Utah liquor stores are doing away with the helpful rating cards that many shoppers rely on to select wine

(Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Many Utah shoppers like to read the reviews and rating cards at the state liquor stores before making a purchase. The state is banning the "shelf talkers" after Dec. 31.

For the wary wine buyer who has shopped at Utah’s state liquor stores — and been insecure about what to buy — the black-and-white cards posted on the racks are often a godsend.

These 3.5-by-4-inch cards give brief reviews and scores from industry magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and they can ease the anxiety of purchasing a bottle for dinner or a gift. They also may encourage shoppers to buy something they’ve never tried before.

By year’s end, though, these “shelf talkers” will be gone.

(The Salt Lake Tribune | Kathy Stephenson) Many Utah shoppers like to read the reviews and rating cards at the state liquor stores before making a purchase. The state is banning the "shelf talkers" after Dec. 31, 2018.

Earlier this week, officials with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control informed wine brokers and vendors that they no longer would be allowed to post the review cards after Dec. 31.

Wine brokers — the liaison between wineries and importers who make the wine and the state who sells it — are upset, saying the shelf-talker program is the only approved education and marketing material for wine and spirits allowed in Utah’s state-owned and -operated stores.

Under state law, the DABC is prohibited from advertising or promoting liquor. However, brokers, vendors and producers are free to promote the products they sell or make.

“The proposed elimination of the shelf-talker program is incredibly unfortunate not only for wineries and distilleries, who have no other means to market their products in a Utah state store,” said Tracey Thompson, co-owner of Vine Lore Inc., “but for the Utah consumer as well.

“Try navigating the wines of Burgundy, France,” she said, “with nothing more than a bottle and price to view.”

Brokers believe the move also is financial. Years ago, the DABC had a premium wine buyer who — among other duties — reviewed the cards before they were posted to ensure they were accurate and from a reliable source, said Scott Cunningham with Bottleneck Wines. “That person resigned several years ago, and no one has been assigned to fill the void.”

However, Terry Wood, the DABC spokesman, said the agency is banning the cards because a few vendors and brokers have used poor sources and outdated information. He said the offending vendors have been warned numerous times of the problem, but they have failed to comply.

“It’s their job to make sure these cards are not total B.S.,” said Wood. "We’ve received a lot of complaints that they weren’t accurate like they used to be. "

He said a few customers have accused the agency of “bait-and-switch" when a card has a review for a different vintage (year) than the bottle on the rack. “After years of trying to work with reps and vendors, we believe this is the only thing that is fair and levels the playing field.”

Wood also pointed out that, in today’s high-tech world, purchasing practices have changed, and the cards are unnecessary.

“So many people use phone apps and websites to get information,” he said. “We feel like there are plenty of ways people can get knowledge about wine.”

Wood said employees are available to help, too. Two years ago, the DABC received money from the Utah Legislature for wine education classes for employees. “We’ve really been trying to get our employees versed” in the products so they can better help customers.

Getting assistance isn’t always easy, though. Anyone who has shopped on a busy Friday night or holiday weekend knows that the liquor store staff is stretched.