Look in any wine store and you can't miss them--those little tags that tell you this wine is rated 87 or 93. The scores, awarded by a handful of influential wine critics, are meant to help consumers. Often they lead to more confusion. What makes one Napa merlot an 86 and another a 90? Whose scores should you rely on? Does it even make sense to assign a numerical value to something as subjective as wine? Good questions, mostly unanswerable. Still, if you understand what's behind the numbers, you can use them to enhance your wine-drinking experience.
You're most likely to see wine ratings based on the 100-point scale introduced two decades ago by lawyer-turned-wine critic Robert Parker. Not all wines are rated, and even those that are don't always sport their scores, especially if they're below 85. Ratings over 95 are rare, and so are sightings of the wines that have them. Styles pass in and out of favor, too, which affects ratings. Lately, "big" wines -- those that deliver a mouthful of intense fruit flavor right up front -- are dominating the ratings. Sometimes the more subtle wines that may be better matches for food are overlooked or underrated.
So it's not surprising that the ratings are often dissed within the industry. "If it's reviewed, I don't want it," says John List, beverage director at Craft, a top restaurant in New York. "I look for boutique, artisanal wines." But even critics such as List admit that ratings can be useful for nonprofessionals. "When you start out with wine, you want some kind of guidance," says List. With thousands of wines from all over the globe flooding the market, who couldn't use a little advice?
When they assess a wine, reviewers take their cues from its color, aroma, taste, and "finish" -- the way it lingers in the mouth. Beyond that, no two people will taste wine the same way, for reasons including genetics, experience, and culture. And of course, each reviewer has his or her preferences. One reviewer's 94 may be another's 89. That's why it's key to find a reviewer you can trust -- the same way you trust the opinion of your favorite film critic.
Parker, for example, has a reputation for favoring big, full-bodied wines such as the cult cabernets of Napa Valley, so called because they're made in small quantities and have a cult following. But Parker himself says what he looks for most is balance and, in fact, he loves French wine. His favorite is Ch?teau Haut-Brion, a legendary Bordeaux he calls "the epitome of elegance and finesse." Rare vintages can cost thousands of dollars. The point is, Parker has strong preferences, and you agree with them or you don't. But at least you know where he's coming from.
It's not always that simple. Some publications use panels or teams of tasters, so the person who steered you toward that great Spanish Rioja may not be the same one praising the German Riesling. To better manage the workload, most magazines assign the tasters to "beats," so that one person specializes in the wine of a specific country. The worst scenario: a score arrived at by group decision.
Most publications disclose how their tastings are conducted. In particular, Parker and Stephen Tanzer, editor of the International Wine Cellar, are known for their rigorous procedures. Both say they try some 10,000 wines a year, in blind tastings at the office. When they're traveling, they'll do their tastings at wineries.
Big scores don't always mean big prices. While Tanzer, Parker, and The Wine Spectator tend to write for a high-end audience, they do include modestly priced selections. Parker's last dispatch featured a 2001 Mas de Guiot cabernet/syrah blend rated 91, for $14. Wines under $10 usually appear in special reviews of bargain wines.
A lot of attention goes to the scores, but the wine's tasting notes are perhaps more useful. And just because a wine isn't rated doesn't mean it's not good. For undiscovered gems, a knowledgeable and trusted wine retailer may be your best critic. "We regard our role first and foremost as being an editor," says Judy Rundel, a wine consultant and buyer for Heights Ch?teau in Brooklyn, N.Y. She and two staffers taste every wine the store carries and don't base their selections on, or even post, the critics' ratings.
Most of all, use ratings as a guide but don't be a slave to them. Otherwise, "you miss out on a whole world of wine," cautions Michael Jordan, sommelier at Napa Rose in Anaheim, Calif. After all, if you discover a wine you like, that's the important thing. By Amy Cortese