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Drinking Out Loud

It's Structural. Get Over It

Why so much wine discussion is wasted breath

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 7, 2012

Have you ever noticed how so many wine folks get so worked up about the same issues? And how some of those issues—I'm tempted to say most of them—never change despite all the huffing and puffing?

I'll give you an example. For as long as I can remember, everybody—and I emphatically include myself among them—has complained about high wine prices in restaurants. We've wrung our hands, cried our eyes out, raised our voices unto the heavens and what happened? Well, you know what happened. Nothing. Wine prices in restaurants are as high today as ever.

The reason is as simple as it is unyielding: It's structural. Ask any restaurateur and he or she will tell you that the majority of their profits come from alcohol. To mix a metaphor, alcohol is the meat and potatoes of the restaurant business. It's structural. And because of that, it's not going to change.

Now, you or I may not like it. Hell, we most certainly do not like it. But what we like or don't like is pretty much beside the point. The juggernaut will keep rolling.

So I ask you: Why do we bother worrying the this or that bone over a certain number of structural realities that are exceedingly unlikely to change anytime soon, if ever. For example:

In California It's Cabernet, Chardonnay and, Most Recently, Pinot Noir that Rule—Do you really think that higher-priced California wine will, on the broad scale, ever budge from the Cabernet/Chardonnay paradigm?

I remember when, 20 years ago, my first book on California wine was published. I devoted an entire chapter, called "The Price of Success," to answer the question: "Why do Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon account for more than half of all the 1990 vineyard acreage in Napa County (56 percent) and Sonoma County (53 percent)?"

The short answer was—and still is—"They are the fine wines the public wants. More telling though, is that these are the only two wines—except for sparkling wines—for which the public is willing to pay a premium."

Twelve years later, in 2004, I came out with a second book on California wine. Again, I asked the same question. And again my research came up with this:

"If you’ve got high-priced land, grapegrowers and winemakers have little choice: They have to produce grapes that command a premium. This still means Cabernet and Chardonnay, at least in the aggregate. The only two grape varieties gaining on the Cabernet-Chardonnay axis are Pinot Noir and Syrah. While Pinot Noir can fetch a comparably high price, its yields (for top quality) are less that of comparably good quality Cabernet Sauvignon. So economically it’s not an ideal contender. Besides, it’s extremely site-finicky."

(Of course, I was wrong about Syrah, but hey, back in 2002 Syrah looked like it stood a real chance.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and—the Great Newcomer—Pinot Noir is a structural reality. It's rooted, literally and figuratively, in high-priced land. And those are the only varieties, at least in any sizable way, that command a premium in California. It's structural. Period.

The Highest Across-the-Board Prices Go to Places with "Pinnacle Wines"—I've long had a theory about what I call "pinnacle wines" which is, I believe, a structural thing.

A “pinnacle wine” is one that commands an outrageous price and achieves outsize fame and respect. It occupies an acknowledged peak of a pyramid, never mind how limited the actual supply.

For example, Cabernet Sauvignon has its Bordeaux first-growths and cult Cabernets in Napa Valley. Chardonnay has, in Burgundy, Montrachet and five other grands crus—and seven more if you toss in the grands crus of Chablis. Pinot Noir has the fabled Romanée-Conti and plenty of other, nearly as famous, grands crus for company.

Brunello di Montalcino commands a remarkably high price bestowed upon hundreds of producers thanks to the original, near-mythic, status and original high price of just one wine, the ur-Brunello of the producer Biondi-Santi, which single-handedly created the wine called Brunello.

And can anyone doubt that the price and performance of Barbaresco wines was just as single-handedly catapulted by the pinnacle price and performance of Angelo Gaja's Barbaresco wines?

“Pinnacle wines” serve two purposes. First, they set a price cascade, creating the classic sales pitch: “If Château Lafite-Rothschild gets $1,000, my wine is a steal at $300”.

Second, “pinnacle wines” validate quality. Recognized as unquestionably great, they confirm a grape’s or a district's intrinsic quality. Without pinnacle wines, districts or even grape varieties too often get confined to a price ghetto and an unfashionable image from which they cannot easily escape. Think of Chianti. Or imagine the difference if Sonoma County had cult Cabernets.

