A nickel’s worth of truth

November 10th, 2009

Res ipsa loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur

WineBusiness.com reports today that a class action filed in San Francisco last month claims BevMo raises the prices of the wines in their 5-cent sale so that in some cases, customers are paying more for the two bottles than they would at regular price.

From a business standpoint, this is a great way to make money. After all, value is perceived, right? All you need to seal the deal is an 88-point or higher rating from the wine critic hired to be as your in-house cellar master.

Doctors generally make lousy businessmen, but even I could tell this 5-cent promotion had to have a catch. That suspicion was verified by discussions with a wine maker who is trying to move inventory and has looked into BevMo as a venue. I’ll leave the finer financial points of this scheme to others, but suffice it to say that BevMo gets these wines dirt cheap (in the Ann Arbor, MI sense).

I’ve had a good number of these 5-cent sale wines, as Irene likes to try her luck. Invariably, these wines get a pretty decent score (say, 87 or 88 points or better) from Wilfred Wong. But when I actually pour myself a glass, I am very frequently left wondering what wine Wong was tasting when he wrote the tasting notes or scored the swill.

I actually had started keeping track of some of these 5-cent bargains and my impressions of them. About half the time I had no serious beef with the score and notes, although I could argue the comments of “freshness”, “good acidity”, “great example of this variety” or the scores themselves were stretching thing. The rest of the time, I thought Wong had been smoking something.

The fact is that BevMo did, at one point publish a rating scale (available here as a PDF from my records), but I cannot find any consistent criteria for it. Nor am I able find any consistency in scores that would be attributable to a personal stylistic preference. What this tells me, is that BevMo is screwing the consumer in two ways: financially (if the price gouging allegations prove to be true) and culturally.

I have never met Wong. I know a few people who consider him a friend and attest to his palate. So what gives? Someone who knows him had once told me that Wong may be under some pressure to help move inventory. I could get on a soap box and pontificate about integrity, but I can’t blame a wine critic for trying to pay their bills. However, in my eyes, this puts a huge dent in his credibility.

Instead, I will say this: telling people that crappy wines are good and worth the inflated price (even if that is just $15) is not only immoral or unethical, but it lowers the bar on our country’s wine culture and wine industry.


Email & Share


19 Responses to “A nickel’s worth of truth”

  1. Thomas Pellechia Says:

    Yeah, Arthur, but the turnip trucks are many and full and they keep rolling along the highway.

  2. Wine Evangelist Says:

    I, too, know Wilfred Wong and think he has a great palate. I’ve judged with him and tasted with him on several occasions. The point to remember here, it that as A BevMo employee, it’s Wilfred’s job to promote the wines that BevMo sells. He is not working as an unbiased wine critic when he scores and writes descriptions for wines BevMo has purchased. You would not be likely to buy a wine at any price if the score was 68 and the description read: The aromas are off-putting, the palate lacks fruit. This wine is basically tired.

  3. Kyle Says:

    Then he isn’t a wine critic! He is a hype-man and the adroitness of his palate is irrelevant. He gets paid to give wines that BevMo wants to move a high score. This is not a wine critic and calling himself one is insulting to profession critics and wine business men and women alike.

  4. Julie Brosterman Says:

    The only ones surprised by this story are the consumers who shop there and tell their friends to do so too.

    Recently, as a retailer, I noticed that the cost of UPS for sending two bottles of wine ground had gone up from $11.90 to $14.45 in the last few weeks. We don’t ship much wine but I wondered when the consumer who is getting FREE SHIPPING on some of the wine auction/wine deal of the day sites is going to realize that 20% off plus free shipping probably means that somebody has some wine they want to get rid of quick.

    As I always say to people who tell me that they shop for wine at Trader Joes or their local grocery store – if they don’t have someone in the aisle to tell you that the wine is a great choice for the price then it probably means it’s not.


  5. Thomas - The Blog Wine Cellar Says:

    I totally noticed this the other day when I was in Bevmo. I went to go see what they had on sale and was shocked to see the prices of the first wine were incredibly high and that in order to get the nickel wine you had to pay out the nose for the first.

    As soon as I noticed this, I had a really ugly feeling and immediately left the store. I really don’t care for Bevmo anyways because they normally don’t have very wine savvy wine stewards there and the feeling is really cold when you walk in the place.

    I hope the rest of the wine buying public realizes the same thing so we can return to the ol’ mom and pap wine shops where you get real wines at good prices and a smiling, friendly, and wine knowledgeable steward. Thanks for furthur pointing this out! The public needs to take note of this stuff.

  6. Joe Becerra Says:

    To take advantage of BevMo’s sale you must know your wine and wine prices. When the sale is over, check the BevMo wine sale for the regular price of the wine. In many cases it is the same bottle price if you bought two bottles of wine at the sale. However, there are some bargains to be had if you know your wines and shop comparitively. “Buyer Beware!”

  7. Wine Evangelist Says:

    It’s important to be aware of the difference between a wine reviewer and critic and someone who is paid by the winery or retailer to comment on wines, For the record, regardless of what you think about BevMo, Wilfred Wong does not call himself a wine critic. His title is E-commerce Cellar Master for Beverages and More.

    Remember: “Caveat Emptor” ~ Buyer Beware in all things.

    What is important to note is that wine, like art, literature, food, and movies is subjective. If a movie critic sends you to see 3 movies and you don’t like any of them, you stop following his/her recommendations. The same principle should be applied to wine reviewers.

    The golden rule that I have been preaching for years is: “If you like the way it looks and you like the way it smells and you like the way it tastes…it’s good wine! no matter what Parker, the Wine Spectator, or anyone else thinks.”

