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Uncorked—Wine Scores: The Truth Behind the Numbers

Plus: Great Wines Under $20

Retailers and websites that sell wine often tout a wine’s score to capture your interest. Although ratings can be valuable guides, not all experts agree on their usefulness.


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In 2015, U.S. consumers drank 913 million gallons of wine, according to Wine Institute. To help them to choose what wine to drink, consumers often are guided by numerical ratings that are found online or plastered on the shelves of their local wine store or big-box retailer.

However, the emergence of social media and blogs about wine—no one with whom we spoke could say how many such reviewers now weigh in—means that more ratings exist than ever before. What do wine ratings mean?

That depends on the source, says Elin McCoy, who is the wine critic for Bloomberg News, a columnist for Decanter magazine and an international wine judge and book author. “A lot of people who are writing about wine are bloggers,” she says. That doesn’t make them wrong necessarily, she says, but they don’t have reputations as wine raters—at least not yet.

Consequently, regardless of whether their scores are perceptive, you won’t find those ratings at your local wine store or big-box retailer. Retailers don’t use so-called amateur scores, McCoy says. Instead, retailers will go with “wider known sources,” she says. “That carries more weight.”

Adam Teeter, who operates vinepair.com, which reviews wine and claims 2 million readers per month, agrees. “Only a few people move the market or influence the market, although there are a lot of people trying to do ratings,” he says. Teeter says wineries find it “cheaper to send out 50 bottles of wine” to reviewers in hopes of getting a high rating rather than invest in a marketing campaign. The wineries then can tout a good rating, but it’s left up to you to determine how much weight that the rating carries.

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Whole Foods’ annual survey of wine shoppers found that wine ratings are the third-highest-rated method for choosing wine, after personal recommendations and in-store guidance. Doug Bell, who is the senior beverage coordinator for Whole Foods Market stores, says Whole Foods highlights wines that score at least a 90. (Wine typically is rated on a 100-point scale. We haven’t found a store that touts a wine that has a score of less than 86.)

“We do have that shopper that does look at ratings, that generation that grew up drinking wine and reading Wine Spectator, those 48- to 65-year-olds, like me,” Bell says. “If we like it, we put it on the shelf.” If noted critic Robert M. Parker Jr. gave the wine 90 points, then that’s even better, Bell adds.

“Wine is incredibly intimidating, so the scores serve a purpose,” says sommelier Nate Norfolk of Ray’s Wine and Spirits. Norfolk says the scores are “shorthand” in that they supply a quick assessment for consumers who either are casual wine drinkers or don’t want to spend time conducting their own research. If a wine has “great press,” Norfolk says he’ll pass along the information to consumers. “I like that [the wine] is validated by a third party,” Norfolk says. The rating system isn’t perfect, “but nobody’s come up with a better system.”

Chris Adams, who is the CEO of retailer Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, agrees with Norfolk. For consumers who don’t want to bury themselves in wine magazines, ratings are a simple way to get perspective on what’s in the bottle, Adams says. “Certainly, when a wine is deemed 90 points or higher, there’s a clear signal that it should be something special.”

However, even reputable ratings demand context, experts tell us. “What you have is a collection of critics who have different taste buds,” McCoy says. “This is why the best bet is to find wines that everyone likes, to take an average of a consistent score.”

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The expansion in the number of state-of-the-art wineries that use the latest technology to produce consistently good wines, which once was rare, means that ratings aren’t the necessity that they once were, says Madeline Puckette, who is the founder and sommelier at WineFolly.com, which is a wine-education website. “Most wines are consistent,” McCoy says, “It used to be vintage differences were huge.”

Even those who purport to dislike ratings don’t ignore them: One winery CEO whom we interviewed called ratings “ridiculous”—but we found that the press section of his winery’s website included ratings of its highly rated wines. In other words, if the scores are good, then they will be publicized. It seems clear that wine ratings are here to stay.

