Restaurant ratings can be misleading, unlike (most) wine ratings

I wrote the following article for the delWine/Indian wine Academy website, which appeared under the title ‘Restaurant ratings can be misleading unlike wine‘.

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Vir Sanghvi’s latest article about the challenging exercise of rating restaurants deals with many valid issues, but also raises some extremely relevant questions  about the way such ratings are conducted and awards are decided.

Among other issues highlighted in the write-up related to likely aberrations in these ratings, one particular sentence calls for special introspection – “Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange!” Here, it is clear that the Hindustan Times sponsored main awards (like many others) are basically ‘People’s Choice Awards’ where the winners are decided by the number of votes they attract from the public.

Next, let’s consider who constitute the ‘public opinion’ in this case. Ideally it should be those who have either visited the restaurant or read and thoroughly grasped the reviews about its offerings and service. Anyone who does not fulfill these criteria is not fit to make an informed decision about rating a restaurant. And certainly not those who couldn’t care less about a restaurant’s placement in the market, like my aunt, for whom Orient Express and Wasabi are nothing more than a famous train and a Sushi accompaniment respectively!

Needless to mention that to rate a product or service objectively, one has to be aware of them to start with, otherwise there will always be concerns about the usefulness of such awards as a guide to great dining options. Most importantly, the award organisers need to plug any loophole to ensure right people expressing their views. At the moment, this shortcoming may be getting overlooked.

Consider a probable scenario (which, by the way, is not a figment of any imagination) – as soon as the restaurants are shortlisted for a category, a scramble starts to gather as many votes as possible for a particular restaurant brand. Emails start floating inside the organisation asking employees, their friends and relatives to vote. Wherever unlimited SMS voting is permitted, it is encouraged to avail the facility to ensure that their chosen restaurant gets the maximum number of votes. Traditional workplaces where social media sites are not accessible, special provisions are made to enable employees to go to sites like Facebook to cast their votes. This practice does not seem too different from reality TV shows where the results are based on frenzied SMS voting, but isn’t it ironical to relegate the measurement of a restaurant’s stature to mere numbers?

While allowing employees to vote for their own restaurant is itself questionable, when others who have no way of determining the quality of a restaurant become a part of this ‘public opinion’, the entire exercise is bound to attract scrutiny. Can ratings based on the participating organisation’s own votes (staff + their family members & friends) be helpful to offer credible dining options to customers?

Such a model of rating restaurants is also likely to unfairly favour a large organisation which has aggressively generated internal votes. This is more likely to be relevant in close contests where the top F&B destination may be decided by a margin of few votes. Having said that, it will be a mistake to assume that all awards or category of awards are likely to be affected by this model of rating. Restaurants like Wasabi, Taipan, Dum Pukht, Indigo and La Piazza among others, have consistently proven their worth to make it to the top of the award charts and mass popularity, and quite deservedly so, irrespective of any minor anomalies in the rating system.

It should also be borne in mind that this by no means is an India only phenomenon. Even the most coveted of all restaurant awards, the Michelin star, has had to face charges of inconsistent rating system apart from other allegations of undue favouritism and bias.

In a nutshell, and in the light of the above challenges, no wonder user review sites like Tripadvisor and Zomato have become so popular for they have brought a level of transparency the hospitality industry so badly needs. As the Indian dining culture evolves and customers have more say in fixing accountability of the hospitality trade, the day is not far when actual customer feedback will be the deciding factor in a restaurant’s success or otherwise.

Lastly, as a wine professional I cannot help but compare the above model with highly recognised wine ratings and awards from around the world, although the dynamics are quite different for each; wine ratings are more objective and scientific while restaurant ratings are subjective and based on unique perceptions. Here I only mean those awards where the wines are tasted blind and judged on a variety of factors and in like-to-like categories.

In spite of the effectiveness of these ratings the wine industry world over is also adapting itself to accommodate user reviews. Websites like CellarTracker are playing a pioneering role in this field and have given a voice to wine consumers world over, which no one can ignore.

