Scores aren't everything - or are they?

Friday, 8. March 2019 - 12:00

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW is Editor-in-Chief of The Wine Advocate. The American took an interesting road into wine—she was a struggling playwright in London when she took a job managing a wine bar for some extra cash. One thing led to another, leading Perrotti-Brown MW to work in wine sales, marketing, buying and education. In 2008 she became an MW, and in 2013 she took on her current role. Now based in Napa, she will be tackling the topic “Scores Aren’t Everything” at the upcoming MUST: Fermenting Ideas summit in Portugal.

Now, this idea that ‘scores aren’t everything’. Wine writers like to think that, but major retailers still rely on them.
I’m not saying you can do away with them, just saying they’re not everything. I’m dead against a shelf talker with a score selling a bottle of wine. It’s incredibly misleading. In the old days, apart from Parker and Wine Spectator, there weren’t a lot of people using scores. In my early days I didn’t read Parker, I started studying wine in the UK and was reading a lot of Michael Broadbent and loved his books and reviews. I did find myself wondering, “Did the reviewer like it or not? What did they think of it? Where does it sit qualitatively with other wines? Should I buy this one or that one?” I loved the descriptions, though some could be vague and some I didn’t get, things like ‘good grip’.

I do totally agree that scores are a necessary thing but just to throw a score on something without knowing what a wine is like—how is that consumer supposed to know if they’re going to like it? Is it a blockbuster or a delicate, perfumed, refined wine? What’s the personality of the wine?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to assimilate all of this information that we’re constantly bombarded with from all angles. Social media is one of the guilty culprits, where you have all of these words coming at you. Who do I believe? It becomes increasingly difficult for the consumer to know who to trust. Creating a buyer’s guide to wine is the essence of what we do. That’s really the job of a wine critic—describing a wine so that it means something to the person reading it.

Speaking of wine critics, the print media in general is in a tumult at the moment, not least because reading patterns are changing and people are migrating to podcasts and other media. How do you see The Wine Advocate evolving?
It’s a difficult one. You can get bogged down with trying to second guess where the consumer is going to go, because everything seems to be changing so quickly. I think we have to stick to our guns and do what we do and do it well. We also have to make sure we’re communicating effectively, in the way consumers want to see and hear things. I have been very surprised at how rapidly Instagram has taken over other more text-based social media, such as Twitter and even Facebook. That said, I’m heartened at how many people go through and read long blurbs on Instagram. They seem to embrace more information, such as when I describe a wine. I wrote a really dorky post showing Chateau Pavie’s vineyard, with its really interesting layer of limestone and vast underground lake. A lot of wine geeks went “wow!” I do get heartened when I see things like that. It breaks my heart to think that reading is declining. I do think there is a power to words. Vocal words can be just as powerful, and I’m not slighting podcasts, but there is an experience you get from the written word that it would be a shame to lose. I hope all these ways of assimilating information will find their place in the future.

How is the Wine Advocate’s communication style changing?
The biggest change—and this is kind of what we’ve been expecting all along—is the realisation that there is never going to be another Robert Parker. Robert Parker is of a time and a place and had a position that is never going to be replicated again. Today we have a lot of valid voices talking about wine and this is probably the biggest change we’ve seen at Wine Advocate; bringing in new voices to create a mosaic of people talking about regions expertly. We have nine reviewers now, based all over the world, coming at wine from very different backgrounds and perspectives. They were all hand picked because they are experts in communicating and in knowing their regions. Maybe the wine world doesn’t want that one voice any more. Maybe it needs all of these voices coming together and speaking about wine.

Did your readers get upset when Robert Parker stopped writing and other voices took over?
There was an easing out. We were nervous that we would have a mass exodus of readers, but that didn’t happen. What was integral to that was keeping the spirit of what he had started alive. In many ways we’re unique as a publication because we still don’t have any sponsorship from wineries in the publication. We are subscriber based and that’s where we get most of our revenue from. We have a code of ethics that we adhere to in terms of not accepting any payments or payments in kind from wineries or retailers. Everything has stayed very true to what Robert Parker is about: The notes, the scoring system, the reports that we write. We still write the annual reports about the regions. We have started publishing a lot more frequently, at least every month and sometimes every week—that is meeting the need of our readers.

So your readers are very engaged?
We get a lot of comments and feedback from our readership. People come to me and say, “you haven’t brought out a review for this yet!” If someone offers a wine we want to make sure we have reviews available to people can make informed decisions. We listen constantly. It’s the same with our vintage reports. I just got a comment on one of my articles today that they wanted a little bit more information on Sonoma Pinots and I’m happy to give our subscribers more.  It makes them feel good to have exclusive content.

What’s the profile of someone engaged with wine like that?
You can’t sum it up any more like we did in the past. When I first started writing, we could say most of our readership was male and mostly over the age of 45, but now – and I’m so excited – we get to engage with people through our events, and there are so many more young people and so many women who are super knowledgeable. They’re doctors, lawyers, professionals. We did an event in Zurich and the masterclasses were a myriad of demographics. The questions they asked were wonderfully complex and give you a great feeling about the future of the wine world. They know a lot about wine and they’re asking questions about vintages that are really detailed. It really heartens me. I’m constantly reading about the demise of Millennials. I have an office here of Millenials and they are super excited about wine. People say theyr’e not interested in fine wine, but when I was 23 how much fine wine was I buying? I was experimenting and having fun.

How have consumers changed?
We are seeing a real broadening of interests, a broadening of wine styles available out there and that’s exciting in and of itself. Back when I started out, there wasn’t even a concept of natural wines, but now it’s real and it’s out there. It’s something that engages people and gets them interested in wine. There are whole new categories like orange wine. I think that today we have so much more available to us in terms of information, styles, categories, things to talk about and things to interest people. Because a consumer group or people are getting interesting in one category or another shouldn’t make people feel threatened in more traditional categories. There is still strong interest in those.
Interview by Felicity Carter