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).
It comes as no surprise that Costco chooses as crutches the usual 90-point suspects: Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Does it concern you that not one of these “critical” media offers transparency as to its methods? They are all sausage factories, taking wine in one end and spitting numbers out the other. As if their methods or results of WA, WS and WE were even comparable! The false precision of scores belies the fact that some wines are judged blind, some not blind; some are rated on a trip here or a trade tasting there, others in the clinical glare of the office at the end of a hard day; some are even rated via tasting sessions with winemakers or winery reps pouring. About the only things the three media sources have in common are: A) a commitment to rating wines in the absence of food; and B) a belief that there are too many wines to be handled by panels (not that Costco cares a wink about letting customers know that the numbers are generated by “beat” critics, not magazine panels). And true to your sell-by-numbers mentality, it appears on the Costco website that only the highest rating for any given wine deserves to be shown. Why am I not surprised?
Rather than continuing to spank you for a clutzy corporate gaffe, let me instead send some praise Costco competitors. First we have Whole Foods, which has the vinous moxie to pick and tout a roundup of “Top Ten Summer Wines” (starting at uner $9 and including two of my personal faves: Bonterra Rosé and Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc). Nice job, Whole Foods. What are your top ten summer wines, Costco? Or should we just ask straight away for your top ten scoring wines are?
And let us actually praise the big daddy of online wine, none other than wine.com. Why? Aren’t these the guys who tattled on other retailers who were shipping wine outside of prevailing state laws? Well, yes. But they also happen to be trying to make some very progressive changes in the way they use ratings to market wines to customers. Specifically, at some point this summer, wine.com will be adjusting their ratings page to make clear that scores are given by individual critics; in other words, they are planning to account for the fact that not all wines rated by the Wine Advocate are judged by Robert Parker, and therefore should not all say “RP,” and that wines rated by “WS” are also the output of single critics, not panels, and so on.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I think of it as a significant if subtle vote for transparency, a step toward improving customer awareness. And after they clarify the critics behind the scores, maybe wine.com will adjust their policy of showing only the highest ratings. And maybe after that they’ll list the alcohol-by-volume so we can all see how many of the 90-point reds are actually high-octane reds….
Ah, I am getting ahead of myself. The point for now is this: Costco, your 90-point cutoff policy for new placements is an insult to your customers, to the industry, and to wine itself, whose character has never successfully been quantified by any data other than price. Have a little more pride in what you do, thank you please!