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Dec 27, 2007 11:23 AM

Shelf Talking

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post recently (December 26) about "shelf talkers" those little tags that are posted on the shelves of wine shops touting a wine and giving a score from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. The article noted that a spot check of 100 shelf talkers (10 each in 10 reputable wine shops in Washington, Maryland and Virginia) turned up 25 percent that did not truthfully represent the wines they advertised. Accuracy varied from shop to shop, but overall, 6 percent of the signs either advertised a score that was higher than the one the wine actually had received or invented a score for an unrated wine. Nineteen percent referred to a different vintage from that of the wine for sale Some highly rated shops like Calvert-Woodley had all of them correct, others were really bad.

This has always been a pet peeve of mine. I don't shop for wine in wine stores much anymore, but when I did, I noticed that it was fairly common to read a shelf talker and then find that the wine discussed was not the wine for sale. Different vintage dates was a big problem(the Post used the 2005 Big House Red for sale with the talker from the 2004 as an example, 90 pts from WA for the '04, 81 for the '05) but often the talker would be about one wine from a producer, but the wine on the shelf would be another from the same producer. i.e., the talker would be about the 2002 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (WS 92 pts.) but the wine on the shelf would be the 2002 Beringer Alluvium Red Knights Valley (WS 84 pts.)

I used to pull the talker and take it to the clerk and tell him that what they were doing was a fraud (didn't make me a lot of friends, but who wants to be friends with the Montgomery County MD Liquor Control folks?). But to be fair, the talkers are often put there by the wine distributors, not the shops, but still, the shop has an obligation to make sure that this kind of misrepresentation does not go on in their establishment.

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  1. I've noticed the different vintage dates all the time... something to watch out for if you put any stock in these tags.

    1. All too often, the "talkers" are put up by the distributors. The shop personnel should check, and verify, but do not seem so inclined. In general, it's up to the consumer to match the wine, vintage and all, to the talker.

      Personally, I pay no attention to these devices, and buy what I have entered the shop to buy, regardless of the puff. My wife does read them, and at least focuses on the descriptions of the wines, or the pairing suggestions. Neither she, nor I, are big on anyone's points, so that aspect is lost on us.

      The biggest blunder that I have seen, has been the vintage dates, but then I do not carry my RP, Jr "Buying Guide," or a copy of WS with me, so whether the points are correct, is something that I cannot address.

      Marketing is the biggest part of all of this - far beyond wine making.


      2 Replies
      1. re: Bill Hunt


        I think that most of us who haunt this board are not the ones at whom the shelf talkers are aimed. It is the person who walks in and sees the talker and buys the wine on impulse. I admit I read the talkers, just to see what they say. And to be honest, there are several ways that the talkers get onto the shelf.

        BTW, I was incorrect, Calvert-Woodley had 8 of 10 correct, it was Cecile's Fine Wine that had 10 or 10 correct. But they use software to manage and print shelf talkers and download the scores from the magazines themselves. Other stores, and while the article named them, I won't, let the distributors post the talkers and in that case the accuracy rate was much lower.

        Then again, the shop may have an incentive to leave the talker up. It a wine got a score of 90pts from WS, and then the next vintage got an 87, what is the incentive to remove the talker. The 90pt line is magic. (Hey, I know score chasers who won't buy a wine that gets less than 90 points, regardless.) One of the wine buyers interviewed the article estimated that as many as two out of three customers make purchases simply on the basis of shelf talkers that give a sense of the wine and what to serve it with.

        1. re: dinwiddie

          I agree with paragraph 1 completely.

          I am a little shocked with the # of consumers, who buy, base on the talkers and the scores, though I should not be - 66.6% eh?

          A good wino bud, who claims to hate RP, Jr, the WS and anyone who publishes numerical scores, always touts the numbers for the wines that he brings, or serves - somewhat hypocritical, but he's otherwise a great guest, or host.

      2. Even if it is the wine distributors who put on the tags, it's the shop that's dealing with the customers. And with such unique goods as wine, they really should know better.

        I'd vote with my feet. If a store had a high number of errors, for whatever reason, I'd stop frequenting that store.

        1. whether it is the retailer or distributor who places the ultimately false shelf talker, that is what it is...false. the customer does not buy from the distributor so I don't buy the excuse of retailers who may want to lay fault on the retailers. I see this frequently. That said, I often think to myself that this is what the boneheads who rely on "points" get.

          I'd like to see some comments from posters who are in the biz on this topic though.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ibstatguy

            Seems that there was a "class action" suit brought against, either a retailer, or distributor, for just this thing. I have searched for an article on this (about 5-7 years ago), and have come up dry. Either I imagined it, little press was given (except what I THINK I recall), or my search criteria were all wrong. Anybody recall this?

            It's tough getting old - you forget so much. Now, what was I doing... ?


          2. Costco, the largest wine retailer in the country, is the worst offender of this practice I've seen. They print all of their own shelf talkers and constantly present a previous vintage's high score when displaying another. Of course, many of their customers can't see what they're doing due to the 96 rolls of toilet paper and 64 bags of avocados in their shopping cart ; )

            5 Replies
            1. re: Husky

              I've found at Costco that they do include a note that tells you the shelf talker is for a different vintage than the one in the bin.. at least the Costco's I've visited in So Cal are like that.

              1. re: monkuboy

                They DO list previous vintage ratings (presumably when the vintage being sold is not (yet) rated or maybe wasn't submitted for rating. II suppose it's a way of suggesting the 'pedigree' or family history of the wine though it can easily be misunderstood by people who don't realize what they're actually being told. I have always found it annoying in that it's essentially useless information.

                1. re: Midlife

                  I think most shelf talkers are useless information anyway..

                  1. re: monkuboy

                    the problem though is for those consumers who are likely not wine geeky enough to know or understand and thus buy on the points listed by the shelf talkers. heck, BevMo markets directly to people who buy based upon points.

                    1. re: ibstatguy

                      I love those BevMo commercials where the consumers keep talking about points and how the 90 point and over scores are a "guarantee" of success in choosing a wine. Well I guess their business is to sell as much wine as possible and people are indeed obsessed with points. Those "consumers" in the commercials (who, someone told me, are real and not actors) just keep laying it on thicker and thicker how points are the only important thing, as the seconds tick by.