Scores do matter—just not for me. This has to do with my philosophy and approach to buying wines for our store, based in the East Village in New York City. As the wine buyer for Manhattan’s largest retail store, and since we stock as many as 3,000 different wines, I deal with an extraordinary number of sales pitches from both wholesalers and suppliers. More than ever, these pitches are meaningful, but many are generic—and a copious amount still come to me in the form of “buy this since it got this many points.” The last of those is a clear indication that this person has zero understanding about what I need and the philosophy of our store.
As I aim to buy from wine estates that are family owned, I’ve gotten to know many of the faces behind the wineries and hold them in high regard for the painstaking work they perform year-round. The knowledge of their labor exists whether I like their wines or not. To give a numerical rating to a wine based on a single tasting is simplistic and insults this arduous process. It minimizes a wine instead of providing the context necessary to understand it.
Maybe another reason I ignore scores is because I will ultimately go with my own experience. For example, I’m currently in the midst of buying the 2016 Bordeaux primeurs. I receive a slew of offers from négociants, and behind each wine offer is a collection of names followed by scores. Am I expected to defer to these scores in making my decision? Won’t I base my purchase on what I know or have tasted myself? In fact, I do.
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The most satisfying part about ignoring scores is that we will always sell wine based on the attributes that our customers desire. More than anything, our clients want a wine that will be great for dinner tonight or the ideal gift for an in-law. Our customers are open-minded and many want to hear a story or two about our wines to educate themselves. We open dozens of wines for our indulged sales staff every week so that they can form their own opinions to better serve customers. We also regularly get substantial winemakers in front of our staff so that they can fall in love (or in hate) with a particular wine. I believe our sales staff is our most important asset. While being the wine buyer is also important, our sales staff interacts directly with our customers and investing in their knowledge is pivotal to our success. Ultimately, this is more work for me but I believe it’s a more respectful way of buying and selling wines.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge that scores do matter in the industry. Other retailers successfully sell wines to customers based on this system. And clearly some clients purchase by looking at points. But we partake in nothing of the sort.
Instead, we articulate something about each wine on our shelf talkers. Typically something factual is written about the wine, the winery, the winemaker—maybe an ideal food pairing as well. In addition to this, our staff writes genuine Staff Picks which are displayed next to the chosen wines. And if you’re browsing the aisles in our store and care to speak to somebody, you can readily talk with a member of our sales staff.
Our store has never reduced a wine to a mere number in order to sell product—neither an internal point system nor a system based on critics’ scores. We are a family-owned business that’s free to make its own decisions, and that’s exactly where I choose to be.
Lorena Ascencios is the wine buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City. She has been with the company since 1998. Through extensive tasting, education, and travel, she continues to hone the skill of finding excellent wines for her customers. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.