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June 15 - 22, 2000

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Rated $

Pointed criticism of wines with points

by Thor Iverson

There's an anecdote circulating in the wine trade that goes something like this: a guy walks into a store and is handed a glass of wine. he tastes it, makes a face, spits, and exclaims, "This is horrible! What is it?"

The retailer replies, "It received 95 points in the latest issue of the Wine Spectator."

"I'll take a case," the guy says.

This particular story is probably apocryphal, but every retailer knows it's based on a truth about the way a lot of consumers buy wine. But though numerical ratings may be convenient, a growing number of people believe that they're having a profoundly negative effect on the wine industry, and that much that is beautiful about wine is being lost in the quest for higher scores. This columnist agrees.

It's not hard to see why wine drinkers would have an affinity for ratings. People like to make qualitative distinctions, and ratings are a shortcut to such distinctions. And the rising cost of wine has made consumers wary of spending money without external affirmation. For help, they turn to wine critics -- no doubt this is why some of you are reading this very column.

The ubiquity of point ratings has made it almost impossible to ignore them. They're in ads, on the little "shelf talker" display cards in stores, even on some restaurant wine lists. A few stores refuse to feature point scores at all. Others take advantage of the confusing deluge of ratings and deliberately mismark wines with scores meant for different wines from the same producer, or for different vintages of the same wine.

But aren't ratings simply helping the consumer sort out a confusing world of wine? Of course they are, and there's nothing wrong with using ratings -- if you can find a critic who speaks to your tastes (see "Uncorked," November 5, 1999). But ratings don't say anything about what a wine is actually like. What does a 95-point wine taste like, anyway? Is it a lush, oaky chardonnay from Napa, or a crisp, austere chardonnay from Chablis? What if you have a preference for one style over the other? The reason for a rating is a crucial piece of information.

The real danger of the culture of points and scores, however, is not at the consumer level, but closer to the source. Far too many consumers get on the phone within minutes of receiving their favorite wine journal and simply place orders for all the wines rated 95 or higher. As a result, highly rated wines disappear from the marketplace almost instantaneously, and those that remain are subject to astronomical mark-ups. Retailers complain that if a wine scores more than 95 points in a major publication such as the Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate, they can't get it, but that if a wine scores less than 85 points, they can't sell it.

All of this has not been lost on wine producers. The taste preferences of the top wine critics have been carefully studied, and wine styles all over the world have been changed to suit their palates. Many European winemakers will proudly show you their "Parker cuvée" -- a wine souped up to the extremely overripe, high-alcohol, triply oaked style that Robert M. Parker Jr. (of the Wine Advocate) prefers.

The net effect of it all has been a tragic homogenization of the world's wine, and unhealthy media and consumer attention on unobtainable, horrifically expensive, highly rated trophy wines. To the extent that this has damaged both the quality and the image of wine, some critics -- me included -- refuse to add to the entropy, and so we eschew ratings. Unless the text indicates otherwise (and you'll know when it does), any wine I mention should be considered recommended, and the reasons for said recommendation will be written right there on the page, yours to embrace or ignore.

After all, if this column is about anything, it's about encouraging you to find your own path to wine appreciation. Wine critics can guide, we can teach, but we can't be your taste buds. And neither can a number.

And so, on to some recommendations:

Sella & Mosca 1998 Alghero "Le Arenarie" ($12). One of those simple summer sippers that will make you smile when it's 95 degrees outside. Pure sauvignon blanc, this Sardinian wine delivers big lemony pleasure laced with some grassiness. Not complex, but delicious nonetheless. Well-chilled, with some shellfish on the grill . . . mmmmm.

Hopler Elisio Ausbruch ($20, 375 ml). Ausbruch is an Austrian wine style. It's made from sweet, botrytis-affected, and mostly dried grapes. This gives it an exquisite raisiny character that's utterly compelling. Bottles are rare in the US, and usually exceedingly expensive, so even for $20 per half-bottle this non-vintage ausbruch is a great deal. Sip it unaccompanied while watching the sun set over the Pru.

Argyle 1997 Chardonnay "Reserve" ($28). This Washington chardonnay has what so many New World chardonnays lack: structure and balance. Citrus flavors run toward the rindy end of the spectrum, with delicate fennel and tobacco nuances, and a firmly acidic backbone supports this fruit against a nice dusting of oak. With some age, this will really shine.

Tablas Creek Vineyard 1997 "Tablas Rouge" ($32). Pricey, yes, but simply one of the best Rhône-style wines made in the United States. Baked berries shot through with herbs and striking earthiness. Smooth and incredibly balanced, wonderful now but better in a few years. Drink it with something barbecued. And look -- both David Marglin, the Phoenix's other wine columnist, and I have recommended this wine, and we don't agree on much. So what are you waiting for?

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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