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Drinking Out Loud

Dubious Wine Achievements of Our Time

How smart wine people became boneheads

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 2, 2012

Cautionary tales, like accidents on the highway, are irresistible. Yes, partly it's the spectacle. But there's also the sense that if you're smart, you'll somehow learn from others' mistakes and not make them yourself. It's this underlying optimism that makes cautionary tales so appealing.

An especially appealing element in the examples to follow is that the tale of woe is reversible. The same folks (or at least a succeeding generation of them) who were once so savvy can, and very likely will, become so again. For example:

Bordeaux Made Itself Boring. Of all the wine events that I've witnessed so far, none has surprised me more than the erosion of Bordeaux as central to the world's wine culture.

Now, before you start sputtering about the fabulous prices nowadays achieved by the top Bordeaux estates, please remember that these few properties—maybe 100 or so, tops—are but a pinnacle of a vast array of producers in the region.

These top estates get not only all of the attention but also a disproportionate amount of the profits. It's estimated that the famous châteaus account for just 3 percent of Bordeaux's total wine production but a whacking 20 percent of the value of all Bordeaux wines.

The reality of the larger Bordeaux region is bleak. In 2010, Bernard Fargues, president of the AOC Bordeaux and Superieur syndicate, revealed that that up to 90 percent of its members (around 2,000 producers) were in financial difficulty, with fully 50 percent in serious financial distress. Such a statement shouldn't come as a shock. After all, in the mid-2000s, prices of everyday Bordeaux wines plunged by half in just three years, and have never recovered.

Interesting as these details may be, what is more fascinating—if less statistically verifiable—is how boring Bordeaux has become. Apart from reading about insane auction prices in Hong Kong, when was the last time you heard anybody talking about Bordeaux? Enthusing about Bordeaux? Hell, even drinking Bordeaux?

More tellingly yet, when was the last time you met a wine lover under 35 who even mentioned Bordeaux?

For someone such as myself, who came of wine age at a time when Bordeaux wines—not just the classed-growths but the many crus bourgeois too—were the very stuff of wine discussion, the idea that Bordeaux is so boring as to be disregarded is astonishing. Apart from a small bunch of (mostly older) collectors pursuing the luxury châteaus, Bordeaux is off the radar.

The cautionary nutshell: Wine producers who say, "It can't happen here," had better think again. If it can happen to Bordeaux—once the epicenter of the fine-wine world—it can happen to you.

The Banalization of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. You might keep in mind the macro-cautionary tale of Bordeaux when considering this micro-cautionary story about what is arguably the epicenter of California Pinot Noir: Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.

In the space of just a handful of years, Russian River Valley went from a mere trickle of Pinot Noir from pioneers to a gush of more than 4,500 acres of Pinot, most of it planted within the past decade or so.

What's not to like, you ask? At one level, it's surely a Good Thing. But here's the catch: An awful lot of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is repetitive; too many of the Pinots are, to this taster anyway, oversimple and overripe.

Of course, your tasting mileage may vary. But I have to say it: Today, when I pick up a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir I brace myself for a deeply colored, lush, rather flat, simple wine with too much oak and too little of the layers and nuance that I, anyway, think distinguishes fine Pinot Noir.

That Russian River Valley can create just such impeccably fine Pinot Noirs is not in question. I've been heaping praise upon the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Dehlinger and others for decades. But not everywhere in that overlarge (for pinpoint Pinot Noir distinction) appellation can deliver such qualities; not every place in Russian River Valley is as cool as might be desirable for Pinot Noir.

Why have so many Russian River Pinots become banal? Two causes come immediately to mind. One is late picking. Simply put, too many wines seem overripe. No red grape so quickly loses shadings and nuance to overripeness as Pinot Noir.

The other reason is a sameness of clonal selection. The majority of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir plantings are composed of the same, flavor-potent Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, known as 113, 114, 115, 667, 777 and so forth. (They are so called because they were identified by a French clonal selection program in Burgundy based in Dijon.) Ask any nursery supplier: These are the Pinot clones everyone wanted (and got) in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is when Russian River Valley vineyard plantings expanded significantly.

