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You'll Know When a Vintage Is Abysmal

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 13, 2007 2:18pm ET

Over on Chuck Wagner’s blog, a reader from Michigan asked why (among other things) my ratings for Napa Valley Cabernet have been so “abysmal” of late.

If he’d used the words "critical" or "tough" or even "biased against" 2003, I wouldn’t have minded. An 85-point overall vintage rating for Napa Cabernets in 2003 puts the vintage in the “very good” range, albeit at the lower end of that spectrum. Calling that abysmal, well, that’s stretching things.

As I pointed out in the Nov. 15 issue, 2003 was a tricky year for Cabernet. There were some terrific wines, just fewer than in recent years such as 2001 and 2002 and, as I’m finding out now, 2004.

I’m addressing this issue because it’s important to read what the numerical ratings mean. (See the full explanation of our 100-point scale.) I know some people think that the only good wines are the ones rated 90 points or above. But I don’t view it that way and neither do my fellow editors, who grapple with creating vintage charts that attempt to provide a numerical snapshot of a given year from a given appellation.

As it is, you rarely see vintage ratings below 75 points on our chart; most fall between 85 to 100.

The same is true with individual wine ratings. Anything below 75 points is not recommended, and a wine has to be seriously flawed to be tagged with that designation, while 75 to 79 points is mediocre (a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws). Yet I'm sure that even those critics who have chosen to narrow the range of their published scores to 85 to 100 points—either for vintages or wines—would tell you that an 85-point wine is very good—not great, but well worth your attention provided the price is reasonable.

We think it’s useful to use a wider range of numbers for vintages and individual reviews. And if you see a 77-point vintage rating, you'll know the year overall was dreadful and so were many of the wines.

