Give it to me straight: Why consumers lose when wine critics shy away from negative reviews

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By Renee Vimmerstedt / Contributor

While I tend to poke fun at shy away from the deep, philosophical conversations about wine, there are a few subjects that will draw me in. One topic is “free wine”. By “free wine” I mean wine that is accepted at no cost by wine critics and other wine writers for the purposes of being reviewed. Another is the question as to why so few bad reviews are published.

These are not new topics. In fact, I find they are often connected. But the questions that arise in debates about these topics never seem to get answered.  For this reason alone I think there is merit in revisiting them once in a while.

When it comes to wine reviews, I lump folks into two categories. The first group would be the professional critics who earn a living (even if indirectly) based on their opinions and ratings of wine. The Robert Parkers and Jancis Robinsons of the world are included in this group. The other group is made up of, frankly, everyone else out there who shares an opinion on the subject. This includes enthusiasts, wine trade workers, hobbyists and amateur bloggers (This blog included! – Ed).

My question about free wine is not about the fact that it exists. What wine lover wouldn’t love a free sample? But, should there be some accountability or responsibility that comes with receiving free wine for review purposes? Now, not every reviewer gets free wine. Most are not offered it and many, in fact, refuse it.

Robert Parker, for one, is known for “paying his own way”. But those who do receive free samples tend to wield a certain amount of influence over their followers. Whether the reviewers use social media, print media or a combination, wine producers would not waste their advertising and marketing budget sending free wine to people who do not have a decent, reputable following.

I think it can be safely assumed that when a sample bottle of wine is sent to someone for a review, there is some hope that it will result in a glowing write-up that will then be passed on to consumers and, ultimately, result in sales dollars for the wine producer. But is a sale the only thing they seek? And is a reviewer sampling wine any different from other types of marketing research that involve product trials?

Manufacturers have used product trials for years to determine product quality and consumer appreciation. Of course they want to hear the positive feedback. But anyone who produces a product should be interested in knowing what doesn’t work. This isn’t necessarily possible if no one is willing to write a negative review. While producers are interested in making a sale, they are also without a doubt interested in knowing what is liked and not liked about their wine.

So are wine producers any different from other manufacturers who do product trials? I feel I should inject at this point that no matter how much “love” or “philosophy” goes into the making of wine, make no mistake, a winery is a business. They have accountants and marketing directors, and the owners are quite rightly concerned about making sure the business is profitable.

Many reviewers who receive free wine have a written policy that states they neither guarantee a good review nor (more importantly) any review at all. Is this fair? I would suggest not. Wineries and readers cannot assume that a reviewer didn’t like their wine simply because a review was never written. Who is to say the reviewer simply didn’t get around to it? And who knows, maybe they needed a last-minute gift?

I often hear from wine critics who say they don’t see any point in wasting their time talking about bad wine. But don’t they have a responsibility to the consumers who depend on their recommendations? Let’s face it, wine reviews are not written for the person who reviewed the wine. That’s what tasting notebooks, apps and databases are for. These reviews are being made public as a recommendation to others. So critics don’t mind steering someone towards a wine that in their opinion is worthy of drinking, but do not feel an obligation to steer folks away from a wine they do not feel is up to par?

Here is my big question: Why does anyone tolerate this, whether they are the wineries who make the wine or the consumers who are bombarded with mostly glowing reviews? Some of the question of responsibility needs to be laid at the feet of the wine producers, distributors and others who dole out the wine. If they send free wine to 100 reviewers and three of those reviews were less than favorable, would that not seem to them a fairly good overall result? If 75 of the 100 reviewers give it a bad review, that should speak volumes to the winemakers. They should insist on a review if they are sending out wine for that purpose.

Here are a couple of ideas to think about. It would be good to see the wine critics and amateur reviewers step things up a notch on the accountability side. Publish the good, the bad and the indifferent reviews. As for the wineries, it would help if they were more picky about where they sent their samples. For starters, it would be wise not to send free samples to any reviewer who states they will not guarantee a review. If you send and they fail to review, then that reviewer is removed from future free wine offers.