It was a mistake. A little of these Dijon clones go a long way. As with an intense perfume, you just want a dab, not a splash. A great Pinot Noir vineyard has dozens of clones, not just three or four. And above all, not just the narrowband flavor-potent Dijon clones.

The cautionary nutshell: If everyone plants the same clones of the same grape and picks at lush ripeness levels, you get, well, the same banal thing. It's a form of flavor commodification. And it's now happening in the very place about which so many of us got excited by the possibilities of California Pinot Noir.

Wisdom of the Wine Crowd. The mantra of the moment is the so-called "wisdom of the crowd." An array of pop culture articles and books in the past decade have celebrated what one writer called "collective intelligence."

Financial types, for their part, celebrated the power of so-called prediction markets, in which groups of people guess or bet on something, with the results aggregating into a consensus.

Not since the old Soviet and Maoist eras have we seen "the people" so lavished with praise and unqualified admiration.

Inevitably, the wisdom of the crowd got applied to wine criticism. You see, if enough people—never mind how little they might actually know—post enough of their tasting notes, a crystalline "truth" about a particular wine, or even a whole region or vintage will make itself known.

This, in a word, is propaganda. One hundred people who don't know much about, say, Auxey-Duresses adds up to 100 muddied, baffled and often duplicative conclusions. (You think all those tasting notes were generated in pristine isolation from everyone else's conclusions?)

When it comes to fine wine, there is no wisdom of the crowd—that’s not only a delusion, it's a pernicious delusion. When it comes to fine wine, there is only informed opinion, never mind whose. Such informed opinion can come from anyone. It doesn't have to be a professional critic. We've all met plenty of impassioned wine lovers who have devoted thousands of hours (never mind dollars) to the subject. We should all listen closely to such people. I sure do.

But we must first decide that they are indeed informed. We must first confirm that they have, based on demonstrated experience or exposure, a basis for their opinion. It's not enough that they are part of the "wisdom of the crowd."

The cautionary nutshell: If you believe that fine-wine judgment can be crowd-sourced, you'll find yourself merely running with the herd.

Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  October 2, 2012 11:14am ET
Matt,

A great post all-around and one of the best I've read from you and on Wine Spectator. Bravo.

Aaron
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 2, 2012 12:41pm ET
Matt,

When I first started truly sampling Russian River Pinot Noir (back in the 1986-1989 time period), pulling the average RRV designated Pinot Noir off the shelf often resulted in a truly poorly made/flawed wine. Certainly Williams-Selyem, Rochioli, Dehlinger, and (might I add) Porter Creek stood out because of their outstanding quality, but also because they were the exception to the rule.

So I don't think I would agree that the Russian River has slipped in any way. Great Pinots are Pinot producers are still the exception, not the rule. And as far as the average RRV Pinot goes....isn't banal (your description) a step-up from flawed?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines


Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 2, 2012 12:44pm ET
Matt,

One other quick point -- isn't it odd to say that fine-wine judgement can't be crowd sourced and, in the same colomn, describe Bordeaux as boring by citing the example of "when is the last time you met a wine lover under 35 who even mentioned Bordeaux"?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Lora Pallatto
San Francisco, CA —  October 2, 2012 1:05pm ET
Like most wine-lovers I can't afford to buy the famous first growths. I have tried to buy more reasonably-priced secondary Bordeaux vintages. But more often than not I'm disappointed by these wines. I find them excessively raw and tannic to the point of being downright rustic.

You might accuse me of drinking these wines too young rather than cellaring them for a few years to temper the rough edges. But I don't think cellaring would have significantly improved the flavor profile of these wines. I have bought aged Bordeaux and younger vintages, with the similar disappointing results. Furthermore for the relatively few bottles of Bordeaux I have purchased I have run into what I consider to be more than than the normal rate of corked bottles.

In contrast I have found that I able to get better value and far more consistent quality by buying Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhone wines.

The only way many of those struggling secondary Bordeaux wineries are going to survive their financial woes is to bring some new ideas into their operations with a greater focus on quality.
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  October 2, 2012 2:41pm ET
Lora,

What kind of new ideas can really come into a Bordeaux estate? I think that as long as the focus is on quality farming and simple winemaking, the wines will always have a place.