La Quinta, CA —  March 13, 2007 5:12pm ET
"I know some people think that the only good wines are the ones rated 90 points or above." James I hate to say this, but most of the wine drinking public is that way, not "some". I run a wine shop and am in "the trenches" every day. You however are not. The average "Joe" customer is not looking for 85-89 point wines, and that's just the cold hard facts. Sometimes I think it's better that wines not get reviewed by you or Robert Parker, either for a bad rating or a very good one. But don't fool yourselves into thinking people will be looking for the next great 88 point wine. Dustin
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  March 13, 2007 5:19pm ET
Good explanation James. I think one of the problems that most people have run into (and I'm including myself) is that you have many wines and get accustomed to having the "best" wines (which usually are the ones that score 90+ points), so then you don't want to go back to anything less than the 90 range. So then if a vintage gets an overall rating of anything less than 90 we over-react. Especially if you do the math and subtract the top 30% of the wines that are the best of the batch, then you assume that the remainder of the vintage would score even lower. That's my opinion on how we get a little over-dependent on 90+ scores. One thing that I've been doing a lot more, is to take your advice in an earlier blog where we were encouraged to pay more attention to description and not just score. In general if the rating is lets say 95 points, it usually is great and everybody tends to like it. But I've really been buying more on description and style rather than just score, and it's helped me to realize that I have a much different palette than others and I've been stoked on some lower rated wines that I normally wouldn't have purchased. Sometimes I have a 87 point wine that I think is more of a 90 pointer, etc... the other way around as well, I've had 93's that I think should be 88's. So keep up the good work James. This is what makes wine so special, you get to decide for yourself what you really like and have it.
Jim Holliman
March 13, 2007 5:24pm ET
James:Chuck Wagner posted in his 2/21/07 blog that about two thirds of the Napa vineyards were replanted about ten years ago due to phylloxera root louse. If you look at the vintage charts that WS maintains for Napa Cabs, the 1980's and 1990's had many years with an overall rating of 95 or greater. The 1997 rating being the peak with a 99 overall rating. The interesting thing is that only one year since then has been rated above 95 and that was 1999. Do you think that the new vines that were planted in 1997 and 1998 that Chuck Wagner mentioned in his blog had an impact on the overall quality of the Napa Cabs? Has the higher alcohol level had an impact on the overall ratings?
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  March 13, 2007 6:04pm ET
James, my research, such as it is, leads me to believe that you are getting tougher on your ratings the last few years, even taking into consideration the variance in seasons. That is as it should be. There seems to be a graudual improvement in California wines as the years go on; my impression is that they have never been better. So, keep up the good work, make them earn their scores.
Trevor Witt
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada —  March 13, 2007 7:48pm ET
Comment to Jim Holliman: A most excellent post! I have been wondering the same thing for some time now. I will be interested in James' comments. Perhaps we are looking for some years out for these vines to improve with age? With the 100 point concept, I think most readers/purchasers are just looking to maximize their dollars with the most optimal purchase.
Jason Grege
Grants Pass, Oregon —  March 13, 2007 8:12pm ET
I own a wine shop myself, and honstly very rarely mark wines with scores. There are some that merit doing so because they are very high, or will help sell a wine because of price, high or low. I cannot say I have ever had a customer come in to my store and say, "I wan't a 90 point wine, no less." Instead, we taste most of our wines through distributors and trade events, judge the wines ourselves, and then we can confidently recommend a wine we have personal experience with and by listening to their likes and dislikes, one they will find enjoyable. That being said we do look at ratings as they provide a good snapshot of overall quality of the wine, and in some cases can help showcase exceptional value. But this will never eclipse a sale made with a personal touch from actually listening to a customer. That creates loyalty. Not how many 90 point wines we carry. Scores should be taken for what they are. A highly educated, but still personal opinion. I don't know how many times I have loved a wine only to find the score lower than I would have put it, or vice versa. Scores are extremely helpful but to rely solely on those would be a mistake for anyone to make. I say thank you James for your honesty.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  March 13, 2007 8:31pm ET
James, In our experience the buyers for California wines are looking for a the score for the dollar. An 88 point wine selling for $15 or less is no problem to sell, but an 88 point wine selling for $30 or above is going to be on the shelf a long time. The exceptions are Zinfandels (where 88 points is really like 92 points due to the WS Zin bias), and where we pour the wine so that people will quit reading the score and buy with their taste buds. The real problems come at 85, 86, 87 points, where even if they have a designated "Best Value" etc., they still will not sell unless poured. It is really funny that 88 is a "no problem" sell, but 87 is the kiss of death. One little point causes all the trouble!
Charles E Andrews
Fort Worth, TX —  March 13, 2007 9:26pm ET
James ... Over the last 2 years, your ratings have befuddled my palate to the point that I totally ignore your score and seriously doubt that your palate hasn't suffered irreparable damage. Parker and you have been very consistant in the past. Now you two have varied by as much as 10 points on some very important wines. You seem to have it in for certain winemakers and blessed some very mediocre efforts. Some have suggested an encroachment of commercial bias in your reviews. While not that jaded, I feel that Wine Spectator should institute an independent review of your tastings. Many oenophiles I know now question anything you write.
Mike Vessa
East Williston,NY —  March 13, 2007 10:08pm ET
Dustin, Your post was very sincere, very well-spoken and extremely accurate..I am not in the trade but am an avid collector. One of my closest friends is a retailer(who turned me on to high-end wine) and has completely given up on the high-end market...well said. MPV
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  March 13, 2007 10:18pm ET
David Joyce, thank goodness that someone else has noticed the anti-zinfandel bias in Wine Spectator. I always add two to three points to W/S zinfandel ratings. Laube seems lost when he rate zins. Good for you!
David W Voss
Elkhorn, Wi —  March 13, 2007 11:34pm ET
James, after growing my wine collection of 550+ from the mid 80's I am also somewhat skeptical of your tastes on more than a few wines. I only buy wine that I have had at a tasting or after consuming an entire bottle so when I see a rating that seems wildly off the mark (Simi Landslide 02&03 low 70's) I have to wonder. Do you sometimes taste even with a cold?
Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  March 13, 2007 11:37pm ET
Mr. Laube,I can't help but completely disagree with Mr. Andrews. I think that he is ignoring the entire purpose of the 100-point scale and what it means. The editors and tasters at the Wine Spectator provide their educated insight into the chaotic world of wine. The magazine offers many of us a great deal of direction when it comes to purchasing. As a writer that also follows a 100 point scale myself, I can agree to disagree on some occasions, but that is what makes this profession so interesting. I, like so many others do not take yours or any of the others' writing as absolute truth, but I'm pretty sure you guys have a good idea of what you're talking about. That is why I subscribe to this publication online. These blogs are also able to humanize you and your fellow editors. I have had my posts personally replied to on many occasions. What a treat it is to have the chance for this type of interaction as a young writer. I'm not going to demand omniscience from the editorial body of WS, that's what makes it and so many other publications a heck of a good read.Cheers,Andrew
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  March 13, 2007 11:38pm ET
I agree wholeheartedly with Dave Joyce in that the score/value ratio is what most saavy wine drinkers are looking for. Few of us can afford the routine consumption of 95+ point wines. The $10-15 88pt wine can be a great bargain and case-worthy, particularly if the varietal is pinot noir (regrettably, not a common situation). Unfortunately, many consumers still see an 85-87pt score as the kiss-o-death, or more to the point, damning with faint praise. You gotta knock something back with your daily bread, and you don't want it to break the bank.

