Written by John Kerr of Metro Wines (May 2017)
Secrets of wine ratings’ guides, and what winemakers actually serve at home.
Have you ever wondered what those in the wine profession pour when they go home? Vintners, of course, drink a lot of what they make. But what do they crave when they want something different at the end of the day?
And then there are the wine critics who are showered with free samples from wineries who hope to encourage a good score for their wines. Do the critics drink only expensive, highly rated wines, whether dinner is a gastronomic extravaganza or just a simple burger?
his month, we’ll take a look at what’s on the table of wine professionals. You’ll get a peek at their “go-to” wines and how those bottles end up there. But before we can answer that question, I’ll need to reveal some of the secrets and limitations behind the wine rating schemes.
Many winemakers drink a lot of what they actually produce. Most are in this profession not for the money, but for their passion for wine. There is an old saying in the wine business: If you want your winery to make you a millionaire, start with five million. There are several world famous wineries like Meiomi and The Prisoner whose profits are in the tens of millions. But most wineries are just getting by. The biggest reward most vintners reap is the opportunity to produce their vision of a great wine.
Winemakers generally do not own the winery and often have limited control over what they produce. Wineries are frequently the domain of gentlemen farmers who have made their windfall fortunes in such professions as software or real estate. One of my favorite Napa wineries is owned by the lead salesman of Viagra. The most successful wineries become so because they produce a distinctive style of wine. To maintain the brand, the employee winemaker must continue to produce, year after year, the same style that made the wine famous.
At some point a winemaker yearns to produce and drink something different. That’s why so many have side projects where they have the flexibility to make their own style. Many make these wines only for themselves and their friends to enjoy, but some turn these one-off projects into a second career. The winemaker at Kistler has kept his day job, but also makes his own style at his Kesner winery. And Argentina’s Laura Catena works with several different grape growers throughout
Argentina to produce the distinctive la Posta wines, named a winner of Wine and Spirit magazine’s value brand of the year.
When wine professionals desire something different, they can pretty much choose what they want. You might expect that they drink only wines with the highest scores. But that’s really not true. More often than not, they’ll reach for a wine rated 86 to 89 points that pairs well with food. To understand why, you need to know a bit about how rating schemes work and how they affect the wine market.
The first issue is price. Like the rest of us, winemakers like to save a buck or two when they can. The most expensive wines tend to be rated 90 points or higher (out of 100) and classified as “outstanding.” If a winemaker is lucky enough to receive a 90+ point rating, all of that wine easily sells out. If the rating is 89 or lower, the winemaker can have a tough time selling it all. Supply and demand drives up the price of the “outstanding” wine. Prices often fall off a cliff when the rating is 89 points or lower.
Are wines from the smallest producers really that much better? There are a plethora of exceptions, but generally speaking, small wineries produce the best wines.
Are “outstanding” wines appreciably better than those rated in the high eighties? Critics strive to achieve consistency in their ratings year after year. But like anywhere in life, we all have differing opinions. One person’s 90 points is another person’s 89 points. One critic defines “high eighties” as “very good, with special qualities.” How different is that from “outstanding”?
Does a rating of 98 really mean that the wine is better than one rated 90? I think the answer is revealed in the list of top 100 wines annually released by most critics. Wine Spectator’s #1 wine for 2016, Lewis Cellars Cabernet, is rated 95; but #4 is Chateau Climens Barsac, rated 97. Similarly, the #12 wine is rated 93, but #13 scored 97 points. The top 100 includes wines with ratings as low as 90 points, but many wines awarded more points by critics did not make the list. Clearly, those critics thought that the lower scored wines had a distinction not seen in some rated higher.
A good rule to drink by is, get to know your wine critic. Much like movie critics, if you find one with your taste, you pretty much know you’re going to like their future recommendations. Robert Parker is known for favoring bolder, fruitier wines.
So if you’re in the mood for a rich wine, look to his high scoring wines for a selection. If you’re a fan of lighter food wines, perhaps Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal or Eric Asimov of the New York Times should be your guide.
The most overlooked omission among the major wine rating schemes is the small winery. The omission is understandable. If a critic constantly raves about wines produced in very small amounts, the wines sell out in a heartbeat. This critic soon creates a frustrated fan base that can only read about these great wines. So what gets scored are wines widely available on the West and East Coasts of the United States. It is the wine critic who rates globally available wines that stays in business.
Are wines from the smallest producers really that much better? There are a plethora of exceptions, but generally speaking, small wineries produce the best wines. It’s much like the chef at a small, exclusive restaurant versus the one producing a hotel banquet. And big wineries become a victim of their own success. As their popularity grows, they are forced to buy grapes from vineyards beyond those that made them famous, which may not produce the same quality of wine. Being a small winery does not ensure that their wines are remarkable. But the truly outstanding, distinctive wines more often than not come from small producers.
With all this in mind, we can finally answer our question about what the wine professionals pour for themselves behind closed doors. On those special occasions, they may celebrate with a highly rated iconic wine. But on your average night, they are pouring a well-priced wine with a decent or no rating that complements a range of meals. And they’ll be serving a varietal or blend that matches the meal rather than always selecting one or two grapes.
The critics’ main go-to wines are generally wines like an unoaked Southern Rhone blend. The lack of oak means that these wines will pair with just about any food. And their blend produces a rich, medium weight wine that goes with the full range of lighter to heavier fare. The red Rhone blend is a bit like a symphony, with Grenache providing the violin’s high note and the Syrah or Mourvedre providing the bass. The Southern Rhone white blend provides a similar balance of aromatics, texture, and crispness.
I recommend you put these wines to the test. Pick up a few bottles, serve them with a string of meals, and see how versatile they are. The good news is that this test won’t cost you much since Southern Rhone boasts a myriad of wineries. Their number keeps the cost low and the variety in style and flavors high. I recommend you start with the red and white blends from the Lavau winery. They are well made and surprisingly inexpensive for the quality they deliver.
Gina Trippi, author of the wine blog Unfiltered, has interviewed many of the vintners on their road trips through Asheville. Here are some of their responses:
Quincy Steele produces some of the best bold and fruity barbeque wines found in California. But at the end of the day, Quincy likes to pour a lighter style: the red and white wines from France’s Burgundy region.
Napa’s Ray Signorello emphasizes the compatibility of food in his winery’s Cabernet blends. He won’t make a wine that he wouldn’t drink himself, and won’t pander with over-oaked, under-fruited wines. He mostly drinks what he makes, but also loves Nebbiolo, often called the Pinot Noir of Italy. And if you want a treat while visiting Napa, book his five-course food and wine pairing lunch.
Sean Boyd of Washington State’s Rotie winery produces premium wines reminiscent of France’s Northern and Southern Rhone regions. When at home, his taste remains consistent, pouring Rhones as well as white Burgundy, France’s Chardonnay.
So don’t be a slave to the ratings. Take a tip from the wine professionals and find the smaller wineries with unknown but quality wines. If you don’t, you’ll be missing out on some of the world’s greatest wines and at a lower cost to boot.
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