Smart Wine Shopping: Don’t be Fooled by Wine-Aisle Hype

I have a confession to make. For nearly 15 years, I’ve indulged my avocation as a wine lover. But my vocation was marketing, and some of my earliest jobs were on winery accounts at the ad agencies I worked for at the time. I’m not going to name any names. Suffice to say you’d know them if I did.

Recently, more and more wine lovers have been asking me the same basic question: “I’ve read the hand-written notes in the wine aisles for years, and made more than one purchase based on the glowing recommendations. But someone told me they’re fake. What’s the story?”

I knew it was time to come clean.

What is a “Shelf Talker?”

Next time you go to buy wine, look closely at the little sign or note hanging under the bottle. That’s the shelf talker. Typically, they include some combination of printed and apparently hand-written praise, including a description of the wine in question and a prominently displayed score (92 points!) conveying the rating the wine received. By extension, this rating hopes to sway buyers by showing what a great wine it is.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

The fact of the matter is that shelf talkers are a very important link in the wine marketing food chain. Most consumers don’t (and simply can’t) have effective knowledge of the hundreds of wines packed into even the most modest supermarket wine aisle.

In smaller wine stores, as well as the occasional supermarket with a well-stocked and well-managed wine department, the managers and employees sometimes do make notes about their favorites. It was this practice that got marketers thinking in the first place! If you look closely, you’ll see that many of the “hand written” notes are actually printed – that’s because they were actually written by folks in an art department somewhere as part of an overall promotional effort on behalf of the winery.

This doesn’t mean that all shelf-talkers are misleading – the majority are fair and accurate, and do portray what particular critics have said, how they have rated the wine, or what awards the wine has won.

Unfortunately, some marketers push the limits of credulity. In 2001, one retail chain in California did a survey of shelf talkers and “neck hangers” (those little pieces of paper that go around the neck of a bottle) and found that 39% contained “misleading statements.”

Top 4 Things to Beware of in Wine Aisle Promotions

Yes, most shelf talkers, neck hangers and the like are supplied by distributors and wineries to retailers as promotional devices. But thanks in part to the publicity and attention generated by events such as those noted above, things have gotten better.

However, be aware that this information will always be presented in the most advantageous light possible. So, here are the top four things to beware of as you peruse the promotional tags in the wine aisle of your favorite retailer.

1.) Description and Attribution, But No Score. “This merlot’s light strawberry flavors are ready to chill for a cookout.” – Wine & Spirits. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the score that accompanies this recent review, an 81, would encourage most folks to simply walk away. So they don’t print it.

2.) Right Rating, Wrong Vintage. Ratings differ from vintage to vintage for the same wine. So a wine rated an “89” in 2001 is just that. The 2002 rating is tasted and rated separately. Pay attention to vintage – and when none is present on the card, you can be sure the score shown is not for the wine displayed.

3.) High Score, No Attribution.“94 Points!” a shelf talker screams. But from where? If there is no attribution to a recognized source, it’s probably been made up to get your attention.

4.) Attribution and Score – But a Poor Score. “85 Points – Wine Enthusiast” The vintages match up, you know the publication. What’s wrong with this? The fact is, 85 isn’t something I’d knowingly spend money on, much less crow about.

None of us like to be overly cynical. But in wine buying as in all purchasing decisions, buyer beware. So file this information away, and pay a little extra attention to what you read in the wine aisle.

And remember, your best defense is a good offense, so do your homework before you head out. Bring along your favorite wine magazine or pocket buying guide, and make an informed choice every time you shop for wine.


Michael Hinshaw is the author of the Wine PocketList 2004 Wine Buying Guide, and publisher of the Wine PocketList online at His free monthly newsletter, VinConnections, reaches over 40,000 wine lovers a month.

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