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Two Wine Pranks Uncover The Truth Behind Wine Critics

Two Wine Pranks Uncover The Truth Behind Wine Critics

The topic I want to discuss in this article is wine critics and awards. In the wine industry, wine critics are some kind of venerated wine gods who happen to be well respected in their field, and rightfully so. Some of them have the nose of a bloodhound and truly deserve to be where they are. Though I understand the relevance of critics in general, I question the level of importance we –the consumers– seek upon them. Isn’t all of this far too subjective to let one person rule on the fate of a wine? How is this fair? And more importantly, should they be trusted? Well, that’s the thing… NOT ALWAYS. And we have proof that they sometimes don’t know the difference between good and bad, and that’s pretty ugly. Let’s ponder!

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Wine Critics & Winemakers

There are a handful of wine critics worldwide, some more popular than others. They all are often affiliated with a wine publication, like Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate (Robert Parker), Wine Spectator, and Wine & Spirits Magazine to only cite a few. Those people have the best gig in the world, taste free wine and write about it. In fact, that’s what Steve and I do… We just don’t get the wine for free ;)

Just this month, Dierberg Vineyard invited Steve and me to their annual wine blending seminar in the Santa Ynez Valley… More on that event in a future article. We chatted at length with Winemaker Tyler Thomas after the event. Tyler said that those critics and reviews can make or break the future of a wine, not to mention the reputation of the winery! That’s a huge amount of pressure for both wine critics and winemakers.

Trained critics can taste a lot of wines when need be. For a variety of practical reasons, the typical number they go through varies from 15 to 50 in a day! The most common complaint from winemakers is that wine critics taste too many wines in a day to be able to evaluate them properly, and I don’t blame them.

There’s another aspect of this that makes my blood boil… Subjectivity! Sure, critics are trained to judge a wine based on some standardized criteria of approval but come on! We both know personal appeal and taste, along with the potential relationship with the winery definitely affects the ending score.

Wine Critics & Consumers

Wine critics are the real influencers of the wine industryConsumers are trained to trust critics and reviews from respective professionals, for everything we buy. Shopping for a new car, choosing a destination for our summer vacation, replacing our dishwasher… There’s a review for everything that can be bought, and the wine market is no exception.

Wine reviews and awards have a gigantic impact on the retail value of a wine. Get over 90 points and you’re competing with some of the “best” and most expensive wines in the world. Get under 80 points and you’re sitting on the lower shelf of a national chain supermarket. You may or may not like it, but that’s just how the world works. However, there’s a French winemaker and entrepreneur who does NOT like how it works and went “oh la la” on this wine critic business. Read on…

Wine Critics & Wine Pranks

Jean-Baptiste Duquesne, a French winemaker, owner, and entrepreneur, collaborated with national TV network France2 and an investigative news magazine called “Complément d’Enquête.” Jean-Baptiste is not a believer in the gold-silver-bronze medal award system, despite his own wines having won many of these. To prove his point, he bought 2 cheap wines from a local supermarket, a Chardonnay priced at 3 euros and a red blend from the Corbières region of Languedoc for 2 euros. Both wines are quite unknown to the masses and suffering from a quantity-over-quality reputation that the locals would like to move past.

Jean-Baptiste rebottled the supermarket loot using his own label and marked them as Clarets. After some elaborate branding and marketing prowess, he shipped the wines along with 2 genuine bottles from his own château to be judged. All four bottles were submitted to the “International Challenge Gilbert & Gaillard”, an international wine competition that awards medals to wines from around the world. Three weeks later, the results came back and all 4 bottles had received gold awards along with some glowing tasting notes.

Wine pranks – Part 2

Duquesne is not the only one! A Belgian magazine and television program dedicated to consumer awareness concocted a similar plot. They enlisted Eric Boschman, one of the best sommeliers of Belgium. The TV crew had dozens of wine competitions to choose from but settled on the Gilbert & Gaillard International Wine Competition. Yikes, what are the odds… Two for two!

Similarly, they bought the cheapest and least palatable supermarket wine they could find for under €3 and rebranded it. They made up a story claiming high quality indigenous grapes from Wallonia Belgium, along with fake lab data, a solid marketing campaign, some social media praises, and a product named ‘Château Colombier’ with an eye-catching label.

Clearly, no one bothered to check the authenticity of the content. The cheap €2.50 wine won a gold medal as anticipated. The international panel of wine professionals described it as “silky and fresh, with a rich and pleasant palate, exhibiting fruity and pleasantly complex aromas—a very interesting wine.” After announcing the result, the company informed the winners that they could purchase 1,000 gold stickers to display on their bottles for the mere sum of 60 euros. How convenient!

The Business Of Judging Wines

To better understand the process, I visited the website of Gilbert & Gaillard, the company that established the challenge in 2018. The registration page features shameless statements such as “Increase sales and visibility due to our rewards,” and “25% turnover in sales due to our medals,” and “Get access to our 10,000 importer database.” In case this isn’t clear enough for you, Gilbert & Gaillard is a marketing and networking company with a clear focus on the wine industry. Oh and it costs money to register and enter the competition… Naturally ;)

Monsieur Duquesne, as well as many other winemakers, feel that “the selection process has no value and is purely commercial.” Without a doubt, reviews and award winning labels influence us, the consumers. However, it is nothing but a clever and manipulative formula that forces winemakers to participate in order to stay competitive, and consumers to blindly buy the wine before tasting it for themselves. Wine awards are more about branding and notoriety than anything else. You might as well label that award sticker with the following message: “Pick me! I’m better… Kinda.”

Wine critics, reviews, and medals mean squat in regards to your own personal taste. The business that hides behind those practices and the subjectivity of the matter makes it completely irrelevant. But all of this doesn’t matter anyway… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here, wine is only as good as the people with whom it is enjoyed ;)

What about you? Do you trust wine critics and their reviews? Do you buy wines based on their blings? Tell us in the comments.

Cheers!

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2 Comments

  1. Karl Gunter

    Yes indeed, wine ratings can be worthless, BUT as my “wine smart” brother RoyBoy says, seek out wine reviewers who mirror your own tastes and pay attention to their specific ratings = VERY useful data.

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