UNRATED GEMS. Although experts with whom we spoke acknowledge that a wine rating of 90 denotes a special wine, that number isn’t necessary to find a great-tasting wine, they say. Because 130,000–150,000 wine labels are accepted by Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the United States and relatively few are scored, many unrated gems exist, Puckette says.

Lauren Buzzeo, who is the tasting coordinator at wine reviewer Wine Enthusiast, says her magazine awards wine that scores 90–100 accolades such as “highly recommended,” “a great achievement” or “the pinnacle of quality.” However, a score that’s below 90 doesn’t mean that a wine should be spurned, Buzzeo says. “Unfortunately, that view is omitting a lot of delicious, enjoyable and accessible wines from the mix,” she says. Many wines fall between 87 and 89 (“often good value; well recommended”) or 83 and 86 (“suitable for everyday consumption”).

The downside to high scores, Puckette says, is that “once a wine gets a high score, the price goes up,” although that doesn’t mean prices will rise dramatically. “What is affordable is subjective,” says McCoy, who believes that the “sweet spot” for wine retailers is $12–$20.

Norfolk says some wine varietals always will score higher than will others. “The system is flawed in that nobody’s ever going to give a $15 sauvignon blanc 96 points, but to many people, that wine would give them just as much pleasure as a trophy red wine that got 96 points,” he says.

Ratings are really good for collectors, who look for a wine that they believe will increase in value, Teeter says, but the ratings should be viewed only as a guide for those who just want to find a wine that they like. “You should look at ratings and say, ‘This does say that someone likes it,’” he says. Then what? Remember that a rating is just one factor. Teeter and McCoy suggest that you find a critic whose tastes jibe with yours. Then, Teeter says, find a wine shop that you can trust—a store of which you can can say, “Nine times out of 10, they gave me what I like.”

Kristine Hansen has reported on wine for 12 years. She is the wine editor for FSR magazine and has reported on wine for CNN.com and Wine Enthusiast magazine.


Great Wines Under $20

Our wines were selected based on price, ratings by wine critics and our familiarity with the brands. So consumers could find wines more easily, we limited our selections to wines that were produced in at least 1,000 cases.

To consider a broad number of choices, the 12 wines that we list include six domestic wines and represent the top-selling red- and white-wine varietals that are grown in the United States and a sparkling wine. For international wines, we chose the most popular varietals that are from specific regions and a sparkling wine.

To be considered, wines must have scored at least 88 on a 100-point scale or 16 on a 20-point scale from at least two well-regarded wine critics. For consistency, we picked wines that were ranked that high for at least 3 of the past 5 years. Sparkling wines are the exception, because they are nonvintage wines, which means that the wine consists of grapes that are from different years.

Federal standards mandate that a wine must have at least 75 percent of a specific grape to be labeled as being of a specific varietal.

The prices that are listed are an average of prices that were obtained nationwide from wineries, grocery stores, liquor stores and online sites. The price that you’d pay could vary greatly, depending on where you live.

Because taste is subjective, we suggest that you first try our recommendations by the glass at a restaurant or bar. Furthermore, many retailers hold tastings at which you can sample select wines. An informative resource for finding wine that’s sold in your area is winesearcher.com.

DOMESTIC RED
Pendulum Winery Red Blend
From: Columbia Valley, Washington
Price: $18.66
Notes: This wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (59 percent), merlot, syrah and malbec, which the winery says evokes flavors of plums, raspberries, lingering toffee and vanilla. Wine Enthusiast agrees and adds that the wine is notable for its soft, sweet fruit flavors.
Website: preceptwine.com

Seven Falls Cellars Wahluke Slope Cabernet Sauvignon
From: Columbia Valley, Washington
Price: $17.24
Notes: Washington’s cabernet sauvignons typically are a tremendous value, experts say, and this one is no exception. The 2013 vintage has coffee and dark fruit flavors, and aromas of spice, vanilla and cocoa, Wine Enthusiast says. This wine is a good match for grilled steak, according to the winery.
Website: sevenfallscellars.com