Personally, I don't pay a great deal of attention to the overall vintage scores in WS, preferring to go more on personal tasting when possible, and on a wine (or producer) by wine basis.
March 14, 2007 12:45am ET
I find it hard to believe that there is no bias in your reviews and writings. Your blog segment regarding Paul Hobbs and the astronomical prices he was paying for grapes from the famed To Kalon vineyard essentially justified his pricing, while Provenance was selling a To-Kalon Cabernet at the very same time for under $40, was outrageous.There was also a time when The Wine Spectator had, in their explanation of the 100 point scale, a clause stating that the tasting panel in fact DID score a wine higher for being perceived as a good value after being revealed from it's blind, and bumped the score on that merit alone. So much for tasting a wine blind. This was a few years back that this was actually public information on your website... it has since been removed. (The statment really was there in print.... I copied and pasted it on Winecommune's forums for all to see at one time).One more thing that echoes forever in my mind: 1999 Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape - Wine of The Year..... That wine did not deserve the score let alone the accolade of WOTY. If I remeber correctly Guigal was doing some very heavy, full page, advertising in those days..... Hmmmm?I guess you could call me skeptical.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 14, 2007 2:02am ET
Wow, lot's of personal attacks (not just assertions of bias) on Mr. Laube guys....

I don't focus much on the vintage rating except to remember it when I'm out at a restaurant and want to avoid mediocre vintages. I do agree with the folks here who assert that the QPR balance gets real tricky at around 87-88 points and a $10+ tag. Before becoming an avid reader of WS and user of WS online I didn't care so much. But once I realized how many great 90+ point wines can be had from around the world in the $15-20 range, it changed my whole outlook. The reality is my liver can only take about 3 bottles of wine per week. At my current age and life expectancy I'm only going to get to try another 3,000 bottles or less. I absolutely MUST use the point system to weed out as many wines as possible. So, I've watched my point threshold go from 85 to 88 to 90 to 93, really. In fact, if I can get a 94-95 point red for under $40 I do it, and it's all because I just don't have that much time left.

So James, when you rate a vintage under 90 points, this is one reader that eschews the wines from that vintage/region almost en masse. It's a sad reality.
Michael Green
San Diego, CA —  March 14, 2007 4:59am ET
I agree with both Paul and Jason. How a wine tastes is your own opinion that you make based on your own palate. Some palates like James' are more sensitive and we look to it as a guide, but when it comes down to it you are the one buying the wine based on what you like. To each their own - we live in a free country, ya know?
David A Zajac
March 14, 2007 8:39am ET
I wholeheartedly agree with Jason re 90 point wines, I and everyone I know that shop for wines use the scores only as a guide, not gospel. If there are wines I am not sure about, I will ask the salesperson and rely on their judgement. It seems to me Dustin is overly exaggerating his situation or not doing his homework if nobody is asking him his opinion on wines. What are you there for in the first place, to offer advice or plaster your shop with shelf talkers that do your work for you? Wine Spectator offers their best advice and the scores to go with it, but its all personal opinion, which we all know, or should know.
covington, ky —  March 14, 2007 10:00am ET
Wow! I've felt like I was alone in all of this. As the buyer for two retail stores in the Cincinnati/Northern KY area, I have felt for a long time that ratings have been quite skewed in that no one pays heed to the fact that 85-89 points is actually a good score. But the fact that growing up, as students from 1st grade to high school, you really weren't accomplishing anything unless you scored 90 or higher on tests and reports. So we have been preconditioned not to accept anything but 90 or above. And it truly shows when our customers demand 90+ scores on their wines, even though those scores are indicative of even slight bias on behalf of the critics - be it Mr. Laube, Robert Parker, or any of their peers. It is often impossible to sell a California Cab that is over $30 but scored 88 or 89 points. It swings the other way when a $15 California Cab scores a 90 or better - you can't keep it in. And God forbid, Mr. Laube pans a vintage, like the 1998, which forced my stores to mark that vintage down to a clearance price - even for Oregon, Australia and Southern Rhone, where the 1998 was extraordinary. Word of mouth on these scores kill vintages, brands and varieties. It's that simple. It takes a lot of undoing and a lot of sampling on these wines with the customers to reverse the perception and prove to the customers that these scores may inform, but they are not always the absolute truth.
Thomas Matthews
March 14, 2007 10:14am ET

It's a shame that some people, like Greg, will post statements that are based on unfounded assumptions and errors of fact.

