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.