Columbia Crest H3 Merlot
From: Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley, Washington
Price: $15.59.
Notes: The H3 stands for the Horse Heaven Hills region, which we noticed has turned out merlots in recent years that have good value. Wine Spectator praises this wine’s smooth finish and ripe cherry, blackberry and tobacco flavors. Independent wine critic Jancis Robinson pronounced its flavor “subtle … but not simple.”
Website: columbiacrest.com

DOMESTIC WHITE
Calera Central Coast Chardonnay
From: Central Coast, California
Price: $18.91
Notes: This wine blends chardonnay grapes from coastal regions, which results in flavors of minerals and oak, Decanter says. Wine Enthusiast notes that this wine’s flavors are reminiscent of Meyer lemon zest and Golden Delicious apples and says it tastes zesty while avoiding biting acidity.
Website: calerawine.com

Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Gris
From: Willamette Valley, Oregon
Price: $17.66
Notes: This wine has ample acidity, Wine Enthusiast says, which Robinson judges as good. The magazine says this wine has flavors of apple and pear, backed with a taste of lemon and grapefruit. Robinson also notes this wine’s spicy aroma and says it has perceptible, but not excessive, sweetness.
Website: elkcove.com

INTERNATIONAL RED
Water Wheel Vineyards Bendigo Shiraz
From: Victoria, Australia
Price: $16.66
Notes: Independent wine critic James Suckling says this wine has a spicy aroma, and he calls this shiraz one of the best value reds. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. likes how this wine feels on the tongue (“velvet”) and detects notes of blackberries and licorice. The winery calls it a match for rich pasta dishes, barbecue and game meats.
Website: waterwheelshiraz.com

Chateau de Chantegrive Rouge
From: Bordeaux, France
Price: $15.96
Notes: Vintage after vintage, this 50/50 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend earns critical acclaim. The 2014 and 2015 vintages have a medium to full body and a nice finish, according to Suckling. Wine Enthusiast says it’s a balanced wine, that is, the fruit, tannins and acidity work well together.
Website: chantegrive.com

Zuccardi ‘Serie A’ Malbec
From: Mendoza, Argentina
Price: $13.20
Notes: Experts consistently label malbecs from the Mendoza region of Argentina a value. Parker says this wine, which isn’t aged in oak barrels has a “round feel” in your mouth, that is, no astringent tannins. If you prefer dry wines, this is your wine, he says, and rare for a malbec at this price.
Website: zuccardiwines.com

INTERNATIONAL WHITE
Wittmann Estate Riesling Trocken
From: Rheinhessen, Germany
Price: $19.65
Notes: Robinson says this wine achieves a balance between substance and delicate, fresh-fruit flavor. Wine Enthusiast says the wine has intense aromas of mango and melon and hints of white grapefruit and lime juice, and it remarks on its long finish, that is, the flavor stays in your mouth.
Website: weingutwittmann.de

Cantina Terlano-Kellerai Terlan Pinot Grigio
From: Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Price: $18.65
Notes: Critics agree that they like the scent of pear in this wine. Wine Enthusiast says the taste includes nectarines and Granny Smith apples, while Suckling likes this wine’s crisp finish and says this wine is “always a great value.”
Website: kellerei-terlan.com

DOMESTIC SPARKLING
Scharffenberger Cellars Non-Vintage Brut Excellence
From: Mendocino County, California
Price: $17.32
Notes: This bubbly has layers of flavor and an “ultrasmooth” texture, and it pairs with a wide variety of food, according to Wine Enthusiast. The magazine says you’ll discover solid fruit flavor and a refreshing level of acidity. Wine Spectator notes zesty lime and lemon flavors, along with cinnamon and ginger.
Website: scharffenberger cellars.com

INTERNATIONAL SPARKLING
Graham Beck Winery Non-Vintage Brut Methode Cap Classique
From: Western Cape, South Africa
Price: $17.66
Notes: Chardonnay and pinot noir grapes are in this sparkling wine. “If you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative to big-name Champagne, this is it,” Decanter says. Parker praises this sparkling wine’s crisp acidity and its citrus flavors.
Website: grahambeckwines.co.za