Wine ratings can be helpful for many wine drinkers in determining which wines are worth the extra buck at checkout. Since the early 90s and going back to the 80s, a wine rating can make or break a wineries reputation. What many don’t realize is that 90% of the wines made here in Napa and Sonoma have never been submitted for wine judging by a major publication. Alternative judging opportunities, like large scale tasting panels at competition have also increased in popularity over the last decade. Wine competitions like the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition have seen a 300% increase in submissions in the last decade. I really want to dive deep into this topic, weighing the pros and cons for a winery making the choice to submit a wine for judging by either of these formats, go into why a winery would choose not to submit their wines at all and how each format can benefit a wine drinker making a purchasing decision.
I had purchased a bottle of 97 point rated Cabernet Sauvignon from a very well known Napa producer back in 2008. I picked it up for a dinner party I was attending later on that week. I was really excited to show this wine off to my friends..I wanted to look good, lets be honest, so I splurged so that I could absolutely destroy every other wine brought to the party. Well, anyways, the night of the event came quickly enough, I opened it up and decanted it an hour before the party, and when the party got started, I poured it to my friends. With little butterflies in my stomach, I tasted it myself…that feeling disappeared quickly. The wine was massive, but REALLY, REALLY disappointing. It was tripping over itself like a highschooler at a party getting drunk for the first time. I was pretty embarrassed. That night I laid down in bed and thought, how could that wine get a 97 point rating!!!?
Wine Ratings (Wine spectator & Robert Parker scoring )
Getting a big rating from a major wine publication can make or break a winery. A big score 92+ or maybe even 95+ can turn a winery from a premium producer into a “Cult Winery”, with little to no availability and prices ranging from $100 -$800 per bottle in napa. This is great for the premium family run producer who has been “on the map” but hasn’t gotten the attention of the mass market to this point to really get off the ropes and stay profitable. The mass market attention in Napa is hard to come by, so it may have nothing to do with the quality of their wines, they could be producing wines in the top 1% that napa has to offer. It could be as simple as, this small winery with no major corporate backing can get a marketing foothold because they are limited financially in their marketing efforts. Their first priority is quality of grapes and barrels, both of which are expensive undertakings. So in order to make a wave in the mass marketed clique of Napa they need to get a big rating. BUT, most of these wineries won’t brake the barrier of 93-94 points. Why is that?
Just for this exercise let’s assume that this winery produces the absolute best Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. I can think of one winery immediately that fits into this category but had never entered a wine for judging. What would keep them from getting 100 points straight off the bat? Well the truth is, everybody has their own palate, and when you submit a wine for review to a major publication it is tasted by 1-3 individuals. They don’t have a team of people putting in their scores and totaling them up to find the average score. Many times it is one tasting by one person and one score.
THIS PERSONS TASTE:
Now if you look at the wineries who achieve 98+ ratings up to a 100 point perfect score, they all have a two things in common. Tons of oak & insanely extracted fruit. In the position I am in living here, I’ve tasted a lot of these wines. Without fail, they’ve been excellent at first taste, Powerful for sure, but typically there is a lack of balance and CANNOT be aged for long periods of time. They are insanely powerful to the point where one sip you think it’s incredible, but next sip it can completely fall apart on you, with sugary Splenda flavors that turn you off completely. Worse, after a couple years of aging, that fruit quality will lose its expression, not aging to beauty, but instead starting to turn into more of a purple grape soda flavor. Additionally with as much oak as these producers use, the oak will completely dominate the fruit with age, in fact often times the oak dominates from the start. Instead of toasty flavors you will get bitter vanilla flavors and burned spice and instead of that beautiful aged quality you see in well balanced wines that rewards you over time, you’ll be left wishing you drank it all before it started crashing. Everything is tuned towards power but you cant get 1000 hp out of a 1.7L engine without it erupting in flames after a couple laps under full throttle.
All wines are blind tasted according to the publications. But not much else is said about the process in public. In reality they ARE blind tasted, but they are tasted in segments. These segments are split based on many variables, but essentially, its pretty easy to tamper with a system that is so loose. More importantly the people tasting the wines will know that, “ohhh these wines we’re tasting today paid a ton of money for advertising this year. They’re good business for the publication.” Giving a crappy score could ruin that business relationship (ohhh and that producer happens to own 6 other wineries that also spend that amount with them on advertising). Its just good business.
Additionally, if a wine completely overpowers its fellow wines in a tasting, it has a much better chance of catching the tasters attention…like a class clown in you’re old high-school classes. Even if a wine is completely over extracted and HUGE (maybe not even that great of a wine), and it is tasted alongside more delicate wines (that could be much higher quality of fruit and structure), the wine with more power will be remembered and without fail, earn a better score.
This all being said, a producer who makes a GORGEOUS wine that is impeccably balanced, with enticing aromas, perfectly expressive, unique, with purely focused fruit, with layers of flavor and spice that seem to have no end, all wound with a core of caressing power…..gets a 93 point rating….it just doesn’t punch you in the upper lip hard enough, and doesn’t have the financial backing to “earn” a great score. It will be tasted along with a lower teir of wines and maybe earn the best score from that group, if its BIG enough.
