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Drinking Out Loud

Why Today's Wine List Theater Is a Flop

It's the same old performance, with an ever-bigger cast

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 1, 2012

Here's today's typical restaurant wine experience: You go in, sit down, you're handed a wine list. Most of the time only one person at the table even sees the list. If it's an expensive restaurant—or an ambitious one—you're confronted with hundreds of wines. Within just 10 or 15 minutes, you have to a) confer on what you and everyone else at the table are going to eat and b) sort through the entire wine genome.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. What I just described is what we all experience in nearly every restaurant.

Is there something wrong with this picture? There sure is. Let's be blunt: It's virtually impossible for the average wine drinker—even for the not-so-average wine enthusiast, really—to make sense of most of today's so-called better wine lists.

Think about this for a minute. Today's "wine list theater" is virtually the same performance as a century ago. The sole difference is the size of the cast. A century ago, wine lists were much shorter and simpler, with a sampling of red Bordeaux, a few red and white Burgundies, some German Rieslings and various Champagnes. Dessert wines would include Sauternes, Port and Tokaji.

Would I prefer to go back to those bygone days? Not a chance. I relish the array of wines available to us today. This is the irony of our era; namely, that the best wine lists in America today (and elsewhere in the world, it should be noted) are fabulous.

America's new breed of sommeliers is pushing American palates in directions that are not even especially commercial. Rather, there's a heartfelt desire to expose restaurant-goers to today's trove of lesser-known wines from seemingly every corner of the planet. This effort cannot be praised too often or too highly.

Yet there's a cloud to this silver lining. Many of these wines are simply so new or so obscure that there is no way—I mean, no way—that even an enthusiast could know about them, much less be likely to land on them in that critical 10 minutes or so of decision making at the beginning of a meal.

We are heaped with a mountain of choices, many of which no normal person could possibly previously know about, presented to us in a way that hasn't changed since the horse-and-buggy days. Yet, we are expected to manfully or womanfully handle this largesse in the same fashion and the same amount of time as our great-grandparents did.

This is, in a word, absurd. It is simultaneously too much (wine choice) and too little (time and consumer knowledge). So what do we do? We look at the prices and make a decision based upon how much or how little we intend to spend. Then we typically choose something familiar in our preferred price category.

Surely there's a better way for wine to be presented in restaurants in the 21st century. And I'm not talking about gimmicks like iPads and the like. Rather, I'm talking about connecting the dots. We need lists that reveal what might be called "new commonalities." What we really need is for restaurants to rearrange their wine choices in ways that allow us insight.

For example:

Instead of grouping wines by grape variety or region, a wine list might instead choose to present wines that come from high elevations. A list that showcases "High Elevation Wines" could offer a brief description of what collectively sets apart such wines, citing shared traits such as higher acidity, greater midpalate density, lower yields, mineral notes.

This provides a simple yet essential education and allows adventurous diners the chance to see seemingly disparate wines—never mind the grape variety or area of origin—through a different lens.

It also allows the creator of the wine list to de-emphasize the conventional (and often immaterial) geographical boundaries that often, if unintentionally, create a caste system of greater or lesser prestige. Why shouldn't a high-elevation wine from Argentina, Sicily's Mount Etna or California's Santa Cruz Mountains share the same stage?

Segregating wines by national boundaries—or unfocused appellations—makes less sense today than ever before. Anybody who's tasted Cabernets designated "Oakville" (in Napa Valley) knows there's a world of difference between valley floor Oakville and hillside Oakville represented by the likes of, say, Dalla Valle, high in the eastern hills of the Vaca Range.

Such "commonality" groupings are limited only by one's imagination and insight. Not least, they explode artificial borders and the old, outdated catechism of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Australia and so on.

You could have commonalities such as Low Yields; Very Old Vines; Very Cool Climate; Lower Alcohol. This approach offers the chance to provide a real, if necessarily brief, education, as well as performing a gentle bit of evangelism by explaining the significance of low-yield wines (and why they often are necessarily more expensive) or the attractiveness of lower-alcohol wines, or the characters of old-vine wines.

