The Democracy of Wine

Why do Wine Companies Resist Ratings? In much the same way that "Image is Everything" became a pop culture battle cry during the nineties, it is this kind of wild excess, coupled with ubiquitous and clichéd overstatements about cult wines, that has established an ephemeral rating system which finds peculiar favor among Americans.

It is human nature to compare and calibrate everything from wit to wine, but the American temperament seems to resist final codification, a characteristic which may render any speculation about a rating system for wine just that—idle speculation. Bordeaux’s classification system has held its own for almost 150 years, despite a steady undercurrent of controversy and complaint, perhaps because the French seem, on the whole, more comfortable as a people with the idea of a canon of appraisal. But what is it exactly that so offends Americans, and how then should we as consumers adjudicate quality in wine?

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political scientist and statesman, visited the United States in order to study the then remarkable fact of political and social equality, a visit which resulted in his classic treatise, Democracy in America. What he came to understand 170 years ago applies perhaps even more so now: "Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs. This . . . makes them suspicious of all authority. [They] . . . have a natural bias toward free institutions." Even Tocqueville, a foreigner, swiftly realized that there was little affection for the statist view in America. Which leaves us with the push and shove of the marketplace, and a de facto classification system in the wine industry that can reflect genuine quality over 30 years, perhaps, but does not do so reliably over shorter periods of time.

A collage of independent, often random, sometimes antagonistic, and rarely coordinated rating strategies function throughout today’s consumer market, all sending messages ("offering advice") to the buyer, who, if he is not overwhelmed, is at least disconcerted. By definition commercial hype has the loudest voice and again, in the short run, potency beyond reason. This year, for instance, hype catapulted a Cabernet with (one hopes) the discrepant name, Screaming Eagle, to stratospheric prices—half a million for a six-liter bottle at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Perhaps the wine is terrific—let us assume that it is—but one cannot help suspecting that the sheer momentum of media buzz corrupted the democracy of Screaming Eagle among its peers.

In much the same way that "Image is Everything" became a pop culture battle cry during the nineties, it is this kind of wild excess, coupled with ubiquitous and clichéd overstatements about cult wines, that has established an ephemeral rating system which finds peculiar favor among Americans. But for a while the spin doctors have their say, and they can say enough to sell out a vintage before anyone knows what exactly is in the bottle, and where it will be in, say, 10 or 20 years.

Wine buyers for state-controlled liquor stores, like The Wine Store in Salt Lake City, make their selections, which again constitute a de facto rating system, since one man—Brett Clifford, the omnipotent palate—makes virtually all final decisions for the state of Utah. Placement on wine lists, particularly celebrated ones, shelf facings in stores, and of course pricing comprise smaller rating systems. But by far the most influential and, for that reason, potentially dangerous, are the wine magazines, most of whose evaluations are based on organoleptic results—the ever mercurial, yet strangely almighty subjective. By assigning numerical values to the opinion—a 100-point scale, for instance—the subjective appears objective. "This country is numerically oriented," remarked Michael Quinttus, Senior Vice President for Kobrand. "Any formalized rating system for California is premature," he added. "There hasn’t been time enough to discern a story of quality. In Santa Barbara, for instance, most of the vines are less than ten years old. Napa Valley, as the longest planted, would be the first area susceptible to a rating system." France has had the benefit of centuries of trial and error data, he pointed out. The AOC system in Burgundy merely codified what everyone already knew, and had known for a very long time – what grew best where. Whoever knows the ages of the stone walls in Burgundy that demarcate vineyards and quality differences knows how long it takes to establish an authentic and reliable identification of merit.

If a rating system like the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux is The Thing Itself—the noun, as it were—then here in America what we have are stand-ins for such a system—we have pronouns. Among other things, we have commercial wine magazines. The Wine Enthusiast may praise Wine X while the Wine Spectator strikes it from the rolls. The Wine Buyers Guide may take no note at all of a winery the Wine Advocate regularly reviews. "It’s an informal system," says Michael Quinttus. "It has validity to the degree you respect that particular writer’s opinion."

