Score One For Buyers Who Notice

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Alex Jordan thought he had found a real bargain at his local wine store: a 2003 Chateau Haut-Surget Lalande-de-Pomerol for $25. "Aromas of blackberry and light chocolate follow through to a medium-bodied palate, with soft tannins and a fresh finish," read a small sign, known as a "shelf talker," taped next to the bottle. It was a quote from Wine Spectator, one of the country's most revered wine magazines. The magazine's rating score: 90 points.

Jordan, a scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, rarely spends more than $10 on everyday wine. But this time he decided to splurge. Intrigued to learn more, he logged on to the Wine Spectator Web site. The description matched, but to his surprise, the Chateau Haut-Surget hadn't received 90 points, but 86, a score given to "very good wine with special qualities," but not "outstanding" ones.

The 100-point rating scale, created by wine guru Robert Parker in the 1970s, revolutionized the wine business. It democratized it, allowing vineyards beyond the anointed French Grand Cru areas to grab the spotlight, and simplified it, allowing the average person to choose a good bottle without knowing the soil characteristics in the Medoc. Over the past 30 years, wine consumers have come to lean heavily -- some say too heavily -- on ratings. Many customers, retailers say, won't even consider a wine rated under 90 points. Wines at 90 points and higher are classified as "outstanding" or "excellent" by top wine magazines.

But what happens if the rating that consumers see in stores is wrong?

A Food section spot check of 100 shelf talkers (10 each in 10 reputable wine shops in Washington, Maryland and Virginia) turned up 25 percent that did not truthfully represent the wines they advertised. Accuracy varied from shop to shop, but overall, 6 percent of the signs either advertised a score that was higher than the one the wine actually had received or invented a score for an unrated wine.

Nineteen percent referred to a different vintage from that of the wine for sale. A vintage mismatch could be chalked up to sloppiness rather than deliberate misrepresentation, but it can be just as misleading. In our checks, the vintage available was usually unrated or had received a lower score, though there were occasions when the actual wine displayed had received a higher rating. One of the most dramatic differences was with the 2005 Big House Red for sale at Rodman's in Rockville. The shelf talker, which referred to the 2004 vintage, boasted of 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. The 2005 actually received an 81 for its "simple and gluey-soft" flavors.

Jordan, the FDA scientist, calls the situation "a fraud" but says it probably won't change his buying habits. He relies on the wine ratings "because I don't have anything else to go on. There are a million wines out there, and I don't know how to choose."

The owner of Silver Spring's Beer Wine Deli, where Jordan found the inaccurate sign, said the wine's distributor had posted it. Gene Schaeffer, vice president of Luneau, the company that imports Chateau Haut-Surget, said his firm never "puts a number or tells someone to put a number on a shelf talker unless it's what Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate says it is." He did not know where the incorrect shelf talker came from but said it had been removed and corrected.

From Wine Spectator's perspective, the errors are an issue of credibility. "Inaccurate shelf talkers are a problem for us and for consumers," executive editor Thomas Matthews said. "But given their rarity and the haphazard nature of the errors they contain . . . I don't think they rise to the level of scandal or conspiracy or consumer fraud or public menace. They are a nuisance, stem from ignorance and carelessness as often as malicious intent, and serve no one's ultimate purpose."

It's hard to pin down exactly who's responsible for such errors, because many parties are involved in making and posting shelf talkers. Sometimes retailers download scores from a magazine's Web site, then print and post the signs themselves; other times they request a glossy shelf talker from the company that sold them the product. Often, the wine distributors or importers print the shelf talkers, post them in retail stores and are responsible for ensuring that they are maintained.

But there often isn't a good incentive to keep shelf talkers up to date. Take the 2006 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, which received the magic 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. When the 88-point 2007 arrives, the distributor has little motive to put up a new shelf talker. And even if he's well intentioned, he may not visit the store for several weeks after the new vintage arrives.

Another problem is when shelf talkers post the high end of a rating range that critics give when they've sampled wine from the barrel, before the flavors have evolved, rather than the finished wine in the bottle. For example, a George Duboeuf Burgundy called Domaine St. Martin St. Veran found at Total Wine advertised a Wine Advocate score of 89. The correct rating was a range of 87 to 89.

Indeed, who posts the shelf talkers appears to affect accuracy. Cecile's Fine Wine, Total Wine and the Curious Grape, all in Virginia, use software to manage and print shelf talkers and garnered high accuracy rates. (Cecile's had 10 of 10 correct; Total Wine and Curious Grape, 9 of 10.) Calvert Woodley, in Northwest Washington, also posts its own shelf talkers but, lacking software, was slightly less successful, with 8 of 10 correct. "It's an enormous commitment to get it right," said Cecile Giannangeli, the owner of Cecile's Fine Wine, which has a database of about 20,000 wine ratings. "But the store is ultimately responsible. If you sell something, don't ask other people to do the work for you."

Some wine shops, however, don't have the time, money or inclination to create and manage shelf talkers. At Magruder's Wine and Spirits Shoppe, Burka's Fine Wine and Spirits and Pearson's Wine and Spirits, all in Northwest Washington, and Bradley Food & Beverage and Rodman's in Maryland, managers said they allow distributors to post them but patrol the shelves to ensure they are correct and up to date. "I try to catch mistakes and correct them," said Shawn Park, proprietor of Burka's. "But I'm not a superman. I can't check every one."

Magruder's wine buyer and manager Leslie Gimble keeps her shelves largely up to date; only two shelf talkers referred to different vintages on our visit. But at Burka's and Pearson's, 50 percent of the shelf talkers we checked were misleading. After The Post asked Pearson's proprietor, Steve Silver, about the errors in his store, he decided to remove all shelf talkers and invest in software that would let him manage wine ratings himself. Silver said he will look into a new system in January.

Educated wine consumers such as Diane Werneke, a resident of Northwest Washington, are increasingly frustrated by incorrect shelf talkers. Last month at Rodman's, she noticed a shelf talker for a 2005 wine from Tuscany rated 91 points by Robert Parker for just $12. But when she studied the shelf, she saw only the 2006 vintage available. Werneke, who usually spends about $20 on a bottle of wine, asked the manager for the 2005. There was none in stock. "He told me, 'The 2006 is exactly the same.' That was what ticked me off so much. It's blatant misrepresentation, and they just didn't seem to care."

Steven Schattman, Rodman's wine and food buyer, couldn't comment on Werneke's complaint because she could not remember the specific wine involved. Still, "we try to go along and clean [shelf talkers] up once a month or so," he said. "But this time of year gets really busy. Frankly, we're not at our best at this time of year. We try to take care of people, but not everyone ends up happy."

In the end, even wine salespeople admit, it's incumbent upon consumers to look carefully at the shelf talkers and the wines available for sale. "Trust but verify," says Wine Spectator's Matthews. That means reading labels carefully, asking questions and buying only from reputable retailers. In the future, technology will help avoid confusion: Wine Spectator is at work on a wireless application that would let consumers search the magazine's database while standing at the store shelf.

Until then, even the most reputable store can make mistakes. And shelf talkers are a useful sales tool that will not disappear anytime soon. Schattman estimates that as many as two out of three customers make purchases simply on the basis of shelf talkers that give a sense of the wine and what to serve it with. As Tom Nicholson, a Calvert Woodley wine consultant, says, "Robert Parker sells more wine in a minute than I will in my lifetime."

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