Writers On Critics’ Scores

Selling authentic wine, bad or good?

Authenticity or 100 Point Scores, Matt Kramer or Steve Heimoff, Chicken or Egg?
THURSDAY, 21 OCTOBER 2010 15:47

In his blog of October 5, Matt Kramer described how he now perceives the vast changes that have occurred in the world’s wines over the past 40 years. While changes in specific wines are obvious to even casual drinkers, and some broader trends have been equally obvious, Kramer notes that only now, in the wake of research for his new book and numerous conversations with wine industry professionals around the world, has he been able to put his finger on the driving force of most of these changes. In a new blog from October 19, he identifies the cause as the pursuit of authenticity; the attempt to ensure that the wine in a bottle is a) what the label says it is and b) a wine that represents both its constituent grapes and the place from whence they came in a way that allows them to be identified by a trained taster.

What are the changes of which he writes? He notes dramatic stylistic changes in the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy toward richer, oakier products. He alludes to similar changes in California. As for places such as Italy and Spain, while he’s too kind to say so directly, the changes he speaks of are the transformation from poorly made, often unclean, wine to good and, yes, site specific wine.

Few people would assert that these changes have not taken place or that they are not significant. What is being hotly debated now is the cause. Again, Kramer says the change-factor is the search for authenticity. He actively dismisses the notion that the 100-point scoring system is the root cause, saying that higher scores are just a by-product of the authenticity-driven changes. Others, including Steve Heimoff in his blog today, argued the contrary. Heimoff states "From my perspective in California, I know that the 100-point system has been responsible for almost all the changes that have occurred." He cites as proof 20 years of comments from California winemakers indicating that they have been changing their style in pursuit of higher scores.

I think both Mr. Kramer and Mr. Heimoff are incorrect. The pursuit of authenticity and the pursuit of scores are simply tools. The real compulsion for all of these changes is the desire of wineries to profit from, or at least survive in, an increasingly global wine market.

In a market that is not global — a market in which wines rarely go far beyond their region of origin or, if they do, are typically the primary wine available in that export market — consumers have little choice. It is not one market but scads of tiny regional monopolies. If consumers want wine, they have to drink "local." These consumers are relatively insensitive to poor quality because they are accustomed to the local wine, even if it is bad, and because they don’t have access to significantly different wine. On the winemaking side, captive markets and limited competition do not inspire innovation or the pursuit of higher quality.

The beginning of this change, I believe, came with the end of World War II. Many American GIs returned home from Europe with a newly acquired taste for wine — mostly French and Italian wine. However, authentically French or Italian wines weren’t broadly available in the U.S. outside of the biggest cities. So American wineries began producing volumes of "Hearty Burgundy" and "Chablis" made from domestic grapes that rarely had anything in common with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. [Certainly, the use of such names in the U.S. pre-dated WWII. However, volumes were lower and the wines were often produced by first- or second-generation immigrants who were at least taking a stab at reproducing the wines of their homelands for themselves and their fellow immigrants.]

In the 1960’s, a number of things occurred which started to push the globalization of wine into high gear. The post-war economies of the major European countries began to improve and businesses therein transitioned from survival mode to a quest for expansion. Air travel became safer and much more prevalent; flights from the U.S. to Europe were no longer just for the rich and famous. In the United States, Robert Mondavi, to whom the best wines of Europe were well-known, founded a winery in Napa Valley with the goal of producing wines from that region that would be as good as the best of Bordeaux. European wine professionals came to California to study more modern approaches to viticulture and vinification. (Christian Moueix, proprietor of Chateau Petrus, studied at U.C. Davis in 1968-69.) In short, European wine regions were ready to increase exports, there was an increasing number of consumers eager to buy those wines and the seeds of global competition had been sown.