Obviously, the possibilities are nearly endless. How about price? In San Francisco, the restaurant Cotogna, which is truffled with well-heeled patrons (it's the more casual sister restaurant to its four-star sibling, Quince, next door), chose a commonality of cost: Everything on the list is $40, period.

You get the picture. Are you tired not just of wrestling with oversized lists, but of struggling to make sense of today's wonderful, exciting but challenging wine abundance? How would you change the wine list experience if you owned a restaurant?

One thing is certain, at least to me. Presenting wines in the same dutiful, color-within-the-lines way laid down a century ago no longer works. The great economist (and wine lover) John Maynard Keynes put it best: "The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones."

Joe Livesay
Memphis, TN —  May 1, 2012 12:54pm ET
Your thoughts are interesting but I think your suggestions would even make it harder for the non-serious collectors to decide. How many people would understand the characteristics of "Low Yields" Very cool Climate" "High Elevation Wines", etc. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable and would be stumped by such groupings. I have a better chance of understanding what a Cabernet or Malbec, etc would taste like. Groupings by country help if you understand which grapes are better in that particular area of the world but even that is now changing

I agree the present system can be overwhelming and very time consuming if more than one person wants to help with the selection.
David Blakeley
New Jersey —  May 1, 2012 1:00pm ET
Matt, you have managed to hit the nail on the head yet again. While I consider this a "good problem to have", I look to ease the burden by reviewing the website's wine list before I go (it helps if it is at all current). That advance research will usually give me a few ideas in each varietal/style/type to fall back on. More often than not I am taking advantage of my home state's proclivity for BYO but this is not always possible. Thanks again, David
Ted Hudgins
Naples, FL —  May 1, 2012 1:32pm ET
Matt, I like the thought of rethinking the wine list but I go more toward the IPad / tablet route because a properly developed app wine list will integrate with the user's comfort level, allow food - wine parings to be suggested, have access to reviews of the wines, pictures of the labels for those who are less than encyclopedic about memorizing producers, vintages, etc. and will constantly update inventory so there is none of the "(I)'m sorry but we just ran out of that wine." Suppose the menu and the wine list are both on the tablet. The diner orders a piece of salmon and the wine list pops up with a couple of strong pinots, a chard or 2, maybe a pinot blanc and then asks the diner if he or she is feeling adventurous with the wine choice. Sort of pre-qualifies them for the sommelier and increases their efficiency.
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  May 1, 2012 1:49pm ET
Matt: thanks for another interesting piece. It's a good idea to organize a winelist based on something other than geography or grape variety, but then you would have a problem when you are looking for something specific based on the "old" criteria. This is where electronic winelists could be really helpful: it would be easy to set up the winelist to give the customer a bunch of different sort options (perhaps this already exist?). Another reason people go for something familiar is that wine is so much more expensive in restaurants than retail. A solution here, that I would love to see more often, is a wide selection of new/obscure/eclectic wines by the glass.
Barry Goss
houston, texas —  May 1, 2012 2:09pm ET
I can't believe you didn't suggest grouping them by the WS scores
Peter Ryan
Vancouver BC —  May 1, 2012 8:53pm ET
Off topic perhaps but I often ask the restaurants to email me their wine list in advance. My wife pores over Yelp and I deep dive into winespectator.com.

Peter Leeman
M I A M I —  May 2, 2012 12:30pm ET
How quaint this notion of reviewing this "list".

I whip out my iphone and spectator search every considered purchase.

Feel free to add the elevations and yields to the descriptions.

This is really about overchoice as Alvin Toffler described in Future Shock. Here is a clip from Wikipedia:

Overchoice is the result of technological progress. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, each year, more and more products are being offered. Consumers have more disposable income to spend, and producers can more easily and cheaply introduce product variations.

