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A Deep Look Into The Glossy Wine Mags

We all (wine writers included) like to bitch about the glossy wine magazines in some way or another. I, for instance, like to sling mud in the direction of the Wine Spectator for what I feel is a completely idiotic internet strategy. I also happen to single them out on occasion for overlooking a lot of wines, or for what I feel is an occasional lack of subtlety in their ratings. If you're a wine connoisseur I'm sure you've got your favorite magazine or critic you like to bash, too.

Well, despite all our kvetching about this or that with the wine magazines, we never really have much to back up our thoughts about what they do well, or not so well, because we've not got the time, or energy, to take a really scientific or statistical approach to our particular issue.

It was only a matter of time, though, before someone else did. One of my electronic acquaintances and wine writing colleagues W.R. Tish finally decided to see just what was going on with those big sets of wine reviews called "buying guides" that the glossies put out every month, or quarter, or every so often (depending on the publication).

In particular, he reveals some very interesting facts:

  • Some magazines force wineries to pay them money just to print images of their labels as part of these buying guides -- essentially letting those who want to get more visibility and appear to be "recommended" more highly do so by forking over cash.

  • There's a very big difference in the grading curves of the various magazines, with some giving out far more high scores as a percentage of the wines they taste than others.

    I suggest you take a look if you're a subscriber or thinking about being one. Or even if you need more justification for why you DON'T subscribe.

    Readers should note that there is an error in the tables of wine review values that appear in the article. The boldfaced percentages in the wine ratings tables should all be shifted one column to the left.

    Comments (8)

    St.Vini wrote:
    06.29.06 at 9:41 AM

    Alder: Tish does a good job (as always) of pointing out some of the dirty facts behind these magazines (I still treasure the personal email I got from Thomas Matthews when I bashed Spectator). I agree that Spectator should go to a tasting panel, particularly with California

    Case in point - when you go to Wine Spectator's link above, click on the bottom left link box ("Wine Everyday"). Take a look around at the site that pops up.....looks like a nice series of pairings for popular supermarket wines, no? How nice of WS!

    What they don't note, but should, is that this is an ad for Gallo wines, disguised as something approved by Wine Spectator (they have their logo at the bottom) and a group called Wine Everyday.

    Agree that there is better info available online, skip the mags.


    Anonymous wrote:
    06.29.06 at 3:53 PM

    I figured I'd comment, anonymously to protect myself and my wines. Since I have just experienced some of what you and W.R. Tish wrote first hand, I figured I'd share it.

    We just had both of our Chardonnay's rated highly in Wine Enthusiast and in advance of said publication, when they let us know our reviews, we were given the option to buy a label image for about $800.00. What you do not see in advance of the review though is the actual review itself, which for us made it a difficult decision as to whether or not to spend the money (money I probably need not add, that is not always easy to come by for a small winery like us). For example, their wine writer gave our 2003 Zinfandel a score of 86. Now that can be viewed two different ways depending on the actual verbiage of the review. On the surface the score is obviously below where you'd like it to be but when I finally saw the review, it was accurate and even a decent review, given what I (now) know to be the writer's general preferences. Any way, without the review in hand I decided not to buy the label.

    Recently however, two of our other wines received scores of 92 & 88 respectively. Even without the reviews itself I was tempted to buy the labels to get that extra exposure but in the end decided I could not gauge the effectiveness of doing that with any potential calls or business that might result.

    Then when I got the magazine and saw how high up the Chard list we would have been, I kind of kicked myself for not spending the money. We did not get any specific inquiries that I can be sure were based on the reviews and now I can only wonder if it would have been different by purchasing that implied endorsement.

    Just figured I'd add some first hand proof of what you wrote.

    Lenn wrote:
    06.29.06 at 7:34 PM

    Hey Vini...I keep my email from Thomas Matthews too...isn't it great when we get him ticked off? ;)

    Tish always does a great job...and this is nothing different. I actually just wrote a column about WS and their "blind" tasting process...that was rejected by my editor for fear of legal dispute.

    Sad really...given that I didn't directly accuse them of anything that isn't common knowledge.

    Leslie wrote:
    07.01.06 at 10:51 AM

    Your entry has justified my feelings on some of these magazines reviews. I have had some of the wines on the lists and given good reviews, and have had many that are much better that never make a list.

    Tom wrote:
    07.02.06 at 5:42 AM

    So, given the thought that these publications are flawed, does anyone have a "Top 3" online sources for information? I've been using a combination of CellarTracker and Wine Enthusiast online for a while, which works OK and obviously is low-cost compared to Parker or WS. Any thoughts would be appreciated, as we just want to keep learning and getting more informed about what to buy.

    Alder wrote:
    07.05.06 at 10:49 AM


    Your experience would be true no matter how perfect and unbiased the wine reviewing process was at any magazine. There are thousands and thousands of great wines out there that never get reviewed by the magazines for any number of reasons -- small production, not interested in getting reviews, not known about by the magazine staff, etc. etc.

    Remember to never let anyone else tell you what you should like !

    Alder wrote:
    07.05.06 at 10:58 AM


    Thanks for the comments. These publications may be flawed, but I'm sure every publication about as subjective a topic as wine could be found wanting. The key is to not use them as a shopping list. Anyone who simply buys what someone else scores highly (not suggesting you do that) is bound to be disappointed often whether it's a magazine or a critic or a blogger like me, simply because everyone's palate is different.

    The best way to get consistently good recommendations on wine is to regularly patronize a reasonably sized wine specialty store and get to the point where the folks who work there can make recommendations based on other wines that you've bought from them and enjoyed.

    Now, to your question, some top online sources for wine information are:

    1. Blogs like Vinography, which you've obviously already discovered.
    2. Sites like Robin Garr's Wine Lover's Pages at www.wineloverspage.com
    3. Online bulletin boards like Mark Squire's boards on www.erobertparker.com

    I've got a list of links way down on the left hand side of my page. Check them out for some more options.

    fred wrote:
    07.09.06 at 11:01 PM


    While I agree with Alder that every publication, every review, every score is "flawed" in some way, each one is, in the end, just another data point for the consumer to weigh or disregard.

    We've all read about the thin line between advertising and editorial. We've laughed at all the vacuous tasting notes. We've heard all the reasons why scores are arbitrary. Nothing is foolproof.

    That said, I would reccommend you visit http://www.qprwine.com. It's a newsletter that groups wines by varietal/appellation, lists them by score and ranks them by value. Since they only list wines that have been scored by two or more publications, that reduces at least some of the bias we see from certain wine writers.

    Check it out. Maybe you'll discover something new -- at whatever price. And maybe you'll feel more confident in your buying. Cheers.

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