The twitter-verse the past few weeks has been all, well, a-twitter with dozens of posts from wine writers spewing forth (and I use the term “spewing” intentionally) their opinions about the future of wine scores and just how, exactly, Millennials make buying decisions about wine. Given that I am now a wine writer I have decided that I have every right to chime in on the subject.
The issues of wine scores and marketing to Millennials are really separate subjects, but they do overlap (“Do Millennials give a rat’s ass about wine scores?”) I will give my opinion on the two subjects separately.
As for the wine scoring system, it is my opinion (and I have never been wrong when it comes to my opinion) that scores will continue to be given by many critics, but not all. It’s a way of comparing one wine to another…and it’s not. I despise wine scores, personally, for reasons I will list in a moment. But will scoring continue? Of course it will. It’s established, it’s easy, and Robert Parker is coming back to rate Northern California wines, which means we are doomed.
Why do I detest wine scores? For one thing, many of us “common-folk” (people who aren’t wine bluebloods) don’t trust the scores in the first place. People have always speculated that reviewers could be bought off, either directly (cash) or indirectly (“Please accept my year-long advertising campaign in your magazine.”) To be clear, I am not saying that any of this actually happens. But plenty of people think it does, enough to make many buyers skeptical about wine scores overall.
Second, many times high wine scores result in the prices of those wines increasing to ridiculous amounts. Obviously this is opportunism (read “greed”) on the part of the vintner. I used to occasionally buy a few bottles of Vérité wines from over in Windsor, even at $225 a bottle. Then Parker gave all three of their wines (Le Désir, La Joie and La Muse) 100 points in 2007 and all of a sudden the price soared to $450 a bottle. Thanks, but I won’t be buying any more at that price.
Finally, who is to say that some person I don’t know (any reviewer) would evaluate a wine the way I would? I recently tasted at Cardinale winery in Oakville, and was allowed to sample the 2006, 2007 and 2008 releases. They were priced at $250-300 a bottle, and had scores in the low- to mid-90s from well-known reviewers. I didn’t like any of them. Then they served me their sister wine, Lokoya, and I sampled the three same vintages, which also had lofty scores and were priced even higher at $350-400 a bottle. I disliked them, as well. Even if they were $100 a bottle I would not have bought them. And therein lies the problem with scores for me.
So if scores are questionable, result in higher-priced wines, and are subjective, what do I suggest instead? At the recent Wine Writers Symposium at the Meadowood in Napa Valley, we discussed this topic at length. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and Susan Kostrzewa of the Wine Enthusiast chaired a discussion on how to write better wine reviews that would allow people to understand what a wine may actually taste like using terms people could relate to. In this discussion, scores were either relegated to lesser importance, or eliminated altogether. I happen to be one who agrees with this approach. A well-written review using a limited list of common terms and descriptors, which also suggests appropriate food pairings, would help me decide if a wine fit my personal preferences.
Now with all of the above considerations, let’s briefly address the Millennials. (For those who are not certain, Millennials are also known as “Generation Y,” and were born between 1980 and 2000.) These younger buyers, in their 20’s and early 30’s, are a huge segment of the buying public and are now shifting from beer and cocktails to wines. They are the future of the wine market. (I should point out that they are not moving away from beer and spirits, but are adding wine to the mix.) As their earning power grows, so does their interest in and budget for better wines. The big question is how to reach these buyers, because they are children of the digital age and do not read Wine Spectator like their fathers do/did.
Many “experts” (tongue planted firmly in cheek) insist that Millennials only communicate via smartphones over social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else is hot at the moment) so therefore scores and wine magazines are irrelevant. Others insist that “wine-ignorant friends who post online” and other unknown amateur wine analysts on Cellartracker will never replace the wisened old wine reviewers who are in print and online.
My daughter, about to turn 27, is a Millennial, and perfectly fits the group being talked about. She lives in an over-priced apartment in San Francisco, makes a very good 5-figure salary, doesn’t own a car, and works in a hip young ad agency downtown with an in-office bar on the top floor. Wine is consumed regularly after work with colleagues, and trust me when I tell you they aren’t drinking Haut-Brion. Every week they try new, inexpensive but drinkable wines that they can afford. They share their findings and opinions with one another. And yes, they post on all those social media sites and share with ever greater circles of friends. While they may occasionally spend $200 on wine, it’s for a CASE, not a bottle. Many join wine clubs…. like Ram’s Gate, or Jacuzzi, which appeal to Millennials and have approachable price points. They aren’t joining the Bordeaux-of-the-month club. According to my daughter, she does pay attention to scores, but only while at places like BevMo when choosing among several cheap wines. She says “it helps to see that some reviewer gave the wine a good score,” but admits that the descriptive text is more important to her than the scores.
Many wine sellers have caught on to these younger drinkers and are attempting to earn their business. A fascinating business in San Francisco called “Rewinery.com” offers up daily specials via email to subscribers who work in the city. The email may go out at 1pm and offer the first 30 or 50 respondents the opportunity to purchase (for example) a bottle of spaghetti-worthy red wine along with a bag of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce, for $30, delivered to your office before 5pm. Okay, that’s different… and it works. The pairings change all the time, and include late-night deliveries in the city on some nights to your home “in case you have run out of wine.” Wineries sign up with the company to participate in these packages, and provide wines at a discount, but at least the numbers are finite. Customers can buy more bottles if they liked it, at higher prices, but you also know they will be sharing the experience with their friends online. This is a great way for a winery to take a lower-priced SKU and offer it to these new buyers in hopes of building some brand loyalty. It’s definitely worth looking into.
The way I see it, the wine market will always be fractured in different segments, and those segments will utilize different forms of information gathering. Today’s Millennials will become tomorrow’s mainstream market, and another generation will slide into their spot at the bottom of the market totem pole. There will always be different forms of marketing used to reach the defined segments. In other words, anyone who says “scores are dead” or makes any other such de facto statements is wrong. Savvy vintners will employ multiple strategies and tactics to reach their audiences, or they will watch other folks pass them by.