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UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

Robert Parker, for many years the world’s leading wine critic, explains on his website that “scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine.” He goes on to say that “no scoring system is perfect” and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.”

And that just about sums it up. The bottom line is that wine buyers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice and it is useful to get some guidance from a professional critic. A wine that scores 95-100 points is a classic, 90-94 points is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and 80-84 points is just considered to be good. Beyond that, well, you don’t want to know.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the point scoring system is very controversial. Some major critics refuse to use it. They think it’s impossible to give a numeric score to something likened to art. Giving points to wine is like giving scores to Picasso’s great works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Another important reason for not using the 100 point system is because even professional tasters can be inconsistent in their ratings. Dr. Vino, a wine critic, attended a tasting of top flight Bordeaux with Parker himself where all of the wines were tasted blind. The result? Parker’s gave the highest score to a wine that he had scored the lowest in his most recent publication.

Dr. Vino’s published article does give weight to the argument that there is inconsistency even amongst the top critic’s. At the same tasting, Parker identified several Medoc wines as coming from the Right Bank.

The 100 point system also causes confusion amongst the more inquisitive consumers. It’s perplexing that a wine costing hundreds of dollars per bottle can be rated the same as one costing just $15 or $20 dollars. The major critics state that they taste wines within their peer groups. But where exactly does a peer group start and stop?

Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Would you class wines costing between $15-$20 as a peer group, or is it more like $15-$30 as a price range? The latter price range would be more advantageous to the more expensive wines, at least in theory.

Another argument against the 100 point system is that every wine seems to get at least 85 points. In fact, the ratings start at 50 points and if a wine is particularly poor then the review may not get published. Today, a score between 85 and 88 isn’t worth much to a winery or the trade. It’s the 90 pointers that make an impact.

But there’s also the related issue of how tough the scorer is relative to another critic. Some wine critics rarely give over 90 points to a wine, whereas others seem to be running out of points.

The “anti-point” contingent argues that the major critics, who make markets with their scores, have become so powerful that producers are making wines just to suit their palates. There is some truth to this claim. This can result in homogeneity of wine styles, where all red wines look very dark in color, have gobs of sweet fruit, and no shortage of power and concentration. This is a shame, because part of the richness of wine is the celebration of its diversity.

But the bottom line is that the 100 point system is the most consumer-friendly and it helps the wine industry too. If a winery scores highly then the cash register will start ringing. The major trade buyers are more inclined to list it because they know it will help sell wine. And sales representatives, Sommeliers, and retailers love it because it gives third party endorsement to what they are saying.

Keep in mind that it’s usually only the better quality wines that get scored. The wines that sell massive volumes at inexpensive prices are not usually rated, and this seems wrong, given that this is where the majority of consumers are looking for advice.

I believe that the major wine critics act in the best interest of the consumer, and are trying to simply give some guidance to the best of their ability. A score is easier to understand than a flowery tasting note. Numeric scores immediately give an indication of the relative quality of the wine. And essentially it’s that, an indication of quality, but it’s not a perfect system.

But finally, I would caution the consumer. Tasting wine and scoring wine is tricky business. The critics can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The actual tasting skills of some critics is debatable. And lastly, they may be tasting and scoring wines in very challenging conditions. At some of the major competitions a critic is often asked to score 100 wines before lunch. Absurd…

INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

There’s no place like it. San Francisco is one hour away. The coastal beaches and surfing are just over the hills in Sonoma, and the skiing in Tahoe is within a 3-hour drive. It’s perfectly located in one of the most picturesque spots in all of California, the Golden State.

The sun shines in the winter and there’s barely a drop of rain from May until the end of October. People live on ranches. They have stables, glistening swimming pools, and vineyards surrounding their estates. It’s wealthy. It’s beyond beautiful. And it’s called Napa Valley, the native name for “the land of plenty”.

Tourists flock here to visit the 400+ wineries, lounge at the spas, and dine at some of America’s shrines to gastronomy. It’s a mecca, and it’s the 2nd most visited tourist destination in the State. If you want to spend $1,000 a night at a top hotel, then book early. It gets busy.

But many people know all that. Napa is so famous. But what the eye doesn’t see is a highly sophisticated wine industry run by professionals who drive winemaking quality to the next level and develop a vast global distribution network.

In winemaking, the top consultants like Michel Rolland, Aaron Pott, Heidi Barrett, Philippe Melka and a host of other magicians roam the valley tinkering in the cellars. Nowhere else are consultant winemakers so well utilized and the results can be astonishing.

But the new hero is the grape grower. Fortunately, growers are blessed with a perfect climate, where sun beams all day, and then temperatures plunge at night. It’s the perfect environment for grapes, and people. Tons per acre can be low. On the hillsides it can be down as low as one ton to two tons. This is almost unheard of in most regions. But it makes most Napa wines extremely concentrated. You don’t usually hear them described as thin.
Behind the pretty cypress trees and inside the cellars, you’ll find boardrooms. They are host to regular meetings of shareholders, merger and acquisition strategists, and internal meetings attended by Directors of PR, Marketing, Sales, Online Wine Club, Visitor Experience, Export, and so on. These people, as a whole, are such experts that Napa Valley wines sell for higher average prices than any other wine region in the world, including Bordeaux.

