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The Most Popular Wines Must Be Better Because They Are The Most Popular

By Charles Olken

I read Steve Heimoff’s eponymously named blog every day. I can’t say that he is the most prolific wine blogger because, after all, who could read them all, but he seems to blog far more often than any of the others that I do read.

Today, he titled his blog “Is Inexpensive Wine Better Than Expensive Wine Because More People Buy It”. But a funny thing happened to this obviously rhetorical question and column. No one commented, and that is very unusual.

Perhaps, the lack of argument with the premise occurred because everyone who reads Heimoff sees the silliness is the comment that generated the column. To wit, per one of Heimoff’s correspondents:

“Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.” 1

To be sure, I certainly disagree with the premise. And, just as I was pondering my response, I ran into another blog, this one from Australia, in which the authors, noted business professors, attacked the whole notion of wine criticism in the half-ribald, half-scatological way that only the Aussies and our own The Hosemaster of Wine can muster.

There must be a full moon in wine country is my best conclusion. Sales volume has rarely equated to quality in most goods, even commoditized goods like beer and toothpaste, but wine is a different animal altogether. Even the drinkers of inexpensive wines know what they are drinking and would drink better if they were willing to spend the money.

Price, of course, does not correlate to quality at all times, but it is far more likely to have a passing relationship as one moves from one price point to another. The far better measure of desirablity, and it is not perfect either, is QPR—Quality to Price Ratio. The highest QPRs are always found among the moderately priced wines. Whether one chooses to go in that direction and drink useful, reliable bottlings from the likes of Castle Rock, Bogle and McManis, to name just a few, or decides that spending two to ten times as much is worth the expense, and damn the QPR, is a choice we all make.

It is why some of my neighbors drive Tesla and some choose Prius. It is why some splash out for BMW and Mercedes and others are entirely content with Honda, Camry and Ford Fusion.

Now, none of this comes as any news to you, dear readers, but it must be said from time to time that we who pursue fine wine do so knowingly and have no intention of endowing any wine with fancy ratings just because it is popular.

1 See more at:


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Popularity of Wine
by Larry Chandler
Posted on:11/6/2015 9:14:10 AM

Why people think if something is popular it has to be good is beyond me. Do literature classes assign Danielle Steele? Should an Oscar be given to the movie that was the box office winner? 

Buying a wine simply because it is popular reminds me of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 

Popular vs. "Best"
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:11/6/2015 10:21:26 AM

Thanks, Charles, both you and Mr. Heimoff proffer good food for thought.

There's a lot to be said for popularity - something that hit me the first time I started working as a restaurant sommelier back in 1978, when the market was in the middle of a white wine boom and I was stocking my wine list with top Chardonnays at the time (Chateau Montelena, Freemark Abbey, Sterling, et al.). I still recall those days as being painful because no matter what I did, guests showed little interest in these new fangled boutiques. The overwhelming majority were still primarily ordering Liebfraumilch, Portuguese rose, or well established California brands like Wente Le Blanc de Blanc and Charles Krug Chenin Blanc. Not only that, they would tell me point-blank that these were, indeed, the best wines in the world today.

So one of the first lessons learned as a sommelier was to simply roll with it. Once I did that, I was able to "turn on" guests to more artisanal Chenin Blancs of the day (Grand Cru, Kenwood, etc.). I also began specializing in top flight Spatlesen and Kabinett (from Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Scharzhofberger, Steinberger, etc.). I may not have been able to change their taste for fruitiness to the fuller bodied dryness of California Chardonnays (that wouldn't happen until the mid-1980s), but at least I had the satisfaction of opening countless eyes to the fact that "better wine" is certainly out there - just in a slightly different guise from Liebfraumilch or Mateus bottle.

Bottom line is this: in every era, the tastes of "regular" consumers are drastically different from that of critics and serious, bigger spending consumers who follow critics. Recently in the industry we are seeing a widening gulf between the taste of critics and serious or bigger spending consumers as well; which I think is inevitable, considering the increasing variety of wine types available from all around the world.

In other words, critics may not necessarily be "out of touch." It's simply that it's impossible to be arbiters of taste in a world where taste is becoming increasingly multi-faceted.

by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:11/6/2015 10:26:47 AM

I would say, though, there are wines which receive higher scores because they are not tasted "blind" (as does Connoisseur's Guide) and come from famous wineries and/or carry big price tags. Some critics seem to give extra credit to brands they like, even when the wines do not warrant high praise.  

Tastes Good
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/6/2015 10:39:08 AM

I have long been a proponent of wine lists that mix accessibility, meaning popular and good at the same time, with the new, the hard to get, the abstruse. 

When my well-heeled but ungeeky (sorry about that) neighbors go to a restaurant, whether it is as upscale as Gary Danko or as welcoming as Bocanova in Jack London Square with its ribs and deviled eggs and crab level menu, they do not want to find a wine list upon which they neither recognize the places nor the wines on offer.

A wine list need not stock the top ten brands if those brands are not very good wines, but why not find a good Pinot Grigio or a reasonably priced bubbly like something from Gloria Ferrer, etc, etc.

The restaurant I frequented most in the world, other than my local Chinese, Bay Wolf in Oakland and now gone in retirement to my great sadness, always managed to have a few easy recognizable Loires or Rhones and a handful of local efforts. Theirs was not a long list, but it offered choices to its patrons.

Popularity is not a good measure but it should also not be a total disqualifier as it has become for so many wine lists today.

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