Monday, February 04, 2008

A Spectator Manifesto

The main reason that I read Wine Spectator is to be able to hold my own in any business discussion that might come my way. Ratings and other people's opinions are not really that important to me, but they are to a lot of people, and I need to know what people are referring to if they mention it. So every few weeks I comb through the current issue to stay abreast of what is going on. Maybe its the fact that I am getting older and wiser, but for the last year or so it has seemed less and less like homework, and I'm finding myself getting more useful information from the pages. I tend to especially enjoy the news blurbs, love Mark Pendergrast's coffee series, and like reading the editors' columns.


In the latest issue, Matt Kramer's column titled "Without a Net" was about being lost in his local wine shop. It starts out innocently enough, with him lamenting that he had run out of every day drinking wine in his smaller San Francisco haunt, and he finds himself having to go to the store to stock up - which because of his position in life, he hasn't had to do in years. Not many of us can relate, but it's fun to put yourself in his work shoes. What an enviable situation to be in - always going to auctions, being right on the cusp of every new development in the wine industry and being able to take advantage of new websites and fun circles. Won't it be fun to read the rest of this article and go with him on his journey back into the real world? Browsing in wine shops is fun, right Matt?

Apparently not.

You would think that one of the most knowledgable and respected wine journalists in the world could navigate his way through the shelves and pick out a few decent cases, but the rest of the article basically just whines because the stores he went to didn't have enough shelf talkers and he couldn't seem to trust the opinion of the employees. In his own words, he was unwilling to take a chance and spend more than $5 a bottle on something that didn't have some kind of rating system attached to it.

This absolutely blows my mind, for several reasons.

First of all, I find it incredibly hard to believe that any reputable wine shop in the San Francisco area, did not have on the shelf dozens (if not hundreds) of producers that someone who has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1985 was familiar with.

Second, this elitist attitude is exactly what most people in the industry fight against, and why many people in the younger generation like me have more than a little bit of disdain for publications like Wine Spectator. His unwillingness and fear of taking a chance or trying something new, not to mention complete dependence on scores and other people's tasting notes, is exactly what those of us on the distribution side spend hours and countless tastings trying to combat. I cannot tell you how many fabulous wines I've had that sell for over $25, which retailers are shy to bring in because of lack of scores from a major publication - and not because they don't like them, but because they know that without the scores, the wines probably won't sell. It's a bummer, but something that we are working to combat by vigorously trying to educate and excite the public. Reading this article actually made my jaw drop, because before I thought that people who exclusively followed the scores were boring lemmings who just needed more exposure to different things and to have their palates trained. Naively, I assumed that the people behind Wine Spectator were probably on my side, but now it turns out that they are not. Here is a column from one of the editors that actually discourages shoppers from listening to sales people, or trying something new, or literally buying anything without shelf talkers, tasting notes, scores, and quotes (preferably from Wine Spectator, I'm sure).

Third, we need to be supporting the private retailers, not driving people away from them. The mom-and-pop stores run from a place of passion and excitement are the heart of this industry, and for someone of his influence, stature, and experience to be encouraging people to sit at their computers and decide what to buy rather than going down to the local store and - gulp - interacting with a person to find something that you would like is, in my opinion, irresponsible and missing the entire point of this great industry.

It is no secret that the economy is on a downswing right now. Wine is a luxury item, and in times like these, luxury items are the first to go. With the majority of Wine Spectator's readership being people with money to spend on these items, we should be helping them learn to trust and cherish their local wine merchant, not shy away from them. Consumers should be trained to get to know and trust their own palates. Wine Spectator should be a fun tool, not a Bible.

Wine should be celebrated, not feared. Wine should encourage interaction between people. Life should be lived around wine. So what if you go down to the local shop, spend $30, and it turns out not to be your favorite bottle? This is not something to break a sweat over. We should be excited about the journey, the experience, and the potential outcome, not nervously sitting at our computers looking for ratings and tasting notes for other people to tell us what think, and taste, and feel. People in Mr. Kramer's position should be encouraging this sort of experience rather than driving people away from it.

I guess the big guys aren't on my side after all. And that's ok. I don't need to be on the same team as someone who manages to suck the fun out of going into a wine shop. People like that can sit at home nervously researching - meanwhile I'll be out enjoying the experience. Anyone care to meet me for a glass of wine?


Anonymous Wine Scamp said...

Preach it, sister! Amen.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous VSur - The Art of Spanish Wine said...

Ratings are indicative, but one should not elevate them to the state of religion... As usual, the best wines are the ones you like!
Best regards,

10:09 AM  
Anonymous fff said...

My god! Print this out and put it on your wall. Bravo!

And yes, I will have a glass of wine with you...tomorrow, in fact. :)

9:03 PM  
Anonymous a work in progress said...

I couldn't agree more, Erin!! Bravo! Please put this in letter form and send it off to the editors at Wine Spectator!!

7:39 AM  

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