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Wine Scores—For the Snobby or Savvy Consumer?

Columnist: Christina Julian
April, 2012 Issue

Christina Julian
All articles by columnist

Wine scores are almost as controversial as political debates in these parts. Mention a particular wine score, and you’ll please or part a crowd quicker than you can pop a cork. For the indecisive, scores can pave a road of mindless purchasing. But what happens when John Doe takes his first sip of a $100 bottle of wine and realizes it’s not nearly as stellar as Robert Parker claimed? For a vintner, sales can stall when a wine that’s been rocking the tasting room gets a subpar rating. Regardless of where tongues fall on the wine score rant, one thing is certain: Scores sway sales. Reality two: Palates are unique and price doesn’t guarantee whether a wine will be worthy or hack. But should your favorite wine land a high score, prepare to watch prices soar.

I decided to test the theory at St. Helena Library’s “Wine Snob Smackdown.” The tasting workshop presented by Sandi Luccesi, owner of A Sense of Wine, set out to demystify wine and pricing through a blind tasting. The mission: to determine if highly priced and scored wines pay off in the bottle. Luccesi coached us on the scoring categories of sight, smell, sip and summary. The seven contenders ranged in price from $4.99 to $75, all Cabernet Sauvignon, with vintages from 2006 to 2010. The crowd was a mixed bag of young and old, skilled tasters and pure pleasure seekers. Like any good smackdown, there was plenty of smack talking to follow, which got more heated as the tasting wore on.

In speaking to Smackdown participants, I learned that a lot of the allure of public tastings come down to pride. But just as our palates differ, so do the roots of pride stem. For some, it’s about being budget-minded in a bum economy. “If I could find a $4.99 bottle of wine that tastes as good or even better than a $50 one, I’d be a fool to not try,” one man shared. For others, it’s about keeping up with the Joneses. Luccesi did a good job of keeping us quiet as we sipped. “We taste in silence so we don’t sway each other’s votes,” she repeated.

And the answer is? There isn’t a definitive one. The best and worst rated wine had people that either loved or hated it. For example, a Charnu 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet came in first place with 32 percent of the tasting panel ranking it as their favorite, yet 10 percent of the crowd voted it their least favorite wine—one man proclaimed, “It’s poopy,” which tells me this: Love and hate is relative in the world of wine. But to Mr. Parker’s credit, the majority of our tasters agreed that the Charnu was an exemplary wine. Coincidentally, it received 95 points from Wine Enthusiast. At $75 per bottle, let’s hope so. Equally interesting was the controversy over Trader Joe’s 2010 Spiral Cabernet, priced at $4.99 per bottle. Fourteen percent ranked this wine first while 11 percent ranked it last. This had me thinking, maybe we get exactly what we pay for.

According to Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to earn a Master of Wine title, disparity of wine preferences shouldn’t be a surprise. Hanni has made a career out of debunking wine scores based on theories around different “types” of tasters, claiming that not only are our taste buds different, but that the amount and type of buds we have influence the style of wines we enjoy and despise. (See “If the Shoe Fits,” Special Wine Issue 2008.) He states on his blog, “The range and intensity of sensations we experience varies from one person to the next and these differences play an important role in determining individual wine preferences.” He goes on to categorize tasters, with labels such as “sweet tasters” (those who are ultra-sensitive to light, sound and smell). He claims most “sweet” tasters possess an abundance of taste buds and typically have an aversion to bitterness. In turn, they seek out sweet wines like Moscato while avoiding drier ones like Riesling. Whereas “tolerant” tasters have fewer taste buds and therefore prefer ripe, concentrated wines.

If the theory is accurate, one could reason that trying to pair individual wine preferences against those of a wine reviewer is as rational as trying to wear your left shoe on your right foot. My takeaway from this and the smackdown—all taste buds are not created equal, and what one person describes as “poop” can be another’s pleasure.

Sip-worthy news

In unrelated news, the 13-year California ban on sweepstakes and contests from alcoholic beverage makers may be lifted. The bill, if passed, would eliminate contest clauses that ban California residents from participating. Those in favor see the proposed change as a value-add for wineries. Those against argue such promotion glamorizes alcohol consumption and encourages underage drinking. The bill has already been passed by the Senate and has moved on to General Assembly.

Starbucks keeps a different controversy percolating as the upstart advocacy group, Napa Local, lobbies for an ordinance to prevent “formula” businesses from setting up shop downtown. It’s the proposed outpost at the corner of Main and First that has the group so “steamed.” As a java junkie, I take issue with limiting the number of coffee shops regardless of type, but I’m used to stumbling into a Starbucks on nearly every other street corner in New York City. I’ll be happy to debate this issue further, but not until I’ve sucked down my morning dose.

The St. Helena City Council is at work on a measure that would enact a half-cent sales tax hike on the June 5 ballot with proceeds going to roads and the library. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I’ve dumped driving over potholes in St. Helena. I’ll certainly raise a cup to that ballot.



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