Uncorking the Mystery: The True Value of Wine Ratings
One night, I grabbed drinks with a friend who judges major wine competitions in Europe. In passing, I commented that wine ratings were absurd, and that no one could seriously tell the difference between a 97-point and a 98-point wine. She looked at me aghast, as though I had uttered some unspeakable heresy. Of course she could tell the difference between the two, she said, and rattled off a half-dozen differences between them. I never questioned the practice again.
If you walk in unprepared, the wine section at your local Rouses Market can seem like a mysterious labyrinth. What you need to know is that the mystery is the best part. When you pull a cork from a bottle, you’re drinking a lot more than a mere beverage. Wine is perhaps the most intimately human product on store shelves. When you take a sip, you are drinking the decades and sometimes centuries of agriculture that enriched the vineyard’s soil; you are honoring the generations of farmers who worked tirelessly to know precisely the best grape variety to grow in their specific little patch of ground; and you are acknowledging the hard-won experience of winemakers who had to figure out the best way to fully express the uniqueness of their vineyard — its “terroir” — and house style as a wine-drinking experience.
There’s more. You’re drinking that year’s rain and sunlight and wind and frost. You’re even drinking the bureaucracy of the region: a wine from Champagne and one from the Loire Valley are made very differently, and with different grapes — and a lot of French lawyers and voters keep it that way. You are drinking what different places value as a culture. In other words, when you buy a bottle of wine, it’s not just something to drink with dinner. You’re buying the cheapest international vacation you’ve ever taken, and you’re flying first class.
When spending your hard-earned cash, though, sometimes you don’t want a risky proposition. You want a sure thing. Enter the wine rating: highlighted on Rouses shelves, or emblazoned on wine labels.
“It’s a great way for customers to narrow down the selection of what they are looking at, to what they may or may not want to invest in,” says Julie Joy, the Director of Beer, Wine, and Spirits for Rouses Markets. When looking at a bottle, she continued, “a 90 to 95 would be considered outstanding — more complex in character, and terrific to drink. A 96 to 100 — which you don’t see very often — would be extraordinary.”
There’s even a little bit of humor to be found. The prolific wine critic and writer Robert Parker famously rated wines on a scale from 50 to 100. A liquid gets 50 points just for being wine.
Parker had perhaps the most influential career of any wine critic ever, and was most responsible for popularizing the 100-point scale in the 1980s. He retired four years ago, but his publication, Wine Advocate, continues to review wines to his standards. Not all ratings are equal — a Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator 98-point rating are considered more prestigious simply because of their publications’ longevity, industry influence, independence and the expertise of the panelists rating the wines.
But that doesn’t mean other wine ratings are less important. Different publications and panels prioritize different wine qualities. Parker tended to like bold, fruit-forward, high-alcohol wines. (And, given his influence, winemakers started making…bold, fruit-forward, high-alcohol wines!) Wine Enthusiast, conversely, prioritizes regionality in wine. They might judge a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon not only against global wines of the same variety, but also against others in the valley.
“Over time, you can really start to learn about the tastes of different publications, and buy according to their evaluations,” says Joy. If your favorite wine ever gets a 99 from celebrated critics Jancis Robinson or James Suckling, then you know to be on the lookout for other wines that get high ratings from them.
Rouses Markets locations participating in the Buy Four, Save More program feature several wines rated 90 points or higher at prices that just about anyone can reach. “A lot of them are between $10 and $15,” Joy says. “They’re really affordable, and considered very good by some pretty tough critics.”
The wine department at Rouses Markets doesn’t just accept a rating at face value, either. “We really look out for them, and we taste all of them. We want to make sure that we can stand behind it. We’re really proud of the wines that we feature,” she says.
Ratings are also important for wine drinkers who might want to expand their palates and see what all the fuss is about. “I was once having wine with my niece when we were celebrating her birthday,” says Joy. “She was just out of college. After dinner I ordered a nice pinot noir. She had a glass, and said, ‘Ohh, that’s really good.’ And I laughed and told her yes — because it’s real wine!” There is a meaningful different between boxed wine and the bottles that score ratings. Each has their place, of course, as any poor college student can tell you.
“An actual, cared-for wine from start to finish is going to be a completely different experience than the mass-produced stuff, and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t get when they’re looking at prices. Do you want to experience wine, or do you just want to drink wine? I find a lot of people really like the whole discovery aspect of wine, and the food pairing aspect, and they get a fuller experience.”
Among the members of the “90-plus club” that Joy has had lately that really impressed was a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon called Method. “Napa is almost untouchable these days for under $40,” she said. “We have it at $25. It might be the higher end for some, but a Napa cab is usually where you can’t go wrong. If you’re looking for something to really change your outlook on wine, they’re the way to go.” It scored 91 in Wine Enthusiast.
“We also have one people really can’t seem to get enough of, called Fly By,” she said. It is a cabernet sauvignon from northern California with an unbeatable price. “It’s $10, and got 90 points from Wine Enthusiast.” For those who prefer white wine, the Method chardonnay also earned 90 points.
Joy says that drinkers who want to look abroad for something special should check out a Spanish wine that garnered 93 points from James Suckling. La Purísima is a red blend of different grape varieties, and runs $10 as well.
“There are so many times when I’m in the store that I just want to pull bottles from the shelf and tell people browsing to try this and try this and try this and try this!” she says with a laugh.
With or without ratings as your guide, I encourage you to take a chance when choosing bottles. To find one wine and stick with it for the rest of your life would be like a toddler insisting on chicken tenders on the menu, and then going another 70 years only eating chicken tenders. After all, you already know you like chicken tenders — why would you want to try steak? Be bold and grab a bottle. The worst-case scenario is you learn that you prefer Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany more than Riesling from Alsace in France. And you can tell your people that while you’re slightly tipsy and really still having a pretty good time.
One way to thrust yourself into the adventurous oenological life is by throwing a party and rating them yourself. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair. You and a couple friends each, separately, buy a bottle of wine. You show up to the party with your bottle either in a tight paper bag or wrapped in aluminum foil, so that no one can see the label. Everyone opens their bottles and pours. Keep track of which wine is in which glass! This is called a “blind tasting” — you’re not being thrown off by the cute illustrations on the labels or the variety of grape or country of origin. You’re drinking a wine and saying, “I like this” — or maybe you don’t. You can rate it on a 1-10 scale. (Because, except for a few experts who definitely do — as I learned the hard way! — nobody knows the difference between a 97-point and a 98-point wine.) After the tasting, unwrap the bottles and meet your new favorite wines.
In the end, wines are as expansive and nuanced as the ratings that attempt to define them. Whether you’re guided by the tough panels for Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, or you’re going it alone and throwing your first blind tasting, remember that every bottle is a journey to somewhere new — a taste of a place you may never visit, and a toast to the artisans who harness the sun and the soil to bring you there. Ratings are a useful compass, but we invented compasses to explore. Do it enough, and you might find that the difference between a 97- and 98-point wine isn’t in the number, but in the experience — complex, enriching and delightfully human.