Buyer beware: Misrepresenting price and points on the shelves

REMINDER: January's Virtual Tasting is the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet. The tasting will take place on Thursday January 28th starting at 7pm. Read more about it here.

While diamonds have the four Cs, wine has the two Ps - Price and Points. These are the primary drivers of wine sales. It is therefore not surprising that retailers often misrepresent them both.

In terms of price, the classic misrepresentation is the retail price of the wine. One frequently sees a sign that lists the retail price and a lower sale price. In fact, the wine retails for something closer to the sale price listed. Grocery stores seem to particularly favor this type of chicanery although wine stores are not immune. This is, of course, a classic sales technique that retailers everywhere use. Consumers think they are getting a better deal than they are actually getting, so they make the purchase.

The misrepresentation of points is more pernicious. The most frequent one here is the erroneous shelf talker - the signs on the shelf below the bottle that frequently give a score and a tasting note from a wine reviewer. The most frequent offense is a shelf talker from a different vintage. This is usually done carelessly rather than maliciously when retailers and distributors are restocking shelves. The highly rated vintage runs out, the next one comes in, and the shelves are restocked without removing the shelf-talker. Sometimes, of course, the wine is as good or even better. Sometimes it is not. Regardless, the consumer might be making a purchase based on misinformation.

Recently I have noticed a variation on this theme – the misattributed shelf talker. Here the shelf talker attributes a score from a widely known source when in fact the score comes from a different source. Several weeks back I saw an inexpensive wine with a high score attributed to Paul Gregutt who writes for the Seattle Times, Wine Enthusiast, and Spokesman-Review (NB: Gregutt also writes a blog which if you are not already reading you should stop, go to this link, thoroughly consume and enjoy the entire blog, and then return to the rest of this post). A person on the floor I spoke with even mentioned Gregutt by name when talking about the wine (I’m sure this was done naively by the way). Intrigued, I picked the wine up and found, to my surprise, that it was dreadful. A bit of research showed that Gregutt had never reviewed the wine. Rather, it had been reviewed by a blogger at Seattle’s other newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Note: the Seattle PI is now on-line only. It has a number of bloggers with no affiliation to the paper who have sites set up there of which this was one). While this is the most egregious misattribution I have seen, I have seen others. While most are made out of carelessness, they are – quite simply – unacceptable.

So what does all this mean to you the wine buyer? Unfortunately, as is often the case, it means that if something seems like too good of a deal to be true, it probably is. That said, there are always good deals out there. Consider doing some research about a wine you are interested in, especially if you are spending more than $10 to $20. Wineries list retail prices on their websites and often list high scores as well so do some checking before making the purchase. Also, look for whether the shelf talker lists the vintage of the wine. If it doesn’t, it might be worth checking on-line before making a purchase. Personally, I always recommend talking with people at a wine store rather than relying on shelf talkers.

What does all this mean to you the wine retailer? Time to be more careful. While I am assuming these mistakes are made out of carelessness, reputation and customer loyalty is at stake. If consumers start to see this type of thing frequently, it is hard to believe it is not done knowingly. Checking for accuracy means extra work – being aware of wine reviews and when new releases are being put out - but that comes with the business. I would also suggest putting vintages on all shelf talkers to make it more obvious to everyone involved if there is a discrepancy.

Sean P. Sullivan

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  1. Thanks for this Sean!!! Howdy from Mrs. G!!

  2. Sean, you raise a really good point. These days, it's not that hard for consumers to go back to the source and see what was actually written by whom. I wouldn't trust any shelf-talkers unless you know who stands behind them. Costco does a very good job, others do not. Another very common fabrication is to post scores attributed to Robert Parker that actually came from one of his employees. Jay Miller is not Robert Parker! Thank you, as always, for your thoroughness and integrity.

  3. Hi Karen! Thanks for stopping by.

    Paul, thanks for the comment and kind words. Very good point on the Parker reference. This one is super common. If folks want to be technically correct while still getting the cachet of Parker's name, at least write "Robert Parker's Wine Advocate." Otherwise, if it's not Mr. Parker himself writing the review, don't imply that it is! There is no shame in a good review from one of Wine Advocate's other writers. For Washington, this would mean either listing the review as "Jay Miller, Wine Advocate" or "Wine Advocate."

    Perhaps folks think this is splitting hairs but I would disagree. When looking at wine reviews it is important to determine who you agree with and who you don't as palates and approaches differ. This is why publications try to have consistent reviewers over a number of years and decades if possible.

  4. My advice is to go straight to the source. Wine lovers who become members of can access our entire database of more than 200,000 ratings via their smartphones, thus avoiding the need to rely on shelf talkers for our reviews.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  5. Thomas, thanks for the comment. I agree that having the WS database on-hand is a huge help and is part of how I have discovered issues like these. However, in the interest of full disclosure, those interested in subscribing should be warned. This can lead to countless hours of database searching and reading and significant additional wine purchases.

  6. "This is, of course, a classic sales technique that retailers everywhere use."

    Well, sort of. But I would look further up the chain. Those "retail" and "sales" prices displayed by retailers often reflect the "regular" and "post-off" prices found in distributor books, which likely reflect "original release" and "discount" prices from the producers.

    These days, it is not uncommon to see a "$50" (retail price) wine released that is immediately on post-off and shows up on retail shelves for closer to $30. Was this ever really a $50 wine? Did anyone ever sell this wine for $50? Unlikely. But who cares, so long as it ends up with a big, yellow, $20-off tag at QFC and sells fast?

    If I started a winery, I would only produce $200 wines and then discount them down to $12.50.

    Best. Deal. Ever.

  7. Anon, an excellent point. I can't count the number of wines I have seen that have a retail price that I have never, ever seen them selling for. This one is tough to detect for folks unless they are paying a lot of attention. You look on the website and the price says $50. Perhaps if the winery sells on-line the website also notes the mark off to $30. However, if the consumer comes back next week, next year, etc they will see the $30 price. Even for the next vintage. I understand why it is done but my advice is 'Don't do it.' Ultimately consumers figure it out and with social media they figure it out a whole lot faster and then it looks like you're trying to put one over on them.


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