Thursday, September 6, 2012

81% of readers don't believe Wine Spectator

My readers clearly don't believe Wine Spectator, by a resounding margin.

However, that may actually be good for Wine Spectator.

When I posed the poll question, "Do you believe Wine Spectator bases its ratings solely on blind tasting?" I expected some cynicism. I didn't expect a landslide "No" vote. But that's what it was, with 81% voting No. Only 9% voted Yes; 10% voted I'm Not Sure.

Let me state the obvious, that this poll proves nothing about Wine Spectator's rating practices; it's only about my readers' beliefs.

Plus, this is not a random poll of wine consumers. Based on my general blog readership -- I did just win Best Industry Blog -- I assume that a lot of voters were people in the wine industry.

One popular rumor, mentioned in the comments, is that advertising in the magazine can raise scores for wines.

If most people in the industry believe that, that can only be good for Wine Spectator's bottom line.

I can't project these results to what a poll of ordinary wine consumers would look like. But even if the Yes vote in such a poll were equally low, it might be embarrassing, but I'm not sure how bad it would be for Wine Spectator.

Wine Spectator isn't running for office. It doesn't need 50% of the wine-buying public to believe its ratings come only from blind tasting, or even 20%. It only needs enough people to respect the magazine enough to buy a subscription to it. Secondarily, it's good for business if enough people respect its ratings to give the magazine access and power. Even if just 9% of the wine-buying public feels that way, that's enough.

One thing that surprised me about this poll was that all the passion, even anger, came from Yes voters. A few people vehemently defended Wine Spectator. A lot more people quietly voted No. I'm not worried about how effective Polldaddy's controls were at preventing repeated votes, because if there was going to be ballot box stuffing, the comments here and on social media would make you think it would be for Yes. So the No landslide could conceivably have been larger.

Which might, in the end, bring a more wicked smile to the face of the Wine Spectator advertising sales rep working the winery accounts. "No, no, you can't change your wine's ratings by buying this ad. Don't believe The Gray Report. That's just a silly poll with fewer than 2000 respondents. It's completely wrong."


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Unknown said...

When we started, we ran focus groups and determined that while experts were skeptical of ratings, average wine buyers looked to them to get over the intimidation factor when buying wines. Sort of a flashlight in the dark. Winenabber evaluate email offer for wine and shows ratings from WS, WE, Tanzer, & Parker.

Waynegrape said...

OK, at the risk of looking like a WS fanboy, or some kind of agent working on their behalf, I want to share a story of a specific experience that occured during my tenure at WS in NYC.
A fairly important winery, owned by a very important conglomerate complained that their scores were "too low" and threatened to pull all advertising (not just wine, there were BIG spirits brands involved too) if WS didn't start giving the wines better scores.
My Job at that time was to find other publications that had rated the wine(s) and compare their scores to the WS scores. We actually discovered that the WS scores were very similar to the other results we found. This information was presented to the sponsor. No scores were changed, and no ads were pulled.
Again, in my personal experience, WS blind tastings, ads or no ads, are legit.

John M. Kelly said...

I have no doubt that WS and other publications actually do taste blind. I would be surprised if there were any sort of explicit quid pro quo between scores and advertising in any of these publications.

I would be equally surprised to see it conclusively demonstrated that there is zero correlation between scores and "editorial policy."

Editorial policy impacts everything in every one of these publications, from the initial choice of what to review, to how to group the flights, to the way the ratings are written and arranged to create or support a narrative.

And not to put too fine a point on it, if one wants to maintain one's personal privileged access to a supply of, say, Cuban cigars, the suppliers of those cigars - and especially other consumers of them who are spending $$$ to get them! - damn well expect you to say nice things about them. (Or don't say anything at all.)

And it would be hopelessly naive to expect that the producers are not complicit in this as well. RE: Wayngrape's story for example, you can bet your butt that if the WS scores for big conglomerate's wines were lower than those of other publications, the ad $$$ would certainly have been pulled back until editorial policy got in line with marketing goals.

Thomas Matthews said...


We at Wine Spectator are disappointed by the results of your poll, but we learned something from it.

We are disappointed because 81 percent of your poll respondents apparently have a mistaken impression. Wine Spectator is committed to blind tasting, and we have developed a strong methodology to ensure that our reviews are objective and fair. We are grateful to those commenters who shared their experience that we do uphold our principles in practice.

