Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wine Shelf-Talkers: Consumer Aid or Consumer Fraud? (update 2)

Way back in February 2010, I wrote about the use of shelf-talkers to help consumers make wine-buying decisions (Wine Shelf-Talkers: Consumer Aid or Consumer Fraud?). In that post, after some discussion of the pros and cons of the use of shelf-talkers, I discussed a highly deceptive use of a shelf-talker by my local Fresh Market grocery store. That post was followed by an update that discussed how Fresh Market responded to my complaint to set the matter right.

Anyway, the time has come to revisit the issue of wine shelf-talkers (note that I started writing this post last fall … and kept adding to it and putting off finishing it; oh well).

I continue to believe that a shelf-talker is a useful tool for consumers. There are far too many bottles of wine, encompassing an enormous number of varieties from a bewildering number of regions (and most stores, even grocery stores, will have wines from at least 11 countries — 10 points to the first reader who can identify the 11 that I’m thinking of…) for a consumer to make any sort of decision absent at least some additional information. Clearly just reading the sales puffery on the label is no more valuable (or at least not much more valuable) than reading the advertising copy on the front of a box of cereal. Even an educated wine consumer will often have a great deal of difficulty determining whether a particular Cabernet Sauvignon is going to be better than another, let alone determining the quality of a wine from a lesser-known Château in Bordeaux. So a shelf-talker that describes what a consumer can expect from a particular bottle of wine can be very useful. But only so much… Consider the following four wine reviews (chosen, more or less, at random, from 2008 Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley):

  • Rich, with loamy earth, currant, black licorice and subtle cedar touches that build depth and complexity. Best from 2012 through 2020.
  • A dense, full-bodied wine with lots of creme de cassis, charcoal, licorice and forest floor, the wine is opulent and already delicious and powerful. It should continue to drink well for at least 12-15+ years.
  • Cedar, wild berry and blackberry aromas are taut and firm on the palate, appealing for its modest mix of berry flavors. Drink now through 2015.
  • This is a strongly flavored Cabernet. It has upfront blackberry and red cherry jam flavors, with some sweet spicy notes from French oak barrels. It’s not a wine you want to age, but is smooth and flattering now.

So which wine sounds best? Would it surprise you if I told you that the first two reviews were for the same wine (Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008), the first review coming from Wine Spectator and the second from Wine Advocate? And would it surprise you that the third and fourth reviews were also of the same wine (Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008), the third from Wine Spectator and the fourth from Wine Enthusiast? Do those sorts of descriptions help you decide which wine you might want to purchase and drink?

Now, let’s add in an element found on many shelf-talkers that stirs up an enormous amount of controversy: ratings. Most wine ratings use a 100-point scale; however, in reality, you’ll never encounter a wine that received a rating lower than mid-70s (and those are really, really rare). Similarly, in a grocery or casual liquor store, you won’t find many wines with ratings above 91 or 92 (and those will be pretty rate, too). Most wines that you come across in a grocery store or casual liquor store will have “earned” a rating in the low 80s to low 90s or won’t be rated at all. And before you ask, the ratings given to the wines described above were, respectively: 91, 95, 84, 87. Make of all this what you will.

But there is a dark underside to the use of ratings (and an ongoing controversy in the wine-blogging world). First, there is the ever-present issue of how ratings are determined. Obviously, one reviewer’s palate may be strikingly different from that of another and, thus, so too may be their respective ratings. There is also the ongoing issue of whether ratings should be based on blind-tastings, blind-tastings with limited information, or more open tastings. Should tastings be done with or without food? And of course, there is the question of conflict-of-interest (i.e., whether a reviewer or publication accepts gifts or paid advertising from a particular producer). There may even be “point inflation” from year-to-year.

For my part, so long as I keep those distinctions in mind, the rating can be another useful tool, especially in the absence of other information. If a proprietor who has become familiar with my palate or whose recommendations I’ve appreciated in the past suggests a particular bottle, even though it didn’t get a great rating, I’m usually willing to take that more personalized suggestion over the available ratings. But query whether the proprietor of most wine shops (let alone the average employee in a casual liquor store or grocery) has had the opportunity to taste and evaluate every bottle in the store. When I’m confronted by an employee who clearly doesn’t have a clue about which bottle might be good, then a rating from a trusted (or semi-trusted) source is at least something that can be used to help make a decision.

