Making Wine Scores Work for You

If you shop for wine, you’ve no doubt seen “shelf talkers,” the little tags hung on the racks that give a description of the wine and a numerical score. Most of these tags have scores that start at 90 and may go all the way up to 100. I have friends who loathe scores, and also friends who won’t buy anything without a 90 point rating. Scores can trip you up. And scores can be a useful tool. Here are some tips to maximize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of wine ratings.

There is a person behind that score.
That person’s taste is subjective. Get to know it. — Most large wine publications have multiple reviewers who cover specific regions where they have some expertise. One typically doesn’t get a critic’s job without considerable tasting acumen, but every critic has preferences. See if your palate is in-step with theirs before you buy deeply on their say-so.

Above all, trust your palate.
Don’t like that 95 point wine? Don’t assume your palate is flawed. The wine may not be a style you like, or perhaps the critic overrated it. Critics are not infallible. Don’t buy wine you don’t like because someone else liked it!

Not all scores are created equal.
That 92 point Spanish Garnacha that costs $8 and has the same score as that $50 Bordeaux is not the equivalent of that Bordeaux in quality. Many critics have begun giving 90+ point ratings to respectable wines that 10 years ago would have received scores in the 80s because there’s a perception that anything less than a 90 is no good.

Just because a wine doesn’t have a rating doesn’t mean it’s not any good.
The retailer may have decided the wine would sell without a shelf talker, and decided to direct your attention elsewhere. Critics may not have discovered the winery yet, or not rated its new vintage.

Make sure the talker and the wine actually match!
I try to give retailers the benefit of the doubt when this happens, but I have on many occasions seen talkers with scores for a different vintage of wine than the one on the shelf, or sometimes a different vineyard.

Don’t miss a great wine because you’re score-obsessed!
The 2008 got 95 points? Chances are the 2009 will be about as good, barring some crazy vintage weather. Good winemakers make good wines, year in and year out with rare exception. If the 2008 is sold out, try the 2009!


Reviewing the Reviewers: A Thoroughly Biased Take on Major Wine Publications

Wine Spectator
This magazine is often demonized and accused of giving high ratings to wineries that advertise in its pages. I don’t buy it. As trendy as it can be to bash the Spectator, I think the quality of writing in the magazine is the best it has been in years. 
Thomas Matthews, Bruce Sanderson and James Molesworth provide capable coverage of Europe.
James Laube is controversial in California. He has a preference for the big and rich and scores accordingly.
Harvey Steinman is someone whose Oregon opinions I ignore.

Wine Enthusiast
The other major newsstand glossy plays Pepsi to the Spectator’s Coke. I like the articles a lot more than the reviews, which tend to be overly generous, even in this day and age of score inflation.

Wine Advocate
For many years, Robert Parker’s subscription-only publication was the gold standard for serious wine collectors, and he remains the go-to critic of Bordeaux and California for many. Unfortunately, with so many more wine regions making top wine, and with the rise of online communities, Parker and the Wine Advocate have struggled. He recently sold a controlling interest to an Asian consortium, and hired yet another round of new writers to cover the regions he is less interested in covering.

International Wine Cellar
This is my favorite publication. Steve Tanzer has published his subscription-only wine reviews every other month since 1985. He provides a strong contrast to Parker. His writing tends to be more analytical and less emotional, and his best coverage is in areas where the Advocate has struggled to keep up. Tanzer tends to score more conservatively than other publications.


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