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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).


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.

Comments (21)

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.16.05 at 1:34 AM

My wife has worked in wine retail for years. There is an interesting "denial" phenomenon which can be observed regularly. Customers who love oaky/buttery Chardonnay for example but state that they don't. Then they buy a case of Columbia Crest and go about their business. Or the customer who states they only like "dry" wines but when poored a well made white with 10% residual sugar loves it. Tell them it is dry and they'll buy it.

The reality is in the above example the consumer loves oaky/buttery Chardonnay and the other loves off-dry wines but they may conceive themselves less sophisticated for admitting so. They would be perfectly content drinking an oaky/buttery chardonnay without being told it is so. Or, drink an off-dry white and be told it is bone dry. It's like wearing a size seven shoe but searching through numerous brands to find a size six that fits.

Along the same lines, asking consumers whether Parker influences their buying or not is ridiculous. It's like asking if television commercials or billboards influence them. Insecure consumers who won't buy anything without a score are not going to admit to the truth. A better way to measure Parker's influence would be to record sales of a $ 15 wine seven days prior to Parking rating it, and seven days after he rates it, marking it with a RP92 tag. I imagine customers would flock to it, sales increasing 10 fold.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.16.05 at 1:38 AM

Oh, by the way, you can fined rss feeds to the Chronicle here: http://sfgate.com/rss/

Bradley wrote:
12.16.05 at 7:26 AM

Have to agree with Eric. Having worked retail for a time I saw this phenom over and over again. Staff had a maxim:
Talks Dry, Drinks Sweet.
As for Parker, his power is in the self-promotion. I don't doubt his talents, but I don't buy wine based on any one palate. I pretty well ignore shelf talkers and wine reviews when I buy wine.
I go by the advice of friends and colleagues with whom I've had some tasting history.

And I buy on labels.

Ooooh! Pretty colors! Me want!

Jack wrote:
12.16.05 at 7:53 AM

Two comments above: Ah, wine spam from Italy while you sleep!

Yes, Alder, you're very right, they're wrong.

The Wine Spectator, btw, influences (to describe it one way) a much higher ratio than 5.5 times the Wine Advocate, as their "data" indicates. Compare paid readership for both publications. Then the real kicker - subtract those in the industry. (Yeah, I wish I had those numbers to tell you...but just factor in that the Wine Spectator sells 5 to 50 copies to most every liquor/wine store in the country. The Wine Advocate is subscription-based only.)

I don't see how Robert Parker's influence can be waning; It's not like the "high end" buyers are suddenly (in the last year!) getting to taste the wines they're purchasing before actually purchasing them. Nor are the wines Robert Parker gives high scores to sitting on shelves.

-- Jack

mph wrote:
12.16.05 at 8:09 AM

I'm just drinking my way through the "Field Guide to the Fauna of Australia."

Tyler wrote:
12.16.05 at 8:23 AM

"I think the only time that Parker's influence on the market will really change dramatically is when he throws in the towel."

I disagree--his influence is dwindling already. (See eloquent review of McCoy's bio in Slate)

He doesn't review wines of Burgundy. Nor Italy. Nor Germany, Austria, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and undoubtedly many other places in between. He has punted those to his other reviewers for his newsletter. These regions produce many sought-after and collectible wines.

And the web's growing influence? The rise of wine shops with no parker scores? Come on! Viva wine democracy!

Jack wrote:
12.16.05 at 8:47 AM

Hi Tyler - But methinks that for every one person who "outgrows" the Wine Advocate, there are twenty more who outgrow the Wine Spectator, 1-3 of which become Wine Advocate subscribers.

And Robert Parker is smart for hiring other reviewers: He can't keep up and be an expert on every region of the wine world, esp. with more and more wines being made every day, and with general increasing quality.

Craig Camp wrote:
12.16.05 at 9:04 AM

I think "backlash" is the wrong term for what is happening to Parker's influence. If there is a reason that he has less impact it is because of the dilution factor. Decades ago when Parker made his name, there were few resources that effectively covered the wines he did. Today, we are overwhelmed by competing information - like Vinography for example. The Internet has changed the way serious consumers make their buying decisions.

Alder wrote:
12.16.05 at 9:28 AM

HOLY COW Eric! Chronicle RSS feeds.

When did that happen? I swear I checked about 2 months ago and even sent them a nasty e-mail about it.

Thanks. That's great !!

Alder wrote:
12.16.05 at 9:41 AM

Thanks for the comment, Bradley! Love those labels. Parker actually does very little self promotion, especially if you compare him to the critics at most other major publications, to the point that you could say the guy avoids it. Sure, he'll plug his new book on a radio show, but you don't see him doing the Robert Parker Experience, an $800 per person tasting, seminar and dinner showcasing all his top rated wines in 5 cities around the country.

12.16.05 at 10:01 AM

In a similar vien look at all the wine on the Spectator 100 list that flew out of the warehouses recently and onto the retail shelves. I heard that 400 cases of the 2003 Alto Luzon moved in one day here locally based on a #44 ranking!

Ratings sell!