(Funny story on this point: Last November, shortly after the new Beaujolais Nouveau was released, I happened to be in a grocery store that has a fairly large wine section. I walked over to see if the new inexpensive bottles had arrived. A store employee walked up, introduced himself as the store’s “wine advisor” and asked if he could help me find something. I asked if any 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau was available. He asked what that was. I patiently explained it to him and he said, “Wow! That’s really interesting. I’ll have to remember that.” Now tell me why I’d want to trust any recommendation that  “wine advisor” gave me…)

There are other issues with the use of ratings on shelf-talkers, many of which I discussed in the original Wine Shelf-Talkers: Consumer Aid or Consumer Fraud? post.

So I understand and appreciate the use of shelf-talkers with ratings to assist consumers in making a decision. Many consumers understand, at least at some level, that a wine with a good rating is (or at least should be) “better” than a wine with a lesser rating (though how they necessarily compare a particular rated wine to a wine without a rating is another interesting question). But the shelf-talkers must be accurate. And that brings me to the second part of the dark underside of the use of ratings.

There is an obvious incentive for a store to denote wines that received a high rating. I’ve often wondered why stores don’t use more shelf-talkers, especially to help sell wines that did get good ratings. And I really wonder when I see a store using a shelf-talker for a wine that received a poor rating. But what is to stop the unscrupulous proprietor from lying? Or to stop the careless proprietor from simply getting it wrong? Most consumers won’t have any means by which to determine if a posted rating is correct. As I mentioned in the original Wine Shelf-Talkers: Consumer Aid or Consumer Fraud? post, a shelf-talker will often describe a vintage other than that being sold. For example, take a look at this photo that I took last fall at that same Fresh Market store (sorry for the quality of the photo; it’s hard to take a professional looking shot on an iPhone while standing in the middle of a busy grocery without being way too obvious):

photo 3

This particular wine was being sold on Fresh Market’s “90 Points or More for $20 or Less” table (see the photo below). And so Fresh Market was pushing the Drylands Sauvignon Blanc 2010 for $15.99 and noting that the wine received a rating of 90 from Wine Spectator. But there’s one small problem. Can you spot it? Look at the battle on the left of the image. It, like all of the other bottles on the shelf, was from the 2009 vintage. [Note: When I went back to Fresh Market about two weeks after taking this photo, the bottles on the shelf were the 2010 vintage, with no 2009 vintage in sight…] Now in this case, the difference isn’t that great. Wine Spectator gave the Drylands Sauvignon Blanc 2009 a rating of 89, just one point lower than the 2010 bottling. But the 2009 bottle doesn’t meet the criteria to be included on the “90 Points or More for $20 or Less” table, does it?

photoVintage Switcheroo (as I like to think of it) is far too common and I’m not sure if most consumers stop to notice whether a particular shelf-talker or rating accurately reflects the bottle being sold. For that matter, I don’t know if most consumers recognize the extent to which the quality of a particular wine can vary from vintage to vintage (by way of example, the 2005 Drylands Sauvignon Blanc received a rating of 91 from Wine Spectator while the 2004 bottle only received an 85). Next time you’re in a store that uses shelf-talkers, especially a grocery (my local Kroger has numerous shelf-talkers that are for vintages 3 or more years older than the vintage on the shelf), take a look and compare to see if you can spot any examples of Vintage Switcheroo. And if you do, please tell the manager.

More sinister still is the use of completely bogus ratings. For example:

photo 2

Just to be clear, this shelf-talker is telling customers that the 2009 vintage bottle of the Summation White blend by Kendall-Jackson received a 90 point rating from Wine Spectator. Only guess what? That’s right. Wine Spectator did not give the wine in question a rating of 90. To be clear: I took this photo last fall. When I searched Wine Spectator’s online wine rating database (to which I subscribe), I found no ratings at all for Kendall-Jackson’s Summation White blend. None. For that matter, there were no ratings for any Kendall-Jackson wine for after 2006! So did Fresh Market simply misattribute this rating to Wine Spectator when, in fact, it came from another publication? Perhaps. But if so, that other publication was neither Wine Advocate (which gave it a respectable 89 points) or Wine Enthusiast (which only gave it 85 points).

