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Wine Ratings -- Pros vs. Amateurs
Are you a wine critic? Probably.
The wine world is a big place, and it churns with dozens of issues that drive people crazy. Of all the topics that are grounds for spirited (and sometimes bitter) debate, the issue of wine ratings is right at the top of the list. Do they matter? Do those point scores really steer less-knowledgeable consumers toward “better” wines? Are they fair? Accurate? Who does the ratings? Are they qualified?
Major national wine consumer magazines, such as Wine Spectator, Decanter, and Wine Enthusiast, have panels of editors who taste wines blind and bestow scores on them that will either propel the bottles to greatness (and elevated prices) or doom them to the bargain basket. There are independent critics, as well, such as Robert Parker, James Suckling, and Steven Tanzer, to name only a few. Consumers have turned to people like Parker and others for many years, hoping for guidance in their wine selections.
How are ratings determined? And what difference does it make if a Wine Spectator critic gives a wine 85 or 95 points? How legitimate are their critiques? To answer that, the news website Vox.com recently conducted a fascinating study that compared wine ratings by a wide group of critics to ratings of the same wines by normal ordinary people.
Who were those ordinary people? Vox.com researchers accessed thousands of reviews posted on a website called CellarTracker. Wine lovers and collectors subscribe to it so they can upload their purchases and track their bottle inventory. The site, established by former Microsoft group program manager Eric LeVine, allows members to post evaluations and reviews of the wines they drink, and, of course, assign point scores.
CellarTracker is important to this divisive issue because the research was no casual, anecdotal study. The Vox people developed complex algorithms, created detailed graphs and charts, and plotted the compared scores of over 10,000 wines given by professional wine writers against those of ordinary normal CellarTracker people (like me) who have a few hundred bottles in their houses.
Wine. It’s one of the largest food/beverage categories on the planet. And unlike breakfast cereal, for example, the range of prices is bewildering, if not staggering. You can pick up a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for around $9, or a bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy for $300. And sometimes, the point scores assigned by critics will be scarily similar across price points. The fact is, many times there is little correlation between a wine’s price and the points it receives from influential critics.
An interesting point about when the write-ups and ratings are issued. A critic rates a wine from a barrel tasting, or when it’s first released. So if I look at a rating of a 2005 wine, the information is 10-12 years old. Somebody on CellarTracker may have tasted that same wine this year, so they’ll write about how it’s drinking today…not ten years ago.
It’s only recently, with the advent of the Internet, that casual wine drinkers and collectors have been able to voice – and publish – their opinions and reach a sizable audience. This has become extremely important in the restaurant industry – especially at restaurants that are known for their wine selection.
“The information is out there,” says Peter Hyzak, wine manager at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Florida. “Guests in the restaurant will scan our wine list, take out their cell phones, and do some research before they order.” He notes that guests scan online information for three reasons. “First is name recognition, which plays the biggest role in restaurant wine sales. Caymus is Caymus, and everybody knows that wine. Second is the vintage. People research the ratings of the vintage of a wine we’re offering. Having the best-rated vintage of any wine is absolutely imperative. And third is price. The retail prices of wines are easy to find on the Internet.”
Predictably enough, professional critics have consistently knocked ratings done by amateurs. They have no formal training, they maintain. They lack expertise.
Turns out not to be true. The correlation between wine ratings from the influential (and highly respected) Wine Advocate group of critics with the average scores given by CellarTracker members was surprisingly close. Some were even identical to the professional score.
However, the study revealed an even more startling fact. There was a much larger difference in the scores among the professional critics. In rating the same wine, prestigious wine writers were often three to four points apart in their evaluations.
So what can we learn from this? First, the study indicates that when enthusiasts like you and me rate wines, we agree with the experts a lot more than they agree with each other.
Just one more thing. There is virtually no correlation between the price of a wine and the ratings assigned by critics. Every month, this is proven by all the major consumer wine journals. The wines are tasted blind, so evaluators don’t know who makes the wine or what it sells for. Case in point: a recent issue of Wine Spectator listed tasting notes for a wide range of Spanish wines. One Ribera del Duero received 95 points and sold for $505 a bottle. Another received 94 points and sold for $30. Which would you buy?
Of course, the professional wine ratings do have a place. Wine shops always post ratings (when they’re good) for the bottles on the shelf. They do serve as a guide for wine buyers who are not all that knowledgeable
So, if you’re looking at a wine that you’re not familiar with, a rating by…someone…will give you at least a bit of guidance. Buy a bottle, take it home and try it. If you like it, go back and get some more.
