As a wine consumer and as a wine professional, I have always felt the most important rating one can put on any wine is whether you like it or not. After that initial judgment, price then comes into play and perhaps our mood for what we want right then. When we go beyond our own preferences though, we start to look at ratings from publications and the savviest of wine consumers find a good wine professional to rely on for recommendations.
Here is the most important trick though. You have to find a wine writer/rater whose palate taste and preferences agree with yours. When it comes to a wine professional, you need to find one who not only understands your preferences but also has a technology platform or a memory sound enough to recall your favorites and the characteristics you like the most.
With any publication, there is the risk that they change writers and other folks on their staff of tasters. Your palate may not agree with the new staff members so it is something to watch for. I recently quit my subscription with ‘The Wine Spectator.’ The magazine no longer worked for me for a number of reasons. For several years I had grown to feel the ratings were driven by the largest wine companies who could afford to advertise in the magazine.
They would end up with out-sized, eye-popping scores for wines that were gimmicky or worse. In many cases, they did not resemble real wine and certainly weren’t worthy of the score. Rather than anger an advertiser though, sure enough, a big score would be bestowed. Another fact that is not as well known though is that the Spectator charges a fee to the producing winery to rate their wines. This further limits the wines that ultimately submit their wines for rating to the largest, most well-funded wineries at the expense and exclusion of small producers.
Additionally, the Spectator severed ties with Matt Kramer. As wine writers go, Matt is one of the best. In a sea of writers like those I described above, who sacrifice principle in the face of ad revenue, he always expressed his views in a straight forward and honest manner, regardless of the consequences. A trait to be respected. His command of the global and domestic wine industries is without compare. The Spectator letting him go is further testament to their fealty to ad revenue over the objective evaluation of wine and wineries.
So where do we go? While Robert Parker and his publication, ‘The Wine Advocate’ have their limitations, the mere fact that they do not take advertising from anyone removes that conflict. Here is the trick though — does your palate agree with Parkers? His taste is not for everyone. In my assessment, he tends toward wines that are fairly oaky, high in alcohol and quite a lot of extraction. These are taste issues though, where honest wine professionals can agree to disagree. At least his approach is untainted by advertising.
There are more wine ratings than you can ever consume, so the key remains to find an evaluator whose palate is similar to yours. Then, if you fold that into the decision process along with a trusted and favored wine professional, you are on your way to setting up a system to evaluate wines that lead to your best purchases.
The contribution of a good and trusted wine professional can’t be overstated. Those who know your drinking preferences and understand your palate nuances can help you adjust to vintage differences, let you know about changes in winemaking teams at your favorite wineries, and understand changes in production levels or processes from your favorites. Items that may not be fully covered by even the best rating publications.
The goal of every rating and every piece of advice on wine should be designed to get the best bottle of wine for you. The ones you like versus don’t, ultimately the ad revenue should be well down the list of priorities for any publication, and your wine professional should always be on “the same side of the table” as you when helping with your selections.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.