Similarly, consider this shelf-talker from Costco for the Glenelly Cabernet Sauvignon 2009:

photo 1 Note that the shelf-talker tells us that Wine Spectator gave the 2008 vintage a rating of 90 and the 2009 vintage a rating of 91. The 2008 rating is correct. However, as of date I took this photo in August 2011, Wine Spectator had not rated the 2009 vintage of this wine (and the two Glenelly 2009 wines that had been rated by Wine Spectator received ratings of 87 and 84); when I checked again before writing this post, I found that Wine Spectator had (finally?) rated this bottle (in its November 2011 issue). But guess what? It only earned an 88. And once again, the rating cannot be attributed to another publication (both Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast gave it a 90 and Wine Enthusiast didn’t rate it until their November 2011 issue). Back in August, I pointed this problem out to Costco’s wine manager and he told me that he just posted the shelf-talkers that his corporate office gave him. He also told me that “he was sure it was right” suggesting that corporate was very careful about these sorts of things.

photo Then a month or two ago, on another visit to Costco, the shelf-talker for this bottle of Cade Cabernet Sauvignon caught my eye. It may be hard to see, but the wine received a rating of 98+. Now, I’m not in the habit of buying expensive bottles of wine, but a rating of 98+ was so unusual that I became curious, especially with a price in $50s rather than well over $100. I became even more curious when I realized that the wine had a list price of $135 and was apparently being sold at at a whopping 60% discount. You know what’s coming right? Well, you’re probably close. You see, the shelf-talker is almost correct. Wine Advocate did give a 98+ to the Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 2008 — but that was for the Cade Estate bottle, not the base Cade bottle which only received a 92. And the bottle on the shelf at Costco was the base Cade bottle, not the Cade Estate bottle. Now, I understand that is a very subtle distinction that may be lost on many people. But it shouldn’t be lost on the wine department at Costco’s corporate offices that prepare these shelf-talkers. To be fair, when I contacted Costco, they made the correction very quickly and the local store manager called to thank me for pointing out the problem. But you have to wonder how many people bought the bottle after reading the misleading shelf-talker, thinking that they were getting an incredible deal on a nearly “perfect” bottle of wine.

Or consider the following photo, again from Fresh Market (you would think that they’d have learned a lesson, right?):

photo Can you guess what I’m going to tell you about this photo and display? For this one, you have to look closely. First, note that the store-produced shelf-talker claims “90 Point” but doesn’t attribute that score to a source. However, the bottle has a neck shelf-talker (presumably added by the winery or distributor) claiming 90 points from Wine Spectator. But wait… What’s that shelf-talker on the bottle to the right where it shows an 88 point rating from Wine Spectator? In point of fact, the La Joya Merlot being offered here has never received a rating of 90 from Wine Spectator; it did get in a 88 … back in 1996. More recently, the 2010 and 2009 vintages scored 86 and 85, respectively. A close look at those neck shelf-talkers (sorry, but my photo was way to blurry to be useful) reveals that they are referring to the 2008 La Joya Syrah and the 2009 La Joya Malbec, none of which were on Fresh Market’s shelves.

Or consider this in the September 14, 2011, the Recipe Exchange & Wine Review Newsletter email from The Wine Guy at Grapevine Cottage:

To really savor the Tawny Port experience, the Wine Guy recommends trying a glass of Yalumba's Antique Tawny Port from Australia (10 years - Wine Enthusiast 97, $21) in a brandy snifter on a warm fall evening after a great meal. 

photoThat 97 rating (even though from Wine Enthusiast) at a $21 price point really caught my attention. But, yes, I’m sure you know where this is headed. Now, I’ll admit that because this bottle is non-vintage, getting the precisely correct rating can sometimes be tricky. When I search Wine Enthusiast’s online ratings (free) for “Yalumba Port” or “Yalumba Tawny” I find only three entries, one of which appears to be the bottle in question (the wine reviewed has the same name and is dated February 1, 2011). That bottle received a rating of 89. Again, respectable, but certainly not a 97. Moreover, the other two bottles rated (which are clearly not the bottle in question), only received ratings of 89 and 92. So where did the 97 rating come from? Wine Spectator has reviewed several bottles of Yalumba Tawny. The best-rated was way back in 1998 (rating of 92). The rating for the bottle that is most likely the one being advertised was reviewed in 2010 and received a rating of 88. Wine Advocate rated what may be this bottle (the bottle rated by Wine Advocate may be a prior bottling because it appears to be sourced to Barossa Valley rather than just “Australia”) back in 2009 and gave it 92 points. Again, very respectable, but not a 97. To be fair, when I brought this to the attention of the store, they took it quite seriously and when I was next in, they had a new shelf-talker. And, it should also note that this particular store uses shelf-talkers for every bottle in the store, and this is the only error that I can recall seeing.

It’s worth noting that “Vintage Switcheroo” appears to be very common on non-vintage wines, especially Port. I came a cross an interesting Port recently with a shelf-talker proclaiming a 92 rating and a very inexpensive price (sorry, I forgot to take a photo). I looked up the Port and, sure enough, it did get a 92 rating — in 1995. The more recent reviews (the most recent being 2010, if I recall correctly), rated the wine in the 85-87 range.