Now that we’re on the topic of my ideas, how about a really wild one? In product trials, it is common for placebos to be used. They are common in the medical field, but also for foods and beverages. What if wineries threw in the occasional placebo? We all know palates are subjective, but how subjective are they? Could your favourite wine reviewer tell the difference between a winery’s $30 fiano and a $2.99 bottle of pinot grigio? This would not be hard to implement. It would be a simple matter of numbering the bottles and choosing each bottle’s recipient at random. The reviewer would of course have to publish the number of the bottle they reviewed.

Of course, this brings another question. What happens if a bunk review is published? It will be up to the wineries and merchants to decide how they react to the criticism. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am certain I have not even raised all the right questions. What I am certain of is that it is a disservice to wine consumers if they have only the positive information on wine and none of the negative.

For some critics, having to publish reviews on every wine they receive, whether good or bad, will take the fun out of the job for them. Call me a killjoy, but I am happy with that if it means I am getting better, more complete information. I am also certain that no harm has ever come from expecting integrity and accountability of those who review products.

Renee Vimmerstedt is a US-based wine enthusiast

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17 thoughts on “Give it to me straight: Why consumers lose when wine critics shy away from negative reviews

  1. I agree with your argument in theory, but I think it falls apart in practice. I try to be honest when I review wine that I purchase and every wine that (I remember) drink(ing) I try to be as fair as possible–as you say good, bad, or indifferent. I have only started receiving samples, and I by no means get a ton of them. The other day, I had a red wine sample that might possibly be one of the worst wines I have ever tasted. It was horrible. Really, really bad. I am still debating what, if anything, I will write about the wine since it was sent to me as a sample.

    Again, I agree with you in principle, but one of the basic tenets of your argument is that you think that the winery wants an honest evaluation of their wine. I disagree. They want an honest assessment of the wine as long as it is generally positive. And that seems to be the accepted paradigm when it comes to samples. Is it right? Probably not. Does it benefit the consumer? Certainly not. But it is the manufacturer footing the bill, not the consumer. Parker (at least initially) “charged” the consumer for his “unbiased” reviews (through subscriptions) and therefore he was loyal to them. When the producer is footing the bill, he/she expects the professional “courtesy” of not dragging their wine through the mud, even if it might deserve it.

    I guess I justify it since there are thousands upon thousands of “good” wines out there. If you are making purchases based on a certain critic, he/she has a multitude of avenues to steer you down–there is really no need to point out the few that you need not take.

    As I said, I just started getting a few samples and I have found it to be a bit of a burden for a lot of reasons–I might eventually be one of those that ends up refusing the samples, but I will get back to you on that….

  2. I am not so ready to believe that wineries are not interested in hearing constructive critiques from knowledgeable reviewers. It doesn’t really make sound business sense for them not to.

    You are correct about the wine producers being the ones footing the bill, but that is the case with any company doing marketing research. Why should a wine producer be any different or exempt from this?

    Critics for other areas..food, music, cars, etc..publish bad reviews when they feel it is earned. Why do wine reviewers feel they are not obligated to do the same?

    If a reviewer *only* wants to report on wines they consider good then perhaps they should decline the free bottles.

    I would love to hear more feedback from some wine producers. I could be very mistaken in my opinion that they want more than just a fluffy review. That would be disappointing. Given the fact that they produce something for consumption, I would be suspect of any wine producer afraid to hear an honest critique.

  3. While I agree that, at least in theory, the producer should want feedback on the product. When any other company foots the bill for their own “market research” do they release the results when the “research” places their product in a negative light (I would argue strongly the answer is a resounding “No”). Why are wine critics such whores? I have no idea, and personally, I am certainly torn on the issue.

    • Well, wine reviews aren’t the same as market research.

