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BevMo wine scores balance on fine line

Times Staff Writer

Walk down the aisle of any Beverages & More store and you’ll be confronted by boxes and bottles of wine -- and a bevy of wine scores. There are 89 points for the Sterling Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and 90 points for a Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wine merchants across California display various wine ratings to inform customers and promote their wines. There are ratings from Wine Spectator, from Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate and others.

But nobody does it quite like BevMo, and not everyone likes the ratings that figure prominently on the fast-growing chain’s wine shelves, in its radio spots and in its sales promotions.

Most of the scores are the judgment of Wilfred Wong, a veteran California wine competition judge and critic.

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What many customers don’t realize is that Wong is BevMo’s hired tongue.

As the company cellar master, Wong tastes close to 3,000 wines a year and distills his findings into the point scores and concise descriptions posted on cards in front of the bottles.

But are Wong’s ratings and descriptions invaluable information for wine shoppers -- or advertisements masquerading as independent advice?

“For many wine lovers he is seen as a corporate tool. He writes reviews for a company that pays his salary,” said Alder Yarrow, who writes the Vinography.com wine blog. But “he is not a shill. . . . He knows what he is talking about when it comes to wine.”

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It’s a sensitive position that BevMo’s top executives readily acknowledge could leave them open to charges of pandering to a wine for a profit. “If we were to impinge on Wilfred’s credibility, it would be very bad for our brand,” said David Richards, executive vice president of the Concord, Calif.-based chain.

That’s why Wong reports to Richards rather than any of BevMo’s buyers. “We have to give him independence within the organization,” Richards said.

Despite some winery grumbling, BevMo has made the combination of point scores and the cards briefly describing the wines a central component of its marketing strategy. It found that shoppers gravitate to 90-point wines because they see the number as a quality threshold.

That’s because wine labels feature a dizzying array of place names and grape varieties. Sometimes they are written in French, Italian or even German. Shoppers, confronted with thousands of wine choices, often welcome the point ratings as a way to decode what otherwise would be a complicated choice.

“If I am paying $20 or more for wine, I want it to have at least 90 points,” said Arthur Chadbourne, while shopping at BevMo in Long Beach recently.

The fact that Wong might be the source of that score wasn’t an issue for Chadbourne. He is just looking for some sort of expert confirmation that he is buying a tasty wine.

“I think this is a good innovation and he’s helpful to the consumer. It brings more people to BevMo and it probably moves them up in price because typically, the higher-price wines get the better scores,” said Robert Smiley, a management professor at UC Davis who follows the industry.

Shoppers would spot a marketing ploy, he said. “If Wilfred and BevMo fix the ratings, people will catch on and go elsewhere.”

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The detailed notes that Wong prepares for the wines reinforce the sale by giving shoppers a view of the wine’s style and specific characteristics.

Still, for many customers, the balding, bespectacled Wong is simply a mystery.

The first time Matt Beliveau heard of Wong was in a BevMo mailer.

“It looked like he does the same ratings as the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker [of the Wine Advocate]. But I wondered if he was a real person or if it is just something BevMo made up for their advertising,” said Beliveau, while shopping at the BevMo in Long Beach recently.

In fact, Wong, 57, has serious wine credentials. Altogether, he tastes close to 8,000 vintages a year, giving each a quick swirl and sniff in the glass followed by a gurgle across his tongue and spit into a nearby bucket. These include the samples that come into his office at BevMo and those at the dozen wine contests where he is a judge, including the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Wong joined BevMo 12 years ago as a buyer. He became the company’s in-house critic after demonstrating his ability to taste a wine and then summarize its characteristics.

At many independent wine shops, staff members taste samples and write up descriptions to post on the shelves.

BevMo, with 65 stores, took the process one step further by having Wong also rate wines on a 100-point scale first popularized by Parker, an internationally famous critic, and then by Wine Spectator and other magazines.

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Not all wineries are as enamored with the system as BevMo executives are.

“Picking a wine just on a number score is no guarantee that you are getting a good wine. Ultimately that number was decided by a single person, and if you don’t share that person’s taste you won’t like it,” said James Caudell, spokesman for Brown-Forman’s wine division, which includes the Fetzer, Sonoma-Cutrer, Bonterra, Jekel and Bolla brands.

Still, scores selling wines remains a cardinal truth of wine retailing.

“We continue to complain about the scores but we continue to have to operate within a system that emphasizes the scores,” Caudell said.

And when wineries do land a big score, they don’t do a lot of complaining. Many trumpet the score in their advertising and marketing materials.

Wong acknowledges that wine scores are not as cut and dried as critics sometimes make them seem. And Wong said that his role as an in-house critic could make him an easy mark for both shoppers and wineries suspicious of his ratings. But Wong said that perception made him an even more careful evaluator of wine.

“Let’s say the buyers here get some great deal on 1,000 cases of some wine a winery wants to move. . . . The deal bottle is on my desk. If I cross the line to give our buyers an edge, I am compromising my rating system,” Wong said. “I can’t do that. I have to take care of my customers.”

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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