Ratings and Scores

“How many points did this get from Wine Spectator?”

This question and others like it are the bane of my existence as a wine professional.  Frankly, I really don’t care what the people at Wine Spectator think.  Nor Robert Parker or the school of people that write for him.  And I absolutely loathe it when, in the middle of a sentence about how much I love a particular wine, a narrow-minded customer asks me how someone else feels about it.  My job is to evaluate wines based on my own experiences, come to my own conclusions, and share my opinions. Instead, because of this hateful query, my job is often reduced to giving commentary on others’ opinions.

Too often customers insist on making purchases based on what they read in an article or on a posted review.  I can’t tell you how many customers come into the store in December holding their copy of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List.  Ugh.  We usually play rock-paper-scissors or draw straws and the loser has to wait on these people while the others point and snicker. “This particular wine has been sold out since June, but we do have the new vintage of it and it’s just as good or maybe even better,” we will say.  “No,” he says, “I want the one that’s on this list” and walks away dejected.

The thing is, it could very well be that a wine that scored 94 points from Spectator only scored 87 with Tanzer and 79 with Parker.  It could also be that I personally have tasted this wine and thought it was total crap.  This happens more often than you’d think, partly due to advertising, politics, incentives, etc.  Many people in my business protest the special treatment some of these critics receive from certain wineries that inevitably score highly every year.  But the truth is that the person who evaluated the wine and gave it 94 points is just an average person with an average opinion, just as valuable as mine or as the guy that gave it 79.  Store associates put up the highest rating because we’re not dummies and we want to sell wine.

I guess a big part of my problem is that I just don’t agree with assigning numerical value to works of art.  I’ve been to Florence, seen Michaelangelo’s David and never at any point in my experience there thought “I give that 98 points.”  I don’t listen to Rachmaninoff and worry about what rating it was given or ask someone where it fell on Joe Music’s list of best concertos that year.  I sit back, relax and appreciate its beauty.

Now, this doesn’t mean these publications aren’t terrific references.  Many of their articles are informative and interesting.  And granted, sometimes their reviews are spot-on.  I’ve given in to the 96 pointer hype on occasion and have been extremely glad I did.  But just as often I’ve tasted a highly rated wine, shrugged and said “Yeah, it’s good but 96 points? Eh.”

My point is: We simply can’t take scores from these publications as absolute truth.  It’s like I tell customers: Just because a book is on the New York Times Best Seller list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for you.  It might be a great thriller by Tom Clancy, but if what you like to read is steamy romance novels, you’re just not gonna dig it.  And you just shouldn’t force yourself into a certain style just because someone told you it’s better than what you know.

So, listen to your friends, your relatives, and the pros at your local wine shops.  Don’t discount the opinions of people you trust just because some fellow you’ve never met wrote an article saying you should spend $150 on something you’ve never heard of.  Take chances now and then, try new things sometimes; but most importantly, drink what you like.