I am the big I am,
The big I am in this case is one Mr Scott Evers. According to Mr Evers, he is the big man in Australia when it comes to wine authentication.
Mr Evers is right in being concerned about wine counterfeiting; many people are. Nor is there any criticism from TKR in Mr Evers setting up a consulting firm to unmask these wicked fraudsters and make a dollar, or many dollars, as Evers hopes to do.
Until recently, Evers ran wine import company Virtuoso Wines Pty Ltd whose website offers many smart imported wines, but the prices are steep. It’s a free market, but as an example, Virtuoso offers Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2010 for $140 a bottle. It can be obtained from Dan Murphy’s at about $100.
Recently Evers announced: “It is with both sadness and excitement that I’m announcing the winding back of my Wine Import company Virtuoso Wines Pty Ltd. After 15 or so years of importing some of the best little European artisan producers on the planet, I have decided to take on a new and very exciting path in Wine Authentication.” (www.wineauthentication.com.au)
So far, so good, and this is where TKR would normally offer best wishes. But the buts started to arrive.
Evers: “I, along with only a handful of other industry people from around the globe, have been chosen to be personally trained and mentored by the world’s leading Wine Authentication and Wine Fraud expert, Maureen Downey. On completion of our training, I will be the only licensed and accredited TCM [The Chai Method] Master Wine Authenticator in Australia & New Zealand.”
This raises the question: who is Maureen Downey and what qualifications does she have to train people to be authenticators? Let’s not underestimate Ms Downey; she has been involved in some high-profile fraud cases, and runs a very successful business: http://www.chaiconsulting.com/
What she appears to have in common with Evers is unbounded confidence in her own abilities.
Again, that is not an issue. Plenty of people in and out of the wine business suffer the same trait. What Chai Consulting does, and what Evers plans to do, is look after fine wine collections, first authenticating the bottles in the collection: confirming that they are genuine and not, say, Murray Valley merlot, cabernet, shiraz blend X three vintages doctored with a tablespoon of tawny port and a pinch of fine red dust masquerading behind a Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1962 label.
Wine collecting at this level is an expensive business. Chai and Evers knowing being cheap is looking cheap, so charge, or plan to charge, accordingly.
Evers makes a lot of Downey’s training but we question the use of, “I will be the only licensed and accredited TCM Master Wine Authenticator in Australia & New Zealand”.
If Downey has established a fully fledged educational institute, and it’s registered as such, fine. But what she has done is offered training courses in her techniques of deduction and charged people for attending them. It’s no different to attending a wine tasting conducted by an experienced wine person. Therefore we challenge his use of accredited.
Evers entered into an email exchange with Reversing the Silk Road (Richard Warland) at the Wine Wankers blog, run by two men who are also self-confident and full of their own belief. But let’s not digress.
Cutting to the chase, Evers started talking about 20 per cent of world wine production being fake. Warland challenged this, saying 20 per cent of the fine wine market may be fake (doubting it was that high), but not 20 per cent of total wine production.
Evers came back with:
“Thank you for your comments above. Here is a link to an article you may find interesting that concurs with our view that 20% of all wine circulating the globe is fake. In fact, in present time, we believe the 20% figure is actually conservative!”
The figure came from an article in the Telegraph (UK) by Henry Samuel on 1 November 2013, with the intro: “
A fifth of global wine sales involve forgeries, it has been claimed, a day after a Frenchman was jailed for selling fake Grand Crus labels to an unsuspecting Bordeaux collector.”
The story began:
“Counterfeit wine accounts for some 20 per cent of international sales, according to unofficial wine industry estimates published in yesterday’s regional French newspaper, Sud Ouest.”
“Unofficial wine industry estimates.” What use are they? Obviously of use to Evers, because he continued to refer to this article as if it had worth.
