The Rating Game

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“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When it comes to things such as music, cars, sports, food or even clothes, Americans are adamant about their likes and dislikes. Why is it when it comes to the subject of wine, so many Americans act like a deer in the headlights? How often have you heard someone say, as you pour them a glass of wine – “I’m not connoisseur” as if the need to have a specially accrued knowledge was necessary. It’s probably partly due to the fact that most Americans aren’t exposed to wine as kids like they are in European countries. The “foreign origin” of wine creates a disconnect within our culture, resulting in having to fight an elitist image. A lot has to do with the fact that we as a culture are assaulted with lots of misinformation about wine. The blogosphere has no doubt added to the confusion. This and the vast number of wines available to us - especially here in New York - can make the world of wine a difficult thing for the average American to understand. The bottom line however is that anyone, anyplace, has the tools necessary to judge and appreciate wine - they’re called your own taste buds.

Most Europeans are raised with at least some understanding of wine from their own local region or country. Most are not formally schooled in the wines of the world. That’s something that takes time. Maybe the lesson is we should simply start by appreciating the wines from our own region first before trying to understand the rest of the world. We’ve seen the slow changes occurring in American wine consumption, much of it due to the well-documented health benefits of wine as well as the plethora of good wine available at good prices. Still, the average consumer remains somewhat intimidated with the world of wine. Over half of all wine consumers report that they would like to learn more about it. This brings me to the topic of wine ratings.

Much has been written regarding the use of the 100-point scale for wine evaluation. The amount of space needed to discuss the merits and failings of this system doesn’t exist on this blog – but I would argue that most, if not all consumers could do better all by themselves. More and more wine pundits are telling us the 100-point scale is fast becoming a relic of decades past, when Americans needed the advice of an “expert” to tell them what they should like. The New York Times covered the topic by interviewing a number of major players in the wine ratings world.  Most agreed that the 100-point systems used by Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator can be important to a wine producers’ commercial success. At the same time however, most of these critics tell us they would like to see the system disappear altogether – that it has become in essence, a necessary evil in the wine world. Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine and Spirits magazine states that “on many levels it’s nonsensical. I don’t think it’s a very valuable piece of information.” This comes in part from understanding that the 100-point scale is not an exact science. It’s actually not a science at all – it’s just a matter of opinion. The system used by Parker is different than the one used by the Wine Spectator in that the style and type of wine held up to the 100-point standard is different for both. The fact many of these evaluations are not done “blind” also leaves much up to the taster’s preconceived opinions. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of tasters used by most of the 100-point publications are middle-aged, white males. A recent survey by Rossman, Graham and Associates found that while women account for 70% of the shopping for households, only 5% are influenced by advertising or wine ratings. I can only believe that some of these publications are missing are huge part of the equation.

The potential “dark side” of the wine rating game was detailed a few years ago when the New York Times ran a story about Enologix, a consulting company in California set up specifically to help producers manipulate wines in order to achieve higher scores. Enologix claims to have supposedly “solved the math of flavor for wine” and figured out how to break down all the chemical components of wine in order that they may be reproduced anywhere. Sounds like a “terroirist’s” worst nightmare. Somehow this approach reminds me of the music industry’s formula for a producing a hit single. Find out what is selling, put together the right faces and voices and give them the perfectly crafted song to sing. Creative?  - No, but it does make a lot of money for the people involved. It also begs the question - is this really all you want to listen to?

We’re now seeing that more importance is being given to how wine is actually made. What kinds of vineyard management were used – was it sustainable to the surrounding environment? How and under what conditions was it harvested? Does it embody the local conditions of the region? What if any, additives were used in the production of the wine in the cellar? And ultimately, does it taste good to you?

As consumers continue to become increasingly aware of the origin of what they put into their bodies, the where and how of winemaking will become more of an issue – which also could lead one right back to their own backyard where producers are known, techniques are verified and fruit origin is validated. The recent Long Island sustainable certification program (LISW) precisely addresses these very issues and is one of the many reasons why this new local program is so important.

I would ask one final question. Since when did you need anyone to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like? After all, who knows your taste buds better than yourself? The best way to learn abut wine is to try lots of different kinds. “Practice makes perfect” they say – and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than those piano lessons you had to take. All you need to do is find out what styles of wine you enjoy, and most importantly, learn to trust your own opinion. It’s fun, and really not all that complicated.