I’m Rated Out! Do Wine Ratings Mean Anything?

Wine rackBy Ken Collura

As a professional wine buyer and an active consumer, I’m inundated with ratings. Each major wine publication has seemingly hundreds of them each month. If that wasn’t enough, they’re encountered in big, bold numerals everywhere wines are sold. You’ll see them in newspaper ads, on shelf-talkers, and neck-hangers on the bottles themselves.

I admit I’m rated-out. The fact is that too many folks, both at the consumer and professional level, are relying on the perceived ability of others to help them make their wine buying decisions. And there’s no doubt that the prices some wineries feel compelled to charge are directly affected by the points their wines garnish.

A typical wine listed for sale will probably look something like this:

2004 McCaulay Vineyards Neon Socks Shiraz. $24.95. (92) WB, (90) VZO, (89) WH.

These symbols state that on a scale of 50-to-100, the shiraz was rated 92 points in the newsletter published by the Wine Buddah, 90 points in VinoZen Online, and 89 points in Wine Honcho Magazine. The ratings are employed as tools, or lures, to convince prospective buyers of the wine’s quality.

Certain glossy publications have even taken using ratings for things beyond their immediate spheres. I get a big kick from this. They grade things like, say, hotels in Rome. I can just envision an issue in the near future:

Hotel Pastafazool, Roma: The room was small (82), but attractively furnished (88). The bed itself had an older mattress that was too soft (79) and the miniscule TV was attached high up on the wall across from the bed (80). The bathroom, however, graded an overall 90. The ornate doorknob (87) was difficult to grip, but the mirror (92) was large and three-sided, allowing you to see the back of your head. The shower curtain (82) was an unappealing mustard-color, but the showerhead itself was powerful and had three speeds (96+), although the water tended to run down the side of tub and pool on the floor (84). The patio was tiny (81), but had a fabulous view of the Aventine Hill (95), although the mopeds zooming in the street below were deafening (77).”

How can anyone give numerical scores to arbitrary things such as locations or views from a balcony, and who made these magazine editors the arbiters of taste? I say let’s start blowing off the ratings offered by the press and strive to gain the confidence needed to make judgments without outside influence.

Want to be able to “rate” wines on your own? Regardless of price or country of origin, there are three basic things to look for:

How does it appear?
Is it bright and vivid as it moves around in the glass, or does it look flat? Does it have “legs” (glycerin streams that move down the sides of the glass after swirling)? Is the color right? Pinot noir should never look like petite sirah, or vice versa.

How does it smell?
Does the fruit leap out of the glass, or is it reserved? Aggressive fruit in a new release usually indicates that it will drink well young, while a reserved nose may signify that the wine needs more time in the cellar to show its stuff.

What does it taste like?
Is the wine balanced? In other words, are the fruits, acids and tannins in unison? Does the wine taste like the grape (or region) listed on the label? Try to avoid those that are aberrational or “international” in their flavors. When I buy a sangiovese, I want it taste like sangiovese, not a cabernet or a zinfandel.

All of this is pretty rudimentary and has been addressed by others before, but occasionally it needs reiteration. Once you’ve developed self-assurance, and an understanding of what you like and what you don’t, the ratings will begin to lose their relevance.

A syndicated columnist for over five years and writer for the trade magazines Cheers (on the Editorial Advisory Board) and Sante on a regular basis, Ken Collura has been active in the national wine scene for many years. Prior to moving to Portland, he was head sommelier at the restaurant with the world’s largest wine list, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, which carried over a half million bottles in stock. He is currently sommelier at Andina, the Peruvian restaurant in Portland

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. well seasoned says

    Right on, Ken!! Thank you for making a stab at demystifying wine buying, which is definitely an uphill endeavor, but someone has to attempt it. Since my own self-imposed mission is demystifying cooking (you don’t need a degree to do it, you don’t need recipes, you just need to love food and trust your gut – pun intended), I’m delighted to see you make a similar stand in the arena of wine selection. Personally, my own trajectory as a wine consumer (at least since graduating from jug wine in college) has been from big chewy reds to lighter, more food-friendly wines. Needless to add, none of the latter ever get big scores from Parker, Wine
    Spectator, etc. BTW, I hear that the recent bio of Parker is a good – and cautionary – read. Do you recommend it?

