The Ratings Game | Wine | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

Eat & Drink » Wine

The Ratings Game



I don’t know about you, but I run across some pretty bad bottles of wine every now and then. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people, or maybe I’m not spending enough money on the wines I buy. But I don’t think so. Anyway, I can tell you this with confidence: There are some really crappy wines out in the marketplace, and they don’t all come in boxes.

Of course, you would never know that from reading the powerful consumer-oriented magazines like Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator. Because apparently, in the rarified world of highfalutin wine writers, editors and experts, bad wine simply doesn’t exist. After all, it’s almost impossible to find a sub-par wine, let alone a mediocre wine, in the Spectator, a publication, which, for many wine connoisseurs is the Bible, Koran and Talmud all rolled into one.

I’d held that notion for quite a while, so I recently pulled an issue of Wine Spectator off the shelf at random and crunched some numbers. For those unfamiliar with the Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale for rating wines, it goes like this: 95-100: Classic; 90-94: Outstanding; 85-89: Very good; 80-84: Good; 70-79: Average; 60-69: Below average; 50-59: Poor.

In a feature on Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino, the Wine Spectator rated 103 different Brunellos from 1997. Of those, 16 were judged to be “classic,” 66 were “outstanding,” 19 rated “very good,” one was merely “good,” and one—an unfortunate Pinot Grigio from Bolla—was given a rating of 79 (average—but just barely, since the Bolla missed being deemed “good” by only one point). Suffice it to say that 1997 was a good year for Brunello di Montalcino.

Figuring that the high quality of the ’97 Brunellos was probably a fluke, I took a look at the California Cabernets tested in the same issue of the Spectator. Of the 25 that were rated, 23 were either “very good” or “outstanding.” The remaining two wines were simply “very good.” Among the California Cabernets that Wine Spectator rated that month, none were considered less than very good. Not a single one was merely good or average let alone below average or poor. Good news: Reading the Wine Spectator, it would appear that you can’t go wrong buying Cabernet Sauvignon from California; the worst you could do is to purchase something that’s merely “very good.” Amazing!

But the news gets better: In that randomly selected issue of Wine Spectator, more than 700 wines were rated. From a sampling of more than 700 wines, only 15 were judged to be anything less than “good” quality, and those 15 were all rated “average,” with an average “average” rating of 77.7 points. Out of more than 700 wines there wasn’t one that was below average or poor. Remarkable.

Thinking that maybe the gang at Wine Spectators are just a bunch of lucky bastards, I dusted off a copy of Wine Enthusiast and wound up with more or less the same results. Out of 414 wines rated, the very worst was rated at 80 points: a lowly “acceptable” Te Kairanga Cabernet Sauvignon from New Zealand. The mean average for wines rated by Wine Enthusiast in that particular issue was 85.9 points. And lest you think the average was skewed by a bunch of first-growth wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, rest assured that the 414 wines rated by Wine Enthusiast covered the gamut from Rioja reds and New Zealand Chardonnay to oddball white wines from Trentino and blush wines from Fetzer.

I can only conclude that among wine experts who write for big-time wine magazines, finding a lousy wine at a wine tasting is more unlikely than finding bin Laden in your wine cellar.