      I for one will continue to provide honest assessments of what I’m drinking, whether I paid for it myself or someone sent it to me for free.

      With that in mind, I have a backlog of notes I need to write up…

  4. I suppose you are right in that a company who pays for a market research evaluation does not release bad results as a general rule. Food critics get invited to try out new restaurants. Program directors of radio stations are sent free music CD’s. Book critics are sent book galleys. They manage to publish a bad review or two when warranted.

    Free wine in exchange for good reviews, in my opinion, is the wine industry version of payola.

  5. I don’t think it is exactly as you state. It is not “free wine in exchange for good reviews” it is more “here is a sample and we hope that if you like it you will write about it.” What I feel is unspoken is: “However, if you don’t like it, we hope that you don’t slam us.”

    I have heard from numerous wineries that this is the expectation–not when discussing samples that they are sending, but when having casual conversation in a tasting room.

    I do not know if this is the norm, but my experience has been that most of the samples I receive come through a third party–either a marketing group or a trade group. There is little doubt in my mind that these entities are charged with (and get paid for) garnering good reviews….

  6. I enjoyed the content of this article. There are too many variables that contend with success and failure (from a wine producer point of view). Wine producers wake up and intend to produce the best wine they can… but this little thing called “terroir” gets in the way. For those “professional wine tasters” who get paid to give a review, welcome to marketing. Those of us who do it because we love bacchus and want to promote obscure wines, perhaps an honest assessment is called for… ??? the bottom line, the palate review is what it is… your palate is queen and is correct. Mine is different and is correct. This is why I love wine… it is so unpredictable!

    • I very much agree that our palates are our own best palates. That being said, there are still many people who purchase wines based on reviews and recommendations. I would just like to see a system that would assure consumers that the review was not “bought”. I think if the poor reviews were published as well, consumers could put a bit more trust in the reviews. It may also put an end to any Joe Blow who decides to become a wine reviewer for the purpose of getting free wine.

  7. I’m so happy to see this discussion; and curiously timed because I saw it AFTER I tweeted a so-called negative ‘7wordwinereview’. Nobody pays me to write for ‘7WWR’ (haha, indeed, if only), but even so I always feel a wee tinge when I post “negative” 7WWRs. I’ve even illustrated on poor wines, and felt unsure of what to do with them.

    Why do I feel bad at all? Isn’t it a product like any other (as you noted earlier)?

    ‘Bad Angel’ on one shoulder tells me to do it because it’s HONEST, and it also makes a more complex narrative than “It was delicious” [snore]. But “Good Angel” on my other shoulder chides that I’ll NEVER get sample bottles if I keep up that shit; and further, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all’.

    I put “negative” in quotes because as one of you pointed out, why is less-than-glowing criticism not viewed in/taken by the wine world as possibly constructive, as it is for every other goddamn product? Why is it viewed as a wholesale slam for the winery, every bottle, and its brand?

    I suspect that it’s because the old, conservative, dusty, exclusive wine world is just catching up to the 21st century and is undergoing seismic shifts in how wine is communicated.

    Wineries (and their marketers and accountants, as you noted) will finally have to suck it up when some crafty bloggers start 100% NEGATIVE-REVIEW blogs because it’s a more entertaining gimmick (and more honest…) than writing butt-kissing reviews, and it’ll garner those cocky bloggers more hits, higher stats and advertising dollars [ie, I don’t need your stinkin’ free wine!].

    Plus, the pro/paid reviewers will begrudgingly start being a bit honest or lose their readerships! (If they have any to start with — I have no idea, I don’t read them because they’re so mind-numbingly old-school.)

    It’s only a matter of time, since the sheer numbers of wine bloggers will force some to look for ANY way to distinguish their blog from the mass. What that would do, if it were to happen, would finally sweep away those dusty old customs and conventions and ring in a new wine communication era. Yay!