Having more choices, on the surface, appears to be a positive development; however it hides an underlying problem: faced with too many choices, consumers have trouble making optimal choices, and thus as a result can be indecisive, unhappy, and even refrain from making the choice (purchase) at all. Alvin Toffler noted that as the choice turns to overchoice, "freedom of more choices" ironically becomes the opposite—the "unfreedom". Often, a customer makes a decision without sufficiently researching his choices, which may often require days.
Matthew Slywka
Seymour, CT —  May 2, 2012 12:45pm ET
I agree with Barry. I think having scores and even reviews in wine lists would be greatly beneficial to the consumer, as long as there is no law against it.
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  May 2, 2012 2:16pm ET
Matt – I love the topic. I operate an internet site and all I do is review restaurant wine lists. I break the list down by varietal and show people the best values across different price points.

My research indicates that people want to know the following when reviewing a restaurant wine list:

1) What is the mark-up over the retail price ($70 at the restaurant and $40 at K&L Wines translates into a mark-up over retail of 1.75x), and what does the wine sell for at other restaurants. People just want to see a list of the best values by varietal across a few different price points (under $75 a bottle and over $75 a bottle). For a list of 150 selections, they want to see the 20 best values on the list (1 to 2 sparklers, 5 to 8 whites and the rest red)
2) Rating of the wine and vintage, and a description of how it tastes. This is included in a professional review. If the wine has not been rated, then people want to at least see the winemaker’s tasting notes.
3) Where can people buy the wine. Can they find it at Bevmo, K&L, The Cellar Online, Wine.com, JJ Buckley or another retailer
4) Alcohol %

At the end of the day, people are willing to spend more money on a bottle of wine if they know they are getting a good value. For example, people have no problem spending $70 on a bottle of wine that retails for $40, but they don’t want to spend $50 on a bottle of wine that retails for $16. The $70 bottle is 1.75x over retail and the $50 bottle is 3.125x over retail.

People would also be far more willing to try a different / new wine if they can read a review and / or the winemaker’s tasting notes.

There is a lot of talk about ipad wine lists, and some companies have introduced solutions in the marketplace (and they are beautiful) , but I don’t see restaurants spending money on ipads. I believe it is all going to go through your phone.

I can’t believe Wine Spectator has not produced an app that is geared towards restaurant wine lists. A number of wines on these lists have been reviewed by your magazine, and you include the Release Price in your review.

Even wine experts have trouble navigating wine lists --- Harvey Steinman wrote a piece on the site (March 21, 2012) about a dinner at Benu, and he discussed how the sommelier guided him to a bottle of the 1999 Domaine Leroy (Wine Spectator 87 points) for $160. Harvey said it tasted great, but the wine retails for $30 at Premier Cru, $39 at Belmont Wine Exchange and $50 at Zachy’s. That is an excessive mark-up. For his white wine, he chose the 2009 Do Ferreiro Albarino, which set him back $100 and it retails for $40ish. That mark-up seems ok, but you can get the 2010 Do Ferreiro Albarino for $52 at Boulevard, and it retails for $40ish.

In closing, I think the day of the large wine list is going away. Sure, there will always be several restaurants in each city that have 25+ page wine lists, but you are going to see more and more lists in the 75 to 150 bottle range.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Breaking Down Restaurant Wine Lists
Manfred Krankl
Oak View, CA —  May 2, 2012 7:33pm ET
Matt, I agree with you on most points. But I would like to add the following. I think most lists are simply too big. Often (although not always) designed to impress with it's breadth rather than depth or careful selection. I have always felt that the most important aspect of a wine buyers job is to PRE select for the customers and to make the list interesting, most importantly delicious as well as appropriate for the cuisine of the restaurant, but concise and thus managable. It doesn't take that much skill to just buy everything. It also doesn't take a lot of skill to just buy the unknown and/or obscure. It takes a lot of skill and a lot dedication and honesty to carefully SELECT from a broad spectrum, but keep it all snappy enough so that the customer can still get a good overview within a reaonable amount of time and yet feel stimulated, enthused and interested and ultimately find something delicious. Be that something uncommon or of world renown. THAT is a much harder task and that's why we don't see all too often.
Terrific subject.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  May 2, 2012 8:01pm ET
Mr. Livesay: You write, "I think your suggestions would even make it harder for the non-serious collectors to decide. How many people would understand the characteristics of "Low Yields" Very cool Climate" "High Elevation Wines", etc. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable and would be stumped by such groupings."

