I have been quiet for a little longer then I would have liked on the whole issue of wine ratings and what they mean to the average wine consumer. Recently the wine blog interwebs has been aflutter about the 100 point rating system and the purported badge alternative.
The OLD Problem:
It is no secret that I am not the big fan of the whole Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Stephen Tanzer, et all rating dominance, and the fact that they are helping to homogenize the wines of the world as winemakers and marketers look to have their wines conform to a few powerful influencer’s palates. These scores are by their very nature subjective and as such can never represent the likes and dislikes of the greater wine drinking public. Don’t get me wrong, I do not vehemently dislike the 100 point scale just because it is the 100 point scale, I do however vehemently dislike what it has done in the hands of a few powerful wine reviewer oligarchs, and how it has influenced the wines of the world,the wines that I enjoy! I would argue in a bad way! These reviewers and their scores are the enemy of subtlety, terroir, typicity, and character.
The NEW Solution????:
Recently Vintank, a company that consults in all things new-technology for the wine industry, and a few well respected wine bloggers, with names like; Steve Paulo (@stevepaulo), Ward Kadel (@drxeno), and Mark deVere (@markdevere) and Joe Roberts (@1winedude), came together and launched the new creative concept of wine badges in an effort to sound the death knell for the 100 point rating system. Here is the concept as explained by Paul Mabray at Vintank :
“It seems like a small thing, create a category for a wine that you believe in and assign a badge to it, explain the criteria openly and transparently, and only give those wines that you appreciate fit that category a badge. Simple, elegant, but more importantly a TRUE representation of the quality you admire in the categories you create. A wine fits or it doesn’t. A wine earns an accolade or it doesn’t. There is gradient of interpretation from an 88 to a 89 to a 90 score. It wins accolade or it doesn’t based upon the category criteria. If a wine doesn’t win a badge, that doesn’t mean its is bad, just that it didn’t fit that criteria. These badges are a new crucial part of the wine rating eco-sphere and in the spirit of of the “Creative Commons” ethos, any retailer, wholesaler, winery, portal, et al can use the badges as long as they link back to the wine/badge description. What a great tool to help exemplify a wines characteristics, create interesting content for wine retailers and wineries about the products they sell, and create a new language in helping make educated and fun choices on wine buying for consumers.”
The NEW Problem with the NEW Solution:
Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? I admire them for thinking outside the box, these are super smart chaps that know their wines. But to be quite honest with you I am not too convinced that this is the answer to the 100 point problem. It aims to make the wine world black or white, by declaring a wine badge worthy or not badge worthy. Wine my dear friends are complicated (well at least a great deal are) and require a rating system that acknowledge it inherent subtleties, and while the 100 point system is not perfect it allows for the ratings of those subtleties and when taken in combination with the tasting notes. Don’t get me wrong the 100 point scoring system has it’s problems, chief among them is that in actuality it is the 50 point system (since all wine automatically gets 50 points), and that the most useful part, the tasting notes that accompanies the score, are all to often amputated from the scores in favor of the number. Sure one could search and find the description of the wine that the score was based on, but how many of us really do that? The other flaw in the 100 point scale is that these are scores handed out by a few powerful subjective reviewers and do not speak to our collective tastes. So how do badges make wine reviewing more approachable, democratic, or gives the consumer an idea of what to expect? Josh at drinknectar.com
wrote this “…people who know like and trust the author and have aligned themselves with their likes/dislikes. Implementing badges for your taste tribe seems to be a strong alternative to numerical scores. The badge conveys a wine category along with a recommendation from the reviewer.” Ok good point but how is this “solutions” any more or less subjective then other reviewing systems? Think about this for a minute how much more powerful would it be for all involved with the “taste tribe” if they where able to aggregate their scores and then base their decisions, on what wine to try or not, on their peers scores and notes?! Think of the Sommelier Journal solution applied on a broader scale. What is the Sommelier Journal solution? Let’s have David Vogles explain it (as he did in this interview with Tom Wark)
“we came up with this “boxplot,” which is a statistical analysis designed to show a consensus of a small group where they may be a wide range of opinion. It’s almost intentionally obscure, but it does provide what we call a “Snapshot” of the group’s evaluation”
(See an example in the graphic below) Imagine if you could scale this idea to your peer network and plot how a wine rates in your sphere of influence! Now we are
talking real POWER to the PEOPLE! The true wine revolution will come when we can aggregate the reviews and scores of the many, not when we continue to fragment an all ready fragmented system by adding new and different reviewing systems to the mix.
The Hybrid Solution:
While the badges idea is to be commended for being new and creative, I think there is much work to be done until we find the solution. Why not leverage the system that already is in our psyche, the 100 point scale, after all we know at a glance what a point value means in terms of quality, right?! I mean we grew up getting points on tests, scoring them in games, and collecting them in loyalty programs. I do not feel that badges are the solution to making wine more approachable, or easier to understand, they are just simpler versions of the 100 point scale merely the representation of one persons preferences and opinions at a certain point in time. How will I know that I will like a wine if I see 20 different creative badges associated with it? If I see the badge “Legit Juice” next to the badge “AwesomeWK” on a wine shelf talker or online wine description how will it give me an indication of what to expect or if I will like it? Your are right it will NOT. I will however have an idea that I may like a wine if I see that 30 of my peers/friends/contacts on Cellar Tracker, Cork’d, Snooth, or the yet to be created web 3.0 or mobile equivalent rated the wine highly, think Amazon, Yelp, Facebook, Digg, etc with a little bit of Sommelier Journal thrown in and you get the idea.
So the power in the true revolution will come if and when we can have access, at the point of purchase and need, to the reviews and rating of our own social circle. What the retailer, consumer, restaurants need to leverage is the power of systems like Cellar Tracker or Snooth. What they have to offer is the aggregation of many different review by hundreds thousands of different people from a thousand different walks of life and a million different preferences, likes, and dislikes. You must remember that next to trial tasting (having tried the wine yourself) peer recommendations and reviews are the second biggest driver to purchase. We need the Amazon, social-commerce solution to wine not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval version. Aggregated “real people” reviews/scores are far more representative of the perceived quality of a wine then the reviews of Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, et al. To quote Mr Spock “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Or to restate it in wine terms ‘The reviews of the MANY outweigh the reviews of the FEW.’
It is time for the wine voice of the masses to be heard, It is time for a wine democracy that will depose the wine Oligarchy! vive la vin!
What are your thoughts?