I have been with Wine Spectator for 18 years. I have never seen the "clause" Greg refers to, nor have I ever been aware of a wine whose score was changed for any reason. All scores are the result of blind tastings, unless specifically noted.

In addition, Guigal has never advertised in Wine Spectator, neither before nor after the winery's 1999 Chateauneuf du Pape was named Wine of the Year.

And in response to Charles Andrew's post, it is impossible to indulge in "bias" -- either for or against a particular producer -- when all wines are tasted blind. James Laube's reviews are based on 30 years of experience; he calls them the way he sees them, without fear or favor.

Wine Spectator's success rests on our credibility with our 2.2 million readers, and that credibility is based on our experience, expertise and honesty. We would never do anything to jeopardize our readers' trust.

Thomas Matthews,
Executive editor
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 14, 2007 10:49am ET
Wow!This topic certainly has gotten many of us fired up, and I am no exception. I think it is a no-win situation to rate a vintage for a specific area, especially now with soooo many producers in any given area producing soooo many different types of wines! I'm sure this was not as much the case in the past as it is today, therefore making JL's job more difficult. In addition, even individual varietals are being made in such diverse styles from the same area that it is sometimes difficult to tell they are both made from the same grape!My only knock is when a specific region is granted a much higher score than another here in CA, even though individual wine scores refute this. As JL knows, I am a huge supporter of SB Cty wines, not only since I work for a winery in the area but also because I have tasted many of the wines from most producers in the area vs. similar wines from other areas within CA, and I am still befuddled by the lower vintage scores we continue to receive. I'm not upset - just trying to understand why this is the case . . .As JL said, an 85-88 score is still very good, but when an entire vintage from one region is given this, and another region is given a 94 or 95 even though, IMO, the wines are on par, it's difficult for me to see . . .JL - keep your flack jacket on for a little while longer (o:
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  March 14, 2007 2:36pm ET
Wow, lots of good posts. I'll throw my always quantative hat in the ring

Looking at the vintage ratings, in terms of JUST napa CS. Assuming 2004 scores in the middle of the range at 92, going back to 1985 the average Napa CS rating is 91.75, with a standard dev of 5.2. If the average is ~92 then it seems to me that an 85 is pretty far below average, call it abysmmal if you will. Especially when one considers that in ~20 years only 5 years have scored 85 or less. Seems to me that Jim must have thought this was pretty bad...(no comment on wether or not this a correct assesment).

The other thing is that a Napa CS vintage scoring below 80 points is so infrequent that in the US you have to go back 1982 (and before that '72) to find one. Is it possible that only 1 vintage in 31 years could qualify as below 80 points?
Glenn S Lucash
March 14, 2007 3:56pm ET
Larry...if you think this is fired up, just read the blogs and forum on the '05 and '06 Bordeaux. I personally can't taste many of the wines I purchase in advance. I try to review both WS and Parker and if there is a consensus, I usually take the plunge except on the outrageous first and some second growth Bordeaux wines.
David A Zajac
March 14, 2007 4:39pm ET
Wow, this is some post, poor Jim, I feel like he is being hit on all sides on this one. Has anyone ever thought about rating a vintage from a particular region based upon strictly statistical data? For instance, if Jim review 100 Napa cabs for the 2004 vintage and the total points of all 100 cabs totals 9070 points, seems to me its a 91 point vintage (allowing for rounding). Some producers made better wines, some worse, but why let a handful of spectacular wines (maybe 6-8 per year, lets say) influence the overall rating of a vintage...for all that goes, either up or down. Personally, I think Jim has underrated 2003 and overrated 1999, but that is my opinion and nobody is paying me for that. So, why not let the numbers be your guide? This could obviously be applied to any wine region where the sampling of wines is large enough to make the statistical sampling relevant. Also, I hate 98-100 point vintages, I think its too easy to get caught up in it being really good but the top influences your overall opinion of a vintage. An example would be James rating 2000 Barolo/Barbaresco a 100 point vintage - according to the WS data base, he rated 4 out of 320 wines that year as 100 point wines, but its a 100 point vintage? I don't get it.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 14, 2007 5:04pm ET
To Jim H, I'm not ignoring your post, but have a few other items to deal with...will answer soon. Maybe tomorrow's blog...
John Danby
Napa —  March 14, 2007 7:13pm ET
While the original post was in regard to vintage scores, it did take a tangent toward Mr. Laube's scores on individual wines. It is a shame that so many people that collect wine don't seem to understand that there is tremendous variability in sensory perception, as well as our individual likes and dislikes. Many of you are treating the reviews of Laube, Parker and other critics as absolutes, which should be nonsense (wine shop owners: sorry about that). I find the variability between critics to be both interesting and instructive.

