I’m Certain That Not All Retailers Are Driven by Scores

Yesterday I was reading through the wine news that I have funneled into my inbox and came across a story by Steve Heimofff regarding the influence that wine ratings hold over the consumer.  I took issue with one broad generalization from the middle of his article:

“Consumers dare not buy anything unless it has the imprimateur of a critic.”

With the hopes of engaging Steve in a bit of conversation over the Twitterverse, I mentioned his quote, prompting a response from Steve that seemed in my opinion, even more shortsighted – “It’s not a generalization, ask any retailer.”  Though I don’t take Steve as a fool and actually regard his writing as professional and earnest, it irks me when writers like Steve attempt to paint trends in the wine market with sweeping strokes.  Any wine critic could have (and has) said the same thing, but it just so happened that Steve said it this time.

I visit between 25-35 retail stores each week.  As I work for a distributor by day, I pay the rent through commission from sales.  And I admit, a portion of my income comes from easy sales based on nothing else than points from critics.  As fickle markets go, New Jersey is near the top with many retail shelves plastered with shelf talkers referencing scores from any number of wine critics.  And without naming names, some of these stores put up shelf talkers that are based on scores conjured up from thin air.  It’s fair to say that these less noble efforts are seldom rewarded by the public as many of these wines languish.

Fake scores aside, there are a large number of discounters who cannot sell wine without using words from others to move their inventory.  However, my best accounts – for our purposes here those which generate the most revenue for my company – do not use scores of any sort to sell their wine.  They buy what they want to sell after sampling what I have to offer.  They then learn about the winery, the region, the winemaker and figure out how to best position that wine into their store.  Sure, some of these stores jumped on the crazes surrounding offerings from 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape and 2009 Burgundy, but for the most part, scores do not drive their business model.  And we aren’t talking about just small mom and pop shops with 100 SKUs – there is also a lack of scores in stores that have thousands of selections stocking their shelves.

Without making my own sweeping generalization, I find that the stores in New York and New Jersey that rely most heavily on scores don’t have anything else to say for themselves about their wines.  It’s much easier for them to have easily printable pieces of point of sale dangling underneath their wines for quick reference as their unknowing customers gaze helplessly among dozens of selections along a wall of California Cabernet or Bordeaux.  And just so we are clear as to how I feel about this method of salesmanship, though effective and profitable for some, I think it’s incredibly lazy and impersonal.  It is often, but not always, a signal that besides one or two people on the floor, there aren’t many staff members who know much about the wine on their shelves.

I am not naïve.  The wine market on a whole is driven by handshakes, deals, and money.  Some of the most successful wines in the market have absolutely nothing to do with sense of place, romance or frankly, what’s in the bottle.  However, passion, not points, drive fine wines sales.  I see it every day.  And going back to yesterday’s short interaction on Twitter with Steve, he responded to my offering of passion over points in sales with this an odd response: “What does that mean? Where does the ‘passion’ come from? What instigates it?”  Though we may not share the same tastes in wine, I know Steve understands how passion can affect the success of a wine in the market.  I offered that this passion comes from understanding and believing in a wine’s sense of place.  And understanding more than just what an influential critic thinks about a wine is critical unless wine is to be treated like any other tradable market commodity.  In fact, perhaps the misconception that critic’s scores drive the entire wine market comes from the stacking of offerings from brands that rely more on marketing than substance.  Powerful marketing combined with a generous score or two, can catapult a wine from obscurity to the cover of international publications.  However, this path to success for a winemaker isn’t necessarily the most common one.  Many rely on retailers, sommeliers and word of mouth to spread their message in the bottle.  And thankfully, I am a willing participant in selling, drinking and recommending them.