  2. Daaaaave says

    My real question is: how do you get it from the bottle to the glass to rate yourself before having to set aside a chunk of cash on a bottle of which you know nothing?

  3. says

    Dave hit it right. Ken, I understand what your point is, and in many regards I agree. But your description of how to tell if a wine is good is based upon already possessing it. We need to know which wines to buy. I’d love to hear what you have to say about that topic, because that’s what I’m after. I guess you did give us some tips a few months back, and I actually went out and acquired 8 of those bottles from Vinopolis. Four were definite bargains and will be purchased again, and four were boring. So yes, this furthers your point that relying entirely on someone else’s opinion does not necessarily mean that YOU will like the wine. However, I use these ratings as a buying GUIDE, not scripture. I’ve found it is WAY better to do this than to just go to the store and buy things seemingly at random. I am much more interested in what is written about the wine than the number, though. I’m fairly new to the pursuits of fine wine, but have been drinking single malt scotch for some time. Especially in that arena, I rarely give any value to the numbers. However, there are some tasters whose opinions I value in description. Michael Jackson, for instance, describes the Ben Nevis 26 fairly well, and it sounded quite tastey to me, however he gives it a 78. But based upon that description I bought a bottle, and it is now one of my favorite malts. The same can be done with wine reviews. Yes, often times in these for sale ads simply list the numbers, and that doesn’t offer much value (unless you know the reviewers tastes). But just going blind into the store to buy one has been almost always a total failure for me. I have found some good ones, but usually I’ve found better ones in reading the reviews first. Once I have the wine, I certainly draw my own conclusions from it and very often disagree with the “profesional” reviewers. Often times they are spot on, though.

  4. Ken Collura says

    Let me answer a few of the posts above.

    Well Seasoned: Yes, the new book about Robert Parker is called “The Emperor of Wine” by Elin McCoy. I’ve seen it on the shelves at Powell’s. I have many opinions about this man and how he has affected the world’s wine markets. I have a feeling that this book will verify them (as did the movie “Mondovino,” which I highly recommend). It’s on my list to pick up.

    Daaaaave: Tasting is the key to learning. There are some shops in town that have wines to taste open every day. Wine Gargage and Mt. Tabor’s on Hawthorne usually have a few bottles open, and we at the Pearl Wine Shop in the atrium under Andina have 21 wines open for tasting every day. $5 tasting fee is waived if you buy even one bottle. It’s a way get familiar with grapes or regions you may not have tried before.

    David Paris: I recommend wines all the time, and if my choices rang up at 50% satisfaction with you, that’s great. People’s tastes vary. That’s basically what I’m trying to say in this piece: develop your own ideas. And the fact that you use wine publications as a guide NOT scripture shows your knowledge of how much BS is out there in the Wine Media. The way I did many years ago was to get $20 each from five friends (including myself) and buy $100 worth of wines that had been highly recommended, usually about six bottles. We’d buy a couple slices of cheese and some charcutries (ideas: Fourmes d’Ambert, Fontina, Coulommiers, Manchego and Sorpressata, Saucisson Sec, Serrano Ham), some fresh bread and try each of the wines. Every session had some distinct winners and losers, but we always had a great time and learned in the process.

    • Steve says

      Ken,

      Your response to a reasonable assertion (81) was churlish (65), Inane (71) and left a sour aftertaste (60). On the plus side, it was cheap.

  5. Mostly Running. says

    I think it is interesting that the “bio vs. substance percentage” of this piece is at about 10%.

    Glad you are against points, but citing the size of the cellar you worked with, the distribution of the publication you worked for, and the Andina list as credentials definitely eats into your credibility. I am glad you got the memo that points are out of fashion, but walk the walk before you start rehashing Mondovino points and conversations anyone who thinks about wine have had.

    MR

  6. Mostly Running. says

    FD-

    That doesn’t change anything I wrote.

