The Consumer Doesn’t Care

After I published a post about the very personal and idiosyncratic nature of 100-point scores given out by Robert Parker and co., on my own blog The Wine Case, I was struck by the angle a certain number of commentators took, as they reacted to this story.

In that piece, I endeavored to show that scores should be read with great caution, as a personal opinion and not as gospel truth or an objective evaluation, and that more attention should be paid to the review than to numbers of stars. To this, many replied by saying, in a nutshell, that if scores were so powerful, it’s because the customer doesn’t care.

Tai-Ran Niew, a former “accidental investment banker” and now very thoughtful student of wine, quoted a rather depressing bit from Jancis Robinson, in a comment on my blog post:

My somewhat vain aim has always been to enlighten and enthuse my readers and viewers as much as possible, so that they can make as informed a choice as possible, based on their own tastes. But more and more I reach the conclusion that however hard I try and instill confidence in wine consumers, the great majority of them just want to be told what to buy.” Or as a friend said: “I am too busy to spend time on this, just tell me what to buy.”

Call me naïve or optimistic, but I don’t really believe that’s true. Do consumers take shortcuts, sometimes? Of course. Do some rely on Parker, Suckling and Wine Spectator scores more than on actual tasting notes or personal taste? Sadly, yes.

Should we just throw in the towel and all turn to stars and scores? I’ve already debated that question, and my answer is very clearly no. And half of the Palate Press readers who answered an online poll about how wine reviews should be presented without scores of any kind. That’s a lot of readers who actually want to read the details and understand why – not just how much – a wine is recommended.

Actually, I believe that if the consumer is sometimes lazy, it’s because the wine world has sometimes been lazy. In the world of restaurants, literature or music, neither writers, readers or the industry rely so heavily on scores. Even with movies, your weekly ads in the newspapers use at least one qualifier (“Oustanding” “A must-see”) with the stars or thumbs up. Only in wine ads or stores do numbers and stars, all by themselves, count for so much. Only in the wine world does a critic promote his work with a video of himself shouting out “I’m 95 points on that”, and apparently think he is going to be taken more seriously because of that.

If we – producers, distributors, retailers, writers, etc. – really want the consumer to be interested in more nuances and details about wine, then we have to stop seeing scores and other such shortcuts as an essential part of wine reviewing.

Consumers don’t care? I think they’ll care more if we all care more.

Rémy Charest is a Quebec City based journalist, writer, and translator. He has been writing about wine and food for over 12 years in various magazines and newspapers. He writes two wine blogs (The Wine Case, in English, and À chacun sa bouteille, in French) and, as if he didn’t have enough things to do, he recently started a food blog called The Food Case.