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What we really need is…

A way for everyone who enjoys wine to evaluate how a bottle of wine will taste before they have to buy it, take it home, and taste it for themselves.

Gee, Wally, that’s a prescient statement!  Damn, wouldn’t that put all the wine cognoscenti out of business?

Well, you’re right.  And Wino John, Wino Bob, and I would have to pack it in too (as capitalists minting money from our top-rated wine website).

For those of you who follow my somewhat irregular columns, you’ll note that I choose to keep up on the latest in wine gear, products, news, etc., almost anything rather than rate a wine.  The predisposition to write about anything other than wine is not due to a lack of wine knowledge.  Among friends and business associates, I don’t hesitate to recommend a wine to select at dinner or even at a retail establishment.  However, the reasons that cause me to pause at writing a critique of a particular wine are many, several of which can be summarized as follows:

1)      Most of the wines reviewed by the big boys are never available at your typical retail establishment.

2)      There are so many wines being reviewed by wine critics that keeping up with the ratings on wines that are widely available is nearly impossible.

3)      Even if you have a general idea as to a vintner/winery’s general quality, the rating you remember may be for a different year/vintage.

4)      Few retailers want to keep track of ratings either.  They’d like to turn their inventory as quickly as possible and sell the higher margin/return products rather than spend time and money cataloging the wines they sell that have positive ratings.

I spend most of my wine store money at three establishments.  Each of these three uses two to three different labels on some of its product.  I’m sure you’ve seen them before:  “Rated 92 by Wine Spectator”, “Rated a 93 by Parker”, “Rated 90 by the Wine Advocate”.  Let’s assume for a second that these labels have been authorized by the wine critics (and that’s a huge assumption).  I have found again and again that most of these labels are wrong.  1997 was a great year for California’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s.  1998 was okay but no where near as well as 1997.  I have found many instances where the 1997 rating card was still attached to the 1998 wine rack even though the 1997 wine was unavailable.  When I bring it to the attention of the proprietor, usually a shrug and a “oh, well, we missed this one when we depleted our inventory” is about the best response I get.  Once in a while, I’ll get a “oops, you got us” look from the salesman if the proprietor is not around.  If your establishment uses these labels, you need to have a great trust of the retailer or memory if you rely on these to make a purchase.

While Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Robert Parker rate thousands of wines a year, it’s amazing how many of the wines displayed have no rating card at all.  If your store uses the rating card system, what does that tell you?  That wines with no card are unacceptable or just not rated?  I don’t know since I can’t possibly keep up with the ratings.  I can tell you this.  I ask my retailers for recommendations on wines and frequently, they deliver.  A recent result:  I received a buy recommendation from a retailer on a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon that I had never heard of.  It is Seven Peaks and it’s from the Central Coast of California near San Luis Obispo.  (Its web site is at It turns out that Seven Peaks is a joint venture between the very successful Southcorp Corporation of Australia (owners of Penfolds, Lindemans, and Rosemount) and the Niven family of Central Coast who are growers of grapes.  Southcorp provides the winemaking expertise and the Nivens grow the grapes.  This is a $15 bottle of wine and opened up nicely after I uncorked it.  (By the way, Wino John, we need to add the link to our extensive list of winery links.  The closest that we have to this is Seven Hills which I could no longer access.)  I ran a search on eRobertParker and turned up nothing (of course, I could have used the search engine incorrectly, but I doubt it).  Seven Peaks is a good buy and is currently available at one of my retailers.

Going to the other extreme, I shared a bottle of Robert Mondavi’s 1997 Napa Valley Pinot Noir Reserve with a friend of mine.  He enjoyed it so much, that I thought I would try to purchase a bottle as a gift (note:  I didn’t want to give him one from my cellar).  I couldn’t find the bottle at any of my retailers.  I did find a Robert Parker rating from December of 1998 in which he gave the wine a 92 rating.  I searched several online retailers specializing in hard to find wines and did not find the wine at any of them.  Too bad.  It’s a great wine.  Why should I bother to write about it if you can’t find it anywhere (other than in my cellar and anyone else’s who purchased the wine in 1999/2000 when it was issued).

My wife and I recently entertained some out of town friends at a restaurant in Baltimore known for its food and wine list.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw 11 different 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignon’s on its wine list.  I placed an order and the waiter came back with a different year.  I refused the bottle and asked for the list again.  Again the waiter came back with a later year.  I refused the bottle and asked for the list again.  After the fourth try, the waiter returned with the wine steward.  The wine steward informed me that all of the 1997 Cabs were unavailable with two exceptions.  Both of these exceptions were wineries that I had never heard of, but were bottles priced at over $100.  I ordered something else and remarked to my wife that it would be a cold day in hell before I returned to that restaurant.  Our guests asked me why I was upset.  I said that I could understand that they had exhausted their supply of 1997 Cabs.  What I couldn’t understand was why they left 11 on their wine list and why they didn’t offer me the 1998/1999 year at a different price than the one featured as a 1997.  There probably weren’t too many people who would have pursued the issue as far as I did, but I didn’t understand why this place misrepresented the holdings in their cellar.

What’s the answer?  Well, it would be nice to have a centralized ratings service for all wines (similar to Moody’s or S&P’s for bonds that have to have ratings).  Given the large number of wines produced each year, I don’t think this is possible unless the electronic tongue cited by Wino Bob in one of his articles surfaces in the near future.  Short of this, it shows the need to be relatively familiar with some of the basics (regions with good productions, vintners with quality reputations, etc.) and the need to also establish a relationship with a retailer you can trust (this may take a while).  The good news is that the more wine you consume (up to a point…few people can consume major quantities and remember anything), the more familiar you’ll become with dependable wineries.  Meanwhile, continue to educate yourself on wines, focusing on the ones you like the most (varietals, wineries, regions, etc.).

Wino Wally

June 25, 2002


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