    Ken is a competent writer with nothing interesting to say. He writes from the perspective of someone who has managed large lists but never compiled interesting wines. Bierzo! Awesome wines, but check out WA. Parker loves the ones on the Andina list. I know that Ken inherited most of what he works with, but I have a hard time believing that his list is not beholden to account-spending, point-chasing pseudo-dorks based on what you will find on the Andina website.

    There are many intelligent people in the wine industry in this town, and Ken is not one of them, yet. Many of them are home grown and,FD, you should have harnessed one of them. Ken does not understand or appreciate what Portland knows and has to offer.

    Before it starts, I am just an observer. I don’t think that I am the person you should have tapped, but until Ken puts something on his resume that says otherwise, he is not a good choice.

    MR

  7. Food Dude says

    MR: I like Ken’s articles, and judging from the statistics, a lot of other people enjoy his writing too. I wanted very simple articles that the average person would understand, and think he has delivered quite well.

    If you bothered to read the Andina wine list, you would find they have one of the most ecelectic and hand-chosen lists in town.

  8. cuisinebonnefemme says

    If Mostly Running is so very displeased with Ken then he should tap into the homegrown expertise he so vehemently mouths off about and start his own damn wine blog. Personally, I find Ken to be a competent writer with quite a lot of interesting things to say on the subject. I have learned more about wine from him, which is the point, sans the elitist attitude so very apparent in some of his critics and many others of the self professed “wine expert” community both here in Portland and elsewhere. Thank you Ken (and Food Dude) for taking the snob out of wine. It tastes so much better that way.

  9. Apollo says

    Whatever happened to Marshal’s wine writing? Not that I dislike Ken or his writing, I just though Marshall had an interesting perpective as well. Nothing wrong with having two interesting wine writers…

  10. Pam says

    I also really enjoy reading Ken’s articles- they’re informative and well written. He comes off as a really nice guy who loves what he does, and is good at it. The very nature of a good wine (as I see it) is rich, layered, joyful and expansive, all qualities that MR appears to be unfortunately lacking in his own character. Keep up the good work Ken! Your writing is a great addition to the site.

  11. Casey says

    while customarily, tripe like this doesn’t merit a response, i do feel compelled to point out that “mostly running” has clearly not spent much time at andina, nor in the company of the “intelligent people in the wine industry”. while there are plenty of mediocre talents in the industry, my guess is that even they would bore of such an insistant yet ill-informed perspective.

  12. Marshall Manning says

    MR, if you can find “account-spending, point-chasing pseudo-dorks” who are into Torrontes, Gruner, Alsatian Pinot Blanc, Rully, Garnacha Rosé, Carmenere, Dolcetto, and Bonarda (all of which are offered by the glass at Andina!), would you please forward my e-mail address to them. I could use more people buying wines like these for me!

    And, while I’d agree that there are many good people in the wine industry in Portland, there are also a lot of issues with homers whose wine knowledge begins with OR and ends with WA (“You mean they make Pinot Noir in other places?”), poorly-trained servers (if I bring in an old bottle from the cellar, don’t turn it sideways to look at it…I brought it in standing up for a reason), restaurants that use improper glassware (you’re in OR people, please buy some Pinot Noir/Burg glasses!), serve wine at the wrong temperature, etc. I bet if you tried Andina you wouldn’t have these issues.

  13. Food Dude says

    Apollo: As you’ll see above, Marshall is still around, and more than welcome to write anytime. Ken just volunteered to fill in.

    Marshall got very busy for a while so didn’t have time to write, and I think he’s tired of the snipey comments like Ken has gotten this time. When you are doing something out of the kindness of your heart, it takes a very thick skin to deal with some of the responses. Sadly, there are always those that feel they have to disagree publicly.

  14. Marshall Manning says

    Actually, we were in Italy for 17 days (a week in Piemonte, a week outside Firenze, and a few days in Bologna) from late April through mid May, so I’ve just recovered from the jet lag and I’m starting to get back into the online swing of things.

    I also lost my job a couple of weeks before we left, so I’ve been spending most of my time looking for something else…gotta pay off those travel bills!

  15. Erin says

    FD: I’m glad you didn’t edit out pollo elastico’s comment!