The structural advantages of pinnacle wines is undeniable. Whether they're essential is open to discussion. But can anyone doubt that they sure do help raise the local tide?

Only Scores Move the Market—This is one that many of you don't want to hear. Too bad. Whether you like it or not—and, yeah, I know some of you sure don't—it's a structural reality: Scores move the market.

Now, you may choose to doubt my impression on this matter. But you don't have to take my word for it. Ask any retailer you know. Or wine distributor. Or importer. Or winery owner. They'll all tell you the same thing: It's scores—high scores, of course—that move the market.

Having said this, it's important to amplify this assertion with a few critical prerequisites. First, the score needs to be on a 100-point scale. Put simply, it's the one that works, the one that seems to be most intuitive. Second, it's not enough for just anyone to issue a score. There must be real credibility. And that's very hard-won and long-term.

Third—and not least—there must be reach. To move a market you need to address a substantial audience. That audience can be narrowly focused, such as for one or another category or type of wine. Or it can be more general. But either way, you've got to reach pretty much all of your intended audience. Call it the "killer app" element, if you like.

That noted, I think one can fairly say that 100-point scores are now structural. Everywhere you turn, in every winegrowing nation, everyone now uses such scores. That tells you something right there, n'est-ce pas? (And, yup, the French now use scores too. And so, too, do the traditionalist Brits.)

Scores work. When allied to the essential motive forces of credibility and reach they move the market. The 100-point score is arguably the newest, and most powerful, structural reality of the modern wine era.

David Rapoport
CA —  August 7, 2012 11:54am ET
I have to wonder if these points would hold such sway if we didn't have a population with such poor numeracy.
The problem with them is not that they exist or that they move markets. All that is fine. They certainly do have a valid function. The problem is the false sense of precision that they imply (people calculating ratios of price to quality) as well as the arbitrary ceiling of 100. I assume that the 100 points has a cultural link with the common grading system, at least here in the US. However, on tests, 100 means 100%; for such a purpose, 100% means everything right, and you can't have better (save the concept of "Extra Credit"). The wine scoring does not effectively map to that. 100% does not represent "all things correct", so it being set as a ceiling is purely arbitrary and , it would seem, moveable subject to advancements in viticulture, winemaking, public taste, etc etc.
I do wonder if people considered these things more actively, would the psychological appeal of the 100 pt system decline.
While I agree it's popular, powerful and useful, I'm not so sure about structural
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  August 7, 2012 12:20pm ET
Enter the old (some would say outdated) issue of paradigm shifts. When "structures" motor along despite glaring inconsistencies (errors) in their infrastructures, they are living on borrowed time. You seem to present these current "structural realities" as eternal absolutes; yet some are historical accidents and others marketing creations. A celebration of contingent structural givens will, sooner or later, lead to a paradigm shift. For those who profit from current structural "realities," absolutizing the inconsistent is the first step down the slippery slope; for those who see these "realities" as yet another form of the Emperor's New Clothing, it's the first step toward a common-sense-driven reality.
Douglas Pendleton
Zionsville, Indiana —  August 7, 2012 1:37pm ET
Dead on on all three points... especially the 100 point scale driving sales.

The final vindication came last month when our British friends at Decanter Magazine finally surrendered to the 100 point system. After spending the last 20 years allowing their editors to take turns, on a monthly basis, ridiculing Robert Parker and Wine Spectator their use of the scale, they were finally for forced to adopt it or lose the relevance of their reviews.
Mr Andrew J Green
Kansas —  August 7, 2012 1:51pm ET
Isn't Peter Michael "Les Pavots" a cult wine from Sonoma? If not, what defines "cult" status?
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  August 7, 2012 3:15pm ET
My definition of cult wines were high scoring (96 points or higher), low production (under 500 cases), wines that achieved both on a consistent and ongoing basis. Thus, Les Pavots, although a great wine, would not, to me, be considered a cult wine. I have got out of the Cult culture over recent years, but those to me that would qualify would be the ultimate original - Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Araujo, Abreau, Sine Qua Non (a non-cabernet wine), and Marcassin (also non cabernet). Today I would probably add Schrader, now sure who else fits that mold...and I couldn't agree more, the points made these wines. Of course back then a 99 point score meant something, today with some critics these scores are tossed around in ridiculous quantities. Of course, if your following a particular critic, you need to know who grades high and who grades low (where a 96 means its phenominal and at the top of the list of wines to buy, not "here is another of the 80 wines this vintage that gets a 96 score").
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  August 7, 2012 4:56pm ET
Wow ... all great points. If we didn't have these same old topics to kick around, oenophiles would have nothing to debate.

