Wine and Walnuts

A blog about eating, drinking, cooking and reading in the not so Deep South

Wine Ratings Fight Club

 

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Recently my best friend sent me the link to this article in the Wall Street Journal about flaws in the wine rating system, and asked me what I thought of it.  After she read my reply, she said, “You must blog about this. You make some points that I think would be helpful to timid drinkers.”  So for you, timid drinkers everywhere, here is how I replied to my good friend:

The whole wine ratings system is seriously flawed, I think, though not necessarily for the reasons outlined in this article, although this writer makes some good points, and I agree with the argument.  I think ratings are handy when a consumer doesn’t know what to buy, and has, say, $15, and goes into a store and sees some highly rated wines in that price range — in that case ratings can be helpful, so you can choose one good bottle from hundreds you know nothing about.  Ratings have helped me choose wines I would not ordinarily have tried, and I’ve been (mostly) well-rewarded for it — such was the case with the Rooster wine, and that’s one of my favorites!  Also the Delas St. Esprit Cotes-du-Rhone, which I love, love, love.

On the other hand, there is way, way too much wine out there that NEVER gets rated at all, for a number of reasons, and some of it is very, very good, so if consumers pass up wine just because it has no rating, they are missing out on LOADS of good wine. There is simply no way all wine CAN be rated.  Another flaw is the subjectiveness of the endeavor — my goodness, we are talking about taste and personal preference here!  For example, it is well known that the man himself, Robert Parker, likes a lot of really big, powerhouse wines, some of them with really high alcohol content.  So he tends to rate those kinds of wines highly. (It’s been surmised.) But that flavor profile is not to everyone’s liking.

After responding to my friend, I did some research into what the wine cognoscenti — wine bloggers, wine writers and other wine experts — have to say on the topic.  Based on that research, and my own thoughts, here’s a down and dirty short list of some of the system’s advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

· Given an enormous selection of wine to choose from these days, from Costco, to your independent wine shop, to even your local grocery store shelves, a system in which experts judge wines and offer consumers meaningful insights and numerical shortcuts in the form of ratings, is useful. For shoppers who don’t possess scads of wine knowledge, but who want to drink the good stuff, it helps them make informed choices.  It’s a way to separate the sublime from the swill. 

· It’s a starting point for discovering good wine, and is especially helpful for those just setting out on their wine journey.  Especially as many value wines in the $10-$20 range also have ratings attached, so the new wine lover can make wise choices without breaking the bank.

· Because the 100-point system is the industry standard, most people are familiar with it, and comfortable relying on it.  It’s an easy point of reference anyone can understand. Wine reviewers are professional tasters, not just any old body, and their assessments are informed by much experience, and gallons of wine tasted.  Most people get that the numbers are guidelines suggested by wine review professionals and do not represent the last word on that wine.  And where you will stand in front of flood of grape juice with no clue which bottle to choose, and with knowledgeable wine service staff few and far between, the 100 point rating system makes your decision easier.

· Because producers care about their scores, the 100 point system has elevated the quality of wine around the globe.

Disadvantages:

· Most wines score in the 85-95 point range, but are you going to enjoy all the wines in that range?  Most likely not.  You will still have to try, try, try, and find what you like.  

· There are many, many flat out great wines out there that don’t ever get rated by one of the big boys in the industry. Because there is no way all wine can get rated.  So consumers who play the ratings game pass over lots of truly wonderful wine, and miss out on stellar stuff. 

· Although professional wine tasters/critics have spent years tasting wine and perfecting their craft, it’s still a subjective exercise, and what Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer rates highly, you simply may not like.

· It’s said that many winemakers make their wines with Robert Parker’s palate in mind.  Note this quote, from an excellent article in the August 16, 2006 New York Times called “Wine Ratings Might Not Pass the Sobriety Test,” by Gary Rivlin:

“It is easy to start an argument in the wine industry by positing that many wine makers fashion wines to please the palettes of Mr. Parker, Mr. Laube and other high-profile critics. Mr. Parker and the critics from Wine Spectator tend to save their highest ratings for robust-tasting, more intense wines, and consultants like Enologix, based in Sonoma, Calif., understand that. In its promotional materials, Enologix promises to use chemistry to ‘assist wine makers’ in ‘boosting average national critics’ scores.’ ”

Really?  Ugh, I say. It just seems so manipulative, and, hmmm, mercenary or something, making a wine specifically to please a particular wine critic’s palate. I think of winemaking as more art than chemistry (go ahead, laugh), so making a wine to please a critic would be like writing a book you think Michiko Kakutani might review well, or writing and performing music you think Jon Pareles would be fond of.  I’m agin’ it.  (def: Southern for “against”)  

· Also, as mentioned in the Rivlin piece, the ratings system as used in the U.S. tends to favor certain varietals, meaning that lighter-bodied wines don’t get near as high scores as their heavier-bodied counterparts, which can mislead consumers in the market for lighter-bodied wines.  According to the article, lighter bodied wines are the least likely to get a good score. This is a terrible disservice to the many wonderful and flat out delicious light bodied wines out there.  If you shopped a wine store with a very large selection, and paid attention to the ratings, you’d assume most light bodied wines just aren’t as “good.”  Which is certainly not true.

There are a lot more points to be made on either side of the argument, but I’ll leave it here for this edition of wine ratings fight club.

My motto is, trust your palate, and drink what you like.

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About The Author

Kimberly Houston

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