Men and Women are Different
Boys and girls are different. So one of the topics that gets brought up continually in the wine world is how men and women approach, discuss, and experience wine. For some reason I keep coming back to this topic, and wrote about it in this space last year. However, the intrigue continues, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and articles ruminating on this very topic. The ways women diverge from men in tasting and discussing are well worth another visit, and probably worth a book all by itself.
In today’s wine trade, women who anchor winemaking families devote themselves to not only making and marketing wine, but to forming groups for “discussing moderate wine consumption” and “its benefits in a healthy lifestyle.” They call themselves “Women For WineSense,” and work toward getting balanced consumer information placed on wine labels. Many of the members’ names appear on those very bottles: Margaret Duckhorn, Rosemary Cakebread, Annette Shafer, Susan Sokol-Blosser, Margrit Mondavi, and many more.
Some women make wine, some sell it. While the traditional image of a restaurant sommelier is almost exclusively masculine, the number of female somms has gone through the roof. Restaurant groups like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group have several women in positions that are critical both for guest relations and sales.
And more and more women are making wine decisions…including at the restaurant table. Kristene Hansen noted in her blog that women who dine out may feel more comfortable and less intimidated discussing wine with a female sommelier. Hansen discovered another interesting point: men often order a pricier wine from a woman than they would from a man. If they’re trying to impress one woman, they want to impress them all.
The actual reasons why women perceive wine differently involve basic physiology and body chemistry. These differences are supported with studies done by geneticists, biologists, neurologists, and even sex researchers. In the introduction to her annual wine guide for women, French critic Isabel Forêt says, “women are more sensual, their breathing is different…they perceive aromas more subjectively. Wine is more than just a simple beverage, it is a combination of aromas that open in the mouth, offering an infinite number of sensations.” Women, she says have more olfactory sensitivity to perfumes, to the aromas of foods, to the scents of the home.
Women also approach the wine world with different attitudes and goals. This is clear in the hundreds of women’s wine clubs, tasting groups, business and social networks that have appeared through social media.
The About Us pages on these sites generally promote the social and comfort aspects of wine consumption, the meeting new people, networking, sharing, exchanging. In fact, female members of the international wine club Direct Cellars spontaneously formed their own sub-group within the organization and called themselves “The Women of DC.” They have a separate Facebook page, and interact with each other apart from the club’s many thousands of members.
Popular media has taken notice. There are more television series than ever that feature wine-loving women in leading roles, such as “The Good Wife,” and Connie Britton’s character in “Friday Night Lights.” Wine is a part of the lives of women such as Skyler White in “Breaking Bad,” and Claire Danes’ character on “Homeland.” That’s much different than the Cosmos that were so enthusiastically consumed by Carrie Bradshaw and her crew on “Sex and the City.”
So here are some suggestions for your next white tablecloth dining experience. First, don’t be surprised when your sommelier is a well-educated, well-traveled woman who knows the wine world from top to bottom. Second, servers have learned to not automatically offer the wine list to the man at the table. There’s an excellent chance that a discriminating and wine-savvy woman will be making the selection.
My tasting panel’s favorites this week include:
Salentin Malbec Reserve Valle de Uco 2014 ($19) – Smooth and quite approachable for a full-bodied wine. Bright fruit, minerality with notes of plum and dark cherry. WW 88
Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2016 ($13) – This wine will go with just about any food you like. Pronounced leather and cedar on the nose, with a firm spine of strawberry and watermelon flavor. Since it’s 100% Cabernet, it tastes just like the big red version, only much lighter – and pinker. WW 88 firstname.lastname@example.org
Contrade Negroamaro Puglia 2015 ($10) –The Negroamaro grape is characteristic in Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot. Deep ruby color offering a nose of dark flowers and honey. Interesting flavors of warm cherry, blueberry, and cocoa. Just a bit on the sweet side. WW 89
The Riedels Rock
It’s All in the Glass
I confess that I don’t need a lesson in how the type of glass affects the taste of wine. Debi and I have been to enough tastings, and sipped from dozens of different glasses. Plus, at the Wine Experience a few years ago, Georg and Maximilian Riedel demonstrated the difference to about 1500 of us. We tasted a wine out of a plastic cup, then out of several differently-shaped Riedel glasses, and the variation in the aromas and flavors was obvious to everyone in the room.
So the glass makes a difference – and quite often a major one.
The Riedel name has been synonymous with fine wine glasses since the 1750s. (By the way, it rhymes with “needle.”) In 1973, Claus Riedel (the 9th generation of the glassmaking family) introduced the “Sommelier Series,” the first mouth-blown glasses made to pair wines with a specific bowl shape. He was also the first designer to discover that the bouquet and flavors of a wine were affected by the shape of the bowl.
