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Let the Wine 2.0 Enthusiast Beware

Sharing of information via the internet impacts the life of almost every human being on the planet, even those without computers. It has led to faster development of medicines and technologies. It enables more rapid and effective response to natural disasters. It gives voice to protestors in totalitarian countries. And it empowers consumers to find the very best Pinot Grigio.

CellarTracker has been chief among the wine-focused web sites that give power to the people. With nearly 100,000 users, almost 1.25 million consumer-generated wine reviews and Google-search cred that puts it among the top search results for many wines, it is a go-to site for people wondering whether they should buy this wine or that one. Unfortunately, even in America, not all consumers are created equal. To be blunt, some of them are idiots. I was reminded of this today while perusing CellarTracker's consumer review database to get a pulse on how its users perceived the quality of a handful of small Sonoma County wineries.

There were two reviews in particular that caused my eyebrows to raise and my mood to darken. They were conflicting reviews for exactly the same wine posted just four days apart. Here they are:
1. Strawberry, crushed berries, spice, and some vanilla on the nose. Big body with plenty of spice, fruit *and* structure. Delicious, especially on day 2. 98 points.
2. Crushed berries, spice, vanilla. Big, juicy wine with decent structure. 87 points.

Both reviews are positive and are united on the crushed berries, spice and vanilla. After that, they deviate. One reviewer thinks the wine is amazing. 98 points are given out very, very rarely by professional reviewers. They denote a wine that is nearly perfect. This is a score for cult Cabs in a career year. The highly sought-after Chateau Petrus, according to Wine Spectator, has achieved that level of quality just eight times from 1949 to today. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's La Tache received 98 points just twice in the 20th century. So, "Wow!," I'm thinking. "This must really be some Zinfandel. Zinfandel?"

The 2nd review is much more conservative. 87 points is a solid score, indicative of a good wine. You'd be very happy to use the wine as an "every day drinker." On the other hand, you wouldn't want to pay too much for it, ponder it deeply over a long evening, or trot it out at a restaurant with clients you're trying to impress.

"No problem," you say. "Just disregard the the first review. The dude is crazy." Fair enough. But wait. Those reviews were posted by the same guy! Go ahead. Smack your forehead. I know you want to.

It was easy for me to spot this bozo, because his comments on this particular wine were right next to each other. But what about the wines he reviews just once? How do you spot him then? And how do you know in general whether a review has been posted by someone responsible or by Sippy the Tasting Clown?

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing CellarTracker. They offer a lot of excellent functionality and, overall, are of tremendous benefit to wine consumers. They just can't protect you from Sippy. You have to do that for yourself. Don't just look at the numbers when you're reading reviews on Wine 2.0 sites. Look at the reviewers. Click on their name. See how many wines they have reviewed. Look at some of those reviews to see how they score wines that you know well. Check their user profile. See if other people have listed them as a favorite taster. Then check the credibility of those people.

Yes, that is tedious. It's work. But the ability to register oneself on a Wine 2.0 site does not necessarily coincide with intelligence or quality of palate. And you don't want to pay good money for wine based on reviews from someone with a tongue of stone.

Wine 2.0 reviews can be helpful. But you need to use them carefully. And they aren't going to put professional reviewers out of a job anytime soon. I'm sure Robert Parker will be relieved to read this...

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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