It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Do's and Don'ts of relying on wine ratings.

In my last article I discussed the unfortunate side effects of the 100-point wine rating system.  That is, if the wine being assessed is not red, and not concentrated and expansive in all aspects of appearance, aroma and flavor, such a wine will seldom achieve a rating of 90 and will most likely never receive a rating above 95 points. The casualties of that system are lighter bodied reds, most pinks, and other than a few notable exceptions, most whites.

That occurs because the last five points or so in the 100 point scale are the critic’s estimate of the wine’s ability to age and evolve into something more complex and interesting than its primary fruit qualities.  While many wines in the 90 to 94 might offer some aging benefits, it’s the wines in the 95+ range where long term cellaring—ten, twenty or more years—pays the emotional dividends

However, the vast majority of wine buyers clearly have little or no interest in the age-determined, tertiary aspects like truffles, mushrooms, forest floor, dried nuts and dried fruits, and underbrush. They prefer fresh, softly structured, fruit-driven reds and whites that deliver appealing colors, aromas and flavors that please their palates.  “I like this.  It tastes good,” will likely be the most critical assessment that is ever offered.

Winegrowers are acutely aware of that market, and, as such, the vast majority of their wines are accordingly produced to satisfy that need.  Unfortunately, most grocery stores and retail wine stores do not advertise wines in the “under 90” category.  Only the 90 and over are flagged with colorful, attention-grabbing “shelf talkers.”
Moreover, while grocery store personnel are good at stocking shelves, they are ill-equipped to offer reliable wine guidance on unrated wines. Your best strategy is to carefully read front and back labels, understand the wine’s origins and sample a few in the price range you’re comfortable with.   

Specialty wine retailers are far more reliable, for they typically taste and evaluate most, if not all, of the wines they sell.  While some stores might “flag” the 90-and-over wines, most take pride in offering their own expert advice. The best approach with them is to (1) stipulate your price point, and to the best of your ability,  (2) describe the type and style of wine that you prefer.  

Professional wine critics (wine magazines, wine bloggers and specialized wine-oriented, Internet sites) typically publish ALL their ratings—high, low and everything in between.  You should scour those “tweeners,” especially their detailed tasting descriptors. They are often labelled and flagged as smart buys or great values, and generally are more widely available than those pricey ones in the mid to high 90s.
However, most of the above will be irrelevant to you if you rely on advice from your wine-savvy friends, favorite wine clubs, or ratings from social media or wine-specific apps like Vivino or Delectable. The last two provide search and label identification systems with average scores (by vintage) plus selected postings from individual raters. 

Vivino has a five-point scale, so anything over 4 is likely in the 90+ range, as is anything over 9 in Delectable’s ten-point scale.   My reservation about both of these is the source of their statistics: a world-wide population of anonymous wine enthusiasts, most of whom may or may not have competent or experienced palates.

And if you’ve endured to this point, my final thought in closing is that while you may and should use any of the above as your unofficial wine advisor, nothing beats (eventually) developing your own trusted palate, which is based on an awareness of the qualities and characteristics of the grapes that underlie the various wines and/or appellations.  Once you achieve that, (and paraphrasing a famous, old movie line), “You won’t need no stinking ratings” to guide you through the pleasures of wine appreciation.

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