Do Critics Know Best?
Wine critics are like movie critics. There is no guarantee that you will like what they like, but they can still help you make informed decisions about how to spend your precious entertainment (or drinking) dollars.
For example, Roger Ebert may give a four-star review to the latest Clint Eastwood western, but if you hate westerns and love romantic comedies, you will more than likely see the latter, even if the latest one received only two stars. By extension, just because a wine critic has anointed a bottle of California Cabernet with a perfect score of 100 doesn't mean that it will win an Academy Award at your house over dinner.
However, in a week when twelve movies are released, hundreds of wines could be released from producers all over the world. Wine novices trying to build up personal catalog of taste preferences can be so over-whelmed by the sheer number of bottles confronting them that they turn to a wine critic. Like movie critics, some wine critics have much more star power than others.
Without question, the wine world's most influential critic is Robert Parker. In 1978 he published a monthly newsletter called The Wine Advocate while working as a lawyer in Maryland. No such wine-focused publication existed in the United States in those days. Today The Wine Advocate has more than 50,000 subscribers around the world, and Mr. Parker no longer works as a lawyer. Parker is most famous for introducing the 100-point scale for rating wines, a scale several other wine critics have imitated.
What does it mean when an expert talks about a wine's legs?
When you swirl a glass of wine, little streams of wine fall back down the sides of the glass. These are the legs. They have nothing to do with quality. Wines with better legs generally have higher alcohol contents.
Parker's influence is measurable. When he gives a wine a high score, the price goes up and availability goes down. Some producers in Bordeaux wait for Parker's scores before they set the release prices of their wines.
His ratings have also been instrumental in creating Napa's famous cult wines. If a new producer gets a Parker score of 99 on a 3,000-case Cabernet Sauvignon, that wine explodes in price and becomes a cult Cab, given its scant quantity.
Over time, wine writers have tracked the styles of wine receiving high scores from Parker and have created a profile of what he prefers. Some writers strongly dislike this Parker wine style, which underscores the importance of knowing a reviewer's taste preferences before following his or her advice. Not all reviewers are created equal, but collectively they've raised the public's consciousness about wine and its enjoyment.
Robert Parker's ratings are based on single-blind, peer-group tastings, which means that he might focus only on California Cabernet Sauvignons at a tasting session. He does not taste red and white wines together, in other words, and he has no knowledge of the wines' producers during the tasting.
Each wine automatically gets 50 points — maybe just for the effort that went into making it. Color and appearance can earn up to 5 points. Aroma can get 15 points. Flavor and finish merit up to 20 points. Overall quality and aging potential can earn up to 10.
Other critics who use the 100-point scale are James Laube (Wine Spectator) and Steve Heimoff (Wine Enthusiast). Critics writing for the British wine magazine Decanter employ a 1-to-5 star rating. English wine writer Clive Coates uses a 20-point system.
Another rating system — Quality/Price Ratio (QPR) — is becoming popular. It measures the correlation between what a wine sells for and its relative quality. A score of 100 percent means the price matches the quality. A score under 100 percent means you're getting a good deal for your money. A score over 100 percent means you're paying too much.
Rating the Vintages
Vintages, or the harvest years in wine regions around world, get rated in addition to the individual wines coming from them. Wine-growing regions vary according to their weather conditions every year — some with dramatic fluctuations — and these can affect wine quality. Wine Spectator is famous for publishing a vintage chart every year, which directs you to the best years for each region or subregion.
Vintage charts vary in their level of detail, but each should contain regional scores (as is done with individual wines) mapped on a grid to indicate the potential of that area's wine for that year. More comprehensive charts will tell you whether to hold the wine for aging or drink it now — or whether it's past its peak.
Even in the best years, a mediocre wine can show up. During average years, a talented winemaker can produce a very good wine. While vintage charts are useful and informative, nothing substitutes focusing on the track record of a winery over a period of years.
Buy These, If You Can
Here are some highly recommended wines from recognized wine critics:
2004 Standish Shiraz / Viognier The Relic, Australia (99 points, Robert Parker)
2006 Cardinale Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (100 points, Steve Heimoff, Wine Enthusiast)
2007 Louis Jadot, Premier Cru Clos-St.-Jacques, Burgundy (19/20, Decanter magazine, UK)
2005 Alban Syrah Edna Valley Lorraine, California (96 points, James Laube, Wine Spectator)
2009 Corriente del Bio Pinot Noir, Bio Bio Valley, Chile (89 points, Jamie Goode, wineanorak.com)
When it comes to enjoying wine — no matter what the vintage year, no matter what the critics say — it's ultimately up to you. Your personal preferences will guide you to make the right selections. This is part of the fun!