It is time for a wine democracy – The king is dead, long live the king

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.

six and 1/2 dozen of the other please!

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
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

Sommelier Journal Boxplot

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?

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  • Steve Paulo

    Chris, you have an interesting take, but I’m not sure how badges like “Legit Juice” (that’s a great name… it could only have come from an incredibly intelligent and radically attractive wine blogger) and “AwesomeWK” are LESS descriptive than a point score, even if that score is from RP or ST or WS/WA/WWhatever, or an amalgam of a bunch of people’s point scores.

    Now… I’m not saying it’s necessarily MORE descriptive. Just not sure it’s any less useful.

    It’s all about taste tribes, after all. I find those “crowdsourced” rating systems to be damn near worthless. After you pass about 20 different opinions on one wine, they all tend to read just like all the others. Don’t think that it doesn’t affect someone’s CT or Snooth or Cork’d score when they see that the “community” has ALREADY deemed the wine an 85. They know if they put in 95 (because they loved it, or something) that they will stand out, they will question whether they are wrong, etc.

    Say what you will about the individual-blogger-as-palate rating systems—be they points, grades, badges, or a combination of systems (like mine!)—at least they are meaningful over time. If you like the things I have rated highly, chances are decent you’ll like the next thing I rated highly. Crowdsourcing gets rid of any voice at all, because it’s just a bunch of people throwing a score around, and who knows why they rated it a certain way?

    end rant, I guess.

  • ChrisO

    Steve- Great points about crowdsourcing! BUT imagine if you had access to the reviews in your “Taste Tribe”, you know the opinions that matter most to you, and they where served up on a system similar to Somm Journals “boxplot”. nnYou need to think web 3.0 my friend!nnend of mini rant.nn

  • Hardy / Dirty

    I think of general aggregates like I think of Top 40 music. You’ll get what is popular, manufactured, and produced, but never what you want. Believe me, I love Hanson just as much as the next 16yr girl ;) but sometimes I want soul, depth, and the truth.nnI’ve always thought that you find the palates that you align with (whether a critic, retailer, writer, friend)and you share info. I’ll take Peter Liem’s thoughts on Champagne 10,000 fold of an aggregated review, and I look forward to checking out people like Mark Devere’s badges in the same way. nnThe somm journal approach is cool, and I think will also work for a lot of people– There are a lot of great tasters there.nnWhether it is a badge, a star, a score, note, etc… I think you find the palates you like and explore the picks. The greatest thing about this (Somm. Journal, Cellar T., Badges, etc) is that it decentralizes wine criticism and allows people to easily digest and find what they may like.nnCall me old fashioned. I’d rather have the voice of a few people who’s palates and ethics I know and trust.

  • ChrisO

    Hardy- agree 100% on your statement “I’d rather have the voice of a few people who’s palates and ethics I know and trust” and that’s why I think the way forward is being able to collect the ratings and opinions of your “taste tribe” in aggregate and then plot them on a graph similar to the Somm solution. I want all the noise filtered out and the ratings, reviews, and opinions of those I TRUST to be served up to me. Think of this as the Pandora concept of wine where you are served up suggestions based on your peer groups (aka “taste tribes”) likes.nnya know what i’m sayin?!

  • Hardy Wallace

    Chris- I hear what you are saying. I think it sounds like an awesome idea for a lot of people.nnI just find that it puts one more step in my process– I know who I like, they rarely write about the same wines, and I have easy access to their info. nnThere’s room for a lot of things- badges, tribes, scores, traditional media pubs, etc… The more that is out there, the more choice people have.nnI’m just looking forward to a badge to say “like Chompin’ the Gobbler while Sippin’ the Nasty!” ;)