SUBMITTING FOR REVIEW:
“Most of the wines we review are specifically requested by our editors and supplied by producers or importers” – Wine Spectator submission page
The truth is, the Wine Spectator doesn’t get the mass of its revenue from subscription. It gets its revenue from wineries, wineries who advertise in their magazines. Let’s just say you are a small producer submitting a wine to one of these publications.
FIRST QUESTION: How much do you spend with us annually in advertising?
That’s what “specifically requested by our Editors” means.
HOW MAJOR PUBLICATIONS CAN BE HELPFUL TO YOU – THEY REALLY CAN BE (as much as I can bash on them)
Their is one saving grace in my opinion.
IF you know what areas in a certain region you have really enjoyed wine from (lets just say you love Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain)
IF you know what kinds of flavors you like in a wine and can deconstruct the flavors that you LOVE in wines you’ve enjoyed in the past (lets just say you love some of the darker notes like cassis, black cherry, espresso and spice)
These reviews can be extremely useful. This varies from one publication to another, but most ratings come with tasting notes. These tasting notes can be instrumental in choosing which wine is best FOR YOU. When purchasing wines from wineries other than the ones I work at and taste weekly, I use this method or speak with someone at the winery. Read the tasting notes! I can’t stress that more.
LOOK VARY OBJECTIVELY AT THESE:
Some of these tasting notes will have in depth reviews on the wine practices and the expertise of the winemaker…I usually steer clear of these. Someone like Robert Parker, although he has a palate that enjoys overly extracted wines with HEAVY oak flavors, has an amazing palate, good enough to recognize a wine from a winemaker he knows well. Every wine has a flavor fingerprint, and most winemakers have a signature flavor.
This can be fun. There are still some downsides to this format, but less than publications.
A large scale competition like the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition is a great format to find great wines from smaller producers as well as larger producers going head to head. Although there is still a heavy lean towards more extracted wines, there is less interference.
Each wine goes through a large panel for tasters who evaluate wines based on a 20 point scale (varies from one competition to another, but most are the UC Davis Tasting scale) focused on:
2 pts for clarity, 2 points for Color, 4 points for Bouquet, 1 point for Acidity level, 1 point for appropriate sweetness, 2 points for body/texture, 2 points for flavor purity, 1 point for Balance, 1 point for tannin quality, 4 points for overall quality.
Tastings and ratings are structured based on price range ($0-5, $6-12, $13-20, $21-25, $26-32, $32+), AND OF COURSE VARIETAL.
From there, they graded.
Medal Structure (Percentages can vary based on the event and the amount of wines submitted)
Bronze: Top 15%
Silver: Top 10%
Gold: Top 5 %
Double Gold: Received Unanimous Top 5 % grading from Every judge on panel
Best of Class : Received the best grading total in segment (could be all red wines, or Bordeaux reds, can vary)
Again, I wouldn’t just go off and buy a wine because it is a Double Gold winner, just because it has earned it. Always look at tasting notes or talk to someone at the winery to see if the wine fits your palate. It could get great reviews, but if it doesn’t suit your palate, it doesn’t matter how great it tastes to others.
I’d also stick to the basics. Look into ratings from bigger competitions. They get the absolute best judges they can for these, and for most judges they are honored to take part. Smaller competitions will typically not see the quality of judges, and less wines. So, a somewhat descent wine can go off and win GOLD, because there isn’t the same kind of intense competition from other great wines, easily snagging a top spot in the top 5% of wines reviewed.
BIG WINE COMPETITIONS TO LOOK FOR:
San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition
Riverside Int’l Wine Comp.
San Francisco Int’l Wine Competition
Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition
New York Wine & Food Classic
LA Int’l Wine & Spirits Competition
Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition
California State Fair Wine Competition
Dallas Morning News World Wine Competition
Florida State Fair International Wine Competition
—-NO RATING AT ALL—-
From what I’ve seen so far, when it comes to finding great wines, nothing comes close to tasting a ton of great wines from producers in Napa, or Alexander Valley, the Sonoma Coast, etc, who have never sent a wine in for competition. They don’t do it because they don’t want to be involved in the BS. They’re focus is winemaking. Making great wine is what they do. Especially in Napa, there has been a large turn away from sending wines in for rating and depending on it to help sell their wine…GREAT WINES WILL SELL THEMSELVES. Word of mouth is KING for these winemakers. The people who love their wine aren’t going anywhere and keep buying their wines because they are better than the 97+ point wines, and at a much better price.
NO THEY WON’T HAVE THE FAME, THE PRESTIGE
but for this breed of winemakers, its not a priority.
A large portion of these winemakers have earned some of the highest scores ever awarded in Napa and Sonoma winemaking. They work for a prestigious winery for 5-10 years and develope a huge name for the winery, and then leave and follow something they are passionate about. I personally know a winemaker who made 98-100 point wines for multiple producers in Napa, before leaving the wine rating influenced, big name winery atmosphere, to settle down and make wines under his vision. He talks about how during his stints at “Cult Wineries”, he made wines specifically for “perfect ratings, not perfect taste”. Now that he has left that atmosphere, he grows 20 acres of his own grapes, and makes wines that would easily slaughter any other wine he has ever made. In his words,
“How do you beat a ‘perfect’ (using his fingers) wine?
You make one that is imperfect, one with real character that actually tastes good”