Should critics embargo Bordeaux 2010 scores? #jancis

barrel tasting wine
Jancis Robinson floated a novel idea on her website last week: what if critics, who descend on Bordeaux shortly to taste 2010 barrel samples, withheld their scores until the Bordeaux trade had finished their pre-sale campaign (known as en primeur)? The logic is that high scores for what is already an extremely hyped vintage would only drive prices higher.

Predictably, Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate and Tom Matthews of Wine Spectator poured cold water on the idea, as republished on Jancis’ site. Given that this is a classic prisoner’s dilemma, if Jancis admirably remains silent while other critics publish, it only hurts her since she loses influence. The embargo would only work if all critics agree to remain silent, which is not tenable in the real world, where there’s an incentive for each critic to publish first, getting his or her views circulating, and driving the discussion. Suckling often did that when he was at Wine Spectator getting in to tastings before the crowds of the en primeurs tastings and publishing his report more or less immediately (Parker’s report usually comes out after en primeurs, at the end of April).

Although it’s unworkable, would an embargo from critics serve to bring en primeur prices down? Perhaps, especially in less anticipated vintages such as 2008, which was also being pre-sold during an economic meltdown. Although still an important part of the Bordeaux sales machine, critics’ scores may not as important as brands themselves as this Liv-Ex analysis shows.

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26 Responses to “Should critics embargo Bordeaux 2010 scores? #jancis”


  1. I just can’t see the logic and the reason in that proposal. It just seems meaningless. We will just have to write about it in our next BKWine Brief newsletter out in a few days (see link above).

    If you are worried about having an influence on the market as a journalist, just quit writing…

    Am I missing something?


  2. It seems like wine journalists should do what wine journalists do: Write about news in a timely way for readers. Pricing is a business issue for the producers and the critic/journalism community really should not be worrying about whether they’re driving prices up or down by what they write.


  3. This is the party – the dance. Whatcha gonna do?


  4. With this idea Jancis shows neutrality and professionalism, and as per usual sagacity.

    By refusing it, Parker and the Spectator show once again an ego driven desire to perpetuate their own influence.

    Shame it’s not even very good influence.


  5. Michel Bettane has also just expressed frustration with the current en primeurs process:

    http://bit.ly/fwrLyh (en francais)


  6. While the critics reviews have a remarkable influence on the turnover/price of products, sometimes I truly do wish they were silent. Bordeaux aside, sometimes we get so wrapped around scores that we forget about the smaller producers making brilliant wine with out recognition. Interesting idea from Jancis though!


  7. Finally, this is a second level problem. Even the question from Michel Bettane about the “priority” given to Suckling by UGCB.
    The real big farce is the fact that journalists are giving scores on unfinished products, specially prepared for the EP period and, too often, quite far from what will be the final product in the bottle. Journalists accepting that are puppies in the smart hands of key producers.


  8. +1 to the 3rd post.

    -1 to the 1st post. Seems your interpretation did miss the point.

    When finite items are ascribed critical acclaim they become expensive. Her notion is to have the wine’s stand on their own merit as decided by the attendees of en primeur.

    What if all en primeur tastings were conducted blind?

    Is anyone else struck by the fierce resistance to a system based in consumer driven meritocracy? Seems the noveau-riche could trust their palates more.

    Should critical acclaim unduly inflate the pricing of consumables when the grounds for judgement are highly individualistic?

    There will always be a place for journalism and reporting and it will have influence. Consumers should take notice when a critic is offering to engage their decision making skills and wallets in rendering analysis.


  9. If you dont like it don’t buy them then….

    I do not plan to ever buy a future of a wine more then 6 months from delivery.

    The Price will drop will people stop buying them until then prices will stay the same or rise. I’ll move to another region or buy the lesser known houses, If someone wanted to buy an expensive bottle to a dinner or buy one at a restaurant I will not say no.


  10. Mauss – True, the wines have just been racked now so could use some time to stabilize. Moving the en primeur tasting to June would have the advantage of giving the wines some more time as well as saving the wine world two trips to Bordeaux every other year since the tastings could be the week before VInexpo. Chances of that happening: zero.

    Btw, in view of your comment about puppies, did you see Anthony Hanson’s remarks from Jancis’ original piece? Here’s a taste:

    “Do you know any other fields of activity in the worlds of art or commerce where the producers, traders or artists have so totally manipulated the media to pump up prices AHEAD of the products being put on the market?”


  11. Per & Clark – it is a complex topic since it intertwines the high-priced sales of Bordeaux and the subject of scores. But yes, blind tasting the extremely young, tannic wines that are not even final blend could help restore critics to the driver’s seat. However, since the chateaus keep a hold on the samples and control the tasting terms, it’s not likely to happen either (for the top wines).


  12. Well, both the idea launched by Jancis (I don’t think she actually says she thinks it should be done), as well as the en Primeur show itself has several issues.

    On the Hold-the-tasing-notes idea: I think it is based both on a “misunderstanding” of the role of journalists & critics, as well as a “misunderstanding” of the way prices are set on these wines.

    And who has ever believed that critics are “in the driving seat” of setting prices? What does that mean?