I don't blame Parker however, because today on NPR he said people should trust their own palates first and try as many wines as they can, and not rely on his.

jens at cincinnati wine

Mark wrote:
12.16.05 at 11:51 AM

From someone who markets wine, I can promise you - the fastest way to sell out of a wine, is when you can put "Parker, 92 points" (or higher) on it. Look at his high scores and see if any of those wines have any trouble selling at any price. Same for WS as well. People like easy and simple to understand things. 96 points! It must be great. And even I am susceptible. I hear that X wine was rated high, I get curious. Doesn't mean I'll like it, just means it gets my attention.

nicole wrote:
12.19.05 at 1:24 PM

Of course Parker still influences the public, an American public that is somewhat naive and easily led. I work as a sommelier with a predomently Riesling list and the amount of people who won't even try the wines because of the residual sugar is astonishing (and then order a soda??). There is a backlash. Who saw Mondo Vino? The Bordelaise were happy to see the prices sky rocket for years but when it started changing the style if the region even they had had enough. The wine world doesn't need another overly extracted fruit bomb that only pairs with a cigar.
oh.. and thanks to WS for the front page riesling article.

St.Vini wrote:
12.19.05 at 2:21 PM

Eric drilled it. Wine consumers are notoriously unreliable when quizzed on buying habits. Nobody admits to drinking Almaden Chianti or yellow tail yet (by volume) they are two of the most popular scanned wines in the country.

Wine consumers "trade up" their behavior when asked about it and habitually overstate their price points and preferences to make themselves seem higher-end or more knowledgable than they really are. Because of this, most wine consumer research is, unfortunately, bunk!


Jerry Hall wrote:
12.20.05 at 10:27 PM

One observation over the past 5+ years waiting on customers who often clutch one or more lists, the Spectator, newspapers, a loaded pda, or overtly mention reviews or ratings: Parker's following may be aging a bit. If you bought '82 Bordeaux on his enthusiasm (as I did), you probably still pay close attention. If you are under 30 years old (I'm well past this demographic), I'm not as convinced of his influence. Shelf talkers seem to work, but clever ones without a Parker rating seem to work about as well. Younger consumers are more apt to follow a wine consultant's recommendation or choose a fashionable label - they seem less risk averse.

Jathan wrote:
12.23.05 at 9:58 AM

The data is incorrect. "48 percent gave him the lowest rating ('no influence') on a 5-point scale."

That's because 75% of those interviewed were Wine Spectator readers! Of course they are going to say Parker has no influence.

This study was poorly executed.

Christian Miller wrote:
01.02.06 at 10:24 AM

Dear Alder;
I recently became aware of your commentary on the "backlash against Parker" article in the SF Chronicle, which cited our study (http://www.vinography.com/archives/000863.html ). You had some complaints about the study as cited in the article and seemed to dismiss its findings, so I thought I should respond.
I too have many years of market research behind me, as does my colleague John Gillespie at Wine Opinions. I am well aware of the "saying-doing gap" and various research methodologies to resolve this issue. Allow me a few comments on your complaints regarding the survey:
1) The Parker question was just one part of one question in a report that covered a number of topics. It was not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the issue. It was meant to start people in the trade and wineries thinking about how influential various critics and sources of information really were. Due to the timing (Parker's biography, a pick up in the high end wine business, etc.) the Parker data seemed to be of the greatest interest to the media.
2) We were not attempting to predict purchase behaviour, just report on how people said Parker (or Spectator, other wine magazines, shelftalkers, etc.) influenced their buying decisions, and see if there were correlations between their responses and other data in the survey.
3) The "Saying-Doing Gap" is not consistent across all types of questions and buying decisions, at least not in the wine industry. In some situations people more or less do what they say in surveys, and in others not. I have done a number of simulated shopping experiments similar to the one you propose, as well as household panel and scan data analyses that directly measure this issue, so trust me on this one. In the case of Parker, there may be a substantial saying-doing gap or there may not, but there is no reason to assume a large one.
4) Regardless of how the "saying-doing gap" plays out in the Parker case, the key finding was the distribution of influence ratings of Parker compared to other media sources. On a five point scale, a far larger percent of people rated Parker as having "1=no influence at all" (the lowest rating) than for other sources, whose ratings tended to be more evenly spread across the lower ratings of 1 to 3. Even if those who rate him a "1" don't follow through in terms of purchase behaviour, it is still an interesting finding that they should feel much more "obligated" to say Parker doesn't influence them than they do for other critics and media.

I hope this clarifies the findings somewhat. Feel free to post this response in your blog, which I found to be interesting reading despite your initial reaction to our study. (I look forward to hearing more about the Dry Creek Terroir tasting.)

Chris Gillanders wrote:
04.02.06 at 5:09 AM

Any wine enthusiast who drinks wine based on Parker's rating is a peasant. What a boring follower one must be to rush out and buy a wine based on Parker's number. its like always rooting for the winning team....wine is an adventure, some we like some we hate but the joy is in trying new tastes and new regions. Many of the French(not all.) and other regions stil hold on to a natural and romantic ideology on winemaking, while US producers have taken the terroir concept and turned winemaking into a cold, heartless labratory process based on maximum revenue, in this globalised world, I prefer to find wine, cheese, whatever, made in old, time honoured traditions, it is far more interesting than the homogenized globalised boring cookie cutter world so many people seem easily entrapped into. My advice, forget Parker and follow youre own nose or are you such a follower in life you cant even make that decision for yourself?

Anonymous wrote:
04.02.06 at 8:57 AM


Thanks for the comment. While I understand the sentiment, I don't think anything is gained by such sweeping generalizations about American winemaking and disdain for literally hundreds of thousands of wine drinkers. Sure, it would be great to live in a world where people paid no attention to rating numbers, but that's not the case. Calling these people "boring, peasant followers" doesn't make them more likely to follow your advice.

Anonymous wrote:
05.08.06 at 10:51 PM

When I'm touring the Third World I find it very annoying, all those peasant wine enthusiasts.

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