Markets ebb and flow for sure and right now the Bordeaux marketplace has lost luster and potentially a generation or so of consumers in this country. That said, it is Bordeaux and will certainly come back.

I can honestly say I'm not a huge Bordeaux fan overall, but 3 of my top 10 wines I've ever tasted come from the banks of the Gironde...so maybe I'm kidding myself.
Eric Levine
Seattle, WA —  October 2, 2012 6:56pm ET
Matt, thank you for your very perceptive comments on crowd-sourcing. A simple aggregated number is no way to capture such a rich and subjective topic.

-Eric (the CellarTracker guy)
Gregory Kendall
Laurel, MD —  October 2, 2012 8:19pm ET
Matt,

I think you hint on a very interesting topic and your perspective is appreciated. Personally, I think Bordeaux has easily lost luster because you have very few, if any, new products being introduced to the market. Couple that idea with the financial hit one takes in buying a bordeaux wine and then having to wait until many of these wines become "civilized" enough to open and I can support your theory. In regards to the Russian River Pinot Noir idea, I still find that even though a large number of plantings may have been the norm in the 1990's and of more recent times, the proof of these wines are the flavors in the glass! I find a wide array of these wines are quite good with complex flavors. The Russian River Valley (RRV) is synonymous to Pinot Noir as Napa is to Cabernet Sauvignon. There are diverse methods to wine making and the technologies used today that have pushed the qualitative aspects of Pinot Noir in the RRV. To me, I find that exciting, not boring. Frankly, I think we have entered into a time where Pinot has never been better having just visited and tasted a myriad of '09 & '10 Pinots a month ago in the RRV!

Greg
Mark Sinnott
Seattle, WA —  October 2, 2012 8:44pm ET
Matt, do you feel that the professional publications such as WS - and their well-known critics with established stylistic preferences - have had any influence on RRV becoming 'banal'?

As for your crowd sourcing criticism, this seems like a rant in search of a problem. Are you criticizing Cellar Tracker? If so, why not just come out and say it? Or is something else at play in the world of wine that incites your displeasure with collective sharing of information?

Mark
Glenn Alexander
Healdsburg CA —  October 2, 2012 9:06pm ET
Matt

I understand the premise of what you are saying but believe Adam Lee makes a more salient point. I farm 600 acres of fruit of which 165 acres are RRV pinot. That fruit goes to the likes of nationally known wineries Paul Hobbs and Kosta Browne as well as numerous artisan pinot makers. We have much more clonal diversity than you state. Calera and Swan make up a large portion of our acreage as does Pommard and 828. Several sites are field selections from other great vineyards. But the thing is, wines from these special vineyards and places are not common in national distribution. Great and exciting wine is here in the RRV, but not all RRV pinot is great and exciting. Sometimes it is just good or solid, and yes, occasionally banal. But isn't that true of every wine region?

Glenn Alexander
Bacchus Vineyard Management
Sanglier Cellars
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 2, 2012 11:45pm ET
(insert sad laugh here, followed by a sigh)

Consider the similarities amongst the following:

a) Get off my lawn!
b) Why aren't there ever any innovations in traditional wine?
c) What the hell are these Pinot producers in RRV doing?
d) People don't know quality wine, only we do!
e) Nothing's the same as it was any more!

I must say, they all sound the same to me.
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  October 3, 2012 9:32am ET
Greg,

To your point...

I think Matt hit the nail on the head in regard to Bordeaux. There are a wealth of tremendous wines out there sub-$25 (plenty sub $15) that really over-deliver. Clearly most of the classified growths have begun, if not completely, priced themselves out of the 'normal' market.