  13. Critics are only pawns of the chateaux if they are somehow induced to give higher scores than the wines deserve.

    Wine Spectator’s reviews are independent of the trade and done in blind tastings. We consider ourselves advocates for the consumers, giving potential buyers an independent judgment of the quality of the wines they are being asked to purchase “en primeur.”

    Perhaps the better solution would be for the producers to wait to offer the wines for sale until they are bottled; then critics could review finished wines, as they do for most of the world of wine. But so long as the wines are sold from barrel, they will be reviewed from barrel.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator


  14. I am having difficulty squaring Mr. Matthews’ comments with the reality on the ground.

    Both James Suckling and now James Molesworth make appointments for private tastings at dozens of Chateaux before embarking on the WS Blind Tasting program that takes place at a neutral site (like Caudalie last year). I was at the hotel when Mr. Suckling came back from several such appointments, and as his team was setting up the wines for him to taste in coming days. Molesworth has been tweeting his daily rounds, too. So this is no secret — and these are not blind tasting events. Scores are already published.

    When the WS blind tasting program does kick into gear, it is understood that these top Chateaux are invited to participate. Do they? Perhaps some, but there are already scores published so what’s the point? James Molesworth states he will clearly ID when wines are tasted non-blind, and has done so.

    No issue either way, but consider this: After tasting 2-3 dozen top wines, non-blind, how can a critic be totally objective when tasting the rest of them blind? “OK I already tasted Lafite and Latour and Ausone, those are all tops so I have my benchmark for the vintage”. Thus are the blind samples given the more difficult task — measuring up against a pre-existing standard for the vintage. It seems only natural, only human.

    Finally, even the WS 100pt score system is subject to interpretation. How else to explain the WS database that shows from 1999-2008, Molesworth has rated 14 wines at 99 points with not a single 100 point score, while Suckling awarded 13 perfect marks but only a single 99? Will Mr. Molesworth now find perfection in Bordeaux when it was not obtainable in even the hallowed LaLa vineyards?

    Molesworth explained it on Twitter today, “@CityWineJournal I have not given 100 yet. Not sure if perfection in wine is possible, since you can always improve.”

    I agree with that, but it is an inherent contradiction in a scoring system with an absolute top limit, and now with a critic who interprets those limits differently than his predecessor.

    So is it the WS scoring system or the individual critic’s interpretation that governs?

    As to the broader question, the horse has left the barn. Critics compete for reader relevance and attention just as the Bordelaise compete for sales and for scores.


  15. The basic fact growing from year to year : more and more châteaux do not accept any more to be tasted blind, even for the journalists of the WS or WA included.
    All discussions about that are simply vain. It is a fact and so, a huge biais with the properties accepting the blind comparison.

    Tasting Latour at the château alone gives automatically different result than tasting this wine in comparison with Margaux, Mouton LLC and many others, in a blind mode. If you do not trust that, then you have a lot to learn about tasting wines !


  16. To assume that wine critics can have a long-lasting, systematic, influence on wine prices is the same as accepting that the Wall Street Journal is responsible for bull and bear markets.
    Critics’ opinions can at best generate short term noise in (wine) market prices; and their price-making influence is mostly limited to individual wines.
    Prices of “Bordeaux en primeur”, in any vintage, are determined primarily by market forces, and are based on two structural (systematic) components: the vintage’s weather patterns; and global liquidity (equity plus credit availability) levels.


  17. Hi Tom –

    Thanks for stopping by. I guess it boils down to a normative question: should the Bordeaux trade pre-sell their wines in this way? Champagne doesn’t. There’s no pre-sale tasting of Napa cabs.

    The members of the Bordeaux wine trade have constructed a sales program that suits them, giving them money two years before delivery–and they even get to keep their summer holidays intact by setting the tastings so early. The wines are tough and tannic and the final blend has not been done. And as Peter points out above, the weather offers consumers a perspective on the wines of a vintage–as does prevailing wisdom of which producers are turning out good wines–before any critic tastes barrel samples. It’s hard not to see critics as simply fanning the flames of demand or simply burnishing their own self-importance, especially when some (notably Suckling) have rushed to be the first to publish. Hats off to Michel Bettanne who is at least saying he doesn’t want to play by the rules of the trade any more.

    In the case of the top Bordeaux chateaus, the wines are so expensive, it’s tempting to say that if a consumer is interested in pre-purchasing the wines en primeur, then he or she might as well just join the fray and go to Bordeaux to taste them.


  18. In other markets this does not happen. The free markets decide – stock market for example. Before it goes public, bankers value it off hard numbers (usually low, b/c they want to see after-mkt IPO price rise), then the free market trades and decides. I give props to Jancis for suggesting this idea. To have the price of Bdx solidified in the hands of only a few is a very scary thing rather than in the hands of many. However, I understand, as many have said above, the journalist jobs is to report their findings. And as in valuing a company, I guess a journalist is valuing the wine with his or her scores. But in no other market does it have such a grand influence on price, which is where I take small issue. Great post, Tyler.