    [The last good argument I saw on this subject was last year when ‘Palate Press’ uncovered some truly unsavoury behaviours by a Canadian wine reviewer/writer, and the comments sections on the two stories they published simmered for weeks. It was great stuff.]

    Thanks, Renee, for this great post! The subjects you raised can’t be repeated enough. Sorry to be so wordy — you got me going!

    zelda sydney
    http://theillustratedwine.wordpress.com/

    • Excellent response! I always have the Bad Angel on my shoulder encouraging me not only to be brutally honest at all times, but also to poke fun at the industry, tell it like it is and care little for what others think of my opinions.

    • I very much agree that our palates are our own best palates. That being said, there are still many people who purchase wines based on reviews and recommendations. I would just like to see a system that would assure consumers that the review was not “bought”. I think if the poor reviews were published as well, consumers could put a bit more trust in the reviews. It may also put an end to any Joe Blow who decides to become a wine reviewer for the purpose of getting free wine.

      • C’mon Renée, those “Joe Blows” that “decide to become a wine reviewer for the purpose of getting free wine” don’t ever get any free wine, and you know it. good content is singularly important and I doubt that “Joe Blow” is producing good content. There is not a golden stream of wine that starts flowing magically once one starts writing a wine blog. Wineries might be looking for good reviews, but they are not mindless twits that send samples to anybody with a URL with “wine” in the title….

        You know I am in agreement with you in principle, but we disagree on what the reality is. One thing we can both agree on (I hope) is that “freebies” are not sent to every “Joe Blow”. If you are only in it for freebies, that will be evident quite early on….

      • Jeff, I do believe there are wine bloggers out there getting free wine and not producing quality reviews. I did not suggest that every wine blogger who receives free is suspect. I in no way suggested, nor think that wine producers are “twits”.
        I am happy you agree with me, though. 😉

      • OK, I guess you are right. There are some pretty bad writers out there (in my opinion) that amazingly get a ton of wine sent to them (at least by what they indicate in their reviews). I would be amazed if they had any traffic at all on their sites.

        So I take it back. I was wrong.

        Maybe it was me hoping that quality content really mattered….

        Dope.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words! I am happy to know that the post was appreciated.

      i found your response very insightful! Something that jumped out at me was the “Bad Angel” comment. I so wish that feeling of sharing a bad review did not feel “bad”. Why should being honest be synonymous with being bad in the wine industry? I applaud those who give honest assessments and are willing to admit when they don’t like a wine.

      While the idea of a “100% Negative Review” blog gives me a little chuckle, I don’t want to have to write a post someday calling for “good” reviews. 😉

  8. When I review a wine I don’t like, I give an honest assessment of the wine but do not give a score.

    In most cases, the wine was not made for me, it was made for their main customer base. There are a lot of people that like overly ripe, off dry red wines, which I detest. I will tell you it is syrupy and sweet and full of nothing but overly ripe fruit.

    Most lovers of the “good stuff” know to avoid the wine based on my description, but people looking for that style will know this meets their expectations. There are people out there that like white zins and they just want to make sure a specific wine is sweet and full of raisiny fruit. Why write a review that trashes a quality made wine that people like because it isn’t my style? I just describe the wine with no flowery or blistering commentary, leave off a score, and let the wine buyer know what to expect when they open the bottle.

    Cliff

    • Cliff, I love your reviews! You are one of the handful of people out there giving honest thoughts on the wine. I am not suggesting that I want to read a bunch of reviews that say, “this wine tastes like crap”. I am more interested in hearing honest and accurate descriptions of the wine. If a reviewer provides that and includes a simple sentiment such as “This wine isn’t for me.” then I, as a consumer will know what I am getting into before I buy a bottle.

      This being said, I do think there are really crappy bottles of wine being produced out there. I have *no* problem telling people I think they are crap but I can always explain why I think that way. If I bought a candy bar that tasted really bad, I would tell people it was really bad. Why should I or anyone else make an exception for wine?

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