  8. Larry Chandler Says:

    Wilfred Wong once said that he rates wines based on the expectations that his customers have for these wines. In other words, if a wine sells he rates it highly. (Or perhaps also if the store wants it to sell.)

    He is a merchant and his job is to sell wine. It’s like going into a coffee shop and expecting great coffee because the sign outside the door says “World’s Best Coffee.”

    It is a different matter to advertise a sale that isn’t truly a sale. This is unethical and possibly illegal. I don’t know if BevMo does that, but if so, they should be challenged on it.

    I have noticed that much of their 5 cent sale is made up of wines that either are private labels or older wines. There are a few bargains in all that, but you have to choose carefully or perhaps just go to a better wine merchant where you don’t have to play this game.

  9. bill Says:

    BevMo does around 750 million dollars annually in sales. 99.99999 percent of BevMo shoppers will never hear about this lawsuit. The consumer that shops BevMo perceives that they are getting a better deal on wines and booze that they would otherwise buy in another large grocery store chain. These are not the same people that shop at independent wine stores. This is not any surprise to all of us in the industry or who are serious collectors and we are also more than likely the only people who will ever hear about this dumbass as well. This will hurt BevMo exactly 0% unless they try to come out with some PR move against it and blow it up.

  10. Larry Chandler Says:

    The point is not to get people to hear about it, but to get BevMo to stop doing it. And yes, we know collectors don’t go to BevMo. People who buy wine in supermarkets don’t deserve to be taken advantage of, just as collectors don’t. Saying a wine is a $30 wine when it’s a $20 wine is no more honest than saying a wine once belonged to Thomas Jefferson when it didn’t.

  11. bill Says:

    I’m not sure why the point is to get BevMo to stop doing it. I don’t exactly see them doing anything illegal. I guess we’ll find out. If I walk into a car dealer and pay sticker price is it the car salesperson’s job to make sure I bargain for a better deal? Again, buyer beware.

  12. Larry Chandler Says:

    Interesting, Bill, that you mention car sticker prices. These were introduced precisely because a dealer would make up a retail price and then offer a discount off that, when in fact no real discount was being offered.

    It is not the dealer’s job to offer you the best price. But it is the dealer’s job to be honest about the existing price. It’s up to you to buy it or not.

  13. Kyle Says:

    The problem Bill is that BevMo says that you’re getting a deal. This is a blatant lie. Obviously, buyer beware but since when is it perfectly fine for a company to lie to their customers?

  14. Wine Evangelist Says:

    Kyle, you really sound angry on this. Do you believe every advertisement that you read, see, or hear? Consider the source and make an educated decision before trying or buying any product.

    Deals on wine are not as clear cut as cars. Prices on wine vary from state to state, winery tasting room prices are often higher than large retailers, and restaurant pricing is another situation all together.

    When you shop at any retailer and they say 2 for 1, it is your job to define if the price is advantageous. There are a few sites that offer wine price comparisons. One is http://www.wine-searcher.com and there are some apps too.

    It goes back to what I said before. Buyer beware. There your dollars to spend, spend them wisely.

  15. Kyle Says:

    I’m not angry. I just don’t see the need to excuse BevMo if they did, indeed, do something wrong. The excuses seem even feebler if BevMo is breaking the law. I’m not sure if they are, but if they are I think we’ll all be in for a discount coupon or something of the like.

    Saying that it’s ok for them to lie because it’s up to the consumer to figure that out seems wrong. On the other hand, I completely agree that consumers need to be more aware of these things. Both “parties”are culpable here, but saying that the consumers are partially to blame shouldn’t excuse BevMo’s part.

  16. Larry Chandler Says:

    There is a difference here. Ads that say “Merlot, 95 points” or “Delicious Cabernet” are hype or puffery and are perfectly fine. They are value judgments and can and should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

    It’s also fine for a wine shop to decide to sell a wine at whatever price they choose (within their agreements with the wholesaler or winery.)

    But it is not fine to provide a false “original” price simply to give the appearance of a bigger bargain. It’s actually illegal in several states, which is why you see phrases such as “sold elsewhere for” or “intermediate markdowns have been taken.”

    It’s not that a retailer has to offer the best price. Wineries mostly sell at list prices and a store can say “winery price is this, our price is that.” But don’t, in effect, say “we sold this wine yesterday for $50 but today it’s $25″ when in fact you always sold it at $30.

    Buyer beware is a good policy to follow in general everywhere. But the wine business is and should be subject to the same rules of truth in advertising as any other business.

  17. Wine Evangelist Says:

    This is being beat to death but I never said the consumer was wrong – just that consumers need to be aware.

  18. Jack Rose Says:

    Perhaps I am missing something in all these repies. Yes, it is always buyer beware, yes, you should have already checked the prices locally. I live in California, and for the most part there are some good wines at Bevmo during the 5 cent sale,where the prices are not inflated. for instance, a 2006 Beringer Napa Valley sauvigon blanc for $12 is the standard retail price. Get a second bottle for 5 cents is a good deal.

    What you have to watch out for are all of labels you have never seen any place else; except Bevmo.

  19. Tish Says:

    Excellent post and comments, Arthur. It is also worth noting that it is the 100-point scale that made this kerfuffle all possible. And it is deception (or even perceived deception) such as this which is souring people on ratings in general.

    Like Wine Evangelist, I have moet Wilfred and consider him to have an excellent palate and be a professional of integrity. As far as the shadiness of the nickel program goes, I trust that it falls on Corporate BevMo.