  • Anonymous

    Chris – the reviews will eventually be served up like Somm Journals but with cool functions such as Facebook “Like” as well as key wine social networks and the discovery of Taste Tribes” will become real. This is only possible by being distributed via Cruvee’s data distribution network (that’s how it will become endemic) and allowing the reviews of people from the wine social networks to attach to these wines to help create these tribes. CellarTracker, Corkd, Drync, HelloVino and more will become more powerful and endemic as they learn to pattern their data to help create this process. However, the content and the program has to be generated first and as Steve said we are in Badge beta version 0.5. However the notion that Hardy points out is most appropriate – “Call me old fashioned. I’d rather have the voice of a few people who’s palates and ethics I know and trust.” and “Crowdsourcing gets rid of any voice at all, because it’s just a bunch of people throwing a score around, and who knows why they rated it a certain way?” – wine is so subjective it requires something different. Standardization bastardizes the notion of “Taste Tribes” and lowers it to a common denominator that poorly serves wine consumers.nnI think you’ll be surprised at how well this will work and how well it will help the industry by shifting the paradigm from few tasters with a broken score system to “Taste Tribes” that help each other make better wine buying decisions. But first we crawl . . . then walk . . . and soon sprint.n

  • 1WineDude

    I’m pleased and somewhat (pleasantly!) amazed at all of the discussion that this is generating.nnI do agree with Hardy’s comment “The greatest thing about this (Somm. Journal, Cellar T., Badges, etc) is that it decentralizes wine criticism and allows people to easily digest and find what they may like.” I am not sure if I’m starting a tribe or not (if so then I am gonna be one of those evil-tipe tribe lords who demands alms and gifts of gold, etc.), but I do think it’s gonna a fun experiment and who knows, maybe we will see badges on shelf-talkers, websites, etc. We won’t know if we don’t try – and now is the time to try.nnIf you all think this stuff is a hot topic, wait until you see the next few posts on 1WD… I think eyelashes are gonna get burned and toes are gonna curl!nnHardy – Did you know that the Hanson guys are all in their 20s/302, married, with kids, and still making music? Seriously.

  • ChrisO

    I cant wait to over heard at Cyrus – Waiter I think I will have the wine with the badge labeled “like Chompin’ the Gobbler while Sippin’ the Nasty!” I here it is quite Legit! nnBut in all seriousness I think Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best when he saidnn “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”nn

  • ChrisO

    Paul- sounds awesome, and I expected as much from the bright minds at Vintank! I look forward to the growth process and following the “badge” journey. nnStill believe that the true way forward though is to have your “taste tribe” be a democracy where everyone’s opinion counts, after all they are your chosen tribe members, and not where there is one oligarch of the tribe that dictates taste. Some of my fondest discoveries have come from listening to recommendations of others.nnWill be interesting to see how the badges work on the street level, on a retail shelf in middle America. nnCongratulations on the idea and I look forward to being won over!

  • ChrisO

    When you do start your tribe I say we sit down with Hardy over a glass of wine with the “like Chompin’ the Gobbler while Sippin’ the Nasty!” badge. nnAnd about that new post on 1winedude, I am scared because I just grew back my eyelashes that I burned off when I watched your Benziger video.

  • Anonymous

    The badges and taste tribes concept can work, especially if “trust” is established. Consumers who don’t know wine like we do just want to have a trusted source. The *average* consumer has an ingrained trust in wine mags and critics or their wine shop’s wine steward.nnThese badges need to find their way into the consumers conscious, not only as a cool new thing, but a thing they can TRUST and calibrate to.nnTrust is the key to just about anything online.

  • winebizradio

    I haven’t weight in on the badge discussion, partly because I have yet to hear a compelling rebuttal to the badge bandwagon. I think that Chris offers the first real criticism of the approach.nnMy biggest reservation is what Chris describes as ‘[seeing] the badge u201cLegit Juiceu201d next to the badge u201cAwesomeWKu201d on a wine shelf talker or online wine description’. That is, the practical application of badges in an environment where people actually buy wine.nnPerhaps this is my lack of knowledge of the overall plan by Vintank to encourage the use of badges at wine retailers and tasting rooms, but I still see the notion of a cadre of online wine personalities issuing badges that match what appears to be an arbitrary set of wine attributes as no less elitist and derivative as Robert Parker issuing a numeric score. And if the issuance of badges for wines *isn’t* elitist, then what do retailers do with wines that not only garner numeric scores from the big critics, but a handful or more of individual badges from less-well-known online wine reviewers? It just seems that the signal-to-noise ratio drops precipitously in that circumstance, to where consumers are not empowered or informed, but rather more confused than ever, to the point that they walk over and grab a six-pack of craft beer instead.nnMake no mistake: I want desperately to believe in the appeal of this badge initiative, but the arguments in favor haven’t been terribly compelling.n