I agree with Matt about the structural dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California largely due to consumer tastes and preferences. One only needs to look to the global success of these varietals over centuries for additional evidence that this structural reality will be durable in California.

In additiona to Matt's points, I think Pinnacle Wines are very good for the industry due to general buzz and excitement. And although you will not find a more adrent fan than I of all of Peter Michael's wines (particularly Les Pavots), I must agree with Mr. Zajac's conclusion that it's not a cult wine. In my opinion, Marcassin is Sonoma's (actually Sonoma Coast) only cult wine. Another trait of cult wines is that they often sell at auction for multiples of its release price. According to WS, Marcassin's 2005 Pinot Noir Three Sisters Vyd (97 pts) is selling for $227 at auction, with a release price of $75.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 8, 2012 12:58am ET
To David Zajac's statement: "Of course back then a 99 point score meant something, today with some critics these scores are tossed around in ridiculous quantities" I say "baloney". To believe that kind of unscientific, "too cool for school" statement is to deny the evolution of winemaking. One ought not be immune to noticing how many critics and winemakers consistently remark that modern winemaking has improved exponentially in recent times. Unless you're strictly creationist (LOL). Also, they've tasted them (have you?) and staked careers on doing so. I can't imagine that any reputable critic "tosses around" those 99-100 scores; they're impartial as can be, practically speaking, and held accountable by legions of tasters. Also, let's not forget they're under far more scrutiny by readership - they ought to get some credit for enduring it.
Ray Lam
Vancouver, BC —  August 8, 2012 3:08am ET
I agree that the evolution of winemaking and vineyard practices have improved wines and contributed to higher scores, but how do you explain 94 points for the 2010 Château Pesquié Côtes du Ventoux Terrasses by uncle bob and all the ridiculously high scores a certain wine critic in Australia gives. The scores are 3 to 4 points above for any wine rated 90-91 points by WS. It would be hard for me to believe there is no incentive of some sort to overshoot on the scores. I have found WS to be the most reliable source for my palate. I find HS and JM to be extremely reliable on their scoring. I cannot say the same for other critics and publications. Anyhow, that's my two cents. Cheers.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  August 8, 2012 10:06am ET
Agree with Ray, I can't and won't argue the better quality of top notch wines, as there certainly are more than say 20 years ago, but fundamentally I am opposed to a 100 point wine. If you are not, then please explain how perfection tastes? To me, a 100 point wine is the top, greatest wine you have ever tasted, everything else is therefore not at that level and can't be given 100 points. As such, the silly number of 98-100 points given by certain critics is, to me, ridiculous. And its not just Parker so I don't lay this all on him, a well known former WS writer that is now on his own also throws around 98-100 points as if its going out of style. Silly...that is why I say, KNOW THE CRITIC and guage accordingly. Also, do you not see the advertising at your local wine shops or online? The critic with the highest score is always listed, right? do I really need to explain more about the increase in scores, its called Marketing, and the critic with the highest score wins and gets his name all over the place.
Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA, USA —  August 8, 2012 7:49pm ET
In Worcester Massachusetts, we're lucky to have numerous BYOB restaurants. We've also found great BYOB restaurants in places such as Colchester, CT, by being diligent in seeking them out. So, I bring my own 90+ point Bolgheri Italy, or Napa/Sonoma, CA, wines with me. Some places charge a nominal corking fee, $2-5 a plate, for supplying glasses and discarding the empty bottle after dinner. My wife and I go to BYOB restaurants exclusively. I can bring a 2006 Greppicante that sold for $22 that I bought at 20% off by buying a mixed case to a restaurant where entrees are around $20 and end up paying about $75 for a dinner that would have cost me over $100 with the alcohol mark up.

