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12.15.2005

Backlash Against Parker?

I don't really read the San Francisco Chronicle, mostly because they don't provide RSS feeds that would allow me to easily do so. I mostly can't be bothered to go trolling through their web site, even on Thursdays, when the Wine and Food section comes out. Luckily for me I have friends who are more diligent, more forgiving, or who actually still subscribe to the paper version, who can tip me off when things show up there that might be of interest.

That's what happened today when I got a note from a friend with the following excerpt from this weeks wine news digest attached:

Based on a recent survey, Wine Opinions of St. Helena says a backlash reaction to ratings of wines by Robert M. Parker Jr. seems to be forming among a significant segment of high-end wine consumers.

"While the survey does indicate that Mr. Parker's influence exceeds the actual number of those who read his publication and visit his Web site, 48 percent gave him the lowest rating ('no influence') on a 5-point scale. This was double the size of the 'no influence' rating for other wine media," said Christian Miller, who directs Wine Opinions research operations."

I'll tell you right off, the first thing that came to mind was "ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer."

It may indeed be possible to say there is a backlash against Parker, but only because research subjects are mouthing off to interviewers, not because anything is really changing in how people buy wine.

Allow me to explain.

I'm fairly certain (someone should feel free to excoriate me if I'm wrong) that this data comes from the recently issued "Core Track Report" which this research company produces on a regular basis summarizing the preferences and behaviors of what they call high-end wine consumers (folks who drink wine 3 to 5 times more frequently than the average consumer, buy wines regularly for their cellars, subscribe to wine publications, etc. etc.) In this survey they come right out and ask people what publications they read, and apparently who they say influences their buying decisions. (Incidentally, the stats on which magazines they read are quite amazing -- I had no idea the Spectator was so far out in front.)

So here's the thing. If you want to know how big an influence Parker actually has on people's buying decisions THE LAST THING you would do is just ask them.

I've set up a fair number of research studies in my days as a consultant, and I've worked with some of the best ethnographers and social/behavioral anthropologists in the country, and if I've learned one thing its about the existence of the "Saying - Doing Gap." In short, what people tell you they do and think, and then what they actually do, is huge. Massive. To the point where the first time you actually see it happen, you think that the research subjects might actually be a little insane.

So what's my point? There's no way asking people how much influence Parker has on their buying behavior will yield you anything close to accurate results. What you will get, however, is what people want you to think about how Parker influences their behavior. I would guess that the folks answering these questions were making a point rather than revealing any truth about themselves.

If you really wanted to see how Parker influenced people's buying decisions, you would set up an experiment where you gave subjects the opportunity to purchase any number of wines they had never heard of and then gave each wine a shelf-talkers with point scores from the different critics and then actually watched which wines people bought and made statistical correlations between purchases and critical endorsements. Afterwards you would ask people why and how they made their decisions, and filter out any purchases that were made for reasons that were clearly personal rather than based on what they saw in front of them (e.g. the guy who always buys the wine with the fancy looking label no matter what it says or where its from).

Anyway.

So there may be a backlash indeed, but it's likely to be more posturing than actual changes in buying behavior, and from that respect, I hardly think it's new (though I don't know how long Wine Opinions has been asking this question, so there might indeed be a recent spike). I think the only time that Parker's influence on the market will really change dramatically is when he throws in the towel.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.