I take you at your word, of course. But I would like to suggest that, with only just a few sentences, a good wine list could provide a sufficient amount of enlightenment that would, perhaps, tweak your interest. And that alone, I think, would make a modern-day wine list more interesting.

For example, a wine list highlighting the commonality of, say, High Elevation wines, might group the seemingly disparate likes of Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); Colomé (Argentina's Salta region) and Benanti Pietramarina Bianco (Sicily's Mount Etna). It could note that all of these wines are grown at roughly 2,000 feet or more in elevation; that the soils in each case are correspondingly sparse because of this elevation and that the wines that are all strikingly mineral and long-lived.

Further, a brief note could point out that although each wine is different in flavor, as each comes from a different grape variety, they share a familial commonality of higher acidity, dense mid-palates from the lower-than-usual-yields common to high-elevation wines and are ideal companions to dishes such as steaks, fish stews and rich or strongly-flavored pastas which are enhanced by intensely characterful--although not necessarily big--wines such as these.

Whether such a brief note is illuminating to you or anyone else, I don't know. But I would think that, at minimum, it would pique your interest--and perhaps provide a theme around which you might choose our evening's wines, as well as enhance the dinnertime conversation.

That was my idea, anyway. But maybe I'm a dreamer. A sommelier or restaurateur who's actually working the floor would surely know better.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  May 2, 2012 8:15pm ET
Mr. Hudgins/Mr. Bjorlin: You both mention--and praise--the possibilities of electronic wine lists, such as those seen on iPads. I do see your respective points, which I think are good ones. And maybe the time will come in the not-too-distant future when such lists are not merely common, but the norm.

Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned (although I do have and use an iPad, I might note), but I still fail to see how this electronic presentation increases our ease and understanding. True, you could see the label (which is always handy). And there's no question that it should eliminate the irritating problem of a wine being out of stock. (That happens to me all the time in restaurants!)

But what I don't see is how iPads and the like will increase what might be called the "insight deficit". That's really what I was driving at in this column. It's insight that we need. And it's insight that good sommeliers should be delivering to us, not merely interesting wines, however well-chosen.

We need more and better now, namely, a new kind of guidance that teases out insights from the seeming disarray of wines, however wonderful. Regrettably, appellations no longer do this for us, if indeed they ever did. A list grouping wines by "Napa Valley" or "Burgundy" is worse that meaningless, as it suggests a kind of insight that is, in fact, simply not there.

Now, if an electronic presentation can somehow deliver insights unavailable in a print format, then count me in! Otherwise, it still seems a bit of a gimmick to me. But maybe I'm missing something.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  May 2, 2012 8:51pm ET
Mr. Krankl: You write: "I think most lists are simply too big. Often (although not always) designed to impress with it's breadth rather than depth or careful selection. I have always felt that the most important aspect of a wine buyers job is to PRE select for the customers and to make the list interesting, most importantly delicious as well as appropriate for the cuisine of the restaurant, but concise and thus manageable."

Of course, I agree absolutely with what you say. I would like to amplify your thoughts by noting that we are in an ironic situation today compared to, say, 30 years ago.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, most Americans felt the need (and rightly) to be instructed about the basics of wine. Of course, we've collectively long since gone well beyond the basics, at least those who aren't utterly new to wine.

The "known wine universe" was back then small enough to actually master, at least for wine list purposes. No further education was needed except for staying current with the latest and greatest vintages.

That turned out to be a delusion. We hadn't anticipated the explosion of new wines from places and producers never previously even heard of, let alone tasted. Simply think of the explosion of grower-produced wines that have appeared in the past three decades from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Germany, California, Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Ontario, British Columbia and so forth. The great majority of such "grower wines" simply didn't exist until very recently.

Consequently, the irony is that those of us who are enthralled by wine actually know less than ever before, simply because the boundaries of the wine universe have expanded so greatly. Even the savviest among us are in greater need of education, enlightenment and insight than we ever were back when we were wine newbies. This, as I suggest, is where and why modern restaurant wine lists fail us.