Warland continued to point out how unlikely it was that 20 per cent of all wine production was fake. Finally, on 9 July, Evers said:
“Your comments are now starting to become offensive Silk Road Reversed. You are in the minority of your thinking and regardless, you have made your point pretty clear already. Silver screenings I’m happy to speak to you or your friends privately if you have any queries.”
It looks to TKR that Evers is trying to scare people into thinking the worst, so they will hire him to authenticate their wine collections. He also posted on Facebook on 5 July:
“Auction Houses in Australia to date do not employ any QUALIFIED Authenticators. Nor do they outsource third party qualified authenticators to authenticate, nor advise them on risk management strategies. So I’m sorry but they do NOT ‘do their homework very well’. I’m hoping this will change soon.”
TKR approached Langton’s auction house for comment and will publish its response should we receive one.
No business like show business
An article in The Canberra Times by Liam Mannix on 16 July caught my attention, mainly for the headline:
“Everyone gets a prize (including Aldi): Australia’s amazingly generous wine shows.”
There were two points that annoyed, one being the subject of wine shows coming up yet again (will the subject never be laid to rest?) and the other being the Aldi snipe. A show is a show and Aldi commissions many wines to be made under its brand names; why should it not enter wine into shows? If its wines win, so be it.
The crux of the article was there are too many medals given out. Some points from the article:
- Australia’s top seven wine shows give away about 7700 medals each year.
- Wine show judges say they give away so many medals because Australia’s wines are of such high quality.
- But an analysis of the data shows a wine awarded a gold in one show often won’t medal at all in the next.
There were quotes from Kim Brebach of bestwinesunder20.com.au
- “It’s a numbers game.”
- “If you throw enough wines at the shows, some of them will get a medal. It’s a joke.”
Quotes from wine reviewer Mike Bennie:
- “There are too many medals given out.”
- “If half the wines in a wine show get a medal that means very little for the medals that are appearing on bottles.”
- “I just don’t think the system is servicing the best interests of consumers.”
Quotes from journalist Peter Simic:
- “Nowadays 94 is the new 90. Any wine that does not achieve a 90-point score you might as [well] throw it in the drain.”
And quotes from Angus Hughson, chief marketing officer at Cracka Wines:
- “I would say that wine shows can certainly be incredibly useful. Wine show results, particularly gold medals and trophies, can certainly be incredibly useful in selling wines.”
- “Some wineries certainly do enter their wines in as many wine shows as possible, hoping to win awards.”
The article follows the predictable line of show organisers being just after the entry fees; to get the fees they need to offer more medals. There is also the question of consistency: why is it unusual for a wine to win gold at one show and continue to do so at other shows in the same season?
In this light, TKR sent off a round robin seeking views on wine shows. Admittedly, we had Australian shows in mind, but other shows came into play as the exchanges continued.
Huon Hooke defends wine shows, pointing out that they, along with retailers, sommeliers, wine writers’ reviews, and magazine panel tastings,
“are all just cogs in the machinery and they all add something to assist the consumer’s puzzling task of making choices”.
Logically, he points out if they weren’t fulfilling a need shows would “shrivel up and die, and they don’t seem to be doing that”.
Wine shows may not be dying, but as Hooke points out:
“I do think that as wine becomes increasingly complicated and diversity explodes, with new regions and varieties and differing production methods, evaluating them is becoming increasingly subjective and hence wine show awards are less and less meaningful.”
Robert Joseph has been involved in many shows, as judge, chairman and director. Like Hooke, he feels any information that will help a consumer is welcome:
“A wine with a medal – any medal, from any competition – is probably no worse, and quite possibly better, than one without an award. Gatekeepers who need to justify their decision to list a wine, beyond their own tastebuds, use medals – and scores – as due diligence. When a wine fails to sell, the buyer who has listed it can still justify the decision. For this reason, gatekeepers are interested in the name of the competition at which a medal was won.”
