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Wine Ratings and Awards

Winery Insight Featured Article - September 2005 by Timothy O. Rice


Do you pay attention to wine ratings?  Do you count the medals a particular wine or winery has won?


Wine ratings seem to be everywhere these days.  Walk down the aisle of any store and you are likely to see small placards announcing that Wine Spectator rated this wine a 91 and that wine an 86.  A few bottles over will be another card proclaiming that Wine Advocate declared another a 92.  Other publications and critics will be cited.  Your local wine shop might have their own ratings on some bottles.


In some places, you might see references to medals won in competition: Bronze medals, Silver medals, Gold medals, even Double Gold medals.  Visit a winery tasting room and you are likely to see a display of them, often draped over the neck of bottles.


Does any of it really tell you much about the wine?


The answer, of course, is both yes and no.  Ratings and awards can be valuable tools for you to use in making a buying decision.  They can give you an indication of what others think.  What they cannot do is guarantee in advance you will like the contents of the bottle.


The reasons for that are complex and intricate.  Ratings are made by people, as medals are awarded by judges in competitions.  They are not awarded by computers or evaluated by a rigorous scientific formula that determines an ideal of quality and purity.  So that 92 rating on the bottle on the top shelf will tell you what the critic thought when he tasted it, and how he stacked it up against the similar wines he was tasting at the time.


Since Robert M. Parker, Jr. and his Wine Advocate magazine burst on the scene a quarter-century ago, the business of being a wine critic has changed.  Mr. Parker makes rigorous use of a 100 point rating scale that he popularized.  In that scale, a 100 is the best of the best, a classic wine that collectors will lust after.  Receiving a 100 from someone like Mr. Parker is like a gymnast getting all 10’s at the Olympics.


People liked it.  They had the feeling they could understand what he was saying, put the difference between wines in perspective.  Now they could go into a store and say: “Wow – this one is a 95!  But it costs $100” and then slide down the aisle to that bottle that was “only” an 86 – and only $12.


Now if you are familiar with the critic, you have followed how he rated wines in the past, you have tried some of them yourself, and you generally agree with his ratings, great!  You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by following his advice.  If you are not familiar with the critic and his work, well … don’t let it be the only reason you buy the bottle.


One thing you need to be aware of is how the ratings work.  The top might be 100, but ratings below 80 are regarded with dread by wineries and consumers alike, and you will see few of them.  Ratings below 70 are very rare.  If the wine is truly that bad, it won’t be publicized, and it won’t be submitted to get ratings from the big publications.  If it does get a bad rating, you will not see it in the ads or promotional placards in the aisles of the store.


As a result, the overwhelming number of ratings you see will fall into the range from about 80 to 95. Ratings above that are rare; ratings below that range are a kiss of death.  This scale system has become so important that many wineries make deliberate efforts to tailor their wines to the preferences of the critics.  That is just human nature.  If you have to impress the judge to score well, most people will generally try to do what the judge likes.


Another item to remember is that a Chardonnay rated 91 is not necessarily “better” than a Pinot Noir rated 88.  This is an apples-and-oranges issue.  The Chardonnay will be evaluated against Chardonnays; the Pinot Noir against Pinot Noir.  Your choice might start out with deciding what food would be served, and perhaps only the Pinot (or the Chardonnay) will do for that.  From that point on, the ratings of different Pinots might be helpful in deciding which to buy.


Going through this process can also be expensive to a small winery (all those bottles you pour for free), cumbersome to manage, and often simply impossible to get done.  On the critics end, it would probably be simply impossible for anyone, or any team of knowledgeable people, to taste most or all of the wines produced.  This makes it impossible for any rating system to be comprehensive and complete.  Many wines will simply never be “rated”.


While most critics undoubtedly try to be fair and methodical in their evaluations, the task itself makes that difficult.  The sheer volume can be overwhelming to the senses.  The grading on minor differences (“Is this wine an 88?  An 87?  An 86?”) is more a matter of gut feel than anything else, I would suspect.


Awards can be the same in some ways.  Yes, they are awarded in competitions and that means something.  You need to find out a little more to evaluate what the medals mean.  We have been in many tasting rooms where medals galore were strewn about on bottles and hung from walls.  Some were richly deserved.  Some made me wonder why anyone would give out medals for this wine.


Some events are restricted to local wineries or have limited attendance.  Some have broad appeal and international recognition.  Knowing the difference can help you decide how much weight to give a particular medal.


The 2005 New York Wine & Food Classic is a case in point.  This is restricted to New York State wineries, but New York has 219 wineries.  The event dropped many medals on Swedish Hill Vineyard, as well as on Atwater Estate.  Both are Finger Lakes wineries; we have actually tasted at Atwater and like their wines.  We knew Swedish Hill only by reputation until recently.  I know that over the last 20 years the New York Wine & Food Classic has grown into a great deal of respect.  I place a lot of weight on their evaluation.


Note that the wines might be quite good, technically well-made, enjoyable to others and that you might not care for them.  Ratings and medals will not determine that.  Only your tastes will.  Others can guide and suggest.  Only you can decide what you like.


Now you know why we like to go to wine tastings.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007