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August 4, 2013

GRAPE SENSE: Like it or not, wine ratings drive sales, winemakers

Ever get confused by those little shelf talkers and wine ratings in wine shops? It’s one of the most-debated concepts in the wine industry. Love ’em or hate ’em, wine ratings drive sales and, some would argue, even the winemakers.

It all starts with America’s most honored, vilified, and controversial wine critic, Robert Parker. His Wine Advocate magazine initiated the 100-point wine rating system in the late 1970s.

The scale was meant to help wine consumers find the good stuff, a noble cause. The 100-point scale is used by Parker’s Advocate and the much bigger Wine Spectator. Many others have followed with the system and today hundreds, if not thousands, of wine writers and wine bloggers use the 100-point system.

Though many of those publications and their authors will define the point ranges slightly different, there is some consistency.

So here is a good rule of thumb: 95-100 means classic (expensive), a very well made wine; 90-95 translates to outstanding or very good wine (all price points); 85-90 points generally means a very good wine you’ll enjoy. We could talk about the lower ranges but no one awarded a stinker score is going to put that on their shelf talker.

Many wineries submit their wines to the big magazines for blind tasting and scores. There are also wineries who want nothing to do with the controversial system. Parker takes some blame, rightly or wrongly, for awarding big scores to bold and high-alcohol California reds. Taken even further, critics slam some producers for making wines just to please Parker’s palate.

The numbers carry weight. Among serious wine buyers, a 95-point or higher wine is a prized possession. Those folks are the ones willing to shovel out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a 100-point Robert Parker bottle of fermented grape juice.

A big Parker score usually means the price of a bottle goes up – way up.

Many wine writers have not-so-creatively come up with their own five star, letter grade, or other loosely defined system to avoid the points’ stigma. Guilty as charged here, on the wine blog Grape Sense reviewed wines score a ‘Very Highly Recommended, Highly Recommended, Recommended, or Not Recommended.’

But wine ratings are always under attack. It’s simple to test the ratings theory and been done hundreds of times over by wine writers, wine fans, and certainly winery owners. Buy 4-5 bottles of the same varietal for a special occasion with all but one at the same low price point. Include one wine at a much higher price, theoretically with a high rating. Then pour the wine from a paper bag so no one sees the label or cost. Ask your guests to rate their favorites. The odds are the expensive wine won’t even be the best to the average palate.

But for most consumers the ratings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If a wine scores 87-88 or higher from a reputable publication, make the assumption its well-made wine. Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate stake their reputations on their ratings and have some of the best wine writers in the world.

Another measuring stick is follow one wine writer or publication. Once you learn a writer or magazines scoring tastes, that should be consistent enough to help you pick new wines based on ratings.

Howard Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about value wine every other week for 23 Midwestern newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net.

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