Joseph is referring to markets outside Australia and New Zealand. TKR asked if raising points categories would this solve the issue of too many medals being awarded. Under the current Australian system:
- 15.5-16.9 = bronze
- 17-18 = silver
- 18.5-20 = gold
But what if gold moved up a point and needed 19.5 to get the gong? Joseph: “Point inflation is a problem, but I don’t think that attempting to reduce the number of golds would change that radically.”
Some Australian shows are adopting the 100-point scale, as is used by the International Wine Challenge and Decanter:
- 85-89 = bronze
- 90-94 = silver
- 95-100 = gold
Some, such as Mundus Vini, Concours Mondial and OIV competitions, do away with bronze but have double gold, as in:
- 85-89 = silver
- 90-94 = gold
- 95-100 = double gold
TKR holds the view that shows are held to benefit the organisers. Has this not always been the case?
Joseph: “Wines are produced to the benefit of winemakers. Plays are for the benefit of actors and producers… And wine competitions benefit their organisers – some much more significantly than others.
“So what? If wineries think they are of use and numbers of entries to IWC, Decanter and Mundus Vini have grown hugely in recent years, I don’t see the problem.”
Joseph believes we may be heading towards the peak as far as shows are concerned: “More people get used to relying on Amazon reviews and TripAdvisor etc. Vivino/Delectable (and increasingly Amazon) reviews from consumers will grow in importance. Even Berry Bros now uses customer reviews on its website.”
Tim Knappstein reminds us there is a problem relating the 100-point system to the old 20-point one.
You can’t simply multiply the 20-point score by five. That accepted, TKR expects judges to be able to score to the system they are presented with, without being precious.
“Plenty of people are happy to drink a wine with a silver medal, ie a wine with 17 points on the 20-point system, which would score 85 if adjusted by multiplying by five, but no one will look at a wine that scores 85 from a reviewer.”
Knappstein also returns to the original intention of shows:
“Please remember that the stated aim of wine shows is to provide a forum where producers can compare their wines to those of their peers, not to provide a marketing advantage.”
When Joseph pointed out, “36,000 Vivino users gave the Prisoner 4.3/5. My friend Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal hated it”, Richard Warland asked, “can Vivino be manipulated?”
Joseph responded: “No more or less than TripAdvisor/Amazon, I’d guess. The Prisoner is certainly a fast-selling wine, especially at its price point, so I’ll accept that those 36k actually do like it.”
Enter Larry Lockshin:
“Wine shows bring wines to the attention of the trade and consumers. They were originally established as ‘best of breed’ English agricultural shows and were used to entertain the locals as well as to provide guidance and feedback for producers of everything from milk to flowers. Wine shows also provided insight into what was even back in the 1850s something complex and quite different between producers.”
Debra Meiburg MW is a director of the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (HK IWSC). She finds wine competitions useful as marketing tools in emerging wine markets or markets with low consumer involvement:
“We did some research on this topic a few years back and, in China, consumers were greatly guided by medals (73 per cent of their decision-making). I suspect this substantial influence is now waning as the trade/consumers become more confident and as digital consumer reviews gain credibility.”
Kim Brebach, who was extensively quoted in the Mannix article (which he thought good but with which TKR was less impressed) entered the discussion:
“The core issue here is that punters use medals and Halliday point scores stuck on wine bottles as guides to quality in an ocean of indifferent plonk. They believe that these awards and scores are guarantees of some kind. That’s a reasonable expectation but punters don’t realise that neither judges nor wine writers are on their side.”
Brebach puts the lack of consistency in results down to lack of standards among judges. He agrees the shows are there for the organisers, not the industry or consumer.
On Brebach’s opinion of lack of consistency, Joseph says:
“No, and the same movies don’t win the same awards at Cannes, Oscars, Golden Globe etc. And every weekend reviewers have different opinions of new novels. So what? It’s all subjective.”
And so the wheel turns. Plenty of questions, lots of mistrust, a lot more confusion. The conclusion, in no order:
- Medals mean more in Asia.
- Show medals are giving way to consumer reviews in many parts of the world.
- There is little consistency in judging.