So how does one sort it all out? Wouldn’t a classification system, even a loosely constructed one established by a panel of reputable industry members, and subject to biannual review, provide an educative guide to the consumer? Wouldn’t a little solid ground be . . . well . . . nice? And if so, on what would it be based—trailing averages (a combination of prices and volumes compiled over some years)? Caymus Vineyards has an enviable trailing average, one of the highest in the industry. Volatility invites demerit. But with the newer cult wines, which have no established track records that either elevate or diminish market estimation, the field is open, the critics all-embracing, and the groupies assembling.

Here in America, and in particular, in California, the process of identifying what grape varieties are best suited to which locations—terroir-specific wines—is in medias res; it is an explorative/cartographic process which will take many decades as vineyards are planted/replanted, and new viticultural techniques are essayed, and the vintages mount up over generations. While there has been some controversy over appellations, especially the ones that command the highest prices (Napa, for example), the fact that there is a readily perceivable harmony or disharmony between grape variety and location is indisputable. Pinot Noir did not do well in the Greenfield district of the Central Coast, it was green and vegetal; but Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma can be exceptionally good. On the other hand, Chardonnays from the Monterey area are usually superior to Chardonnays from the Napa Valley, and in fact most of the Chardonnay vineyards in the valley have been grafted over to Cabernet Sauvignon. The task, simply, is to match-make, and few maintain any illusions about the sizable time ingredient. But to say out loud which are the best vineyards and/or wineries, and arrange them in a fixed, five-point scale generates all manner of agitation among industry professionals. To begin with, the industry needs time, and then more time, to map out those appellations, and to evaluate what Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars calls "the agency factor."

"Here in California it’s the producer, it’s making choices that allow the terroir to speak," he said during a recent interview, "and since humans change, so do the style and quality. We think more in terms of changes, while the French emphasis is on site, on quality due to its unchanging character." Winiarski offers some old buzz when he recalls that it was the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon that won the Paris L’Academie du Vin tasting in 1976, a triumph that sent a warning shot over the bow of the French wine industry, as well as telling it "not to take their classification system for granted." As for cult wines and reckless prices, Winiarski admits that "the force of the free market can delude or obscure quality." But, he added, excellence is a combination of "ground, grapes, and the guy," and eventually that "excellence will out. You have to have a certain amount of faith."

Faith indeed. And time. A small winery making splendid wines with limited resources may not get the attention it deserves, perhaps because it does not woo the wine writers, or does not submit wines to the "right" tastings, or get samples to the influential buyers, or spin the tale that enchants. For such a winery time is money, and both can run out before the uncorrupted consumer has a chance to discover it. The trouble with our anarchistic system is that there are middlemen who presort and sift and then "offer up for discovery" chosen wines to the consumer. While some advantages accrue to the consumer as a result of this sequence, there are obvious drawbacks, not the least of which is that many wines are completely eliminated from the sampling and rating scene.

The Classification of 1855 in Bordeaux was based primarily on the historical market prices of the wine—trailing averages, as it were, that extended over many decades. Thus, their sampling was at the very least statistically formidable. Their selections arose not from tasting the wines, which would have invited personal prejudice, but from the performance of the properties over time. But the system focused on the Médoc, leaving out Pomerol and St.-Émilion, regions whose wines were considered inferior. A hundred years later St.-Émilion was classified, and around the same time, Graves. Château Pétrus in Pomerol— which has never been rated—is considered equal to a first growth.

Michael Quinttus believes that the St.-Émilion system provides a model as to "how to do it properly." In order to stay current, an official body convenes every 10 years to reevaluate the rating of each chateau, which it then affirms, demotes, or promotes. Judgment is based on "reputation, soil analysis, and tasting." The German model requires that wineries submit wines annually to tasting panels in order to maintain the privilege of indicating appellation on the label, a system Quinttus regards as "overly complex and overly comprehensive." As far as the 1855 Classification, Quinttus believes that it has achieved an "icon status. No one has dared to attack it officially, except Mouton." It appears to be virtually impervious to revision.

What is interesting about the 1855 system is that while it acknowledged that terrain was important, it recognized the proprietor’s management, together with his supporting cast of winemakers and cellar crew, as the final determination of quality, and therefore profit margin and market price. Classed growths were continually adding to and subtracting from their vineyard holdings, as well as altering the planting mix. "They are not vine museums whose purpose is to preserve the aspect of a nineteenth-century vineyard," says Dewey Markham, Jr. in his most recent book 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification. By the same token, the system recognized the vicissitudes of fortune that all wineries face—a decline in resources, a new owner, a descendent with straying interests – and would not demote a chateau based on even a 50-year run of disappointing wines. In France the agency factor is at least as important as location, location, location.

