What Will Become of Opus One Without Numerical Ratings? (Short Piece #17)

Wall Street Journal was making a big deal a short week ago that wine (beverage) ratings are unnecessary. That is one way to look at the ratings and frankly many sommeliers and wine directors agree because they are so interested in wines they personaly like which usually are not rated because of being unknown or low production. They would like to promote these wines over what is already recognized and known in the field. The lack of ratings is a big obstacle because wines get classified into rated and unrated in the mind of the consumer. Unrated is not necessarily bad and can be quite good as these wine professionals would like to promote but the lack of rating creates obstacles for the success of these wines. Therefore, a strong opinion exists that not rating of the wines is indeed a good thing. What are ratings really good for? The average consumer who is not a wine expert and probably does not have the time to research wines. These consumers rely on whatever is available and works best. If ratings exist and are established, they follow them. If no ratings exist, then word of mouth, personal experience and advertising will do the trick. Let’s look at the advertising.

What if no ratings existed? What would advertising accomplish in the absence of a system (that may be and probably is flawed but has limited accuracy also)? Advertising will make any wine product and label into a giant for the consumer. The consumer would have little choice but to follow the direction the massive advertising campaigns point to. Who is the wine illiterate and too-busy consumer to argue with what advertising says about a wine label? The consumers function as a crowd and are easily led as followers. The few who would deviate really don’t have much power and won’t be able to take the crowd with them. Advertising would win. Will the best wines and the better wines be the most advertised? No. The wines of choice will be subjects of the advertising campaigns. The quantity available, and many other factors of least relation to the quality of wine would determine the winning wines by means of expensive advertising campaigns. The consumer would not dare argue with the advertisings in the absence of the rating system to challenge what the ad says.

I have a good story for an example. Russian River Pinot Noir has been popular and continues to be popular today. I read once a few years ago that a good rule for determining the retail price of a Russian River Pinot Noir is by adding $5 for each word beyond the basic label of the wine. If the basic Russian River Pinot Noir of X winery is $60, that is the base price. If this label says estate, you can add $5 (probably more). If it says Northeast Vineyard, you can add $5 more. If it says Block 145, you can add $5 more and so on. The rule of thumb is the longer the name, the higher the price jumps word by word. Does the quality support this? If it did, the price system would not be a story to tell. A bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir X Winery Estate Northeast Vineyard Block 145 should cost at least $75. Does the rating system help a consumer figure out what really is the value of each of these two bottles? It probably helps and probably does not because smaller productions do not get rated necessarily. The $5-a-word system and the reputation of the region and the reputation of the winery does a better job in the real world. This is a good example of a system created in absence of a reliable numberical rating system.

Opus One is a great wine for many reasons and you should know them but is it great by means of mere quality as a wine if tasted blind? The history of ratings shows what you should already know. I always thought a bottle of Opus One was worth $100 for what is in the bottle and $100 for the white piece of paper serving as the label sticking to the bottle. The winery has spent a great deal of money by investing in viniculture and agriculture to create the liquid that goes in the bottle and wants $100 for it by one sample analysis. It also has advertised the wine and created a very strong image in the public’s mind for Opus One as being the top of the top red wines by reputation and nobody dares to argue that the brand Opus One is as famous as the advertising has made it and the winery wants another $100 for the reputation of the wine made by advertising. That $100 is for the Chateau Lafite and Mondavi standing behind the label and they win. The wine asks for a lot of money by being itself and not entering any discussions of wine quality as a drinking beverage. The rating systems do not like to support some very famous and well-supported wines such as Opus One as much as the industry would like them to. What if the rating system is gone or is discredited? What will the industry do? They already want $100 plus $100 for a bottle of Opus and who is to say what the wine is worth? Who will argue with Opus One and its investment and effort? Who wants to argue with Chateau Lafite and Mondavi as its ally? Who would listen to the critics anyway? The advertising is so loud and effective that Opus One will probably ask for $500 a bottle instead of $200. Who is to say $500 is not the worth? They just have to advertise the product to death and position it and they can ask for $500 as a luxury product. Who is going to compare it to other high end red wines? The consumer knows too little to be expert and too busy to research many places and the general wine writing helps with nothing because the word descriptions are so subjective that nobody can pinpoint a point to compare the wines. Advertising will determine the outcome by making the wine so big nobody will dare to argue and will blindly follow the reputation and pay whatever is asked.

An objective wine rating system does serve a genuine purpose for all its flaws. American business is far too dishonest to be left to evaluating what it sells for the consumers and food and wine writing without a numerical basis is more of pep talk than definitive evaluation of a complex product. Since business has not been good, many businesses have been doing whatever it takes to make things good again and the lack of control systems such the ratings will empty warehouses without a doubt. If only they could get Wall Street Journal to attack the rating system in public often, they just might have a chance. And wait. They own Wall Street Journal.

*This post belongs to this week’s edition of Wine by Cush Magazine blog and published early in World of Cush also.

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