Wine: Keeping Score

Expert picks can be a good starting point, but when it comes to wine rating numbers, buyer beware!

A lot of people, particularly newbies, buy wine based on the review scores in publications, most commonly Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, or wine expert Robert Parker’s popular newsletter The Wine Advocate.

Wine shop owners and managers know this routine well — a customer searching the aisles with a page torn from a magazine or a folded newsletter, scouring the shelves for a wine that scored 90 or 95 in the latest issue.

A lot of wine professionals discourage (or even disparage) this kind of wine shopping. I do not. As far as I’m concerned, if you know little about wine, it’s a reasonably good way to start learning, without taking classes or doing a lot of reading. If someone is new to wine or imbibes infrequently, those publications are a reasonable guide to the basics, and well beyond.

Go right for what “experts” know and say is good, and see if you agree. Pretty simple and quick, and you can learn from them at your own pace. That’s very much how I started.

Learn what you like, because that’s what should rule your choices, even once you know a lot.

Much more important than the source of the information, however, is that you develop your own sense of what’s good. If a point system helps you figure that out, fine. Think of it as wine-training-wheels for the self-taught.

But for buying wine, just how accurate are those magazine wine scores — and should buyers always depend on them? This is where I part company with scores.

Go right for what “experts” know and say is good, and see if you agree.

I have found publication score numbers to be inaccurate about 50 percent of the time. The greatest variance is in 90-plus point wines — which have the biggest disappointments — whereas the middle-range scoring wines seem the most accurate.

The lowest-scoring wines often contain hidden jewels that should receive top numbers. For example, a couple of years ago, Wine Spectator trashed one of the most superb whites to come out of California in years, giving it a score of 83.

Numbers aside, the actual descriptions — those pithy short sentences about the wine — tend to be very accurate, even when the accompanying scores are way off mark.

So what’s with the scores?

One wine writer recently concluded (and accurately, in my view) that many are wrong because they were collected as much as two years before the review appeared — too early in a wine’s development to predict what it would be like at release.

Writers taste wine on visits to the winery, when most wines are still in the barrel and nowhere near ready for bottling and release two years hence.

Those impressions and notes form the background of later reviews when the wines are finally released.

Personally, I don’t do that. I only write about wines already bottled, and I’ve never used a point system. I could never find a way of making numbers genuinely relevant to the wine in the bottle, or to other wines in the market.

There are so many factors in wine — from personal taste and preferences in style, structure, grape types, and other factors — that comparing them to each other is very tricky.

Wine is individualistic — relevant to little else — and it should be evaluated that way. Certainly, putting numbers on wines for comparison doesn’t make anything clearer or better.

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