There are several wineries that dominate the volume side of the business. Beringer, Trinchero and Mondavi are amongst the big hitters. But ask them what they’re most proud of and you’ll taste a host of outstanding wines. Anyone who thinks these companies aren’t serious about fine wine needs to rethink. Being a 15 million case enterprise isn’t a bad thing. It’s what drives R&D, Marketing campaigns, Health awareness, and their corporate funding is critical in fighting the anti-alcohol lobby in Washington.
The Napa Valley Vintners Association, which represents the wineries, is one of the most cohesive groups in wine. Producers go out on tour around the world together to promote this small valley that has become known to anyone who drinks wine. Unlike some European associations, Napa appears to the market as a group that marches to the beat of the same drum.

And largely, that drum beat stands for quality. The region markets quality. Sure, there are some less expensive Napa wines, but not many. The wineries focus on communicating about their quality, driven by the allure of points in the high nineties. In a recent tasting in Finland, where a collection of 100 of the world’s greatest wines ever produced were tasted, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1974 came out on top, beating Petrus, Lafite, and every other great name you could think of. The vintages tasted went back into the 1800’s. The quality of Napa’s top wines is outstanding.

The current focus is on developing direct sales through Online Clubs, mounting social media campaigns, and driving exports to Europe and Asia. China is the number one target for many wineries. And the Visitor Experience is of paramount importance. At Darioush, you can take a private tour for $350 per person, and taste 1st growth Bordeaux alongside their own wines, sitting in a luxurious underground cellar being served by your own chef. It’s beyond what anyone else is doing in other regions.
But the best part of Napa is that if you go to someone’s house, just a regular person who doesn’t work in wine, you’ll often be welcomed with glasses of really beautiful wine. It’s part of the culture. Your everyday drinker has bottles of Schramsberg in the fridge. Out of the blue one of their friends drops by with a sample of a new blend under consideration. And that friend just happens to be the GM of Screaming Eagle. That’s Napa.

THANKSGIVING WINES – What to drink?

THANKSGIVING WINES – What to drink?

Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. Valentine’s Day. Bless their hearts for coming up with so many occasions for us to crack open a few bottles of wine.

If you’re like most people at Thanksgiving you want to enjoy some beautiful wines without spending a fortune. With that in mind, here are some recommendations and food pairings that won’t break the bank but will certainly make for a memorable occasion.

Kick off the meal with a glass of bubbly. California sparklers can be excellent value, typically between $25 and $35. For me, many of them are on a par with the quality of entry level Champagne and yet they are half the price.

Many California sparklers are made by famous Champagne houses anyway, or Spanish Cava producers. Gloria Ferrer is a sure bet, and the Mumm Cuvee Napa can be very tasty too. They pair well with smoked salmon.

For the clean crisp taste of Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with grapefruit and citrus flavors, buy from Chile or New Zealand, although Sancerre in the Loire is the benchmark. Good Sauvignon Blanc can be had for less than $20.

Santa Rita makes some excellent wines from the Casablanca valley in Chile, and so does Villa Maria in New Zealand. A goat’s cheese salad is the perfect match before the main course.

If turkey is on the menu, then think Riesling, Gewurztraminer or a soft fruity Pinot Noir. These varietals typically work well with white meat but have enough flavor intensity to stand up to the stuffing, and all the other trimmings.
Pfaffenheim Riesling and Gewurztraminer from Alsace is always a hit, and run between $20-$30. Pinot Noir from Oregon and California can be very seductive too.

After a little rest, the festivities can continue with a luscious sweet wine to pair with a light fluffy cheesecake. Sauternes can be stunning, although they can be more expensive. Chateau Doisy Vedrines is classic. But there are other options too, and a late harvest wine from B.C. like Quails Gate Optima is also delicious.

Thanksgiving is a special day, and so we’re not finished yet. Where’s the Port? Whilst these can be extremely expensive, the best deals are in Late Bottled Vintage. Dows and Taylor Fladgate are good deals and delicious. One benefit to an LBV is that you can leave the bottle open for at least a few days, in the event you don’t polish it off. A little chocolate mousse is the ticket, along with vows of going to the gym next year.

You’re wondering if you find high quality in lower priced wines? Yes, to a degree, you can. The price of a wine is influenced by many factors.

First, a producer has to consider the costs of production. From a vineyard standpoint, the key factors are the cost of land or grapes, the cost of labor, and the yield that is harvested from an acre.

Then you have the winemaking costs. One of the key factors are the maturation vessels, with new French oak barrels costing up to $1400 each, as opposed to wines made in stainless steel tanks. Another factor is how long a wine needs to be matured before release, and it’s tough on producers to carry large stocks of red wines in barrel for 2 years, and then maybe some time in bottle thereafter.

Then you have the packaging costs, which include the labels, closure, carton, capsule, and bottle. You can spend as little as $2 for an entire package, or as high as $4 just for a glass bottle. Marketing costs can be very high, or almost non-existent.

When pricing wines the producer will always consider the market demand, which is often influenced by the prestige of the area and his winery. He’ll also consider the demand for the varietal or blend and the media reviews. Ego can play a part too.
So if you are bargain hunting look for wines from lesser known wine regions or obscure varietals, and wineries that haven’t established a reputation yet.

To learn far more and taste dozens of wines come and take a wine course from us at www.finevintageltd.com