And not to beat a dead horse, but…

photo “WA” is the shorthand for Wine Advocate. When I look up “Anwilka” I find that Wine Advocate has only rated one bottle from this winery, that being the 2008 vintage of the same wine being offered in this shelf-talker. But that bottle received a rating of 90, not 94. Wine Spectator reviewed the 2006 vintage, but only gave it an 89; Wine Enthusiast hasn’t reviewed the bottle. So again, the question becomes where did the 94 rating come from?

One of the more interesting shelf-talker problems that I’ve encountered recently was completely innocent and did not even involve a mistake.

I guess I should also mention that I have found numerous errors at one of my favorite wine shops. I’m not going to mention the name here … at least not yet. I’ve pointed out to the staff at least a dozen misleading shelf-talkers in just the last six months or so … and I can’t say that I feel as if my complaints have been taken that seriously. I’m withholding the name of that store for the moment in hopes that I can get that store to recognize the proverbial “error of its ways” so that these sorts of problems don’t continue to recur. But I am to the point that when I shop at that store (which I continue to do because I like the staff and the selection) I never rely on a shelf-talker and, instead, always look up any wine that I’m thinking of purchasing.

And quite recently I encountered one of the most egregious mis-uses of a shelf-talker since the Fresh Market shelf-talker that was the subject of my original post. The store in question only posts shelf-talkers for a tiny percentage of the wines that they stock (and I’ve never quite figured out a rhyme or reason for which wines get a shelf-talker and which don’t). Anyway, a shelf-talker for the 2005 Bodegas Murcia Sierra Carche caught my eye because of the 96 rating from Wine Advocate and the price markdown sticker on the bottle itself. The shelf-talker was a printout from the Wine Advocate website and proclaimed:

The 2005 Sierra Carche contains 50% Monastrell, 25% Malbec, and 25% Petit Verdot aged for 13 months in French and American oak. Inky purple, the wine offers an array of scents which jump from the glass. Notes of toasty oak, pencil lead, tar, black cherry, blueberry, and blackberry are followed by a full-bodied, structured wine with gobs of flavor, terrific intensity, and a powerful palate impression. The wine is well-balanced with enough stuffing to evolve for 3-4 years. It will provide pleasure through 2025.

However, the printed shelf-talker omitted the second paragraph of the Wine Advocate review (emphasis added):

(Note: Compaints [sic] based on different bottlings from what Mr. Miller tasted make us suspicious of what happened at the winery. Until further notice, readers are advised to bypass this wine.)

Think about that for a second. The store was willing to tout the 96 point rating that the wine originally received from Wine Advocate but did not include the caution from the same source to bypass the wine.

By now, I think you’ve got the picture…

I’m not suggesting that a retailer can never make an error. But, on the other hand, I don’t go around double-checking every single shelf-talker I see. Rather, I tend to check if a shelf-talker catches my eye (and isn’t that the goal of a shelf-talker?) and makes me curious. The fact that I found this many errors in such a short period of time only among shelf-talkers that caught my attention and made me curious suggests to me that this is more than just the occasional, forgivable error (and trust me: I’ve found far, far more “errors” than I’ve included here). Moreover, given that it really isn’t that hard to go online and check a rating, it would seem a minor burden to presume that wine retailers will double-check before posting any shelf-talker.

I continue to believe that a shelf-talker is a potentially valuable tool for the wine consumer. But as with any other form of advertising, the consumer must be wary. I think that wine retailers should be encouraged to provide consumers with more information upon which they can base a purchasing decision (and the “wine advisors” available at many stores don’t count…); but consumers must demand that the information provided is accurate. Would you stand for a car dealer to post the sticker for last year’s model on this year’s car? Of course not. Would you stand for a pharmacy to provide side-effect warnings for a drug that have been replaced by newer information? Of course not. Would you stand for a movie theater posting a review for the wrong movie? Of course not. So why should anyone stand for wine merchants using false or misleading information to help sell their merchandise.

Encourage wine sellers to offer more and better information. But recognize that merchants may make mistakes … or may engage in intentionally fraudulent conduct. If you visit a wine merchant and receive good help and good advice and find good and useful information, tell them. But when you visit a wine merchant that uses false or misleading shelf-talkers, they need to know that you’ve noticed. Think of it as a public service as you will be helping the next consumer who may not be aware of these issues or astute enough to examine shelf-talkers more closely.

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