Ratings


Wine Spectator’s “The Top 100″ wines, plus “Wine of the Year,” is usually a document as arcane as the golden tablets handed to Joseph Smith by the aptly named Angel Moroni. Merely the task of choosing 100 wines from the 15,000 or so reviewed by the magazine’s staff every year must be daunting. What interests me is the subtitle on the cover of the magazine’s Dec. wine_spectator_logo1.gif 31-Jan. 15 issue: “Our Editors Select the Most Exciting Wines of 2007.” Not the best wines, not the greatest wines, but the most exciting.

For once, I will not quibble with WS. I think the adjective “exciting” is appropriate. As an individual, with a full-time job as well as a website (KoeppelOnWine.com) and this blog and five dogs and two cats and a 22-year-old car that costs as much to maintain as putting a child through college, I don’t taste nearly, I mean not nearly, as many wines as the reviewers at WS, but I understand the impulse to focus, for ultimate praise, on the wines that are “the most exciting,” because it is my experience, and probably the experience of every other wine writer out there, whether in print or in the ether, that most wines do not live up to that ideal.

Oh, we see plenty of decent, quaffable, well-made, solid wines, and, actually, there’s nothing wrong with those wines. Pop the cork of a $9 Spanish garnacha or a $10 Argentine malbec, and decent, quaffable, well-made and solid is what we’re looking for. We tend to judge those products as “great little pasta, pizza and burger wines.” Such wines not only fill a need, but they can be charming and attractive. These, however, are not very exciting wines, though in the rare case that such a wine displays more vibrancy, depth and character than its counterparts it can feel pretty exciting. And while WS’s roster of “The Most Exciting Wines of 2007″ doesn’t revolve around great little burger wines, the list does include, down toward the bottom, a healthy handful of wines that cost from $11 to $20.

These 100 products are mainly and not surprisingly, among the best-known, most collectible and most expensive wines in the world, though the reviewers for the magazine are capable of surprises, too. The criteria were these: 1. Quality, as represented by the score (based on the magazine’s famous and notorious 100-point scale); 2. Value, as reflected by the wine’s release price; 3. Availability, measured by case production or cases imported; and 4. “an X-factor we call excitement.”

It’s interesting that value and availability comprise two of the criteria. For example, the magazine’s “Wine of the Year” is the Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005 from Clos du Pape. The wine scored 98 points when it was first reviewed. Now during the course of the reviewing year, six wines scored 99 and three scored 100. Why did a wine that scored 98 beat these nine wines for “Wine of the Year”? Besides the “excitement” factor, the Clos du Pape costs about $80 and is available in 7,500 cases. Some of the wines that scored in the 99s and 100s exist only as 12 or 50 or 200 cases and cost three to 10 times as much as the Clos du Pape, so the magazine does not take a simple “all-the-wines-that-score-highest” approach to its “Top 100.”

Still, the WS staff parses with a damned fine and keenly edged razor, and when you compare the list of all the wines that in 2007 received 95 points or higher (294) with the “Top 100″ list, you have to wonder how much parleying went on in the magazine’s back rooms and how strict or nebulous the “X-Factor we call excitement” really is, especially since many of the “Top 100″ wines scored between 90 and 94. You can hear the reviewers during their discussions: “Gee, I guess this wine wasn’t as exciting as I thought it was six months ago.”

Anyway — and this is really my point — I wish that more producers and winemakers would think about delivering wines with that excitement factor, the qualities that speak to our noses and palates (and spirits) of authenticity and integrity, of region and place and vineyard, of devotion to the grapes and bringing from them every element of grace and character. Those are the wines, individual and expressive — and they don’t have to be expensive and they don’t have to show up on next year’s WS “Top 100″ — that I would like to drink in 2008.

Except for all the Premier Cru Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies that people — thanking you in advance — are going to invite me to taste.

So anyway, I’ve been carrying this copy of the Wine Spectator around with me, the March 31st issue with “50 Best Bordeaux Below $50″ on the cover, and I finally settle back and start going through those telegraphic reviews — “Firm, almost austere, with good concentration to the mineral, citrus and tropical fruit flavors and a short, intense finish” — and I notice something really strange about page 162. (I’m back at the Starbucks at the corner of Third Avenue and 66th Street, by the way.) Something vital is missing, and it takes me a few seconds to figure out what it is. The reviews are there and the bold-printed numerical ratings and prices, but — but — holy phylloxera! — the names of the wines aren’t there!

Yes, friends, an entire page of wine reviews in WS omits the names of all the wines, 31 of them.

At first I ascribed this unprecedented omission to a production error, but on thinking about it, I decided that Marvin Shankman and the crew at WS are wilier than that. I think the “mistake” was deliberate, not as an effort to confuse me personally — “Man, are we ever gonna mess with this guy’s head!” — because my copy of WS was plucked at random from the magazine shelf of a big-box store in America’s great heartland. No, I think WS is striking back at the vocal critics of its controversial 100-point rating system. Long-time readers of the glossy magazine have always noticed that it’s difficult to determine why one wine, for example, rates 93 and another 92 or 94 and that the curve – there are effectively no scores under 50 — is steep indeed.

So I think that this page of ratings, prices and brief reviews lacking the names of the wines reflects a stroke of genius. “You don’t like our rating system?” says the Spectator. “Well, in your face, Jack! All yer getting on this page is ratings! Live with it!”  

I predict that the Spectator with increase its new scheme page by page every issue, so that by the end of 2007, readers will be confronted with no names of any wines anywhere in the magazines, only prices, descriptions and scores, scores and more scores.

The 100-point rating system will triumph at last!