Rethinking Bordeaux


For you business school types, wine geeks, Bordeaux aficionados and value seekers, the good people at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration released in June a report that analyzes the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 for the modern day consumer. The analysis, after review of wine ratings from the three most popular sources today (Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer and Wine Spectator), proposes some modifications to the original classification. The authors don't believe that their study will change the mind of the Bordelais, but they do a stellar job in helping ratings mongers understand the successes and failures of the 61 Chataeu considered “classified growths” from First to Fifth.
The short report contains charts and graphs and the explanation of their regression analyses that brought them to their conclusions - that modifications to the original classification are necessary based on current third party qualitative reviews and (consequent) market demands. The use of the popular “rating services” was pull-quoted, as it often is under such circumstances, to remind readers that one “should not compare scores,… but should choose the rater who best matches their own tastes.” Without surprise, Parker led the pack with the highest average ratings per vintage, the Spectator was a close second and Tanzer was most conservative with a one-point plus differential from Parker.

Since Parker and the Spectator originated in the late 70's ('78 and ‘76 respectively) and Tanzer in 1985, the report focuses on vintages from 1995 to the present where at least 40% of the 61 wines were reviewed during each vintage year. Vintages, in the report, are compared and give consumers a mathematician's look at standout growing years. Again, without surprise, score inflation is seen in the 21st Century - 2000, 2003 and 2005. The report states that years of improving viticultural and vinification practices could be a explanation of this trend, but also implies that the reviewers are playing to the consumers who are relying on their services. (The cynic's viewpoint is that the Chateau themselves have been witnessing these trends and are crafting wines that feed this vicious cycle.) However, it is quite interesting that the report states the circulation of each reviewer's publication - 40,000 subscribers to erobertparker, 363,000 subscribers to Wine Spectator, Tanzer, unknown, but likely less than Parker. That is a primary readership that is a fraction of the American wine drinking public (let alone worldwide). [Statistical note: According to recent research done by Constellation Brands and the Wine Institute, only 12% of the wine drinking public uses reviewer comments to help make their buying decisions. That's less than 450,000 people - subscribed to rating services - in a universe of 5 million ‘enthusiasts' as described by Constellation and Wine Institute.] I digress.

The compelling thing about the report is what they have reported regarding QPR (quality price ratio). The authors of the report don't take credit for this and state that critics have been citing this for years regarding the original 1855 Classification. Frank Prial, the venerable wine critic from the New York Times, stated this decades ago, “there are Fourth and Fifth Growths that should be Second and Thirds; alternatively, there are highly rated properties that should be demoted.” Using the statistics from the findings, the Cornell folk found this true, pumping Chataeu Leoville-Las-Cases from Second Growth to First Growth and Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Ponet-Canet from Fifth to Second Growths. There are also a handful of Chateau that fall, most interestingly, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from First to Second.

The forward movers are an interesting set. The jumps in classification correlate to their price per bottle. Leoville-Las-Cases costs three times more than the average Second Growth wine, but still a third cheaper than its would-be counterparts in the First Growth. Similarly, Ponet-Canet sells at a 260% premium from its fellow Fifth Growth, but a 40% discount from its potential Second Growth bedfellows.

Cornell has done a valiant service to wine drinkers with this report, especially in showing the consistency of the reviewers when rating the Third, Fourth and Fifth Growth wines as being ‘very good to excellent' in their reviews and costing a fraction of their upper crust neighbors. As linked above, I implore you to read it yourself (registration to the Cornell site for a download is free and easy) and then make your own buying decisions, if you haven't already.

Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.

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  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    Dan - I think that even though those critics may just have 10% of the “wine enthusiasts” subscribing, a lot more people see a pair of digits on an end cap for a wine and if the first digit is a 9, then they are ready to buy.

    Wilfred Wong of BevMo is a case in point, he works for the company actually selling the wine, and I dont think the average consumer really knows or cares. Any port in a storm, is how i see it. Consumers are just happy to have some validation, even if its impartiality is potentially questionable…

    Jul 17, 2008 at 2:11 AM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    We're in the process of debunking the idea that price connotes quality as an absolute measure. I'd love to see that myth taken down, as well as the “all wine tastes better with age” myth.

    Jul 18, 2008 at 2:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Kirstin
    46671 68

    I love that they did this. Although I don't necessarily agree with their new orders either (not that I've tasted even half the wine on this list) I appreciate any reconsideration of stagnate wine classifications. I hope this re-analysis reminds us that to consider wines by our own tastes, not by lists or price points.

    Thanks for bringing this “rethinking” up, Dan

    Jul 18, 2008 at 3:20 AM

  • Snooth User: Daniel Petroski
    Hand of Snooth
    30091 715

    @ Philip: completely agree with you. There is a non-traditional pass-along readership with wine ratings (i.e. shelf talkers, etc.) and it does ratify our wine buying decisions; and, as HondaJohn will probably tell you, if a visitor comes to such and such a tasting room and sees (or hears) first hand positive press, there is a reinforcement (validation as you say) that puts them at ease. In the end, the goal is to continue to promote wine and its appreciation, but as Kirstin reaffirms, enjoyment is in the mouth of the beholder.

    Jul 22, 2008 at 11:10 AM

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