Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ratings and Recommendations

There are so many articles on the topic or rating and reviewing wines that I hesitate to write another one, but one thing I have discovered in my brief research is that almost all of it is based on attacking or defending the 100 point scale.

In fact, in my very first post on this blog (back in June 2006) I said:

This is not a site about wine tasting notes, collecting and investing in 'fine' wines, ranting against the 100-point systems and a certain reviewer (although it may come up from time to time) or matching it with food. When I say "Wine Culture" I am thinking of how the vine, its fruit and the fermented by-product has played some role in our lives for thousands of years, and how even today this agricultural product is present in our digitised, mechanised and hectic lives. Just as well.

However, the European Wine Bloggers' Conference is encouraging us to discuss the issues that ALL wine bloggers face, and this is most certainly one of them. One of the latest posts by Ryan Opaz is:

To Rate or Not to Rate - That is the Question

There is a high likelihood that if you have a wine blog you will be tasting wines and writing up the results in some manner (there are a few weird sites like mine that don't, but we are not common). If so, should you be rating them for your readers?

One argument, for example here on Fermentation, is that wines ought to be judged on some objective criteria, whatever these may be, and if we fail to establish what these are and how they are measured, then the whole business of rating is worthless.

On the other hand, companies like Wine Spectator, rely on a fixed scale to be able to classify the thousands of wines they deal with.

But where do bloggers come into this?

One of the themes that keeps coming up in my thinking about wine blogs is that the majority of them are NOT objective writers trying to be "journalists", but rather they are, and should be, individuals with opinions looking to entertain. This means that we bloggers should be encouraged to say what we think, whether we are experts on the subject at hand or not, just as we would in a conversation with friends, not writing a piece for Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Wine reviews in this context are not supposed to be "objective" reviews. You don't go round talking to your friends about that 88 point wine you drank the other night, do you? In fact, these are a form of word of mouth recommendation and as such a recommendation should be simple; buy it, or don't buy it!

If bloggers could agree on this as the start of a common recommendation system, we would have a way of cooperating and make wine blogs a more influential voice for consumers looking for recommendations and information (as discussed recently on 1 Wine Dude).

And what would this scale look like? It could be simple binary: yes/no; toast/bury; etc. but this is a little too simple even if it is a model that works elsewhere.

I would like to throw out the following for discussion, and I'm sure someone, somewhere, is already doing this, but unfortunately I have not come across this*:

+2 I loved it and would really recommend you buy this
+1 It was OK and largely worth the money
0 OK, reasonable but not memorable and there are probably better options for your money
-1 A bad investment of time and money.
-2 I hated it. Avoid at all costs.

Points to note:
1. It uses +/- numbers so that the aggregate reviews can be summed, and strong feelings have more impact than lukewarm ones, after all there is a difference between a recommendation that sounds like "Yeah, buy it I suppose" and "go out and buy all the bottles you can, now!"

2. It is based on no more than personal opinion at that point in time (taking into account cost, perceived value, quality, context, etc.)

3. It gets around the issue of the "great value" wine that only scored 87 points, compared to the exhorbitantly expensive 93 pointer. Which would you rather recommend more to your friends?

4. It could be refined further, but ought to remain simple

Most bloggers I know who rate wines point out that this is just their point of view and you need to read the rest of the text about quality and context anyway. They also point out that it is only a reference point and that once you get to know them, you can get a feel for whether you have similar tastes, and therefore whether you could use their ratings as a guide to your own shopping.

In this case, let's ditch the intermediary step and go straight to the heart of the matter - buy it, or don't buy it.

* this is not completely true as I read a blog some years ago that had something like this but I cannot locate it any more as the conversation about 100-point scales drowns out all other discussions. Please send me any suggestions for where to find such scales.

Monday, May 26, 2008

UK Blog Fest

In my last post about the LIWF I mentioned that I happened to run into lots of interesting people at the show.

Whilst I'm sure most of the people I spoke to had interesting stories to tell, I did not know them well enough to make much of the 5 minutes we had together beyond trying to tell them the story of my wines.

On the other hand, having got to "know" them over the last few years by reading their output, the vast majority of the most interesting people I spoke to happened to be other UK wine bloggers.