I understand that alcohol is a profit maker for most restaurants but it's also a liability with liquor license fees, the potential for sending inebriated customers to the roadways, plus the overhead of running a liquor establishment. Most of the BYOB places in Central, MA are in neighborhoods, serve great home style food, and the owners frequently live amongst the people they're serving.

So, buy high quality wine that you know you like less expensively by buying a mixed case at a time and seek out BYOB restaurants. You're bank account will thank you.
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  August 8, 2012 7:56pm ET
At the end of the day, it's all directional folks. I know that some feel there is a significant difference between 95 and 100 but I would dare to say there is not. Same for say anything in the range of 89-91 and 92-94. Generally these are all excellent wines but of course there are always those WOW wines that stand out above.
I am tired of all the fuss over rating systems. the are designed to provide directional evaluation of the quality of the wine. Maybe a little more precise than the 5 star or 20pt scale but in my view, really not much different. It;s just that it is more prolific than ever before. Relax, enjoy and drink well. That's all.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA, USA —  August 9, 2012 1:04am ET
Matt, there is no challenge here to the three “structural” certainties that you elucidate. It is difficult to foresee the crumble of any of these structures anytime soon. Nevertheless, I continue to be frustrated with the 100 point scoring system, which really spans only 20 points. Have you seen a 49 or even a 79 point wine lately? And, for wine purveyors only the top ten points matter. Every winery’s nightmare is the dreaded 89.

It has always been curious to me how any wine writer can say with such absolute certitude down to a simple integer that a wine merits just this score. Most certainly “objectivity” at some point takes a back seat to “subjectivity”. That is why I prefer a range to the score, such as often provided when writers taste a wine before bottling.

In a doubtless futile attempt to chip away at the 100 point structure, for personal use I have converted to a scoring system that uses ranges instead of an absolute number. It is based on baseball and surrenders to the fact that only wines scoring between 85 and 100 matter. Thus, below 85 is an “O” (out), 85-87 is an “S” (single), 88-90 is a “D” (double), 91-93 is a “T” (triple), 94-96 is an “H” (home run) and 97-100 is a “G” (grand slam). A flawed wine gets a “K” (strike out). If more precision is needed, there is room for hybrid scores such as “SD” (single thrown out sliding into second) to indicate a wine scoring toward the upper level of the range. This system nicely bridges the 89 to 90 chasm. Also, it works great in tasting rooms to code your score and not offend.
Mark Goldberger
Boston, MA —  August 9, 2012 1:15am ET

You've made some great generalizations, but each has a fatal flaw in that each is just that: a generalization.

You know as well as I do that there are plenty of restaurants that have a comparably low mark up on wine, such as $10 over cost on any bottle, no matter the price. Likewise, there are plenty of scoring systems other than the 100 point rating system that work. See the Gambero Rosso as a prime example. And moreover, the three wines produced each year by Verite are examples of Sonoma Bordeaux-blends that have been elevated to cult status thanks to several 100 point scores from the Wine Advocate.

The underlying points of your arguments may be true, Matt, but as with any broad generalizations, your comments leave you open for attack because there are too many exceptions to the rules you've laid out.
John Lahart
New York NY —  August 9, 2012 9:40am ET
"Now, you may choose to doubt my impression on this matter. But you don't have to take my word for it. Ask any retailer you know. Or wine distributor. Or importer. Or winery owner. They'll all tell you the same thing: It's scores—high scores, of course—that move the market."

It's about time to stop "asking" the trade and applying some common sense. (the two are too often mutually exclusive). Think about it. "move" what market? There is no singular wine market. The market happens to be highly segmented.

Most wines at retail are not rated by anyone or are bought by consumers who don't care much about scores.

Many consumers who are aware of scores use scores as one element of a list of criteria for buying wine and often those scores are in the middle or toward the bottom of that list.

Here's an example of how the trade forms wrong headed conventional wisdom.
Two bottles of sauvignon blanc sit side by side on a shelf one is scored and the other is not (or has a lower score). The customer takes the scored (or higher scored) bottle to the cashier. The retailer "assumes" the score sold the wine.

