Thursday, 14 November 2013

What the wine critics don’t tell you (part 3)

Technology and the ubiquity of real-time information has virtually destroyed the relevance of a critic’s ‘independence’, the quality which many critics hold dearest
When he set out in 1978, Robert Parker strengthened the voice of the customer significantly at time when he believed there was a paucity of reliable information on wine quality, and some critics had conflicts of interests by selling wine, thereby taking advantage of the consumer.

However, that was in the pre-internet era, a period of minimal and slow information, print hand outs, analogue telephone lines and large ‘spreads’ where any party in a transaction (buyers, sellers, brokers) could take advantage of limited pricing information and make very good margins, long before the customer realised.

But that world has disappeared. Most information is available electronically in real-time and at any time, whatever the wine and wherever the country. Real time, nearly perfect information is one of the abundant fruits of the internet age thanks to the proliferation of professional and amateur wine critics, commentators and writers sites and blogs who can expose any individual or business where a customer is being ripped off, sending it around the world using any number of social media sites.

Then there are merchants and brokers’ online trading platforms which pull in critics’ comments and scores, plus sites like which has truly revolutionised the buying and selling of wine because it provides such clear information on pricing and availability which creates competitive tension, much to the buyer’s advantage. The market operates very efficiently now.

As I said in my last posting, in today’s world of real-time information and transparency, I just don’t see how or why any reputable merchant would try and exploit a customer and risk its reputation. It is precisely the merchants’ commercial interests and focus on customer loyalty which hold them to account. The merchants need to ‘get it right’ far more than the critic.

And is it really realistic for a critic to pretend to be independent and then sell wine on the side, as was the case when Parker started? Why not just be a wine merchant and admit you sell great wines which you really like, and that is why you recommend them in the first place.

On the whole (although I accept that a few will always try it on), the Internet exposes very quickly those merchants and brokers who try to kid the consumer and this transparency means the market polices abusers pretty effectively. I just don’t think the original raison d’etre for Parker’s creation exists anymore.

That isn’t to say that wine critics don’t play an important role. My point is that this ubiquity of real-time information means that their ‘independence’ isn’t the reason I read critics’ opinions. I read them for the reasons I outlined in an earlier post – for breadth of knowledge, entertainment, notes and some benchmark scores (even if I take the latter with a pinch of salt and ignore the staggeringly boring ones).

Critics’ opinions are interesting but don’t take their tasting notes or scores too seriously
Experience has taught us not to believe unquestionably what we read, especially in something as subjective as taste. You need to check it out for yourself and validate what someone tells you. This is why I don’t take any critic’s tasting notes too seriously.

The intelligent consumer (I like to think that I am one, but some friends might disagree) who reads wine scores will read many different ones, not just take one as the single version of the truth. Taste is so subjective and bottle dependent. Don’t think somehow that the critic is right and you a wrong if your palate is giving you different flavours and aromas to theirs. Read a few to establish a consensus score, drink the wine yourself if you can and then make your own mind up.

Whatever the critics say and however they present their notes as science, it is still predominantly an art. One critic’s 82 points (unbalanced, over-extracted wine) could be another one’s 98 points (concentrated, rich wine). I do enjoy reading tasting notes and scores from different critics but I don’t take them too seriously.

Sommeliers are undervalued. They are an excellent source of information
Possibly more than merchants and critics, the people I really listen to are sommeliers. They taste a lot of wines and live the consumer experience every day in real time - unlike a merchant where you buy your wine and might lay it down for 10 years, or a critic who has tasted in an office with no food or context.

Sommeliers get instant feedback on what the consumer likes and what works with what food. They aren’t truly ‘independent’ because they have a commercial interest in the wine they help sell but I don’t care - they influence me greatly, and I am very interested in their opinions and insight. It is precisely because of commercial interests that they have a vested interest in serving me something delicious and good value which makes me come back. It is the money which keeps them honest. Like a merchant. I would argue that they need to ‘get it right’ far more than a critic because they will be judged on the spot.

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