What was interesting to me was the fact that last year none of us might have bothered to seek the others out, or maybe even present ourselves as "wine bloggers", but this year we are joining forces, proud of our medium and even getting some benefit from it.

Maybe it is my own experience alone, but it feels like this year marked a BIG change for wine blogs in the UK wine trade. I think I might propose that next year Brintex host a UK Wine Bloggers Area, where we wine bloggers can hang out and meet those who regularly read our blogs. What do you think?

In the three days of the show I bumped into:

Peter May; The Pinotage Club
Peter was kind enough to come to the stand to meet me. He was meeting up for lunch with other wine-pages.com contributors and wondered whether I wanted to come along. It was great to meet "Mr. Pinotage" even if he failed to turn up with the fedora I hoped he would be wearing.

Thank you Peter for some great comments and for insightful questions. We are still due our own catch-up!

Douglas Blyde; The Daily Wine

Douglas thought he could sneak by my stand, but unfortunately for him I make up for an absolutely dreadful memory for names with a pretty damn good one for faces, and having seen a photo or two of him on his site, he was snared!

I really like Douglas' reviewing style, often somewhat cruelly direct, but I'm sure not undeserved. He turned out to be a much mellower, polite and reserved person when face-to-face, but pretty much as I had pictured him.

Keep investigating Douglas, we need more individual and insightful reviews like yours!

Andrew Barrow; Spittoon.biz
Jeanne Horak; Cooksister.com

Andrew and Jeanne turned up together which was fun, a bit like a reunion of our visit to Vivat Bacchus. I suspect that the LIWF was a little overwhelming for Jeanne, but hopefully she enjoyed it (?).

Jamie Goode; Wine Anorak

Jamie was far too busy to stop and taste (if you read his blog you'll understand why), but he did "pass by", so I think it is fair to add him in (he did seem rushed, and that is saying something by LIWF standards).

And since the event I have also heard from a blogger that I didn't manage to meet as he too was stressed out on his stand, but was kind enough to leave me a note:

Colin Smith; Grapefan
Good luck with your Diploma!

Thank you to all the bloggers for helping to make this a much more interesting, and personal, show. I hope those who stopped to taste with me enjoyed the wines and the chat, and I do hope we can all plan a bigger UK get-together in the near future

I wonder whether we might even create our own, blogger-led tasting for consumers in the near future. What do you think?

UPDATE: Damn! Forgot to mention Olly Smith. His own 'regular'-ish Hot Bottle email seems to be on-hold, but I think Olly should DEFINITELY start his own wine blog as I honestly think he is one of the most genuinely entertaining and funny people in the wine trade at the moment. Olly, we still need to speak about that business about the loo!

Friday, May 23, 2008

London International Shaking Hands Fair

Having spent three days at what used to be called the LIWSF (London International Wine & Spirit Fair) I think it would be fair to say that the most important activity of the three days was not the popping of corks or even scratching of pens on paper (does anyone actually do that anymore?), but the shaking of hands.

Having said that, I have returned from the event feeling positive and excited about what is going on and far from the doom and gloom one might have expected in these troublesome economic and social times.

For the first time in many years I got a chance to get off my stand (more on that experience elsewhere) and attend several seminars, meet interesting people and also taste a couple of wines.

There are two ways to "work the show" - exhibitor and attendee. I have not been an attendee since 2002, and when I am exhibiting I get "in the zone" and struggle to feel comfortable if I am not doing what I came to the show to do - but maybe that is just me.

The good thing is that if you stand still in one place for long enough all those who are furiously running around the show looking for something (and often getting lost in the process) will come past you.

I am often asked whether I had "a good show", and it is a difficult question to answer.

From a commercial point of view, I somehow doubt much wine is bought and sold at the show that would not be bought or sold anyway - but it does help to know that potential customers and suppliers are all in the same place at the same time. There are also so many innovations, new wines, redesigns, etc. that only the most driven, lucky or high spending will get any chance of getting noticed.

The most important element is "networking", an old fashioned concept that has not been replaced by the newer "social networking", which involves being in the right place at the right time, ... and shaking hands.