Regarding RRV...I believe that Matt's point if more centered on the 'style' coming out of RRV. I know there is diversity in winemaking and sites, Adam & Glenn have attested to that. That being said, I would agree that the a large portion of RRV Pinot Noir tends to taste more like 'delicious' to 'good' red wine and not as much like 'delicious' to 'good' Pinot Noir. Not saying that all Pinot Noir must taste like Gevrey-Chambertin, but when it loses a bit of its inherent core and becomes somewhat indistinguishable in comparison to its brethren throughout the rest of the world (Yarra Valley, Sonoma Coast, Marlborough, Willamette, Rheingau, Burgundy, etc), then I have a tough time with them.
Gregory Kendall
Laurel, MD —  October 3, 2012 12:39pm ET
Aaron,

I think you make a valid point regarding RRV Pinot as does Matt. My sense here is that Matt is expressing displeasure with overripe Pinots that have turned "banal" because of many places using similar Dijon clone selections. So the DNA MUST suggest similar wines .... correct? I politely disagree. In Australia, specifically Barossa, many bottles of Shiraz end up with a mint characteristic in the aromatics of the wine. The likely culprit ... Eucalyptus trees surrounding the vineyards! Terroir has a huge impact on the flavors of the wines, much like the diversity I feel RRV Pinot has. Certainly there are some places that try to mimic other more successful Pinot establishments, but things like microclimate, canopy management, soil and numerous other variables including winemaking methods have created this. Have I had a Pinot Noir that tasted almost like Syrah? Certainly! But all in all those places that take an approach to winemaking that cross over like that probably will have long-term consequences to doing so - namely in sales! BTW ... I'd never want a RRV Pinot Noir to take on Burgundian traits!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 3, 2012 12:45pm ET
Matt,

As for "Bor-dough" I say it's high time for some humble pie.

RRV Pinots ---- agreed. A few years back I was eviscerated on the WS forums for stating my opinion that a certain professional wine critic had been doling out inflated scores to Cali PN in general. I thought that's what forums were for, but apparently I was wrong.

Wisdom of the Wine Crowd --- here I must protest, or at least interject. I LOVE CellarTracker. I find it an essential resource when purchasing fine wine. Of course, I do pay more attention to the notes of tasters whom I have marked as "favorites". I was quite dismayed when WineBid decided to drop CT scores from their listings on the basis that these could be manipulated by unscrupulous individuals. That is an indisputable possibility. Contrariwise, in my 5-year experience with CT I have only come across a handful of wines (usually obscure ones) for which only one or two obvious dimwits had posted extremely high scores to accompany their tainted tasting notes. In contrast, when averaged out I rarely find that the community's score approaches that of any given professional critic. The CT crowd is a tough bunch, unafraid to tell it like it is. I like meritocracy.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 3, 2012 12:53pm ET
Aaron,

Let's say you are correct that a large portion of RRV Pinot tends to taste like "good" or "delicious" red wine. How do you think that compares to what a large portion of RRV Pinot tasted 20+ years ago? Is that moving in the correct direction? As the vines age, as growers and winemakers become more experienced how would you expect that to change? -- And, while at it, how do you think that compares to Burgundy....what does the majority of Burgundy taste like?

I'd really be interested in your thoughts, if you have the time.

Thanks,

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
George Ronay
Los Angeles, CA —  October 3, 2012 1:31pm ET
Matt:
When I started in the business, Chateau & Estates pretty much owned the Bordeaux business and had a stable of well-regarded (and reasonably priced) bottlings. Those have disappeared along with C & E itself. In the rush of the crowd to find the "next great thing," too little respect has been given to the ones that set the standard. And we probably shouldn't ignore the effect of scoring on the homogenization of Bordeaux wine flavor profiles.

More disconcerting to me at this point in time is the growth of the "market-driven" wine brands sprouting like weeds from the large wine conglomerates. It's the advent of the Proctor & Gamble - MBA marketing school into the wine business - let's engineer the wine backwards from the target price point and target audience. It may be the new reality, but that doesn't mean I have to drink it!!
C Savino
New Jerseu —  October 3, 2012 2:11pm ET
On the crowd sourcing I do take some issues with that. Yes there are needs for the "critic", but to have a database of tasting notes over time is invaluable to consumer. Secondly the individuals taking the time to post tasting notes are generally at the higher end of consumers and provide a worthwhile perspective. Yes there will be the extremes in notes, but the ability to read these notes will help on the trend of the wine and where it is going. The "critic" does not have the time and go back and re-taste everyone as a follow up on a regular basis, but only as a retrospective on anniversary years (5, 10, 15 years, etc..)
Rich Meier
Reno,NV. Washoe —  October 3, 2012 5:24pm ET
Cali Winemakers & Pinot sluts will testify to the fact that the last 10 years have been great with increasing quality and concentration. To evaluate the "banality" comment from a perspective standpoint, try sampling several winemakers' efforts from a single great pinot vineyard from the same year. You will notice some commonality (terroir), but distinctive winemaking styles can be discerned.Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. SLH,Santa Maria,RRV,Sonoma Coast all have their star vineyards and growers. Now add the artists. Wow! We are so lucky.
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  October 3, 2012 6:36pm ET
Matt,

