Imagine you’re browsing the shelves of your local wine shop, and you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three wines of roughly the same price. Each of them has a “shelf talker” with a textual description of the wine plus a numerical score, usually out of 100 possible points. One wine sports 95 points, while the other two are, say, 91 points and 86 points.
Which one would you choose?
(The 95-point wine, right? Most of us would, but this is part of the problem. We’ll get to that in a moment.)
There is no doubt — still — that high ratings and top numerical scores from critics go a long way toward selling wine, and at higher prices to boot. Yet the faults in the foundation of that infrastructure, built decades ago, has been showing its age for some time. Rather than blindly following the recommendations of influential wine critics (Robert Parker at the height of his powers in the 1980s and 1990s is the quintessential example), consumers have been saying for several years that they’re more likely to follow the advice of friends and social media influencers. It’s been a refreshing shift away from advice “on high” to more grounded, peer-to-peer recommendations.
There’s another angle that’s been less discussed regarding this shift of influence, namely from the winemaker’s perspective. Who’s calling the shots for evaluating their wines, and why those people but not others? Is it time to revise the traditional model even further, and how so? What other models can be created, and experimented with?
Winemakers Isabel Mitarakis (from Concha y Toro in Chile) and Ashley Trout (from Brook & Bull Cellars in Washington state) have some suggestions, from two very different ends of the spectrum of scale and style.
Unrated, Literally: No Scores, Except Her Own
Mitarakis’ “Unrated” label is exactly that: she seeks no ratings or scores from critics for this wine. From the philosophy and attitude of the wine to its branding and packaging, this wine is proudly unrated except by Mitarakis herself.
“In the end, I wanted to make a wine that doesn’t have to be rated,” Mitarakis said during a Zoom interview. “I wanted to make this wine for the consumer, no ratings, no further criticals. It’s my own 100-point wine, not the critics’.”
The irony, and the takeaway from this first example, is that Mitarakis knows very well how to make top-rated wines — in the case of Unrated, she picks and chooses the very best grapes from 127 different parcels of vineyards around Chile. Her expertise has been honed while working to create Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s iconic Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Alto Maipo valley. But just because Don Melchor may be some people’s (critics’) idea of a top-rated wine doesn’t mean that it’s the consumers’ (your) idea of a top-rated wine.
“The best wine in the world is the wine that you love,” Mitarakis sums it up succinctly. And wine critics can keep their opinions to themselves, thank you very much.
Matching Who Reviews the Wine with Who Buys It
For Ashley Trout, there’s a disconnect between who buys her wine, and who historically has reviewed it.
“While women are the major force behind the financial success of the wine world [since they’re responsible for the majority of wine purchases], they are rarely represented at the top of that industry,” Trout said. “We have customers, but aren’t being honest about who that customer is. That’s silly.”
Since women are the majority of buyers, it makes sense that women should be the majority of reviewers. But, not surprisingly, that is far from the reality. So in an effort both to draw attention to the disparity, and to incentivize more female representation in the top tiers of the wine industry, Brook & Bull now only submits wines for scoring to women wine critics whose names are published with their scores.
It’s a bold move, particularly since it significantly narrows the number of possible reviewers who would draw attention (and high ratings) to Trout’s wines. Yet Trout believes that the commitment to women-only wine scorers is one way that they can contribute to the movement of raising the levels of female representation in the industry.
Such a vision would, indeed, present a stark contrast to the reality of the Robert Parker era in its heyday. But, as we’re seeing, there is more than one way to disrupt that old-school tradition.