    What a tangent this string has gone off on…

    To edit or not to edit indeed. I guess you’d suffer the slings and arrows either way.

  16. Mostly Running. says

    I don’t believe that anything I wrote amounts to a personal attack on Ken, and I apologize if it came across that way. I have respected, and will continue to respect, the tone that FD cultivates on this site. My gripe with his writing, and any other wine writing that happens in Portland, is that it does not reflect the level of knowledge that the average Portland consumer has regarding wine.

    My frustration is this: wine lists and service are not reviewed with anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as restaurants are. It is rare to see anyone who cares to write about a restaurant also know anything about what goes into assembling a wine list or keeping up with the wine industry. Since I was the jerk that turned this into a digression, may I simply offer this as an attempt to create something constructive: FD, why not bring Ken along with you, or coordinate your efforts with him, so that your reviews are fleshed out with even more intelligent conversation about wines and wine service that a restaurant has to offer?

    For those that thought my posts were elitist, know that I lost sleep over the possibility, and am comfortable knowing that I am not a snob, and it must have taken a healthy dose of insecurity in your knowledge of gastronomy to have read them that way. It is never fun to be called a dick, but at least I am not a chicken.

  17. Chambolle says

    MR –
    I’m sorry, but you get a big ol’ “whateveski” for that last one.
    As regards FD taking KC along with him: bad idea. FD thrives, in part, because of the fact that not too many people know who he is. Example: when I did a wine list and waited tables for a new restaurant, the most visible print reviewer in town came in only with other prominent people – once with a prominent food writer and next with a nationally syndicated wine writer. That, to me, kind of shoots your credibility in the foot. But whatchagonnado? It’s a small town.
    Otherwise, your comments just seemed kind of baffling. “Bierzo!” Meaning, you don’t like Bierzo? “Check out WA”. I think that is being done already, and will continue to happen. Our local wine folks are selling quite well, locally and nationally.
    The more people drink things from around the world, the more interesting our local products will be.

  18. Food Dude says

    Having spent many years working in Napa/Sonoma, I do have a fairly good knowledge of wine. I try to point out good/bad wine lists, as well as those with overly high markup and/or poor wine service.

    My strength is domestic and Italian wines. Sometimes I run wine lists by oenophiles like Marshall for a second opinion, but because the focus of my reviews are on other aspects, wine tends to get short shrift.

    I would love to have someone who is very knowledgeable talk about different wine lists around town, but so far haven’t met anyone interested in such a project. As for Ken doing it with me; we haven’t met in person, and I think he’s rather busy to dedicate a few nights a week to me. I’m appreciative of the time I get from any of our writers!

  19. Mostly Running. says

    Chambolle-

    You need to read before you post, especially if you choose to use “whateveski” and “whatchagonnado” in the same couple of lines.

    Bierzo is a great region where one could look for great bargains up until a few years ago. I appreciate that Andina has wine from that region. The wines they have on their list got good scores from WA (Wine Adovcate in case that was confusing.)

    While I appreciate what FD is doing, the argument that he should not bring people who know about wine along with him is annoying. I have waited on plenty of reviewers in my time and, despite back of the house pressure, never changed my wine service. In some ways it befits a reviewer to have someone along for the ride who knows just what to critique about wine because the wine list is the most transparent thing a restaurant can offer.

    If a writer is in the house the kitchen might be doing a little jig to make sure the salad comes out on time while two plates are in the refrigerator, chilling just for them. The wine list stays the same, and the server, beyond saying “tart berry fruit” or “very soft tannins,” still has to deal with the wine that they were presented with to choose, offered and brought to the table.

    I am assuming, Chambolle, that you had the pleasure of waiting on a table with Matt Kramer brought along (what other nationally syndicated writer do we have to offer.) He, too, is a two bit hack and should not be catered to. (rest of comment edited out by FD – you are crossing the line.)

  20. Food Dude says

    running, you miss the point. I’m not interested in giving wine lists more than a cursory inspection. My focus is the food. I never said I should not bring someone who knows a lot about wine, I said I am sure Ken has a life as such would not be interested in eating out 5 nights a week with me. No one here is paid anything (including myself), so to do so would be an expensive undertaking.

