Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Dec 10th, 2016
Buyers Beware the Fine Print & Top VINTAGES Buys
by John Szabo, MS
Last week I caused a mini first world storm by exposing some mismatched wine scores and vintages on social media. Read on to see why you should always check the fine print on those shiny medallions you see plastered on wine bottles. In the genuine winning wine category, I sifted through a good percentage of the massive, 160+ product December 10 release to select over a dozen, mostly premium buys, including some big-scoring old and new world classics, red, white, fortified, sweet and bubbly. You won’t go wanting for any wine style this month. Keep some room in your inbox for the annual Fizz Report coming Dec. 16th. Next week, David and the crü will share their top picks from this release.
Buyer Beware of Flashy Medals and Big Scores: Read the Fine Print
High scores and medals sell wines. In an evermore fractured world wine market, with more producers, importers, distributors and retailers than ever before, it’s no wonder why everyone along the supply chain from winery to sales rep seeks to capitalize on any commercial advantage. This includes promoting any big scores or medals their wines may have received. But you’ll want to take a closer look – things are not always as they appear.
You’ve seen them before, those medallions affixed to bottles citing a gold medal at such-and-such a competition, or a prominent wine critic’s 90+ score writ large. The practice is commonplace in the business of selling wine, especially at the more commercial end of the spectrum. Cues like these help consumers make quick decisions when faced with a huge lineup of unfamiliar labels, comforted by a third party endorsement. WineAlign certainly participates in the business by publishing scores and awards, which are available to anyone to use.
But let’s put aside the philosophical discussion on the credibility of a particular critic’s scores, or the methodology of a competition that makes one more reliable than another, and look at a more concrete problem: the seeming attribution of a score or a medal for a specific wine to another wine altogether.
I’ve seen it often enough: a gold medal on bottle from a competition that took place before the wine it adorns was actually produced, or wines with a whole string of medals or scores, ostensibly plastered on to show a wine’s pedigree over time, but none of which, looking closely, were in fact awarded to the actual wine in the bottle.
Most recently I happened to come across two particularly questionable examples back-to-back, which lead me to bring this subject up – my little shot across the bow. In each case, the bottlenecks had a loonie-sized sticker showing a 91 point score, visible at a fair distance. But it was only when I looked more closely that I noticed, in type-face about 1/10th the size, that the scores had been attributed to a earlier vintage than the one in the bottle, i.e. scores for the 2013 vintage on a bottle of 2014 and 2015.
I can guarantee you that any customer casually perusing the aisles of the LCBO would look at either bottle and assume that the prominent score was attributed to the wine inside, as I initially did. Not so. Vintages, as we know, do matter, and a high score one year hardly guarantees equal success in another growing season. Although not technically false advertising, since the vintage that was reviewed is printed on the sticker in both cases, I find the practice dodgy to say the least, and willfully deceptive at worst.
It’s hardly a matter of national security. But not only does it potentially compromise the integrity and reputation of the critic or the wine competition in question, it undermines, when noticed, consumer confidence in the whole system. That’s ironically counterproductive to using scores to sell wine in first place. It also seems to imply that the vintage in the bottle is inferior to the one that received the favourable score. Otherwise, why wouldn’t one affix the score for the current vintage? Again, it’s counterproductive. The hope, I suppose, is that no one will notice the fine print.
Just because the current vintage wasn’t reviewed yet, or the stickers didn’t arrive in time for shipping, is hardly justification for using an old, irrelevant score, especially when it’s made to look like it applies to the current wine. And whether the stickers are applied at the winery, or by the agent in country after the wine lands, it’s still wrong.
I hadn’t intended to turn this into a crusade, but I did post photos of these stickers on my personal facebook/instagram/twitter accounts (November 23rd), drawing attention to the potentially misleading nature of the scores. After all, I work for wine consumers, and I thought you might like to know. The posting, let’s say, caused some interesting reactions, ranging from sympathetic to some degree for the plight of producers/importers dealing with long LCBO delays between ordering and shipping, to downright outrage by people who felt they we’re being duped.