I managed to shake hands with lots of existing customers, which makes me, and them better informed about each others needs and experiences. I shook hands with new customers who can now go away and think about whether they want to do more business with me. I shook hands with some very interesting new contacts at the WSTA, WRAP, Wine Intelligence (I will post about these meetings separately) and more. Last, but not least, I shook hands with a lot of friends I rarely get a chance to see, particularly if they now work in competitor businesses.

All in all, I must say that attending the show was a good experience, and I therefore had "A Good Show".

Now, off to launch a wine called "handshake" so that every time someone meets up at next year's event they think of my wine.

(Main photo Shake my Hands courtesy of framboise - some rights reserved)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Time for a Blog Diet

I didn't mean to post this tonight, and not having planned it, I hope I can make it sound sensible.

I need to go on the blogging equivalent of a diet.

I have been feasting for far too long on all the information, developments, discussions, community-building and social networking that is going on. One appetising plate is presented after another, keeping you busy gorging without realising that the party is getting stale and you are not actually talking to anyone as you are too busy stuffing your face.

I mean that metaphorically of course.

I keep finding new and interesting discussions out there about wine. I currently subscribe to (only) 133 blogs; 48 General & International wine blogs, 27 UK wine blogs, and many more local, food, marketing, news and other topics.

It is simply too much to read and I am only scratching the surface.

I have been busy with work and my family for the last week, and I already have 230 unread items in the feed reader, plus I have hardly posted on my own blogs for weeks.


More importantly, I should not be boring you about reading blogs, but in theory discussing wine, wine culture and wine related developments.

A friend of mine jokingly pointed out that the discussions about what wine blogging needed were fewer discussions about wine blogging, and I think he is right to an extent.

Maybe there ought to be two kinds of bloggers - posters and linkers.

I am going to have to go on a blog diet. As well as having to focus on the day job and attend the London Wine Trade Fair, I will stop reading 90% of sites I normally follow regularly - at least until I get back into my stride.

I must stop reading and start thinking and creating interesting content to make it worthwhile for you to keep reading this blog and not turn me off as I am going to have to do (temporarily) to other blogs - assuming you have not already done that.

It did make me think though. I am keen to find out what others think, and join in on their conversations, so I try and read what others I respect have to say. I try and leave my thoughts, and where relevant, post my ideas on my blog too. However, once I spend any available time reading and commenting, there is hardly any time left for any writing of my own.

Maybe there ought to be two kinds of bloggers - posters and linkers. There are always going to be those who want to write something new and original (well, they will try), but there are also those out there who like to dig, delve and find, and they are best at linking people up to relevant content and maybe even find previously unnoticed links between existing content.

If we could leverage both types, then each would benefit the other and we would have better content, and more ways to find it, but at the moment bloggers will continue to grapple with the dichotomy of being producers and consumers of information, and the complications of keeping blogs ticking over.

This week things will be quiet unless something drastic happens at the LIWF, but next week I hope to post in earnest.

Hopefully I shall return leaner and meaner, and ready for the fight.

Now, that kind waiter is heading my way with what looks like a wafer-thin mint and I really do love to finish a meal with a mint.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Meeting wine bloggers

Following on from my day meeting with the authors of food and wine blogs at Spittoon, Cooksister and Interwined, I have just come back from meeting Alastair Bathgate of Confessions of a Wino.

I mentioned in the last post that blogging, in my experience, has been the opposite of the lonely, individualistic pursuit normally associated with this medium, and here is another perfect example of how the stereotype is wrong.

Alastair himself is a high powered enterprise software business person, but his other interests include wine - so he writes about them, and restaurants, on his blog. Why not?

In fact, he is already one of the most visited UK wine blogs and is already on the "press" list of UK retailers. Very impressive for someone who professes only to write what he thinks and to do so in his spare time.

I happened to be in his area for work so I got in touch. In any other medium that would seem weird, but I feel I know something about him by reading his blog and that, never even having spoken to him, we share lots of interests and are almost "friends".

It turns out he is almost exactly as I pictured him (only a little younger and slimmer!) and we had a great conversation about wine rating, blogging, Pinot Noir, and loads of other stuff I don't really recall having consumed the last bottle a little too fast.

