setting wine-merchandising policy based on critics’ ratings sends quite the message to your customers and the wine industry. It says you don’t have the sense or sensibility to judge wines for yourself as they walk in through the wholesale door. It also says that corporate-Costco doesn’t have much confidence in its floor staff being able to express what they actually think of the wines they sell (note: not good for self-esteem). Read the rest of this entry »

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