Issue 30

The Rating Game

The Rating Game

Any of us who have perused a wine or food magazine with a featured wine section has seen the proverbial wine reviews. It apparently isn’t enough to merely recommend a particular wine. We are Americans, and we need our rankings. We need our scoreboard. We need a hierarchy, a value assigned to our bottle. Numbers, letters, checks, stars, pluses, minuses or puffs (my favorite…I mean, what the hell is a “puff”?). We’ve seen them all. And we love them. Because, after all, our competitive, capitalistic nature demands that we declare winners and losers.

To allow for an unquantified evaluation would constitute unfinished business. Like the emporer in his colosseum looking down upon the gladiators, we await the thumbs up or thumbs down verdict on the life of each of his subjects. Will the wine make the cut? Or will it perish into mediocrity? Oh, such drama. But after all of the swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting, is the rating game serving any real purpose? After all, isn’t the evaluation of wine, for the most part, a purely subjective endeavor? Let’s take a closer look at the rating game.

For pure entertainment value, wine tasting notes are hard to beat. Check out these descriptors from a wine publication plucked randomly from my coffee table: “Hedonistic…fleshy…wild…tempting…soft and juicy…tight, lean, racy…mouthwatering… pretty… silky… firm… dark and lush… like raw silk… warm and inviting… full-bodied and supple… taut and lean… a riveting feel underneath … cocoa nibs… a touch of heat… deep and brooding… intense… very stylish… attractive… sleek, elegant …a mix of animal, leather, cherry and spice…a long smoky finish…truly impressive”. OK, enough already. I feel like I’m in a brothel.

Or perhaps this curious melange of verbosity: “Shades of tar… decaying leaf… slate… mineral… graphite… loam… cedar… oak… sandalwood… iron… chalky… floral… fresh lilies…” You’ve got to hand it to those writers. Anyone who can describe a wine in terms of rocks and dirt and somehow make it sound appealing is definitely talented. Maybe I should be looking for wine at Home Depot. Or Lanoha Nurseries.

Is the rating game corrupt? Without pointing fingers, it can be quite coincidental just how many highly rated wines seem to pay for advertising in those magazines. But the advertising dollars of the few should not tarnish the evaluations of all rated wines as a whole. And there are some publications that do not include advertisements at all, which makes it pretty difficult to question the integrity of their respective reviews.

Even so, it is entirely possible to go too far with the whole rating game. I will long remember a particular encounter while attending a wine dinner at a wonderful French restaurant some years ago. At a tasting of Chilean wines I opined on the third wine presented: “I like this.” Not exactly a profound commentary on my part. To my surprise the gentleman across the table leapt at the chance to pin me down.

“Would you rate it a 90?” he said.

Feeling a bit sheepish I responded, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe high 80’s.”

With total confidence he responded, “I’d rate it between a 91 and 92”.

And it immediately occurred to me that I may have just tasted my very first 91.5 point rated wine. Having spent my entire adult life in the wine business I can honestly say that I had never tasted a 91.5 rated wine. It was as if the wine was void of a producer, appellation or vintage. It was only a number. And I couldn’t help but think, when decimals and fractions are needed to rate a wine, well, perhaps we’ve gone too far.

If you like a particular wine, buy it. Drink it. Share it. And certainly enjoy and appreciate it. Somewhere over the course of time our insecurities over selecting wine may have caused us to doubt our own palates. We needed the security blanket of a rating to comfortably hide behind, for fear of – God forbid – picking the “wrong” wine. Do not doubt your own palate. Find a restaurant, wine shop, or wine bar that allows you to venture out of your comfort zone and try new wines. You will absolutely love it.

Wine ratings can be quite entertaining. They are sometimes questionable. And way too much emphasis can certainly be placed on the almighty ‘score’ that a wine receives. But to anyone who has spent $25 on a lousy bottle, I say a rating or two may have saved your evening – or at least improved it significantly.

If we could taste every wine we desired there would be no need for ratings. But we can’t. And as much as I disdain the idea of someone else’s palate deciding what I like, I must admit that a good rating or trusted wine confidant at your local wine shop can prove invaluable. I love discovering new wines, new jewels, new varieties. But trial and error can be time consuming, frustrating, and expensive. So to all those wine reviewers who directed me to new and wonderful discoveries, I say “thank you”. And keep up the good work.

John Finocchiaro

John Finocchiaro

John Finocchiaro is a former co-owner of Johnson Brothers Finocchiaro, LLC, a Nebraska wholesale wine, spirits, and beer distributor. Formerly the owner of Finocchiaro Wine Co., Inc., John has been in the wine distribution business for the past 25 years and the Finocchiaro family's association with the Nebraska wine industry has been continuous for the past 73 years, since 1935. John was a Certified Public Accountant before entering the family business and is a Certified Specialist of Wine.

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