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The Rating That Really Matters

Years ago, when I worked at Wine Spectator magazine, the smartphone didn’t exist and PDAs were only moderately useful. Walking through a wine shop or browsing a restaurant wine list — even for those of us who worked at the magazine at the time — involved only slightly less guesswork than for anyone else.

We did, however, have one nifty point of reference: A wallet-size card that listed vintage ratings. A vintage rating is a critic’s assessment of the growing season, not a rating of a specific wine. The point of a vintage rating is to give you good odds with your wine selection if you have no other information available. It goes back to the old saying that you can, sometimes, make bad wine in a good year; but you really can’t make good wine in a bad year.

So, let’s say you’re in the mood for a red Bordeaux, and you’re not familiar with any of the wines on the restaurant’s list; one wine is from 2005, another from 2006 and another from 2007. Wine Spectator’s ratings for those vintages are 98, 90 and 85, respectively. So even if you don’t know the specific wines in question, a quick glance at the vintage scores will tell you that your odds are best with the 2005.

Now here’s the part where I go out on a limb: Vintage ratings can be much more useful to consumers than actual wine ratings.

Not long ago, a wine blogger wrote of his disappointment with Lot18’s use of a vintage rating in the promotion of a particular wine. I emailed the blogger, asking if he was willing to discuss the issue openly in this space. He’s a busy guy, but he was able to write back that his “problem with the vintage rating in that context was more about cherry-picking than about the relevance of ratings. Using the highest possible number — whether it’s one critic’s rating or one mag[azine]’s vintage rating — is what I object to.”

The funny thing is that I agree with him…but not in exactly the same way. Part of my job here at Lot18 is to ensure that we don’t make inaccurate, misleading or unsupported statements about the wines we offer. And that task often involves talking our marketing department out of doing the very thing that the blogger describes above. I never want Lot18 simply to grab the highest score or rating and throw that in front of our members; I only want Lot18 to use the most helpful and useful information to our members so they can decide if the wine is suited to their preferences. And, believe it or not, a vintage rating is often the best way to do that.

The main reason is that a vintage rating, unlike a regular wine rating, is based on substantive information. Good wine journalists usually assign their vintage ratings based not only on initial impressions from tastings, but from interviewing growers and winemakers. And, if they’re truly responsible journalists, they’ll also look at temperature and weather data from the growing season before assigning a score.

Actual wine ratings on the other hand? Oh, where to begin on all the ways these can go wrong. Was the critic tasting in the morning or the evening? After coffee? Did he or she have a full or empty stomach? Was the critic in a good or bad mood? Was the tasting blind or non-blind? Was the wine tasted at the beginning, middle or end of the lineup? How many wines were in that lineup? Was the wine tasted once or twice? Do a little Googling, and you’ll find countless articles and studies on how inconsistent blind tastings can be because, frankly, they’re conducted by humans – who are biased by nature.

Granted, Lot18 does display ratings and tasting notes from respected sources, mostly Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar. We provide these ratings when and where they exist because they do matter to some wine drinkers. However, if scores don’t or never have mattered to you, they’re pieces of information you should continue to ignore, and instead base your buying decisions on the information our specialists provide.

And, of course, there’s the vintage rating – which is based on real, largely undisputed information. While critics sometimes do modify their vintage ratings down the line, they’re still largely reliable – if broad – pieces of information. No, not every Coen Brothers movie is good; but when you see Ethan’s and Joel’s names in the ad, it’s a safe bet that you’re in for a treat.

Now, where the blogger’s argument holds water is that the vintage rating Lot18 used was with a California wine. And the running joke in wine circles is that California never has bad years the way that Bordeaux, Burgundy or Tuscany – actually, nearly all wine regions – do. Just as you can always count on California to have traffic, underemployed actors and tasty Mexican food, you can also always expect the weather to be sunny. Which is the type of weather that’s great for grape and wine quality.

Then again, not all California vintages are perfect. And then there are the ones that are truly exceptional, such as 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009 – which stand above the unmentioned vintages in that span, if only a little. So, in those cases, and especially when the wine wasn’t submitted to the critics for scoring, I’d argue it makes sense to highlight the vintage rating. There are few better short, simple ways to add to the case that the odds are on your side for great quality under the cork.

But I’m curious to hear what you think about vintage ratings. Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Before you do, however, rest assured that Lot18’s specialists only select wines they like, and are proud to offer. Then I do my best to make sure that we’re never cherry-picking the highest number we can, and instead are providing only helpful information. From there, it’s up to you, the drinker of the wine, to decide just how good our palates are or how helpful we actually were.