The main problem in terms of the authority of the 1855 system, according to Markham, is that it may be regarded as a "snapshot" of Bordeaux at that time, of the chateaux producing great or inferior wines, as well as the drinking public’s preference for certain characteristics which are, like all things, subject to change. Properties who did not make the cut then, but who have since established a record of making wines equal or even superior to their classed brethren, may not inscribe their labels with the highly profitable words cru classé. While the market makes its own blunt adjustments, and the wines may fetch fair or fitting prices, for these just-under-the-line properties, the row is harder to hoe.

Gerald Boyd, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked during a recent conversation that here in America the industry has historically wanted some kind of classification system, but that now there is a feeling or a movement away from ratings, a desire to have "the wine prove itself." He added, "Everybody is brand-oriented here. If it was only California, or only red wines or Cabernets . . . but there are so many regions. A classification system would put people off." As far as the wine magazines go, he suggested that they’re "preaching to the choir," and that "one reason why wine consumption in this country moves at a snail’s pace is that there is little to no generic wine promotion." Read: promotion of affordable wines. In Wine Spectator’s California Wine Jim Laube, who has designed his own five-star rating system, says that he "deliberately focused on the finest wines." But perhaps the most salient point Boyd made with regard to an American classification system was that many wineries produce a variety of wines, sometimes multiples of single varietals, which would render the blueprint for a classification system dauntingly complex.

Jeff Morgan, a buyer for Dean & DeLuca, sees no need for a classification system here: "It would run against our free-wheeling American ethos." The market itself provides a "self-codifying process," he added. Cult wines with over-inflated reputations do not concern him either. "The prices that are manifested at the Napa Valley wine auction are not in any way indicative of real prices. They are a hierarchical indication of perceived quality." But what exactly shapes those perceptions of quality?

At this point it may be useful to note that there is in fact consumer demand for a rating system by the wine industry itself, but the industry has refused to provide ratings. Currently, we are the only significant wine-producing nation in the world that relies upon a media-based rating system.

Of the dozens of wine magazines, journals, newsletters, and buying guides published in this country, by far the most influential is the Wine Spectator. One assumes that in such a position the magazine feels not only a journalistic responsibility to its readership, but a collegial responsibility to the industry it seeks to interpret. Yet it declined to participate in a discussion of a classification system. In response to a request for an interview Jim Laube said he would "pass." One of the Spectator’s vice presidents called to explain that they regarded other magazines as "the competition." Matt Kramer, who writes for the Spectator, did offer a few opinions, but when asked if he thought there was any demand or need for a classification system in this country, he replied, "What’s the point? It’s not useful to us, and it wouldn’t work here. And anyway," Kramer added, "we have the Wine Spectator." Perhaps this statement, more than any other, suggests the need for a system that is less prejudicial and less self-patronizing. Even the sometimes-harsh evaluations of the free market, which eventually lead to gradations, are preferable to directives from on high.

In all likelihood the sheer momentum of globalization will force the emergence of an industry-based classification, but at the moment the wine industry in this country seems to have little or no disposition toward such a system, if only because it opposes our national character and philosophy. Americans are accustomed not only to equality of condition, but an equality of potential. We insist upon the equal right to improve, to be the best, even while in so improving we create ascending and descending levels of quality. We create inequality. Here again is Tocqueville: "They [the Americans] have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man, they judge that the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them today to be good, may be superseded by something better tomorrow."

The 1855 Classification of Bordeaux does some, though not all, of the work for the consumer. No one interviewed had any unwarranted credulity in it. A system so dogmatic has, perhaps, little chance of survival today. In our country we have an array of opinions about an array of wines, we have the market, we have pricing, we have wine list inclusions and wine shop selections, we have ads and the ever-present buzz of hyperbole, and we have our own palates. No one here should suffer unwarranted credulity in any one of these sources. It’s a messy mortal scene . . . and it’s all we have.

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