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What to do with wine ratings

by George Balling
| April 14, 2010 9:00 PM

Ninety-four or 89. The Wine Advocate versus The Wine Spectator, or Wine Press Northwest? Wine of the year, winery of the year, winemaker of the year It all can make your head spin trying to keep up with ratings, awards and commentary when all you want to do is pick a bottle you can be proud to serve at your dinner party this weekend or for that matter one you will like after a hard Wednesday with grilled burgers.

So here is how to cut through it all First, the cardinal rule no matter what anyone says or what number they put on a bottle of wine, it won't change what is in the bottle and how you feel about it, so ultimately trust your palate over that of a magazine writer, your local wine professional and even the Coeur d'Alene Press!

Next when you are picking a wine magazine or newspaper writer pick one whose palate agrees with yours. When the publication speaks highly of a wine, you try it and say "yeah that is really good" that is a great place to start. It is unlikely that you will always agree with the critic but your goal is to find one you agree with the lion's share of the time. Here at the dinner party we respect Harvey Steiman who covers the Northwest for The Wine Spectator. He knows the appellations and what they produce well without the European and California bias that we find with some other writers.

Also, wine writers and those who give the ratings are kind of like a trip to Las Vegas, you really only need one night in Vegas and never more than three. You really only need one trusted source on wine and never more than three.

It is vital to keep in mind too that those who rate wines are human too; they have good days and bad days. They also may be tasting 100 or more wines at a sitting! No not kidding - 100-plus and sometimes way more than that At the dinner party we taste a lot of wine as we work to select the best for our shop shelves and our wine club, and we also experience "palate fatigue" when we go much beyond eight wines in a day - and we consider ourselves professionals. So, when you do detect a rating that does not make sense from a trusted source, you may want to give the rater the benefit of the doubt.

One final point on wine magazines is to keep in mind who is advertising in the publication. Robert Parker who publishes The Wine Advocate has implied credibility with his ratings for one reason; he does not accept any advertising. His independence therefore is unquestioned and should be. You may still not like the same things he does but the differences are at the very least honest ones.

We like to focus more on actual ratings on a number or some other scale as opposed to annual awards like the wine of the year from The Spectator. We prefer recurring ratings of subsequent vintages as it provides an ongoing and comparative assessment of that producer against their competitors, the vintage, and their past performance. Again, a simple preference but one we find to be more useful.

One specific cautionary note with the "wine of the year " award from any publication, I can't imagine anything harder or of less use than picking one wine that is better than everything else you have tried. There are just so many great wines to enjoy over so many different price categories, varietals, and appellations, producers, on and on. Why pick one? The other issue is that once a designation like that hits, the wine will sell out - if it had not already. Finally, many times a designation like "wine of the year" is more of a life time achievement award, so many times it would be better to try some other things from that producer than to try and track down that one wine. The other approach which works well is to look at those wines below the top few spots as a place to find some great items.

Finally, we like to look at some of the sub-lists. Those are the ones within a focused article or rating of a region's wines that looks at a price category like value or the grape varietal most known in that area. Frequently, there are some great picks that may not get as much press in the larger article.

Ratings from your chosen source or expert are helpful, if for no other reason than to confirm your choices. Everyone likes that reinforcement- it is as important though to carefully select your rating source as it is to select your wine.

George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d'Alene. www.thedinnerpartyshop.com.

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