As humans we have a fascination with rating with numbers. Think university entrance scores, movies, holidays, restaurants and cars. Now, even service providers want you to rate them so that they can work towards a favourable Net Promoter Score (whatever that is). Internet apps make this ratings frenzy as easy as thumbing a button.
And so it is with wine. As you can probably imagine, I am a member of a lot of wine sites and am inundated daily with the newest deal…usually a heavily discounted wine that has been rated 95 points….or something similar. (In my younger days I was a sucker for this sort of email and filled my cellar up with highly rated yet somewhat obscure wines). There is one very hip website that is famous for its ability to find these amazing wines. Within the space of a week I was hit with a 96 point Malbec for $20, a 96 point Chardonnay for $20 and a 95 point Bordeaux for….wait for it……. $11.50! ( I did buy this one).
Let me tell you a (very) little about the wine rating system. At show judging each wine is blind tasted amongst peer wines and given a rating. Wines rated 95-100 are judged as of the best of wines and they receive a gold medal. 90- 94 are judged of very good quality and they receive a silver medal. 86-89 are judged good quality, but perhaps not complex or cellar worthy and they receive a bronze medal. Wines below 86 are the unloved and don’t have a lot of time spent on them. They could be faulty or simply lacking in any standout feature. Interestingly I don’t think I have ever seen a wine rated below 80, so it is a funny system. Once you are below bronze medal you become a “Voldemort Wine”…..one who should not be named.
So in this context, consider the 96 point Malbec for $20. On that score it was rated higher than James Halliday rated Penfolds Grange in 3 of the last 10 vintages. Of course the latest Grange sold for $850 per bottle! So are we trying to say that the $20 Malbec is better than those 3 Grange vintages? Well, technically….yes! That seems really silly, doesn’t it. The laws of rational economics say that I would be mad not to buy 42 bottles of the Malbec instead of a single bottle of Grange when they are of at least equal quality ? Look, there are a lot of qualifiers here. Of course James Halliday didn’t rate the Malbec…but it was rated by a highly regarded international wine magazine panel. Was the Malbec tasted blind ? Was it under show conditions? Were the judges experienced …etc etc. But the fact remains that on face value the wine industry is telling you that a $20 wine is better than certain vintages of Grange!
Let me tell you my own experience of ratings. I bought my way in to The Barossa Valley Wine Show as an associate judge. It was the most amazing experience. One episode stood out for me though. In judging of Barossa shiraz I rated one wine 98 points, a high gold medal. The rest of the judges on my panel rated it below bronze. Given the huge discrepancy the wine was respectfully called back and everyone retasted. And everyone stuck to their guns….I thought it was great….the other judges rated it mediocre. Now on the last day all the wines are revealed and I sought out that wine that I loved and discovered it was a Penfolds RWT that James Halliday had rated 98 points! Aaaah vindication! Now does that make me a genius and the others not? Unfortunately not. This was an elegant wine tasted among a group of Barossa Vallley monsters and in that context looked average by comparison to the experienced judges. For me, on that challenging day it felt like an oasis in a sea of grippy, fruit bombs and I clung to it like a castaway to a piece of flotsam. It’s all context, really.
I don’t think I have ever given a wine 100 points, but that is probably a character flaw. But I do remember giving a wine 99. I went to dinner in a restaurant the night I arrived in Verona after 30+ plus hours of travelling from Australia and was offered a glass of Quintarelli Amarone 2006 by the waiter. Why not, my jetlagged self said. It was the most amazing wine and I made notes in my phone and rated it 99. I had another glass. Of course when I went to pay my bill I glanced up at the specials board and saw that I had just said yes to a wine that was being sold for 60 euro...... a glass! Ahh but it was worth it. And I’m glad I didn’t see the specials board before because I would have talked myself out of it.
So what does this all mean for you? I suppose be careful of buying simply on high points would be my advice…particularly cheaper wines. They may have been rated by someone with no credibility or a great critic with a head cold. Or they simply may have had their best single day on the day that they were assessed and will never be the same again.
When I search for the wines to import I always rate them, but for my purposes. I have never sold them based on points. When I taste the wine I am thinking about people who like that style of wine and whether would it would appeal to them. Does it have a drinkability that will have them seeking a second glass without realising it? Will they offer it confidently to their friends knowing that it is a good tasting drink that will slide down easily and not cause the guests to wince?
Wine is a social beast. Occasionally amongst people that care about these things it becomes the centre of attention. But that should be rare. Mostly wine should be in the background. It should be the ultimate host, always enhancing the mood and making people happy but never dominating and calling too much attention to itself.
So don’t put too much store in points. Moreover be motivated by wine purveyors who are attuned to your tastes and want to be a positive part of all your social activities, be that a glass of sangiovese with the spag bog on a Wednesday night in winter, or a summer pool party peppered with wine snobs.