What's the score?

Cellar master Wilfred Wong reveals how critics rate wine
SARA SCHNEIDER

Wine Spectator gave the Robert Mondavi 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon an 86. Robert Parker gave it 91 to 93 points. Which score should you believe?

A lot is riding on the scores a wine gets from a handful of experts. With a 90, bottles fly off the shelves; an 89 gets a wine much less attention. But does that one-point difference accurately indicate 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 the shelves of the chain's 38 stores ― invited us to taste with him, to see how he rates wines on a 100-point scale. We wanted to find out how much of the scoring process is objective, how much is subjective, and how much stock we can put in the numbers.

According to Wong, true professionals, who taste anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 wines a year (Wong tastes about 8,000 ― more than 20 a day, on average), develop a thorough understanding of ― and taste memory for ― the classic characteristics of every variety: flavors, tannins, acidity, structure, and so on. They have a consistent standard in their heads ― pretty close to objective ― and can make an instant call on whether a wine is 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 already tasted, and even their state of mind and health that day. But an effective taster has the ability to limit subjective factors significantly and pick up aroma and flavor nuances beyond most of us. "I could be out on the beach in shorts and rate this wine within a two-point range," Wong said, of the 2001 Kistler Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, CA) we were tasting. He gave it a 93.

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

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

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

BLEND TREND

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

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 ripe blackberries.

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

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

Ridge Vineyards "Three Valleys" 2001 (Sonoma County), $18. A winning blend of Carignane, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Zinfandel, with bright, fresh blueberry and blackberry flavors and a 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 fruit with hints of espresso. Great companion for roast chicken. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club