Cheers,

Niladri

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Memories from the land of Riesling – Part 1

Famous vineyards overlooking the Mosel river

A journey to classic wine regions is nothing short of a pilgrimage for wine lovers, and when such a sojourn is complemented by a combination of exploring the hidden vinous treasures and local gastronomic delights, it certainly becomes a once-in-a-lifetime event. My recent visit to the Mosel and Nahe wine regions of Germany, as part of a small group of wine enthusiasts from India, was one such experience. A first-hand exposure to the wine-growing nuances of the country’s two most famous wine regions was both invaluable and exhilarating.

Germany has all the hallmarks of a quintessential wine country where rich tradition plays a major role in dictating its overall wine profile. Be it the wine-grower’s passion for the vineyards and their terroir, the age-old (but fast-evolving) wine-making practices which follow least-invasive techniques of production, highly refined wine laws or the intrinsic part wine plays in its culture and folklore; everything about the country is a wine aficionado’s delight.

We stayed in a chalet-styled hotel in the quaint and sleepy but stunningly pretty wine town of Trittenheim on the famous Mosel Weinstrasse (Mosel Wine Route), a perfect place to set up base for exploring wine regions of both Mittelmosel (middle Mosel) as well as the adjoining areas of Saar and Ruwer (the two tributaries of Mosel and highly recognised wine districts).

The famous Piesporter Goldtropchen vineyard overlooks the Mosel, just behind the familiar cathedral tower

The four-day trip took us to many famous vineyard sites synonymous with some of the most acclaimed wines of Germany; the likes of Piesporter Goldtropchen, Juffer Sonnenuhr, Trittenheimer Apotheke, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Oberemmeler Hutte (I know, German names can be real tongue-twisters :)), to name a few. For someone who rates German Rieslings as the epitome of quality and sensual pleasure, it was nothing short of a tremendous sense of fulfillment for me to visit their birthplaces and understanding the unique growing conditions.

These wines are some of the most distinct styles in the world and time spent in these vineyards are without a doubt one of the most practical ways to appreciate their quality. The slate-rich soil, steep slopes overlooking the gently meandering river, the vineyards’ orientation (exposure to the sun), sunlight reception by the vines, overall vine management practices, grape ripening pattern depending on a vine’s location etc. – each has a role to play in their distinctive character.

Our visit to the vineyards was followed by the exploration of the region’s winemaking techniques and conducted tastings of every style of Riesling possible…more on the local winemakers and reviews of some chosen wines in the second part of this post.

Apart from winery and vineyard hopping, we also managed to keep ourselves occupied with many other activities, two of which I strongly recommend if you ever happen to visit the region. First, make sure that you go on the Mosel river cruise without fail…you’ll love it, believe me. For wine lovers, a trip here minus this cruise is like visiting Venice and not taking a Gondola ride. You will be spoilt for choice in terms of photo opportunities, for there are iconic vineyards dotted all the way on the canvas-like slopes overlooking the river, plus nature’s other un-spoilt splendours. And yes, do not forget to carry an assortment of local Rieslings…they will not only keep your vinous senses active but will also give you a sense of how being in paradise might feel!

The region’s rich wine offerings are complemented by exquisite cuisine made from fresh local produce. Be it the light-textured but somewhat sweet Mosel Trout and other fishes, juiciest of meats, tangy and smoky cured meats, flavourful berries or a range of cheese, this part of Germany surely measures up to any other top gastronomic destination of the world.

Gourmet cuisine made from local ingredients…gastronomic bliss!
Lunch amidst the Kesselstatt vineyards in Saar. Unbeatable experience!

To savour the local food and wine you can either head to the historic town of  Trier with its myriad of road-side cafes or one of the  fine dining restaurants (like the Russell’s) in Trittenhiem. But nothing can beat the experience of sampling the best of local food and wine surrounded by lush green vines, like the one that was organized for us by the Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt winery in the middle of their Scharzhoffberger vineyard.

Here are some more chosen images from my trip:

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Cheers,

Niladri