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 »


It was an exciting weekend at the Wine Skewer, as our trendsetting blog learned of a new twist in the escalating war of words over the use of words on wine labels.

Stakes in the semantic skirmish reached a tipping point earlier this month when Decanter magazine  reported that the European Union aims to enforce previously drafted regulations banning the use of a specific set of terms on U.S. wines exported to Europe. The forbidden words? Chateau, classic, clos, cream, crusted/crusting, fine, late bottled, vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage and vintage character.

Apparently one American entrepreneur is planning to confront the challenge head-on. John Doe {pronounced D’oh!}—proprietor of The Winery That Shall Not Be Named {aka No-Name Cellars}, located in the humble Undisclosed Location AVA—told the Skewer: “If they think those words are offensive, they’ve got another thing coming.” Unless European lawmakers abandon this legislation, Doe’s No-Name Cellars will release the following wines, exclusively for distribution outside across the Atlantic:

Deep Pink. Sporting a shade of pink more frequently found in hot pants than in wine, Deep Pink is made by crushing red grapes and using skin contact to achieve its radiant hue, as opposed to mixing red and white wine (a practice recently rejected by the EU and heralded as a victory for authentic winemaking). However, unlike traditional Provence rosés, No-Name Deep Pink is made from Concord grapes and, as a result of his patent-penting “fementus interruptus” vinification technique, is left demonstrably sweet. Doe describes the wine’s taste profile as “ironic” in that while most European rosés are dry, his is “wet.” The wine is to be adorned with a label graphic that might best be described as Georgia-O’Keefe-ish {we would run a label reproduction, but hey, this is a family-friendly blog}. Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday being the monthly non-Hallmark holiday known as Wine Blogging Wednesday, my original plan was to hop a train to the city and cruise the German Riesling tasting while shuffling an iPod and tasting the various vinous delights. Alas, I couldn’t find my son’s iPod to borrow; plus, it would be kinda rude to keep shouting “HOW MUCH RESIDUAL SUGAR IS IN THIS?” over the din of the room and dull throb of hiphop.

Surely I jest. Everyone knows German Rieslings are better than ever and offer a range of sweetness. On the other hand, I think “Halbtrocken” is a term better suited for a James Bond villain than a category of wine. Surely I digress.

Regretfully, I never made the trip to the city (went wine shopping instead). And, worse, I failed to pursue Katie’s original WBW mission over at, which was to gauge the impact that listening to music had on tasting wine. However, I did have a pretty heavy tasting experience last night, so I am giving WBW #58 a whirl anyway.

Let us begin, together, by humming/mumbling or outright singing “She’s come undone… dat-un-dat-un-dato-dato-dato-ay… dat-un-dat-un-dato-dato-dato-ay….” Now, guess who! OK, that is the Guess Who. But what I am really asking is guess who is making Sauvignon Blanc now…. It is none other than Dry Creek Vineyard, the longtime keeper of the Fumé Blanc flame, whose just-released 2008 is labeled simply Sauvignon Blanc, representing a huge shift in thinking from this venerable Sonoma producer. Read the rest of this entry »

Costco? Fuhgeddaboutit. In an update at, Jeff Siegel reported yesterday that while Costco’s apparent practice of requiring any new wine placements <$15 retail to have already scored 90 points was never official, it was verbalized enough in the marketplace to have been communicated by four independent sources. So it may not have been policy, but it’s pretty safe bet it was shmolicy. Costco corporate brass must have had their reasons—heck, one might even argue that they were saving a lot of potential shelf-suitors time/effort. Whatevuh. My overarching argument remains undiminished: scores are prone to abuse once they leave the wine media; and any sales model that hinges on ratings is inherently flawed and a sign of retail ignorance.

It was gratifying to see the depth and range of comments left on the post, stretching from the 100-point scale itself to the way stores buy and how people shop. I was also stupefied to see the vitriolic reaction my “sausage factory” line prompted over at How he took the metaphor as a personal attack I still don’t know. Anyway, I sure didn’t mind the additional traffic to the site, and I was already working on a Sausage Factory sequel of sorts (funnier and more real-world), so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of keeping our bloggin’ eyes on the prize, I’m posting today about the anti-Costco—a brand new retail shop in my general ’hood, Wine Geeks of Armonk {}. Spawned in a renovated vintage gas station, Wine Geeks is a compact one-room joint that could have hardly been imagined 20 years ago. Devoted entirely to artisanal wine, with a special emphasis on organic and bio-dynamic wines, it is essentially a niche within the boutique genre. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Costco:

I was alarmed yesterday to learn from a colleague—the estimable Jeff Siegel, aka—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 »

American Idol’s got nuthin’ on Murphy-Goode Winery. Why do people all over the country go ga-ga over this glorified camp talent show, when over in Sonoma, there is some serious career carrot being dangled? And drama building! Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s start with a reality check: Medals in wine don’t matter much in the 21st century, save for the wineries who win them. It wasn’t always this way. {Insert old geezer voice here…} Back in the 1980s, wine competitions were actual news—press releases were issued (and picked up); stickers from various competitions adorned bottles on retail shelves; gold medals got displayed in tasting rooms, received respect, and medal-winning wines frequently experienced a bump in the marketplace.

Competitions tended to be based regionally (San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, L.A., Dallas, Atlanta, Buffalo are cities that pop to mind), sometimes connected to specific fairs, groups or publications, and the entrants were predominantly American. Indeed, success at these competitions helped raise the quality profile of California wines in particular. And why not? Winning wines—awarded GOLD, SILVER or BRONZE medals—played right into the American mindset of fair, Olympic-style competition. Hundreds upon hundreds of wines were judged blind at these affairs, by panels, with wines assessed in peer groups. The cream rose to the top, right? Read the rest of this entry »

 Er, uh, pretend this picture is in focus…zyrah 002

I believe this  is  was the last bottle of this wine on earth.

For my first Wine Blogging Wednesday, inspired by the way Robert Mondavi had a knack for pushing wine forward–in many ways and directions–I  chose Zyrah 1993; “a blended California Red Table Wine,” says the label. Zyrah was a Robert Mondavi spinoff of a spinoff, made under the Vichon label, which had recently been bought by RMW (and later become the winery for RMW’s La Famiglia line of Italian varietal wines). Read the rest of this entry »

In pondering how best to characterize the online existence of, I kept swinging back and forth between calling it a sham and a scam. Then I decided it is neither. It is just a shame. It is a sad emblem of how far down the much-abused 100-point scale has dragged us all.

I almost don’t want to provide a link to Or give them ay more attention than they deserve, which as far as I am concerned should extend not one minute beyond this post. But there is some value in shedding light on this ratings-fueled fiasco, so hold your nose and here we go. Read the rest of this entry »

They’re starting to sweat out in wine country. Several major sales indeces in April indicated that the U.S. wine market—which had been holding its own while the rest of the economy swirled counterclockwise down the toilet—has flattened out, and now is tapering. Not only are people “trading down,” as in moving from Cakebread to CK Mondavi, they are also drinking less vino.

Hoping to avert a full-fledged crisis, a group of consultants has issued a top-secret report advising the movers and shakers of northern California to take action. Naturally, a copy of said report was leaked to The Wine Skewer. Among the consultant recommendations:

Consolidate. Lose all the sub-appellations; combine Napa and Sonoma counties into one powerful entity to be known henceforth as “SONAPA” (written in all caps, to command more attention). Read the rest of this entry »