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