Like most wine writers, I often receive dozens of story proposals a day. They range from those that are well-conceived and researched and convey an understanding of the wines being represented and my own interests, to those that are little more than blast emails replete with gushing descriptions and elaborate, company-supplied “tasting notes.”
Then there is the pitch I got recently from Savona Communications inviting me to what was billed as “Behind-the-Scenes Media Day” at the Ultimate Wine Challenge. The Challenge is is an annual event here in New York in which a panel of judges, some of whom are professional acquaintances of mine, come up with scores for wines entered (at a fee of $95 each) and tasting notes that can be used by wineries, importers, wholesalers and others to market their products to the public. The Challenge separates itself from most other competitions by awarding scores instead of medals.
The media day pitch would include the chance to “meet the judges, taste a flight of wines yourself and rate them as any of our judges do.” Not only that but I would be able to “ask questions about how and why Ultimate Wine Challenge does not give ubiquitous medals but a hard and fast score. And what this means to the brands that participate and ultimately the consumer who makes the purchase.”
You begin to see what I mean about this being a dumb pitch. But then it gets even dumber: “I would love for you to come and see what this wine competition is all about and talk to you about the story that could come of it – like what it means for brands to receive numbered ratings and tasting notes from the judges (vs. medals) and how they can use the results to market their brands. We know no one has the budget to go out and buy 30 different red wines to see which one tastes best, right? So let the Challenge do the work for you.”
Okay. First, any PR person who has any familiarity with my work over the last decade knows that, in probably close to 1,000 wine articles, videos and blog posts and 500 Tweets, I have never put a score on a wine, preferring to describe why I think a wine is worth drinking. (I did just recently conduct a small experiment on this blog with “rating” wines as “good,” “fair,” etc. but found it rather unsatisfying. Does anyone really want to read about mediocre wines?) Since I don’t score wines myself, why would I want to waste my time watching other critics do it?
As for “what it means for brands to receive numbered ratings and tasting notes from the judges” and how they can be used to market their brands, let’s see. Could it be that wine scores and tasting notes can actually be used to – sell wine? Sarcasm aside, this was an altogether stupid pitch about a competition that celebrates wine scoring and, in doing so, promotes the over-simplifying of wine for those selling it and buying it.
One of the challenges the wine business faces is getting people to develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for the great diversity of wines available in this country. If you’ve ever had a conversation about unfamiliar wines with a passionate and knowledgeable retailer, then you know how stimulating and educational the experience can be. You’ll also find this passion on occasion in original notes displayed by wine sellers, whether in their stores or on their websites. All of this does, however, require knowledge and time, for which scores and other shortcuts can be conveniently substituted.
But I, for one, am looking for a more (not less) personalized, authentic and memorable experience in finding wines I might want to try. And so for my invitation to “media day” at the Ultimate Wine Challenge, I think I’ll pass.