The company conducts extensive research to determine what shapes are best for different wines. Company President Georg Riedel told me that the process involves “a series of trial and error tastings,” something I’d very much like to participate in. “Working with winemakers and sommeliers, we tweak the bowl shape and rim diameter to deliver wine in a fashion that best accentuates the properties of the given varietal on the taster’s palate,” he says. “Within each glassware series, there are shapes for the world’s major wine varietals, including bowl shapes for new world and old world wines.”
Georg (L) and Maximilian Riedel
Anyone who buys and uses Riedel glasses soon discovers one thing about this company’s glassware – it’s hilariously fragile. My mother-in-law once dropped an ice cube into one of them, and it went all the way through and out the bottom. I told that to Georg.
“Riedel is known for creating some of the thinnest glasses on the market,” he responded. “But we make numerous glassware lines that stand up to everyday wear and tear, both for home enjoyment and professional hospitality use.”
Another breakthrough that Riedel is known for is the “O” series of glasses. These have the correct bowl shape for wine, but are stemless. We’ve found them to be excellent for traveling, and they’re dishwasher safe.
Mr. Riedel also explained to me the process behind finding the perfect glass shape for different wine varietals. “My son Maximilian and I conduct extensive workshops before a varietal-specific shape can make it to market. We follow the Bauhaus principle: form follows function.”
But surely, differences in the way individuals experience a certain wine must play a part? “Yes,” says Georg Riedel. “There is a degree of individuality to each person’s interpretation of a wine, but most sensory responses are directly affected by the vessel. This doesn’t erase personal preference; there are those who simply prefer Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon. But we firmly believe that each varietal will taste its absolute best when served in a Riedel glass.”
At our house, we conduct numerous side-by-side tastings. Every night, in fact. It’s hard to disagree with Georg.
For this week’s recommendations, we sampled the following wines out of Riedel glasses.
Marina Cvetic Merlot Terre Aquilane 2010 ($40) – We’re big fans of Italian Merlot, because they generally make it in a richer, more concentrated style – like this one. Dark ruby color, smoke, leather, dark cherry and chocolate on the nose, and rich currant and leather notes on the midpalate. Soft mouthfeel with round, pleasant tannins Great with or without food. WS 91-92
Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé 2014 ($13) – This Italian rose is great for summer sipping, with flavors of black cherry, violets, and lilac. Light and easy-drinking. WW 89
Pairing Food and Wine--Mystery Solved
If it Grows Together, it Goes Together
In many parts of the world, wine isn’t considered a beverage. It’s food…part of the meal. That’s because people in places like France, Italy, and Spain enjoy food and wine matching traditions that go back hundreds of years. But why do tomato sauce and Chianti go so well together? Or beef stew with red Burgundy?
It’s been a while since we visited this topic, so I hope to offer a few new insights. If we want to get the most out of the experience of wine, aside from just slugging it from a glass, it helps to apply some basic principles to pairing with food. In restaurants, some people decide what they want to eat, then choose a wine to go with. Others (including us) pick the wine first, then look at the food side of the menu. Either way, keeping in mind a few fundamentals will go a long way to assuring that the wine enhances the food, and vice versa.
First, whites before reds, light-bodied wines before full, and dry before sweet. It helps if the wine and food have similar levels of intensity, which is the richness and concentration of aromas and flavors. For example, a light white such as Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a grilled New York strip steak.
Then, consider how the food is cooked. A fish that’s steamed or poached needs a lighter wine accompaniment than a filet of fried grouper. Broiled, grilled or smoked foods, such as steaks and ribs, need a wine with a smoky flavor, like a Sangiovese, Zinfandel, or Syrah. Sautéeing puts fat in direct contact with the food, so we’d choose either a wine with an oily texture, or a wine that cuts the fat, such as a full-bodied Cabernet or Syrah.
Next comes what chefs like to call “bridge” flavors: these connect the food with wines that have the same flavor profiles. A simple example would be Chardonnay that has a buttery, creamy flavor paired with (wait for it) buttered popcorn. Silly, but it works surprisingly well. On a more serious note, taste components like the acid in tomato sauce work with acidic wines, such as Chianti or Barbera.
In red wines, tannin is a big factor in pairing with food. Tannin is a mouthfeel that gives us the dry, “fuzzy” sensation on the palate, and it comes from the seeds, stems, and skins of red grapes. Mostly, we want to diminish the effects of tannin, and we can do that by pairing reds with fatty foods, such as steaks and chops. Another technique is to pair tannic wines with saltier foods, because the salt counteracts the tannin as well.