As I expressed in a previous comment, it's simply no longer enough that lists be both well-chosen and, as you point out, concise. It's mighty helpful, to be sure. But it still doesn't "connect the dots". That, more than anything else, is what we all need today.

How are we to choose without engaging the sommelier in an over-long discussion? This is where my dreamed-of "insightful" wine list comes in, one emphasizing new commonalities larded with bits of enlightening information that can make me want to try a new wine or see the wine universe in a new way.
The Odom Corporation
oregon —  May 3, 2012 12:55am ET
What about the wine buyer who tries to make their list as obscure as possible to achieve the following:
A. Attempt to Impress the diners that they have an otherworldly knowlage base with regard to wine while stoking their own ego.
B. Have wine on their list that are not "grocery store" or further that no one else has in their locality.
C. And in a additional benefit from points A and B with these unfamiliar wines in place on the list charge absurd mark ups, especially in their by the glass program.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 3, 2012 11:36am ET
I vote for Ted's idea. I eat at some nice places but few have a dedicated sommelier. Making the iPad the menu/list and offering pairings on the fly is brilliant. It's like having a personal sommelier!
Sean Parisi
Chicago, IL USA —  May 3, 2012 12:51pm ET

I agree that the majority of traditional restaurant wine lists are inefficient and ineffective in engaging and empowering users to make an informed decision.

The one area where I disagree is your comment about "iPad wine lists" as a gimmic. From my perspective, much more information and education would need to be communicated to consumers in order for the average person to understand it. However, using technology such as iPad Wine Lists can significantly help educate customers to make informed decisions. With digital beverage menus the experience is helpful for both novice wine drinkers, looking for basic infomation and serious wine collectors interested in technical data and wine makers notes to learn more about the intricate details of the wine and the wine making process.

I recently visited a prominent country club client outside of D.C. that incorporated digital wine lists into their club and they are reporting increases in wine sales of 35%. This clearly plays directly to the point that the average wine list does little to communicate the characteristics or flavors of wine. By creating a more educational experience with digital technology on-premise accounts are seeing customers respond by purchasing more bottles of wine and also purchasing higher priced bottles of wine.

I agree that the traditional wine list is outdated and ineffecient. However, I believe the answer is not in simply redefining categories, but more in embracing technology to further educate consumers and empowering them to make better decisions.

Sean Parisi
Digital Beverage Menus
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  May 3, 2012 2:07pm ET
I have actually only been confronted with an iPad wine list once (in Chengdu, China of all places). The list was structured exactly like a traditional "hard copy" wine list and hence there was zero added benefit for the customer. But an electronic winelist could offer a lot more. For example, on the front page there could be three buttons: Chose by Geography; Chose by Grape Variety; Chose by Wine Characteristic/Style (or something to this effect). This would give the customer different options for how the wines are organized and presented to them, and it would give the opportunity to provide better insight. There could of course also be pictures of labels, descriptions, and better search options, such as sort by your favorite critic's score.

(And for the record, I too prefer a small and well-selected wine list over an enormous list designed to impress.)
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  May 3, 2012 3:11pm ET
Mr. Bjorlin: You write: "An electronic winelist could offer a lot more. For example, on the front page there could be three buttons: Chose by Geography; Chose by Grape Variety; Chose by Wine Characteristic/Style (or something to this effect). This would give the customer different options for how the wines are organized and presented to them, and it would give the opportunity to provide better insight. There could of course also be pictures of labels, descriptions, and better search options, such as sort by your favorite critic's score."

You make some excellent points that I, for one, do not wish to diminish in any way. I can see better now why you, and others, foresee a future for wine lists through a tablet/iPad vehicle.

That sincerely acknowledged, I would like to note that we still come back to the larger issue of a wine list creator providing us with ways of viewing and choosing wines that creatively explode the prescribed, conventional--and often meaningless--boundaries.