These trends did nothing but accelerate in the 1970’s. International travel became common and international cargo (eg. wine) transport improved. More wineries sprouted up in California, focused on satisfying increasing domestic demand for quality wines in a European style. Robert Mondavi expanded his focus to Italy. European wineries took interest in owning vineyards in California. And, in 1976, California took the top spots in The Judgement of Paris. While the latter event was publicly discounted by the French at the time — even the judges made excuses — behind closed doors it had to provide a very loud wake-up call to French wineries.

In subsequent years, more and more markets opened up and more regions began producing high-quality wine in pursuit of those customers. Australia was among the first, as getting to and from became easier. Political changes and economic development allowed Italy, Spain, Latin America and South Africa to enter the world market in a serious way. Today, even Bulgaria plays a significant role at low price points in Europe.
Where does authenticity come in? Globalization is both opportunity and threat. Claiming authenticity — a genuine sense of unique place — is both offense and defense. When the market for wines such as genuine Chablis is threatened by foreigners making use of the name, the rightful owners of that "brand" defend it. They pursue international legislation to stop such usage. In order to further legitimize their claim and develop the brand, these regions also pass their own laws regulating typicity and minimum quality standards.

But, if California can produce high-quality wines in the "Bordeaux-style," merely preventing its wineries from calling the wine Claret is insufficient to hold, let alone grow, market share. Wines must have a unique selling proposition. It’s not enough to be Bordeaux. To do that, wineries must play up the differences between Left Bank and Right, St. Julien and Pauillac, Mouton and Lafite. The flavor, and certainly the romance, of a single site is much harder to reproduce elsewhere than is a broad regional style. The same thing has occurred in the New World. It was not enough to make a Cabernet Sauvignon-blend or to license the term "Meritage" in hope of evoking thoughts of Bordeaux. Al Brounstein founded Diamond Creek in 1968 and proved you can thrive by designating single-vineyards if you truly capture the character of said vineyard in the bottle — assuming that it is worth capturing. Hundreds, probably thousands, of wineries have followed his example.

Unique authenticity can create fans among consumers and deliver both good unit sales and higher prices. It creates a sense of exclusivity, implies limited supply, and inspires romantic notions regarding history, geography and agriculture. It allows for a broader line list of clearly differentiated products. Authenticity allows character to triumph over yum-factor. And it allows wineries to argue that the one thing that is theirs alone - their vineyard land - is not just unique but superior to that of their competitors.

As Matt Kramer says one of the key changes he's seen is richer wines and that can be a by-product of the pursuit of authenticity. However, that isn't always the case. Not every wine which has become richer and oakier has done so due to the pursuit of authenticity. Sometimes wineries are simply pursuing richer wines to suit their perception of consumers' or reviewers' tastes.

Enter the 100-point system. The average consumer cannot hope to taste, let alone carefully evaluate, the profusion of wines to which globalization and the resulting site-specific designations have led. Consumers freeze up when confronted with too much choice absent guidance. The "old-school" style of wine writing was not capable of providing sufficient advice. That is not to say anything is wrong with that writing. The style simply takes too much time to research, and too many words, to address consumers’ basic questions about the thousands of available wines in any given market. Consumers want to know whether or not a wine is "good," what it tastes like, and whether or not they will like it. The 100-point scoring system, along with a capsule description, aims to answer the first two questions and can do so for a huge number of wines. The system is imperfect but consumers obviously find it attractive. As a result, the 100-point system has changed the way consumers, stores and restaurants around the world make their buying decisions.

As a result, many wineries pursue high scores in an effort to thrive in an increasingly competitive global market. Consumers want high-scoring wines because they are thought to be good. The trade want high-scoring wines because consumers buy them readily. And if high-scores are meant to connote quality, then pursuing those scores is a pursuit not only of sales but improved quality. Whether or not you or I agree with the scores of a particular reviewer is irrelevant. Reviews and the pursuit of points is simply another tool that wineries use, along with authenticity, use of an "international style," wine clubs, fancy tasting rooms, advertising, and now social media, to try to succeed in a competitive global market.

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