A word about Champagne, and sparkling whites made in the Champagne style: in general, they go with almost any food. The high acidity pairs with Asian and Latin dishes, with smoky and spicy foods, and with egg dishes at Sunday brunch.
We’ll visit this topic again, because there are lots of wines, and lots of foods. Watch for information about the “lemon law” in wine and food pairing in upcoming issues. Meanwhile, here are a few of our latest value discoveries.
Masi Masicano Pinot Grigio & Verduzzo della Venezie 2014 ($10) – Not serious, but fun. Refreshing oak, green apple and pear flavors, slightly sweet on the palate. A nice, simple sipper. WW 87
Smoke Tree Pinot Noir Sonoma 2014 ($17) – Bright garnet in the glass with aromas of anise and smoke. A Burgundian style, offering flavors of forest floor and raspberry. Needs some time. WW 86
Renieri Rosso di Montalcino Toscana 2012 ($15) – Gorgeous ruby color, aromas of fresh plum and bright fruit on the palate with hints of warm earth. Really interesting. Needs a bit of time. WW 90
Il Bastardo Sangiovese Toscana 2015 ($7) – Nothing complicated here, but some big cherry flavors in the glass, and plenty of structure to stand up to the strong flavors of Italian cuisine. Great with pizza and pasta. WW 88
What year is it, anyway?
What Year Is It, Anyway?
For many people, one of the most confusing things about wine appreciation is all that business about vintages. Good years, bad years, even mediocre years – it’s tough to keep all that information straight in your head. Besides, does it really matter?
I've found that there's no better way to learn vintages than simply letting nature take its course: Every year, trailing the calendar by a few months to several years, each new vintage comes through the pipeline, bringing its own surprises and teaching us its particular lessons through tasting. It’s a good opportunity to make a few points about vintage and its place in wine appreciation. Live through a few vintages, learn them in your glass, and before long you realize that you do have a lot of that info in your head.
But first, let's tick off a few random "bullet points" about some ways that wine lovers use -- and abuse -- information about vintages.
● Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked. Since wine grapes are an agricultural product, weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine. For example, a summer of extreme heat in Europe can result in very ripe fruit, which may not necessarily be a blessing, as over-ripe grapes tend to make fat, lower-acid wines.
● All weather, like all politics, is local. One region's terrible vintage may be decent in another and excellent in a third. A lackluster year in Napa may be very good in Bordeaux, or vice versa. Indeed, when we mention intense summer heat in Europe, remember that we're talking only about a certain region. Maybe that same growing season was excellent in South Africa, and "difficult" in much of California and Down Under. We need to be specific.
● Vintage quality works only as a broad generalization. Some producers make excellent wines in "poor" vintages, and a few make stinkers in "can't miss" years. Moreover, the storm or frost that devastated vines in one village may have missed its neighbor. It's rare to have a vintage so poor that consumers have to write it off entirely. The 1997 vintage in Bordeaux comes close to this mark, when even the prestigious First Growth wines were very disappointing. But now and then we can find value by cherry-picking better wines from vintages that conventional wisdom says to avoid.
● Trust your own taste buds more than vintage charts. Famous wine professionals like Robert Parker may highly rate a vintage that produced big, strong and ripe wines in France, which drives up prices. But what if you don’t share his affection for bold, concentrated wines? There are only two kinds of wines: the ones you like and the ones you don’t.
Here are some we recently liked very much.
Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Réserve Blanc NV ($11) – This unique blend of traditional white grapes from the Rhone Valley offers typical Viognier floral aromas, with a palate of white flowers, medium body, and refreshing acidity. WW 89
Domaine Bousquet Rose 2015 ($9) – French name, Argentine wine. A delicate blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s raspberry and cherry flavors with an interesting hint of earthiness, unusual in a rosé wine. WW 89
Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot 2013 ($26) – Deeply colored with a very pleasant mineral nose and deep black fruit flavors show the resunt of 17 months aging in mostly French oak. WW 91-92
Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel ($17) – Black earth, red fruit, and a bit of pepper. The bold fruit and full body make this a Zinfandel that’s very true to type. WW 90
Ask the Wine Whisperer – I’ve seen professional wine critics put their noses all the way down inside a glass and take some sniffs. Why do wine tasters smell wine?
The aromas of a wine can give you a good hint about how it will taste – even where it was made and how old it might be. Besides, 85% of your sense of taste is actually smell. Most often, a wine’s aromas (or “bouquet” or “nose”) indicate what we’re going to taste, but sometimes the taste will be very different.