A lonely scorched survivor

A lonely scorched survivor

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Worth And Relevance Of Wine Ratings

Of the various wine rating systems consumers can reference when purchasing wines, one of the most popular is the 100 point method originated by Robert M. Parker Jr., the man with the million dollar palate. Actually, the million dollar nose, for he can detect aromas and scents that you and I can barely imagine, let alone identify. He and other wine critics who subsequently adopted his approach, rate wines much like our schoolwork was graded.

The ratings are divided into five levels: 90 to 100, 80 to 89, 70 to79, 60 to 69 and 50 to 59, which are the equivalent grades of A, B, C , D, and F. An important distinction, however, between wine ratings and our exam grades is that the latter were based on objective data. Either the answers to the test questions were correct or they were not. Whereas, the 100 point wine system is based on one person’s very personal and subjective evaluation.

In wine stores you’ll never see the shelves flagged with stickers touting wines in the “80 to 89” range, let alone the bottom three tiers, just as your parents didn’t rejoice when you slinked home with a “C” or a “D” in English. (Lack of excellence is not noteworthy.) What scores are typically posted are “90 to 95” (outstanding) and the “96 to 100” (extraordinary).  Of course, wines with those lofty ratings usually are priced at loftier levels. After all, if one elects to drink the highest rated wines, then one should also be prepared to pay the price. (Pun intended.)

Just as in school we received an “A” because we answered most of the questions correctly, wines are rated in the 90’s (“A”) because, in addition to possessing the vital components of a fine wine (the correct “answers,” as it were), they also have an extra something going for it. That extra something is “aging potential,” which is the wine’s ability to improve and develop further aromatic and flavor nuances as the wine evolves for five, ten or more years.

Quite clearly, one’s emotional payback on this varies with one’s perspective about those nuances. That is, does the wine’s evolution from primary fruit and flower based “aromas” to the secondary, more nuanced, truffle, and currant-like “bouquet” over a five or ten year period, motivate you to pay a premium for that wine? (Side bar: Note that aging potential effectively eliminates many excellent white and lighter-bodied red wines from being categorized as outstanding or extraordinary, even if they represent the finest example of that type or class of wine.)

However, because “B” wines lack long term aging potential, does not mean that they are the least bit inferior. Much like an “A” rated wine, “B” wines must also be well structured, balanced and have good color, aroma, flavor and finish. And even though they will not last for decades, they can be enjoyed today and for numerous tomorrows. Also, while price is seldom part of most critics’ grading schemes, “B” wines are frequently excellent values when compared against the prices of “A” wines.

Lastly, I should point out that on Parker’s website he is quite specific about the worth and relevance of numerical precision. “Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine's style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.” He further states, “ . . . there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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