  19. This is turning into a strange discussion. “should the Bordeaux trade pre-sell their wines in this way” !

    They have a product to sell and buyers willing to buy. Who is to say the they “should” not sell in that way. Who is to set up rules on what is the “acceptable” or “correct” way to sell wine?

    They have a product. They sell it any way they like.

    In the same way – who is to say what and when journalists/critics “should” write about a product? They publish when they want and write what they want. (Except if the source of the information has set up conditions.)

    The only reasonable way to react is to choose not to participate.

    So in one way Bettane is right.

    If he doesn’t like the way it works he shouldn’t participate. But now he WILL participate anyway…

    And the reason for the open letter to the UGC is a bit odd, isn’t it?: “James Suckling is allowed in to taste before me so it is not ‘fair'”.

    Who has ever said that selling wine, or writing about wine is “fair”? How many journalists have in earlier days been refused entry to tastings or events where Bettane was allowed in? Was that unfair too and a reson to boycott?

    He who holds the power sets the rules. And in view of the demand for top level bordeaux it seems that the chateaux hold the power.

    I thought we were in an open market economy, not a plan economy where some central power set “fairness” rules and defines “fair” prices.


  20. Tyler, a point of order: Harlan is sold de facto en primeur for all intents and purposes, and perhaps Screagle and a couple of other mailing-list darlings at the top of that particular food chain.

    Also, there is virtually no value added by any critic in offering up Bordeaux barrel scores (or bottle scores, for that matter). Rating Bordeaux is akin to shooting fish in a barrel (no pun intended). If you know the nature and overall quality of a given vintage, the 1855 classification Bordeaux, as updated and augmented by the generally acknowledged modern-day Petruses and other de facto first-growths, along with the Super Seconds, win out every time. (The scores also demonstrate that Mouton is decidedly second-growth, by the way.) If any value is added by critics, it is probably in touting the occasional overachieving low classified or unclassified growth.


  21. Oddly, i will be on the ground in BDX for en primer or whatever the hell it is called next week- I’ll be way hyped up on goof-balls and will be updating scores and all that BS as fast as I can- This is going to be my 82… Hot, sweaty, and dripping w/ Tiger’s Blood…


  22. Consider the situation where during vinification a winemaker invites a trusted colleague, friend or consultant to sample their wine(s) and provide feedback. The winemaker reacts to several of the visitor’s comments and makes changes in the final steps of their vinification before bottling or with release timing.

    Are the lines of wine journalism and wine consultation blurring in the en primeur release program?


  23. Let it be known that Jancis’s idea is one that has been championed by many retailers, such as myself for years.

    I have stopped going to Bordeaux, for En Primeurs. What is the point? I should spend my money to travel there for a week, taste a ton of wine and decide what I like? Then, when I want to make a purchase, I am told, “Whoa, hold on, Mr. Retailer, we do not care about your opinion. We need to wait to see what Robert Parker says about our wine, before we price it. Robert Parker is the only Bordeaux opinion that matters, so he decides where we should price our wines.”

    You have winemakers making wine for 40 freaking years, and they cannot determine how good their wine is.

    It is a joke. I hope Bordeaux chokes on another overpriced vintage.


  24. @ Daniel Posner

    Surely there is some misunderstanding? The price of a classified Bordeaux wine (or any other product for that matter) is not a question of how good it is.

    It is a question of how much a customer is willing to pay for it. (So, how good it is for HIM.)

    Why should the producers not charge astronomic prices for the wines if people are willing to pay it?

    Selling the wines for far lower prices than what they can, THAT would be a joke.


  25. Per-BKWine

    The producers should do whatever the heck that they want.

    And the sheep will follow.

    I am sure at one time previously, quality of the wine mattered.

    Now, it only matters what the critics think of the wine.

    Just see Dr Vino’s expose on 2005 Sierra Carche, a sham of a 96 point wine from Spain.


  26. Tyler:
    On March 31, I did this April Fool story for my newsletter. FYI:
    A French wine writer has
    said he would boycott the “en
    primeur” system of pre-judging
    unreleased, unblended Bordeaux
    unless other wine writers ceased
    pre-pre-judging Bordeaux and
    releasing their scores before a
    “gentleman’s agreement” date of
    release.
    Michel Bettane criticized the
    system of pre-pre-judging the unbottled,
    unblended barrel samples
    because they pre-empted his efforts
    to follow the rules and not preprint scores.
    However, American wine writer
    Stanley deLone has decided to beat
    the system by judging Bordeaux
    during fermentation and releasing his
    scores well before the wines even
    have been sent to barrel. And thus
    before anyone else.
    James Suckling, the former Wine
    Spectator columnist, was quoted in
    this brouhahaha as saying, “The
    consumer wants to know as soon
    as possible how good are the wines
    in a great vintage in Bordeaux… I
    want to fulfill that need the best I
    can.”
    But deLone countered by saying
    that none of the pre-pre-judging
    scores will be worth “a bucket of
    spit” after his pre-pre-pre-judging
    scores of still-fermenting wine are
    published.
    (This story is pre-published from April 1, 2011.)

    All the best,
    Dan


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