Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com
Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

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‘.

************************

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