Here’s a recent description of a wine, a California petite sirah rated 94 points, from one of the popular wine publications: “A dark, fragrant and expressive red, showing accents of fresh forest floor and loam to the flavors of wild blueberry and blackberry, along with licorice, rosemary and espresso details. Thick, velvety tannins and a spicy finish give this wine extra charm.”
Yeah, but is it any good?
I have no idea. The description tells me little, although I’m fairly certain I’d don’t want to taste “fresh forest floor and loam” in a beverage. There’s nothing in the flowery writing about whether this wine is a good match with foods or what foods it might be well paired with. There’s no information about the wine’s alcohol content (the higher the percentage of alcohol, the “hotter” the wine will taste in your mouth), or whether this would be considered a heavy, light or medium-bodied wine. I suppose “extra charm” counts for something —but isn’t that the phrase real-estate agents often use to cover up the blemishes of a fixer-upper?
The price of this wine? $100 a bottle.
So: a hundred bucks, 94 points, a pretty label on the bottle and those thick, velvety tannins — I guess I should like it. If I don’t, my palate must be out of whack. I mean, who would put a $100 price tag on a lousy wine?
But one of the greatest disservices the wine industry has done to wine consumers, I think, is to use baroque, overwritten claptrap like the description quoted above, plus a hardly objective scoring system of questionable value as well as Rolls Royce pricing to more or less force consumers to believe that what’s inside the bottle is indeed good, even great, wine. Yet such descriptions and pricing provide you with no clue whether you will like this wine or not. And those 94 points? They come from a 100-point scale that was originally intended to give a sense of a wine’s overall quality, it’s true, but that scale was almost immediately appropriated and bastardized by wine retailers to market rather than rate wine. (You’ll see shelf-talkers like this in every store’s wine department: “92 points! $19.99! What a deal!”) Moreover, those points are usually awarded by one critic tasting the wine on one day, and that critic’s palate or tastes may be entirely different than yours. Bear in mind as well that critics typically taste and rate wine on its own, without matching the wine with a food. Foods can dramatically change the experience of a wine, as can age. A young Bordeaux that’s full of acidic tannins might taste, by itself, like wet redwood bark, but give that wine several years of cool aging to mellow out, and then pair it with, say, prime rib, and you’ve got the makings of a great wine-food experience.
Can you tell if a wine is any good by the label on the bottle? Yes, to a degree, but you need to know how to read a wine label to truly gain a sense of what the wine is all about. A label’s design, pretty as it might be, tells you nothing; it’s the words that matter. (I’ll cover what those words mean, and which words to pay attention to, in a future column.)
One of the most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted was an old Napa Valley Johannesburg Riesling made in the mid-1960s by Robert Mondavi. One evening when I was in college my dad sent me down to the basement to pick out a wine to accompany the chicken dish my mom was making for dinner. I found the Mondavi Riesling tucked in a corner of our wine rack, dusty and forgotten. By then it was 10 years old – well past its prime, according to conventional wine wisdom. As I remember, Dad opened it over the kitchen sink just in case the wine had become vinegar and needed to be dumped. But when we tasted it, the Riesling was nothing less than wondrous – it crackled in our mouths like a crisp apple, its acids still strong as a stone wall. The wine’s delicate, multiple flavors flowed over and around each other like beautiful clouds. It matched Mom’s chicken beautifully, and 40 years later I still remember just how that wine tasted and how much our family enjoyed it. Dad probably spent no more than $5 or $6 when he bought the bottle at the winery, the 100-point scoring system didn’t exist, and I’m sure Dad wouldn’t have cared what a critic thought of this wine. Yet the memory of it, and of that evening, still makes me happy.
That’s my measure of a good wine. Forget the scores, the ridiculous descriptions, how pretty the wine label looks, and the price tag. Pay no attention to any of that when trying to decide whether a wine is any good. What was your experience of the wine? That’s what counts. It’s all that counts.
Here’s all you need to know: If you like it, it’s good wine. If you don’t, it’s not.