Pulling the Cork from Wine Ratings

Pulling the Cork from Wine Ratings

Whenever you shop for wine, you will find some with “shelf ticklers”, a tag with a numerical rating, given by a prominent wine publication. This number is often accompanied with colorful tasting notes telling you what you can expect when you buy the wine. Retailers use these ratings to seduce you into purchasing a particular wine. Just what do these ratings mean? Put simply, they mean that someone has tasted these wines and given them a numerical value designed to speak of the wines quality. Typically ranges of 1-100 are found where the higher the number, the better the wine should be.

The best rating system is one that separates wine into price categories. It is not realistic to compare a $100 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to one that sells for $10. A Cadillac does not compare to a Yugo any better than 1st Growth Bordeaux compares to “Two Buck Chuck”.

Ronn Wiegand, the first person to hold both the “Master of Wine” and “Master Sommelier” credentials, developed a simple rating system of 1-5 stars with the wines separated into four price points for his Restaurant Wine magazine. This gives the wine buyer a clue as to how the wine compares to others in the same price range.

Ratings do not say you will like the wine, only that the taster did on that given day. Wine taste is subjective and has varies with food parings or simply your present mood. A dismal wine tasting of a wine one day could seem the best you’ve ever tasted the next.  The same is true regarding the taster. Some reviewers will taste several hundred wines in a week and their individual taste certainly plays into the review. We find that tasting to many wines in a sitting can lead to “palette overload”. Alcohol and tannin will numb the taste buds making it difficult to pick up the real nuances of a wine. Differentiating cassis from black cherry becomes suspect. “Experts” are still human.

Wineries obviously want these good ratings as they help sell their wine. A few wineries are now using software that analyzes the wine for qualities that are known to appeal to many of the most important tasters in the industry. If a winery, for instance, wants to make a wine that will appeal to big name wine tasters in media, the software will tell the winemaker if the wine needs adjustment to the final blend to target their individual taste. Less contrived wines are often penalized simply because they are not the “in style” preferred by some. No two people have the same preferences but of course you can always save marginal wine for cooking.

A most disturbing rating trend has wine retailers giving their own ratings to the wines they sell. Using the same 100-point scale and their own tasters… would you believe (catch us before we fall over) most of the wines they sell receive high marks!

Regardless of the system used, the best way to judge wine is to taste them for yourself. Once you have determined which style of wine you like best, ask your wine shop for wines that fit your taste. As you taste, see how the wines you prefer compare to “experts” and who knows. You could become the next “Mr. (or Ms.) Big in the wine review world.