Only 90 Point Wines for $15 and Under at Costco?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Recently, there's been some lively discussion about Costco's wine buying policy. In short, it's been asserted that Costco "told its vendors that it will only buy wines that will retail for $15 or less and have scored at least 90 points" (read more...). This policy was reportedly only for new wines (existing wines wouldn't get booted out just because they failed the test). Costco denies the claims, yet several vendors assert this is what they're being told.

First off, if there's actually a wine store in the country that has an assortment of 90+ point wines for $15 and under, please let me know where it is- I'd love to check them out. The reason I say this is that only 99 out of 7287 (about 1.4%) of all wines rated by Wine Spectator for the 2005/2006 vintages met that criteria. And none of them were Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, domestic Pinot Noir, or California Chardonnay (categories that I'd estimate make up roughly half the assortment at Costco). I understand that ratings might be pulled from other publications like Wine Enthusiast or Wine Advocate, but still- these are long odds that basically say that, if followed, Costco wouldn't be stocking *any* wines in the most popular categories in the U.S. market. Therefore, I doubt they're strictly following this policy.

Second, I get the feeling that folks bristling at a policy like this are taking issue with a powerful retailer relying so rigidly (and lazily?) on a few publications to determine which wines they should carry. I don't think Costco is doing anything other than what the purchase patterns of people who shop there tell them to. Specifically: Stock a limited number of SKUs from brands people recognize that are highly rated and affordable. My point: Take issue with American consumers, not with Costco.

Finally, there seems to be a notion that consumers who seek out 90+ point wines are relying too heavily on professional ratings. This may or may not be the right way to go about buying wine, but I think the reason consumers chase after 90 point wines is because they're not as scarce as you might think. Have a look at the histogram below. It shows the frequency with which each numerical rating was assigned to the 2005 Napa Cabs Wine Spectator rated. You'll see that more than 1/3 (35.9%) of the wines received a score of 90 or higher -and- there's a stunning spike at 87/88 points. Keep that in mind the next time someone tries to shame you for only buying 90 point wine.

It looks like, for this vintage at least, 88 is the new "Average".

Further Reading:

Question of the Day: What do you think of this situation? Smart retailing? Or lazy retailing? And who do you trust more- professional ratings? Or your local wine retailer?

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