Being something of a Zin Fan, a few years ago I built a database of reviews of Zin from WS, WE and CGCW. After awhile, I could discern something of a trend based on styles, regions and similar, but the reality is that there really tended to be no particular pattern except that WE tends to be more generous (as they are with everything, IMHO), and my likes tend to trend with CGCW. So now I have a benchmark: if I want to check a Zin, I review CGCW. And so it goes with other varietals, regions and critics. Oh, yeah: don't forget to read the review, too (it's not just the scores)! This is essential for figuring out a critic's style likes and dislikes, and from this you make a comparison to yours, and benchmark.

This is how it should work, kids. Figure out the style you like, and find a critic with whom you agree. Geez, don't take it out on Mr. Laube if you don't agree with him, and certainly if he doesn't agree with Parker. Parker is, in fact, useful: if he scores an Aussie Shiraz 95 or above, I probably won't buy it (Grange excepted!), as it most likely won't be a style I like. Benchmark bingo!
Mark Sinnott
Mahopac, NY —  March 15, 2007 1:36pm ET
While I too disagree with JL's reviews of many wines (and agree with him on many others), I am amazed at the majority of comments on this thread. Maybe because the people here (like me!) are wine freaks on the obsessed periphery...But really, people who say they need a minimum score before purchasing a wine are playing right into the hands of the rest of the wine drinking world, who accuse Americans of being point chasers. While I don't agree with this generalization, the over-abundance here of people who seem to be point and label-buyers is astounding. Take Jim's and other critics' reviews for what they are: a guide and not a rule book. If you think $40 for a 88 point wine is OK, then fine. Are you worried about serving it and having a friend say 'gee, that's only 88 points'? Good grief.
Jim May
Los Angeles —  March 16, 2007 1:31am ET
The "90-point factor" sounds like one of those psychological barriers, similar to big even numbers for the Dow Jones. Perhaps switching to a letter-scale, where A=100 down to Z=76 would lick that.

Dustin writes: "But don't fool yourselves into thinking people will be looking for the next great 88 point wine."

Funny you should mention that... my non-wine-geek girlfriend brought home what turned out to be a $6 88-point wine (The Little Penguin Cab S. 2005) and I scooped up two more that night. It's the best 88-pointer I've had yet. At this point in my wine-tasting career, I tend to rely on points-per-dollar, at least until I can trust my palate to appreciate the value in those top-end wines.

That being said, the ratings system is a good bit of insurance when you choose wine for someone else whose tastes you do not know... I was in charge of fulfilling the wine specification in the contract for a musical act, and the parameters I had were "red, no more than $12 a bottle". The $10 90-point Columbia Crest 2003 Merlot I picked got a big thumbs up.

John Wilen
Texas —  June 3, 2007 7:41am ET
JBV, revise your adjustment formula to: WS zin rating plus 6-7 points in the case of the '04 Rosenblum Monte Rosso. I grabbed a bottle based on The Zin Authority (CGCW) and they were spot-on with 2 puffs. A classic big, intense Rosenblum equaling the best Rockpile's, Carla's, Maggie's, etc. Looking for confirmation, I did some further research afterwards and found an avalanche of support: WE93 (highest ever for the winery), California Wine News said Outstanding, the annual Taster's Guild International Wine Judging awarded it a rare Double Gold medal, etc. JL is The Man for CA cabs, merlots and chards, but this varietal may be a candidate for him to take on a tasting partner. As Dirty Harry Callahan once said, a man's got to know his limitations....

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