Cellar master Wilfred Wong reveals how critics rate wine

Wine Spectator gave the Robert Mondavi 2000 Napa Valley CabernetSauvignon an 86. Robert Parker gave it 91 to 93 points. Which scoreshould you believe?

A lot is riding on the scores a wine gets from a handful ofexperts. With a 90, bottles fly off the shelves; an 89 gets a winemuch less attention. But does that one-point difference accuratelyindicate that the first wine is better than the second?

Wilfred Wong ― e-commerce cellar master for Beverages& More and the man responsible for evaluating every wine on theshelves of the chain's 38 stores ― invited us to taste withhim, to see how he rates wines on a 100-point scale. We wanted tofind out how much of the scoring process is objective, how much issubjective, and how much stock we can put in the numbers.

According to Wong, true professionals, who taste anywhere from6,000 to 10,000 wines a year (Wong tastes about 8,000 ― morethan 20 a day, on average), develop a thorough understanding of― and taste memory for ― the classic characteristics ofevery variety: flavors, tannins, acidity, structure, and so on.They have a consistent standard in their heads ― pretty closeto objective ― and can make an instant call on whether a wineis well made by that standard or not.

They do have to contend with physical circumstances: setting,where a wine falls in the lineup, how many wines they've alreadytasted, and even their state of mind and health that day. But aneffective taster has the ability to limit subjective factorssignificantly and pick up aroma and flavor nuances beyond most ofus. "I could be out on the beach in shorts and rate this winewithin a two-point range," Wong said, of the 2001 KistlerChardonnay (Russian River Valley, CA) we were tasting. He gave it a93.

Still, we're talking ranges here ― one man's 91 is anotherwoman's 88. Critics can favor certain profiles; Parker, forexample, has a legendary preference for powerful fruit andhigh-impact wines. They can take some varieties less seriously thanothers and work from unspoken patterns. For instance, one ratermight reserve 90-plus scores for classic, high-end wines worthy ofaging, while another is willing to award a score in that range to aless-expensive wine for which up-front fruit flavors areeverything, as long as it does what it set out to do better thanthe bulk of the pack.

"Scores are reliable to their source," says Wong, so, hesuggests, it's important to become familiar with the quirks of eachand weigh your own wine taste against theirs.

On one hand, high wine scores can spark an interest in a varietyor region you're not familiar with. On the other, as Wong puts it,they're a little like CliffsNotes: They can give you reasonablyaccurate highlights. But if you ignore the full text andconsistently reject 89s in favor of 90s, you miss out on a world ofgreat wines ― and give the critics way too much power.

BLEND TREND

Some of the most exciting wines made now in the West are blendsof varieties commonly grown in France's Rhône Valley ―Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Cinsault, andothers.

Edmunds St. John Rozet Vineyard "Los Robles Viejos" 2000(Paso Robles, CA), $25. Aromas and flavors of tar, black licorice,stones, minerals, and game, with a beautiful core of ripeblackberries.

Morgan Côtes du Crow's 2001 (Monterey, CA), $14. Notesof game, coffee, and licorice. Serve it from a carafe with goodsausages and roasted potatoes.

Ravenswood "Icon" 2000 (Sonoma County), $20. A big mouthfulof blackberries overlaid with toasty oak. Good partner for aslow-cooked, meaty stew.

Ridge Vineyards "Three Valleys" 2001 (Sonoma County), $18. Awinning blend of Carignane, Mourvèdre, Grenache, andZinfandel, with bright, fresh blueberry and blackberry flavors anda rustic edge of tannin. Very satisfying with grilled meats.

Robert Hall "Rhône de Robles" 2002 (Central Coast, CA),$18. A simple wine, long on rustic charm. Blackberry-like fruitwith hints of espresso. Great companion for roast chicken. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

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