Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I know I've done it.  You've done it too.  You're in an unfamiliar (or even familiar) wine store, looking at new wines, and you look at the shelf talker, and in the corner you see "WA: 91."

You cave, skipping the description.  You buy the wine.  Based on a number.

Don't feel bad, we've all done it.  There's a number of sensory biases that the little number feeds into -- the bias of the expert ("if Parker likes it, and he's an expert, I should like it too"), the desire for simplicity (let's face it, it's easier to look for a number than to read a description), the sheer number of non-rated wines (I've heard many wine store customers say "well, this one's got a rating, it must be better.").  It's natural.

The thing is... (and this deserves bold text) a rating is what one person thought of the wine one time!  Often, in fact, this number is arrived at during a marathon tasting of 20, 30, even 40 wines!  So, what's going to score highly?  Wines that are gigantic, fruit-bombs with extreme flavors and intensity.  How could you remember anything but that style of wine when you taste so many in a row (if you've not had the opportunity -- trust me, palate fatigue sets in surprisingly quickly).  The truly amazing thing is this: day-to-day, your palate's sensitivity will change (imagine tasting wine with a very mild head cold -- a little hay fever, perhaps -- versus tasting it with completely clear sinuses; the wines tasted with the cold will rate lower).  So how in the world can we be precise to within 1% on how "good" -- as subjective and divisive a term as there is in the wine world! -- a wine is?

Additionally -- a number of vintners couldn't care less about what some critic in an office in New York or LA thinks of their wines.  They care about what the people who actually drink their wines think!  As one importer I have chatted with said -- "if you like the wine, and I like the wine, who is Parker to say the wine is bad?"  Do you think that people with that sort of attitude towards wine critics are likely to submit their wines for rating?  Probably not -- so there's a ton of hidden gems in the unrated wines.

A little secret: I've got about a bit over 750 ratings recorded on CellarTracker, and my average score is about 86.5.  86.5 should be, by the 100-point chart I've linked to above, that means that half of the wines I've rated are "good to very good" from Enthusiast, and "above average to very good" from Advocate and Spectator.  So is this a fair rating system?

No.  There's no way that I've been drinking wines that are that consistently above-average.  Heck, I've had wines that I've actively disliked that scored an 83 (the system I use is up to 5 points each for nose intensity, balance, and finish, 10 points for flavor quality, and 15 points for flavor intensity.  Add 50 points, and you've got the score.  Wine with a ton of intensity, a long finish, and reasonable balance can taste like crap and still score high -- and it has.).

So what's the point?  Well, for one, ignore the difference between an 88 and a 91 -- it's really subjective, and the margin of error for one person's tastes from day to day can be higher than 3 points.  Two, don't compare apples and oranges -- just because, say, Parker gives a wine an 88 and James Laube gives it a 93 doesn't make Laube's score any more or less valid; it just means that Laube liked it more.

It's not like there's a certification program for wine critics, after all; anyone with a working palate and an Internet connection can post blogs with scores!  There's no standardization, so really the best advice is to taste a lot of wines, and trust your own palate.  Don't slavishly follow anyone's dictum that this wine is good and that wine is bad -- be it Robert Parker, Micheal Broadbent, your wife, your wine-snob friend, or even me. 

Chart from DeLong Wine Info, with the JPG compiled by the Wine Economist.

No comments:

Post a Comment