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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Scoring Points, Tellin' Stories‏

Most people think paying anything more than £6 a bottle is mad. Most of the industry think anything under £6 is shit. So that’s what we are selling. Shit.
- John Hegarty, Founder BBH
I regularly hear fellow wine writers bemoan that " we need to do more to simplify wine for the consumer" in a sort of self-chastising refrain.
Who is "the consumer" here? In the words of David Ogilvy, the consumer is not a moron, she's your wife.
Another adman with an opinion on selling wine is John Hegarty who advised the industry to "lose the mystery but keep the magic".
An excess of simplification
Look around and there is actually no shortage of ostensibly helpful simplification that is in practice anything but: Grands / Premiers / Bourgeois Crus; local classifications - some once and forever, others revised periodically; AoC, IGP, DOC and DOCG; declared vintages, reserva, old vines.
There is not so much a shortage of helpful simplification as a screaming excess of it.
What is needed to cut through this haze of obfuscation is a global common standard - a benchmark or currency for wine quality.
There are, of course, competitions which award medals and trophies to wines, but the market for these is self-selecting, so they are inherently limited.
And, of course, there are different competitions with different Chairmen, judges, focus and motives.
The least worst option
The nearest we have to a global standard for wine quality assessment is the points system - be it on the 100-point, 20-point or any other scale.
Used properly, a sensible points system has the potential to make wine assessment completely transparent to even the most uninitiated - so, you're saying a 17-pointer is better than a 15-pointer? Duh!
This if course leaves unanswered the question of which wine is the better value or the one I'll actually prefer, but that's an entirely separate matter.
Just as an arthouse film can have the critics raving but show only to a limited audience whilst a mindless summer blockbuster sequel breaks box office records, so there is no guarantee the average consumer (who, remember is spousal, not moronic) will prefer a more highly-rated wine.
Tellin' stories
Telling stories is for me the funnest part of writing about wine - the people, the struggles, the drama; this is what writing is all about.
But an article with just my opinions and recommendations is subjective, non-comparable and non-scalable; it is an old-fashioned, cottage-industry approach to wine reviewing. It helps raise general awareness, but it does not aid broader, more systematic analysis.
The problem with wine is that one bottle looks pretty much the same as another on the shelf, so the temptation, if you can't recall a review that sounded interesting, must be just to pick whatever's on special offer.
Choice architecture
One retailer that has really nailed the issue of helping consumers decide which wines to buy is Naked whose Choice Architecture is second to none; but the system is not universal - it only works for what Naked happens to sell and the ratings are driven by Naked's self-selected customer base.
Meaning that if you are the kind of person who likes the same sorts of wines as Naked's customer base, you'll like Naked's wines.
Scoring points - (Big) Data, Analytics and Stories
So, if we - wine writers, in general - really believe in simplifying wine for consumers, it behoves us to express as clearly, transparently and comparably as possible our assessment of a wine's quality.
That means giving it a points-based score, just as film and restaurant critics do in the free newspaper I read on my commute back home every evening.
To this bald, quantitative assessment we may then add a narrative, long or short, again as is done in my newspaper.
But qualitative data cannot readily be compared and if I want to make use of wine assessment on any kind of scale in order to make choices, I need factual statistical data, not qualitative information, such as stories.
Stories may inspire, but they do not facilitate analysis and therefore, in isolation, arguably complicate rather than simplify.
Wine-writing as story-telling is the Top Gear approach - mostly entertainment with some factual basis.
Where story-telling is at its most insightful is in marrying it to data - thought-leadership based on rigorous analysis of data is the basis of the modern era. It's called Big Data and the world is only just beginning to see the potential of what can be done with it.
To tell stories about wine that are not based on data analysis is quaint and Old School - a beguiling, artisan throwback to an age we felt was simpler.
Real insight starts with quantitative data, involves analysis and ends with story-telling.
Paris match
So, I do not believe that point scoring of wine, for all its imperfections, is something to consign to a circle of Hell; rather, when done right, it has the potential to bring some much needed simplification to wine assessment and provide us with the data to tell more factually-robust stories rather than merely entertaining or evangelising.
As a final thought, it has been much argued over in the 30+ years since it took place, but the judgement of Paris showed the true value of tasting and scoring wines utterly objectively and out of all context, based only on what is in the glass.

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