  • Ward Kadel – @drXeNo

    Hi Chris et al. While I’m obviously biased to be a proponent of the WKBadge + tasting notes concept, I’m intrigued by your literal interpretation of “Taste Tribes,” Chris. How would one aggregate the tasting notes of one’s particular tribe, beyond what might be rudimentally available in WineLog, Snooth, CellarTracker, Cork’d, etc? Do you envision each badge blogger having their social media site, a la Ning?n This type of idea reminds of my day job of Translational Medicine, also know as Targeted Medicine: A test is done to figure out which drug(s) will combat your cancer most effectively. Once in dosing, another test is seen to see whether the drug(s) are at the proper dose and are working properly. Later, if your results are out of the norm, tumor tissue to taken to analyze and help design new drug combos or even new drugs. <– very basic overview, but comprehensive.n Basically, a wine is tasted by myself. I hand out a badge and review and then some of my Tribe try it and also review at Tribe Central. I take those notes and start to realize which wines my tribe tends to usually like overall and maybe taste more of that style. Interesting!

  • Joe (@suburbanwino)

    Dirty stole my thunder a bit with the music reference. “Rolling Stone” gives Yoko Ono 5 out of 5 stars on every ear-bleeding album. That’s not what people want, but Jann Wenner and Yoko are friends. rnrnMusic’s easier, though, because you can hop online an listen to a sample for free (or download the whole thing on a sketchy Russian website for free). The best option I’ve seen is getting to taste before you buy, but it doesn’t happen at many package stores (that’s a wine shop in Georgia).rnrnA frame of reference is definitely good. And it must be trustworthy. When I was first drinking wine, and I didn’t like a high-scoring wine, my first thought was “there must be something wrong with my palate…I’ll never be able to appreciate like these ‘experts’.” Probably a thought that turns many off to wine for good, or encourages them to stick to the same wine every time.rnrnBadges are a fun and cool idea, and I hold Paulo and J-Rob and Dr Xeno in very high regard, but even as a regular reader of their blogs, I just don’t know their palates well, so I can’t say a badge does me much good. But, if they tell me it’s good and worth a try, I’ll trust they’re being honest and transparent…I think :)

  • ChrisO

    Rick- agree with you that trust is key to any relationship especially where recommendations are concerned. Wondering how these badges are going to gain traction and get as you say “into the consumers conscious”. Long road to hoe for sure.

  • ChrisO

    Hey Winebizradio- you make some very good points. I think there may be a show in order for this topic!!!!nn

  • ChrisO

    Ward- I envision a collective site like cellar tracker or other where you can assemble your own “taste tribe” as you do IRL, and that this becomes to hub of the “taste Tribe” spoke where opinions and reviews get aggregated. More info when this business idea is launched ;) I see this tribe as having no one initial leader but as wines are tasted and opinions shared that an influencer and leader becomes apparent, anarchy becomes a democracy.nnCheers!

  • Ward Kadel – @drXeNo

    Chris: OK, so that’s pretty much what I imagined. I need to think about this more about how it might work without it being just another Ning. I think you might be misled that a leader isn’t apparent at first…both might take place at once in different parts of the vinowebs. nI do feel strongly that a catchy badge, with a name/logo attached along with tasting notes will effect a nice alternative to the 100pt. Keep in mind that “an alternative” does not necessarily mean “a replacement”. Cheers, Chris!

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