The most vehement reaction came from the importer of one of the brands, who sent a swift letter directly to WineAlign (not me) stating that they would never advertise with WineAlign again. So much for the high road. I guess he thought I was supposed to be working for his brand, not the consumer.
(Side note: and you wonder why we’ve moved to a pay wall! Our mission statement remains to provide a high-quality, professional and objective service for you, the reader. Inevitably, some wines don’t fare critically well – that’s the nature of unbiased critique. And when something is offside, as in this case, it needs to be called out. But it’s a flaw in our business plan. We’ve heard it from agents before: “why should we advertise with you when you give our wines poor reviews?” Frankly, we can’t argue with their business logic. But again, we’re working for you. We sincerely hope you think that’s worth something, which will keep us around.)
The importer of the other brand, Alex Patinios of Dionysus Imports, had the professionalism to call me directly and attempt to explain the situation, which, as it turns out, was apparently an administrative bungle. He is working with the supplier to ensure that such errors don’t happen again in order to protect both the integrity of his company and the brands he represents. It’s the right thing to do.
In large operations like the one in question, Patinios explains, work orders are drawn up for specific shipments. Orders are bottled on demand since often each market has different labeling requirements, preference for screwcap vs. cork, back label language, etc., as well as other special market-specific bottle dressings like a score or medal sticker.
In this case, I was told, the original LCBO order was for the same vintage as was rated on the sticker. But because of shipping delays, a later vintage had to be sent. The work order was changed to reflect the new vintage, but the order to add that 91-point sticker, awarded to the previous vintage, was mistakenly not. So, the bottling line was fired up and workers followed the work order without question.
This explanation hardly justifies the outcome (and I find it hard to believe that no one noticed, frankly), but at least it sheds light on some of the logistical challenges faced by exporting companies, if not just commercial pressure. Even Patinios agreed that such practices “can be misleading for consumers”, before going on to relate several other even more egregious cases of score/medal abuse (without naming names). “There are far worse things going on.”
I asked for the LCBO’s position on this matter, and received the following response from Media Relations Coordinator Genevieve Tomney: “LCBO is aware of the stickers in question…. The information on the stickers is accurate, in that the vintage for the review is indicated in small print. However, these stickers could be misleading to the customer. As soon as this issue was brought to our attention, both agents involved were advised that they should strongly caution the supplier against repeating this practice in the future. In addition, LCBO indicated to the agents that future occurrences could result in the product being put on hold until the stickers are removed.”
That’s definitely a step in the right direction. But for now, the bottom line remains the same: buyer beware. Don’t assume that shiny medal or big score applies to the wine inside – remember to check the fine print. Hopefully the numbers add up.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. As Tomney says, “We would encourage you to please bring any examples to our attention, as this is a matter LCBO takes very seriously”.
So, have you come across anything misleading? Drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll pass it along.
In the meantime, let’s get on to the bona fide top scoring wines and best values from the December 10th VINTAGES Release.
Top picks from the December 10th VINTAGES release:
Buyers’ Guide: Old World Reds
I’ve enthused about this estate on the north side of Montalcino before, but the …
Our latest VINTAGES Buyers’ Guide selections are only visible to our Paid subscribers. Non-paying members will see the recommendations 30 days after publication. Non-paying members now have access to our New Releases to discover the best of recent VINTAGES releases still in stock. We have implemented changes around our VINTAGES content including a reduction in our annual Premium Membership rate.
“For the cost of a good bottle of wine we’ll help you discover hundreds of great ones.”
That’s all for this week. Look for my annual Fizz Report on December 16th listing the top sparkling wines in all price and style categories to drink over the holidays, and a round up of Ontario’s best wines with oysters – now is the perfect time of year to be enjoying Canada’s finest bi-valves.
John Szabo, MS
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Premium subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!