We know, for example, that many appellations everywhere in the world are of minimal use in our understanding of what we're likely to find in the bottle. A choice example is Chianti Classico. A wine so identified can be 100% Sangiovese or a blend of Sangiovese with potent percentages of Syrah, Cabernet and/or Merlot. It can be aged in small new oak barrels or big, flavor-free casks. In short, the wine can be pretty much anything the producer wants it to be and yet still legally designated "Chianti Classico". Fat help.

Bottom line: the appellation tells us nothing useful. Categorizing such wines on a list under the rubric "Chianti Classico" simply amplifies...what? It's an echoing sound in an empty room.

This is why I believe that today's wine lists cry out for insight and assistance that goes well beyond conventional categories and often-hollow designations (Meritage anyone?).

Put bluntly, it's no longer enough for a sommelier to be a well-informed, astute wine buyer and server. That's not nothing, of course. But choosing and listing such wines isn't a full display of "real knowledge" either.

Connect the dots! Give us new insights, new connections, new ways of appreciating all the new (and often obscure) wines that are so enthusiastically presented to us. If the best way to do this is through an electronic format, then I'm all for it.

To borrow from the famous expression, a palate is a terrible thing to waste. Today, we're offered in restaurants all these amazing wines, but with insufficiently creative help from the very people whose job it is to do just that.
John Nelson
Dallas, Texas —  May 7, 2012 4:10pm ET
Embracing technology is the key here. Even 75 year olds+ use iphones and ipads these days. The approach should be that the wine list is a database. Not a spreadsheet or a document. A database can be sorted, organized, updated, and enriched very easily. One could type in key words such as "Big" or "Heavy", "New World", "Old World", etc. and get a shortened list. Or enter "varietal", or "pairs with..." and get a new list. Or enter some of these and "under $100" and get a new list. Scoring is so subjective as opposed to what the average and median scores are on CellarTracker, for example. I make a lot of purchase decisions based on CT, not WS, RP, IWC, etc.

But I agree the restaurants owe us at least a daily update. I would think that at least 30%+ of my selections have been a different vintage, or gone altogether. Great topic- I for one honestly believe that most restaurants could offer an amazing selection-thoughful, creative, refreshing, supporting the cuisine, in under 300 bottles.
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  May 7, 2012 9:18pm ET
After travelling to France recently with a good comparison; I am dismayed by the huge mark-ups in the U.S. on wines at restaurants! I also like the simplicity of French lists; with more focus on regional wines. It would also be nice for restaurants to simplify their wine lists into colorful categories than merely varietals. Not everybody is going to bring their I-phones to a restaurant; and quickly look up wine ratings either. That puts too much pressure to come up with a decision. Whatever happened to the waiter knowing these wines well; in lieu of no sommelier?
Steve Stein
Cincinnati OH USA —  May 8, 2012 8:57pm ET
Matt has a good point about the War and Peace wine lists.. Most people (myself included) go the safe route. If you think about it, why do so many wine lists have Jordan and Silver Oak cabs and Sonoma Cutrer chard on their lists? Are they the best? In many cases, no, but as the saying used to go "No one was ever fired for buying IBM". When confused, order one of them or the white zin. :)

I tend to frequent restaurants that have a unique, focused wine list. Some different, well-priced wines that someone at the restaurant can at least give a hint of what it's like. Even better, find a place that has a good by the glass offering and try different things. That's how I found my new favorite Pinot.
Neil Barham
Vail, co —  May 17, 2012 7:06pm ET
Check out this list by a true professional, Bill Minett. It has reviews, etc on every wine and there are nearly 400 wines! It you open the book one way the wines are listed by site, flip the book over and they are listed by Varietal.

Greg Hutch
Regina, SK, Canada —  May 21, 2012 11:37pm ET
I'm pleased that most of the time we don't need to wait to get to the restaurant and then page through a large printed list.
- Charlie Palmer's Aureole offered a tablet based eWinebook that allowed me to search the enormous cellar by various criteria before making my choices. It worked so well that I'm convinced that is the future.
- Many restarants posting their menus and wine lists online allow me to think through potential pairings before I arrive. Is there something special on the menu or wine list that I'm building my evening around?

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