Boring Bordeaux: Agree - although I started buying classified Bordeaux (as well as CA Cabs) in the '70s and ramped up significantly in the '80s, the same wines are now priced in the stratosphere out of reach of most mortals. Send me your t-shirt size and I'll send you my rare collectible Just Pinot t-shirt emblazoned on the back with: Why do you think they call it Bore-deaux? That phrase was borrowed from David Lett who later told me that he had borrowed it from David Graves.

Banal RRV Pinots: Agree to disagree - I lean more toward Glenn's belief that great and exciting wine is here in the RRV, but not all RRV Pinot is great and exciting. The same can be said of the Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills, Oregon, Santa Barbara County, etc.

Wisdom of the Wine Crowd: Semi-disagree - I use CellarTracker and other types of input when I'm writing charity wine auction catalogs to get feedback on (mostly) young wines that I have not yet tried. Plus, folks like to see comments or "scores" before they bid on something at auction. I also use CT to see how others perceive the evolution of wines that I have in my cellar, particularly Pinots from Oregon and California. I'm continually amazed at how young these respondents drink their Pinots and then wonder, in writing, if they'll ever come around. Where's the wisdom in that wine crowd?

Tom Miller
Just Pinot
pinot@bellsouth.net
Tone Kelly
Webster NY —  October 3, 2012 9:34pm ET
Matt,
Tired of RRV? Move on to the Sonoma Coast! California Pinots in the 1970s and 1980s were planted in too warm climates. RRV Pinot Noir gained fame as a cooler climate. Now with too much RRV Pinot in warmer areas it seems to taste like the warm sites of bygone days.

I view the next frontier could be the Sonoma Coast. Of course the area still has to prove itself.

Relative to Bore Deaux - the high end chateau now think of themselves as investment grade material. Latour comes to mind as the prime example. The warning for Latour and others that may copy them is that if 15 years down the road and no one is interested anymore and/or there is a catastrophe in the Storage Area (flood, fire, etc) then Latour is out of business. Companies have gone bankrupt with such hedges and strategies when the future doesn't pan out as expected. Wine is an agricultural product, not an investment product.
Scott Ptacek
Baltimore, MD —  October 4, 2012 9:05am ET
I'm not a user of cellar tracker, but after this article and its subsequent comments I am going to check it out! I have long questioned the motives of so-called professional reviewers, though I lean on their reviews for direction quite often - particularly with regard to the quality of specific vintages in relation to others. I would prefer to listen to the masses than continue to be misled by a few professionals who simply have too much at stake to remain objective.

For an eye-opening read, Parker reposted the very first issue of the wine advocate a few months back. In it, first growths were getting scores in the 60's. Our professional reviewers today wouldn't think of giving such a score, regardless of the real quality of the wine.
Glenn Alexander
Healdsburg CA —  October 4, 2012 10:27am ET
This discussion is interesting, but I don't understand the heightened concern many of you seem to have. Things will shake out. As usual Adam Lee makes great points. The basic bottling of pinot from RRV is now routinely very good. In the early 90's it wasn't true. I think this example is representative, on one of our 11 acre pinot vineyards, 2 acres have great soils, excellent drainage and the perfect aspect. The wine from this section is consistently more balanced, more elegant, and just better. The remaining acreage can, in exceptional weather years compare favorably but tends to be "less". What I do know for a fact is, if you hang the fruit to long, the two areas become more and more alike and more linear.