We learned that we have to do a better job communicating these truths. It’s impossible to know how many people actually voted “no,” and you admit you can’t vouch for the integrity of the poll. But if even one person believes wrongly that Wine Spectator doesn’t taste blind, that’s too many.

I invite the skeptics to visit our Web site and learn more about our code of ethics and our tasting methodology. We will continue to taste blind, believing that our experience and integrity will help guide wine lovers to make good choices and learn more about this fascinating and inspiring world.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

W. Blake Gray said...

Thomas: One reader commented that you could set up cameras so people could watch your critics judge, streamed live online. I think that would convince more people than reading what's written on your Web site. We live in a skeptical age.

You might also consider inviting an outside journalist or two to observe a tasting. If you have ever done this, please let me know; I'd like to read the story.

Sorry about the results. As I wrote, it was a surprise to me too. But, it is what it is.


rapopoda said...

Ah yes, the same blind, mindless hysteria that drives the birthers and TeaBrains: A belief that has no tangible evidence behind it, yet people want to believe it because it satisfies their emotional desires.

"We don't like Obama, 'cause he don't look like us and someone said he ain't 'merican. That makes me feel better, it must be true!!"
"We don't like the WineSpectator. They're responsible for making wine worse over the years. Someone said they are dishonest in their claims about tasting. That resonates with my pre-formed hate, it must be true!!"


I'd like one of the 81% to show a shred of evidence that the WS does anything other than what they say they do; and I don't mean anecdotal evidence along the lines of: "someone heard from some idiot somm that the WS does xxxx"

Implicating entities, business or people, in dishonest behavior, absent of ANY REAL evidence, is the domain of the small minded and bitter

Mr Gray, until there is evidence that the WS is lying, they owe nothing to your or any of use in proving their honesty. "McCarthyism" in wine, though not nearly as damaging as the original article, is still bullying.
In my opinion, such activities will ultimately damage your good reputation
Note, I have ZERO affiliation with the WS or ANY of its employees

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: If you think this is McCarthyism, you clearly don't know anything about history.

I guess since Gallup and other pollsters ask people if they believe Obama is a Muslim or was born in the United States, all the people who work for those companies are small minded and bitter too?

DAPZ said...



A lot of people make purchase decisions based on WS ratings. So to measure if the consumers perceive their tastings methods to be what they claim to be is pertinent and legitimate.

Somms are far from being idiots. It takes years of studying, hard work and self discipline to become one. One will only achieve success by showing true love for wine as the study load is overwhelming. It is an honorable profession. It would be coherent with your line of thought if you at least showed the same level of respect for sommeliers that you show to WS.

rapopoda said...

Mr Grey you are not a pollster and likening what you've done to Gallup is laughable and an insult to real pollsters. You are a blogger and what you are doing is shit stirring. Nothing more. That's fine, but do not pretend it's anything else
People are certainly entitled to their opinions. However, all of this is the same 'feelings over facts' approach which fuels birthers and religious bullies. Not as damaging to society, but a symptom of intellectual decline nonetheless

rapopoda said...

My comment says nothing about my respect or disrespect of the WS. It speaks to my disgust of implication in the absence of facts.
You'll also note that I did not write that somms are idiots. I painted a possible scenario in which *an* idiot somm was an actor

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: What makes a pollster? Would it not be the taking of polls?

You seem to have a problem with the concept of "insulting" businesses. Why not think of your comments here as comments about The Gray Report, Inc.?

rapopoda said...

This isn't about ' "insulting" businesses'. This is about the propagation of feelings over facts to draw conclusions. The behavior of the "birthers"

Additionally, real polls have, as you fully know, rigorous methodologies and controls. Executing on a "poll" does not make you a pollster

DAPZ said...

Implication in the absence of facts disgusts you. You, however, paint possible fictional scenarios to express your point.... Interesting.

Emily H said...

I personally find their tasting notes to be inconsistent with their numerical scores at times. A wine will be described as awkward or with other underwhelming descriptors but earns 90+ points.

WineHouse said...

It's the norm for beliefs to be out of touch with reality, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if certain ratings were fudged on occasion.