I think I will set myself the target to meet every blogger on my list of UK wine blogs as soon as possible so that we can start to work together to raise the profile of wine blogging in the UK, and also dispel the idea that we are either too amateur or unreliable to bother listening to. Everyone I have met so far is a real character with a very interesting point of view and totally committed to wine, and to encouraging others to enjoy it too.

If you are a UK wine blogger, please get in touch so we might plan getting together either in London or locally to you. If you read other blogs, check out the list here and make sure your favourites are included so I know who else is out there making a difference.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Vivat Spittoon and Cooksister

Just a quick post to tell you to look elsewhere, specifically here, on Andrew Barrow's Spittoon site, for a review of a lovely evening of wine, food, photography and blogging (well, I think we talked about it anyway).

Andrew has very graciously used my photos from that evening on his site, a particular honour as his site is the my main reference for the best wine photography.

Nice to meet cooksister too. I have yet to get properly immersed in the world of food blogs, but I shall certainly be following her site from now on.

This, to me anyway, is a great riposte to those who look down on the 'antisocial' aspect of blogging - writing away on your own, usually late at night. Blogging has introduced me to lots of great people I would not have met otherwise, and for that I am very grateful, particularly to those who read this site and comment, and keep me going.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


It used to be "bog off!" or, more correctly BOGOF, Buy One Get One Free

Now we may be moving to the post-BOGOF era, or BOGJO - Buy One, Get Just One (but maybe with a discount).

According to the news in Harpers today that in turn were quoting a report in The Grocer (who have a closed site), BOGOF deals in UK supermarkets are being scrapped because consumers are suddenly realising that a greater volume of stuff you didn't want is not necessarily a "deal".

It seems initially counter-intuitive to those of us in the UK who have had volume deals rammed down our throats, quite literally in the case of wine, but being convinced to pay a greater sum of money in exchange for more "stuff" is not good for our wallets or the environment.

Coincidentally, WRAP also announced today that UK consumers waste 3.6 million tons of food each year, most going untouched before ending up in landfill sites. As they say, we pay 3 times for this waste: paying extra money for the food in the shops, paying to deal with the waste and its transport, and also paying an environmental cost as waste ruins the environment.

I can see this in my own life. I have jokingly referred to the fruit bowl beside me here as my "pre-compost bin" as so much (organic) fruit I receive on a weekly basis goes off while I munch biscuits, sometimes bought in BOGOF deals, instead (for the record, I have a series of compost bins in the garden full of very happy worms).

And what about wine? BOGOF deals in wine are very common, but how many consumers really wanted that extra bottle of the £8 wine, when they could buy 1 bottle for £6, getting potentially better wine and still saving £2.

There have been many complaints that wines sold in this way were not worth the price tags they announced, and in fact their value was closer to the 'deal' price, so in fact there was no benefit to the consumer. In this case, consumers were losing out by having to pay for more bottles they hadn't intended to buy.

There is some truth to this, especially if consumers feel they have been misled, but I think the pricing issue is not the key point. Who is to say whether the wine should be sold at £7.99 or £3.99? Wine pricing is not, and should not be, exclusively about COST, but I think I'll leave the "How to Price a Wine" debate for another time.

The most important point is that ONLY those wines that could generate sufficient marketing funds to pay for BOGOF deals AND to get placed in those end-of-aisle bins (known as Gondola Ends) were getting the promotional slots in the supermarkets. Therefore only those wines backed by the deep-pockets of multinationals, or those that charged a higher price for wines when not on promotion, were reaching the consumer.

If this is now changing, more wineries that have smaller budgets might get a chance to be seen & heard. They may still have to find money to fund 30% or more discounts (we will not be weaned off deals that quickly!), but that is a very different story to a BOGOF.

As I have said before, wine 'marketing' in the UK has been too concerned with pricing and discounts, and not enough about the wine itself for long enough. If we can see a silver lining in the dark clouds of climate change and the global credit crunch, it should possibly be that the time really has come to drink less wine, but better wine, and for wine companies to speak up about the environment, sustainability of agriculture, and agricultural economies too, and also to help lighten the gloom.