There area many reason that customer selected the wine they did and the score may have had little or nothing to do with it.
--the consumer liked the label
--the consumer had the wine in a restaurant and liked it
--the consumer was buying the wine for someone else and was told to get it.
--any combination of myriad purchase motivators that include or do not include the score.

and on and on and......

Recommendations from relatives as well as mentions in general market publications like Food and Wine or The WSJ are likely far more influential with more people than specific critic's scores.

The one group obsessed with scores is not consumers but the trade (including wine writers).
Some perspective and some common sense is needed.

Arne Skog
Kenmore, WA —  August 9, 2012 10:31pm ET

I rarely buy a sub 88 wine. If there was a 1-10 scale would a 88 wine be a 9 or a 94 be a 9?
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  August 10, 2012 8:35am ET
I propose we use a 1,000 point scoring system, that way we would better know if a 99 point wine really a 98.5 (985 points) or a 99.4 (994 points)? After all, who cares about the review itself...
David Zickafoose
Huntington, WV —  August 10, 2012 5:29pm ET
As much as I hate to, I have to agree with Matt.
Scores sell wines. I have a shop with about 2,000 SKU's and for years we didn't put scores on anything. About 2 years ago we started putting spectator, advocate, and other scores on the shelves. After a few months of checking the numbers we saw a steady growth of sales on the wines with scores while the others stagnated or fell. Of course there were exceptions but when looked at overall it was hard to ignore the truth...
Paul Malinowski
Littleton, CO —  August 10, 2012 10:46pm ET
These are great comments, which means you had a really thought-provoking article, Matt. I especially liked Mike's comments above about the scoring system. For 80-90% of the wines on the market, aren't we really talking about a 15-point rating system of 80-95? Like he said, do you ever see a 49-rated wine?

That said, here is a benefit. My wife knows nothing about wines but every year for my birthday she searches out a 90 or higher rated (by WS) wine for me. I must say I have been the beneficiary of her doggedness!

Blake Angove
Traverse City, Mi —  August 10, 2012 11:29pm ET
@ John Lahart: You nailed it for the most part. As much as we, as readers at WS, would like to think we are the majority and market leaders, it is really the vast majority of people drinking grocery store wines that drive the market. What would happen to wine if we lost all our $150+ cabs? Few would even notice, but on the other hand if the $7-$15 cabs, merlots, and chard went away the wine world would shiver and thus there are wines that are made not for quality so much but for marketing with catchy names and target for specific demographics.

@ David: I completely agree that the scores would spike sales but if you own a store that your clientele find reputable, do you think that you could have spiked sales by putting your own ratings for all the wines you carry, as I imagine you think highly of them or you wouldn't carry them. The world of wine is confusing to so many that they will of course gravitate towards wines that give them some idea of what is in the bottle and the quality therein. In essence, by putting points on the shelves you gave those wines a competitive advantage so they should have won. I have the same issue with wine list that list the somm's favorites, shouldn't they all be favorites?? I was at one restaurant here in traverse city and the MS that did the list had two cabs @ $100, one with his seal of approval and one without. Which would you buy? Why is the other one there if he published his belief that it is not as good as the other??

John D Carlson
Oshkosh, WI —  August 15, 2012 1:27pm ET
Sonoma doesn't need the cult cab scene, they've got their own cult pinot scene. Marcassin is the easy one but you've also got Kosta Browne, DuMol, Williams Selyem, Aubert, Paul Hobbs, Chasseur and scores of others. To me these are the Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle of the next decade+ and I think we will see these fetching the ridiculous $300 and up prices at your favorite big-name steakhouse (if they aren't already).
John D Carlson
Oshkosh, WI —  August 15, 2012 2:14pm ET
Sonoma doesn't need the cult cab scene, they've got their own cult pinot scene. Marcassin is the easy one but you've also got Kosta Browne, DuMol, Williams Selyem, Aubert, Paul Hobbs, Chasseur and scores of others. To me these are the Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle of the next decade+ and I think we will see these fetching the ridiculous $300 and up prices at your favorite big-name steakhouse (if they aren't already).

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