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nonsense in the wine ratings game or educate--don't pontificate

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Have we become a nation of people who are afraid to be critical of things that are nonsense? When did the wine community decide it would almost universally muzzle its public comments regarding their dislike of a system which allows a shockingly few people and publications to literally have a major say in determining the level of success of every winery on the planet? And what convinced the vast majority of wine critics and writers in the world that a relatively few other people possess such super palates that the former (the majority) dare not publically disagree with the ratings, conclusions, and/or methods of a small minority?

One might suggest the above musings are merely rhetorical, but we would argue that the questions presented need study and resolution before the present system of rating and pricing wines journeys on for so long that it will be impossible to turn around. It is close already, for in the last decade the crux of the wine writer’s job, at least as we see it, has become obscured and muddled. We believe the writer/critic should educate and advance the manner in which all enophiles (long standing and new alike) can enjoy being involved in the industry. When the system debases itself to a point where the difference in a wine’s score of 89 versus a 90 can spell economic success or failure, there is an inherent and obvious problem. And when just a few people or magazines using this manner of rating control the core of how thousands of wineries operate, something might well be amiss in far more than the state of Denmark.

We are attacking no particular individual, winery, winemaker, or publication. Our astonishment here is leveled at every element of the wine industry that has bought into and supports the fact that a very few people can have such immense influence on the health of an industry. You don’t see it in other popularly critiqued industries such as restaurants or cruises – can you imagine the palate of one or two restaurant critics, or the sea legs of a few cruise writers, being able to influence where you eat or sail on a nationwide or global basis? How boring. How improbable. How ridiculous.

But as for wine, this is indeed the situation that exists. Based on what just a relatively small number of people or publications write, vintners will adjust the selling price of a wine, and, ultimately, some will change the entire make up and philosophy of their winery. Are we overstating the result? We think not. When owners of a winery make up their mind they will earn a coveted review or score from a prestigious publication, they will change anything necessary, from their initial viticultural practices, to the hang time and ripeness of the grapes, to a winery’s very personnel. In fact, it is not unusual for a new winemaker to be hired, or, more commonly, for a winery to engage a consultant winemaker who not only has already gained the respect of those who score the wines, but has previously earned high scores with his or her own creations.

There is another important factor that fuels our amazement as to why people accept some of these scores as unassailable. Put simply, not all the evaluators taste the wines blindly. They actually know exactly what is in the glass and, beyond that, are often accompanied at, or at least to, the tasting by the very winemaker, vintner, or friend whose wares they are evaluating.

We certainly don’t blame or criticize the iconic tasters or publications that have taken advantage of achieving their status from a wine world that caters to them. Whether they have the quintessential palate we all desire is not the question. They very well may have, and we are certainly not here to opine that any person who has reached these levels does not. Nevertheless, what uncontrolled experiment could ever pass such a scenario as this tasting process and call itself unbiased and significant? You don’t have to be a scientist or a statistician to answer that question correctly.

Now let there be no misunderstanding of our position. Lots of people taste and write about wines in the same manner – open and not blindly. We often do (though some years ago we stopped awarding specific point scores, and we also try to make it clear whether we have tasted openly or blindly when we discuss a wine). However, while the opinions of hundreds of writers may well sway certain fans of theirs one way or the other, no one individual or magazine wields an iota of the influence as do a few of the major people and periodicals that publish specific scores. The editors of the Wine Spectator, should you be thinking about that publication right about now, publically state that they taste by panel, and also taste blindly. That method, whether you agree or disagree with the results, is fine with us. The fact that their award of an 89 or a 90 has so much influence on production methods and consumer sales is not OK with us, for it is improbable that the same panel tasting the same wines under the same conditions the next day would come up with the same numbers.

In Napa, where we live about 4-5 months per year, we know scores of winemakers who routinely hold blind panel tastings for educational purposes with other winemakers. These people by definition have palates of high distinction. The honest ones will tell you that identifying a particular wine, including their own, is often difficult. We think this is why you rarely see or read about many of the better known wine writers tasting blindly – they are afraid they will call a wine with a great reputation bad, or proclaim a wine everyone pans as a medal winner. And we believe they worry what this would do to their uber reputations.

This afternoon we received an email from a retailer pushing a particular wine of long reputation. The only advertisement copy read, “96 from Parker.” We had tasted the wine before. It was good, yes, but spectacular? Probably not – at least not to us or the other 12 wine experts who were around the table with us when we sampled it blindly. And here lies the problem. Everyone seems to shy away from talking about this proverbial “elephant in the room,” but it is time to recognize that a $50 wine does not magically turn into a $100 wine merely because one person (Robert Parker or anyone else) scores it a 96 - especially when the wine was tasted at the winery where it was made, not blindly, and most probably with an escort of the winemaker.

While reputation in the wine industry is close to everything, we believe such reputation should be grounded in credibility, and that such credibility should be gained by scoring without conscious or subconscious bias. The role of the critic can best be met by helping educate the public and giving them the tools and confidence to take chances, and then make their own decisions. We often tell people that if you see a wine that has been scored by any critic from 85-100, assume it is worth tasting, but don’t assume much more. Certainly spending $200 for a bottle of wine (if one ever would) is hard to justify based solely on the palate of one individual or tasting panel.

And if you really want to get philosophical about it, how is it that one critic of note can score a wine in the high 90’s while another pundit of just as much fame awards it an 86? It happens more often than you might think, and, sadly, probably more often than it should. For whether you like a wine or not is certainly subjective, but when you are a critic you should be evaluating the wine itself and whether it meets the desires of its winemaker. For one critic to rave superlatively about a wine, while another gives the same bottle only a nod, pretty successfully indicts the entire numbers process of scoring. Perhaps the best analogy would be from the world of cinema. You might not like science fiction, for example, but you would be a pretty poor critic to have given the first Star Wars anything but an outstanding accolade as a movie. Too many wine critics in this country have not yet adopted the view that they are evaluating the success of a process, and not just the gratification of their own palates.

Everyone has the right to succeed where s/he can, but all of us have a right as well to question why an entire industry has traveled so far down this rocky (or is it slippery) road, and cannot seem able to find its way back home. As the American public continues its new found love affair with wines, we think they will demand much more of the industry and those who write about it. Education so each consumer can make an informed choice will be the goal, and then winemakers and vintners can take a big breath, a long sigh, and create the wines they desire, all the while being content in their knowledge that the people who actually buy the wine will give these vintners a fair opportunity to convince the public why they should.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

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