    Finally, I have worked BOH long enough to have quite a list of things that I’ve seen the kitchen do when a reviewer is in the house. They can change the whole experience.

    Again, the focus of the reviews here is on food.

  21. cuisinebonnefemme says

    MR, from reading your posts it seems that you are looking for more critique of wine lists, wine service, and the wines themselves in relation to restaurant reviews. Word.

    However, FD has been pretty clear that this not the focus of his blog and you have to respect FD for both the practical limitations of this (i.e. costs) and his own vision.

    It would be interesting to read the above type of reviews though. I am a diner who is confidant in her gastronomic knowledge and experiences but sometimes wobbles when it comes to understanding and navigating the complex nuances and jargon (err, I mean language) of the wine world and in choosing a really good (as opposed to merely appropriate) pairing with my chosen dinner. I have had great wine service in this town, but sometimes, even in high end places I know more about the list than the server (which is really saying something) or I have been made to feel like an American rube in Paris when I ask a question regarding the wine list. I have also occasionally been given the flim-flam on what to chose from a limited cheap-assed list or been schooled on a corked bottle. It happens and yes, it would be beneficial to have something I am generally spending twice as much money on as my entrée, reviewed as well. So it would be great if someone, somewhere in this town would incorporate the wine experience into restaurant reviews.

    So what I’m saying is I understand where you are coming from.

    I still say though, and I really mean this in an encouraging and interested as a reader way, why don’t you start a blog doing just that?

  22. pollo elastico says

    I still say though, and I really mean this in an encouraging and interested as a reader way, why don’t you start a blog doing just that?

    Because who wants to read the ramblings of a pompous, self-absorbed schuckster? I’ll read music reviews at Pitchfork if I wanted that.

    For those that thought my posts were elitist, know that I lost sleep over the possibility, and am comfortable knowing that I am not a snob, and it must have taken a healthy dose of insecurity in your knowledge of gastronomy to have read them that way.

    Yes, blame everyone else for your hubris. You would make a fine addition to the cabinet of the Bush administration.

    Sorry Food Dude for denigrating your blog with my personal attacks.

  23. The Mick says

    I don’t mean to be argumentative here…..but it is called PortlandfoodandDRINK.com so it is not as if including reviews of wine lists is adding a new dimension. As for mostly runnings comments…..well…there is probably a good reason why he is “mostly running” these days (as opposed to waiting).

  24. blackhook says

    There is *nothing* more pretentious than wine reporting/reviewing. It’s like all the wine trolls fall over themselves to come up with ever-more bizarre & outlandish desriptions of a beverage made out of grapes. Wine, to be sure, can be interesting, but it has nowhere near the range of flavors & degrees of complexity as beer. Enough of the phoniness already!

  25. Jill-O says

    Interesting and timely as Wine Spectator’s latest issue (the May issue came out way early) features sake. And they decided NOT to rate the sakes with their numerical scale, but to do so descriptively. It’s here, but you need a subscription to read it: http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/48249

    It was noticed by a Colorado blog (http://www.coloradowinepress.com/2013/04/wine-spectator-moving-away-from.html) which speculated if the WS was moving away from numerical scores overall.

    The first comment to that blog piece is from the WS’s Exec. Editor, and he said:

    “Wine Spectator is not “moving away from numerical scores.” Our readers would not accept that. In our opinion, a scale of judgment can be more precise as expertise is greater. After decades of experience tasting and evaluating wines, we feel confident in our ability to use the 100-point scale in a way that’s consistent, reliable and useful for readers. We have much less experience with sake, and felt that broader categories would be more appropriate to express our opinions on their quality. However, I could easily see a critic with deeper experience in sake using the 100-point scale, and perhaps if we taste extensively enough, one day we will too.

    I’m OK with numerical scores/ratings, but they are just a general guidepost. Like with food sites, if you can figure out who likes what you like, you have a good chance of liking their recs. But generally, you learn a lot more when people use words instead of numbers to describe their experience with that restaurant/wine/sake/etc.

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