PS Gonzaque Lurton (Chateau Durfort) was over for dinner last night and we were drinking pinot not Bordeaux (something we will remedy this weekend) and this subject was the basis of our dinner conversation. His thoughts on Bore deaux were intriguing and enlightening.

Glenn Alexander
Bacchus Vineyard Management
Sanglier Cellars
Ann Vaughan
Wimington, Delaware —  October 4, 2012 12:32pm ET
I personally am a huge fan of Cellar Tracker. But just because a wine has 100 reviews that average 93 points certainly doesn't mean I'm going to like it. You have to read the reviews, understand the tastes of the reviewers and still do your due diligence. I could say the same about reading reviews from Robert Parker and the staff of WS.

The beauty of cellar tracker is that you have access to the thoughts of possibly hundreds of people on a particular wine. You generally only get the opinion of one person at WS, WE, etc.

"outplaying"
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  October 4, 2012 1:35pm ET
I'm getting a somewhat different take on the RRV issue, Matt points out the rapid expansion of vineyard land planted, his point, as I take it, is that the new land is not at the level of the original plantings so they are taking shortcuts in planting select clones to mask the specific characteristics that RRV Pinot was known for. These clones, when allowed to hang longer will ultimately mask the vineyard/terrior of the region and result in more generic wines bereft of place or ultimately character. Not they they are necessarily bad wines, but they may lack what they became known for.
Guy Brouillette
Boulder, CO —  October 5, 2012 10:24am ET
I see two topics here... 1) The fate of an AVA over time and how the managers of those vineyards try to not let their product get "boring" over the years. 2) the use of technology such as CT to aggregate information that is available to the masses.

You see soda companies such as Coke also try to battle boring. The technology which allows such instant feedback is changing the marketplace and guiding buyers. Props to Eric and CT for being a catalyst in changing the game. It's a new world.
Tom Booth
Canada —  October 10, 2012 11:37pm ET
Matt: Kudos on a provocative article (as evidenced by the comments).

Re crowd sourcing, I was interested both by your comments and by the responses, including Eric from Cellartracker. No doubt that professional criticism is valued (as evidenced by my WS subscription), but what the crowd on Cellartracker provides is hugely valuable too. While the scores are sometimes a bit suspect, many of the reviews contain recent and relatively sophisticated commentary on the wines that is only available because of the crowd.
David Bricker
switzerland —  October 12, 2012 4:11am ET
Finally someone with authority is willing to say unpleasant things about bordeaux & RRV!

From a Swiss p.o.v. Spain and southern Rhone hammer other regions for value, flavour and reliability, at a prices anyone can afford, without the need to buy 'supermarket' quality. I have tried enough value-priced Bordeaux to avoid selling it; it just isn't good enough. I don't wish those hard-working producers ill, but they need to be in touch with what average drinkers want: value for money!
Michael Antonovich
Weston, Connecticut, USA —  October 16, 2012 2:01pm ET
I've enjoyed reading the dialog here. Well considered opinions abound!

Regarding Bore-deaux, to paraphrase Twain, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. Sure, the Grand Cru are way our of reach to many of us, and the stuff at the bottom can be plonk. But there are plenty of good approachable wines for a fraction of what Napa gets for comparable quality. Good professional reviewers,and yes, even CT can help guide you to the right places.

Regarding Cellar Tracker, I also see it both ways: Yes, the pros do have their own biases and a potential conflict of economic self interest, but they also take their responsibilities seriously and I do not question their integrity. Cellar Tracker reviews can be both fair or useless, but do benefit from larger sample sizes. I get mostly annoyed when the sample size is too small to be meaningful, as when a single reviewer can skew a wine much higher or lower than a wine deserves (doesn't the same logic hold true with professional reviewers?). For my part, Eric, I'd like to see some filtering tools on the CT reviews; a) an ability to discard the high/low ends to get a more average rating; b) be able to select either "crowd" or a specific critic as the displayed value; and c) have a "slider" to weight "crowd vs. pros" in a way that an individual sees fit. There is no perfect critic, and there certainly is no perfect crowd, but I'd like a middle choice that might be perfect for me!

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