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Living in the '80s

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 22, 2007 8:49am ET

Sometimes we Wine Spectator critics take flak for rating wines on the 100-point scale, because anything that scores below 89 or 90 seems not worth drinking. That, of course, is the perception of snobby buyers. We define a wine that scores 85 to 89 points as "very good," and that sounds like it's worth drinking to me.

As it happens, I've been drinking a lot of sub-90 wines the past few days, mainly because I've been spending a few extra days in New York in advance of our New York Wine Experience, visiting friends, going to concerts and theater, and not worrying about achieving an ultimate wine moment with every meal. Maybe I've been lucky, but it's been a string of pleasant stuff.

Saturday night, for example, at an Indian restaurant near Rose Hall, where we heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Benny Carter's music, I opened the wine list and my spirits fell. It was one of those short lists with nothing but highly commercial names and no vintages. That's often a sign that no one cares about wines, and you never know how long that bottle has been languishing in a warm storeroom.

But whoever compiled the list had aimed for aromatic whites and soft reds, which at least pointed in the right direction. I spied a familiar name, Rex Hill Pinot Gris, which I knew was bottled under screw cap, so it ought to be fresher. I asked what vintage it was. "I'll show you the bottle," the waiter said, helpfully. He came back with Benton-Lane, not Rex Hill, and for $35 it was 2006, the current available vintage. And it was good, just the kind of fresh melon-y flavor and crisp balance that played nicely with our tandoori chicken and baby eggplant cooked with coconut and peanuts.

We did even better on our arrival Friday evening. A friend took us to Aroma Wine Bar in the East Village, a cozy place with much better Italian food than you would expect at a simple wine bar. I'm still smiling at the taste and texture of the broccoli rabe, sautéed with hints of anchovy and peperoncini, which miraculously balanced the vegetable's bitterness and made it taste almost sweet, cooked thoroughly in the true Italian style. And the sensational pasta, cavatelli with ricotta pepato and the last of the season's asparagus, peas and mint.

I was the only one drinking, so I let the sommelier choose a couple of glasses of wine. I knew neither producer, but Ruggero Prosecco non-vintage had the clean, haunting fruit and lively balance that makes this sparkling wine a fine meal starter. And Apollonio Copertino 2003 from Puglia, a soft, generous blend of Negroamaro, Montepulciano and Black Malvasia grapes, delivered the ripe, tongue-coddling flavors of plums and spices that sidled up well with the pasta. I paid $20 total for the wines.

For Sunday brunch, my wife and I met Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews and his wife, Sara, at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York's best restaurants. We could have splurged on Bollinger RD 1990 or Krug Rosé for hundreds of dollars, but instead I homed in on Müller-Catoir Riesling Spätlese Haardter Bürgergarten 2001. The Pfalz wine from Germany was $68 on the list, and I figured this lightly sweet Riesling with some age on it would match the classy food and the warm sunlight glinting off the green trees in Madison Square Park across the street. It was yummy, if not transcendent, and the sweetness and still-fresh grapefruit and quince flavors played well with my chilled cucumber soup, a silken purée with bits of smoked trout and smoked yogurt in it. Tasted pretty good with a plate of hamachi drizzled with pumpkin seed oil, too.

Later, I checked our Wine Spectator scores for these wines. I had rated the Benton Lane 87 points. The Italian wines had not been reviewed, but James Suckling had scored the previous vintage of the Copertino 86 points, and Bruce Sanderson had tagged the dry version of the '01 Riesling Spätlese 89 points.

Snobs would have ignored these wines because they didn't have a "9" as the first digit on their WS scores, thus missing some pleasing experiences. None of these wines were boring, and each suited the occasion. Best of all, I didn't have to go in hock to drink them. All in all, a pretty good bunch of wines for a fine weekend.

Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  October 22, 2007 11:56am ET
Thank you for helping to clear this up for some "ratings-chasers". Many wines are purchased blindly strictly on a numerical score without even caring how the wine is described. I drink "82-87 point" wines all the time and am perfectly fine with them. It is the price for which I paid that can be cause for concern. If a wine is rated by a publication at let's say 86 points and sells for $12 or less, I say it is a relative value. If one buys a wine of similar style, flavor, depth, and yes, quality but paid $100 for it, it is hardly a chance one would buy it a second time. It is the SECOND purchase that is the sign of a good wine according to the person that bought it the first time.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  October 22, 2007 3:10pm ET
Thank you for this blog Harvey. As Anthony says, hopefully this will help more people move away from the ratings game and start looking for appropriate wines for the appropriate occasion.
covington, ky —  October 22, 2007 3:50pm ET
As a retailer, I see the "no wine below 90" argument all the time. It stems from our school years, where if we didn't bring home an "A" most of us were made to feel like failures. The 100-point scale is just the mirror image of that grading scale from school. The misconception that an 85 point wine isn't any good is out there, because of that built-in mindset amongst American wine buyers (anyone who went to an American school growing up). It is the double-edged sword that I am afraid all reviewers who use the 100-point scale have skewered themselves on.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  October 22, 2007 3:59pm ET
Harry, you are right on point! Wines rated 87, 88, and 89 can barely be distinguished from those rated 90 and up. And the prices are generally much better. In addition, as they age, the lesser rated wines often improve dramatically resulting in pleasant surprises.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  October 22, 2007 7:05pm ET
GG, its not the reviewers, but rather the wineries that don't get the 90+ point scores, that are being "skewered" ;^)
Erin Bakonyvari
Imaichi, Japan —  October 22, 2007 10:30pm ET
The Magna Carta was issued in 1512. Colombus sailed the ocean blue in 1942. History test score: 85 points... 2002 Chateau Cantemerle has too much "green." Wine score: 85 points... 2001 Latour Martillac has unresolved tannins. Wine score: 85 points... Van Gogh`s Cafe Terrace at Night, the shades of yellow are greatly exaggerated. Artistic merit: 85 points... James Laube scores 2003 Whispering Dove 82 points. Critical performance: 85 points...
Clifford Brantley Smith
Portland —  October 22, 2007 11:24pm ET
Great post. I have no problem going down in ratings as long as the price is reasonable. I'm more than happy to grab an 85 - 87 point wine as long as it's on the south side of 12 dollars. In fact most of my weekday drinkers certainly fall into this category.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 24, 2007 3:56pm ET
I'd pick up "clunkers" every few times. Take the 04 Clos Du Val, that Laube had rated at 70. At 22$ it's a steal amidst an ocean of 60$+ cabs in cali nowadays.I personally don't feel the score was deserving. Simple wine? possibly, not a fruit bomb? yes .. only deserving of a 70?... ah well.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  October 24, 2007 4:16pm ET
Great topic Harvey! I must admit that, when it comes to trying new wines, I do tend to do some point chasing, relative to the $$ I'm paying for the bottle. However, I must agree with Anthony who said "it's the SECOND purchase that is the sign of a good wine according to the person that bought it the first time." - If I'm thinking of buying a particular wine, and I try it and like it, I could care less what somebody else thinks about the bottle; once I know I like the wine, the only number I care about is the price. Many times I've enjoyed bottles only to later find out that it received a WS score in the low or mid. 80's. Was I surprised? Sure. Disappointed? Not at all. A couple recent examples include: 2005 Turley Atlas Peak Zinfandel and the 2004 Darioush Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (O.K., so the Darioush got 88 points, but in my book it's a solid 94 pts (50, 5, 13, 17, 9)). - Brian Grafstrom
Erin Bakonyvari
Imaichi, Japan —  October 25, 2007 12:00pm ET
Folks, I tried to be clever above, but apparently to no avail. OK then, straight to the point: how can you all (other than John Miller) make the point that points don`t matter by further pointing out other examples of points? Enough already! Point-tallying is significant for math tests, and shuffleboard, and darts. We`re talking about imbibable art here, about matters of taste and pleasure and enjoyment. Isn`t wine about shades and subtleties and nuances and magical transformations in the barrel,bottle and glass? Things that can`t be quantified? Harvey and the rest of you trying to justify drinking sub-90 point wines: would you give a rat`s ass if a critic took your favorite song and rated it 85 points? Put another way, can any of you tell me the difference between an 89 point wine and a 90 point wine? Am I the one missing the point here?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 25, 2007 2:18pm ET
I believe you are missing the point Erin. I will always rate the various wines I've tried on my personal 100 pt scale. Whether or not the critics would agree with me is a different matter. Which I think is what Harvey was implying. If an expert rated something below 90, would you still drink it. I would indeed simply because my scale will never be exactly like someone else's scale. So, can I tell the difference between an 89 pt wine and a 90 pt wine? On my point scale, the answer is simply Yes.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 25, 2007 3:52pm ET
Erin may wish critics didn't score wines, but readers seek our reviews in part because the ratings help them home in on the wines they want. Ratings are not going to go away, and Erin is free to ignore the points.

No one seems to mind that film critics apply four- or five-star ratings to movies, more of an art form than wine, in my opinion. And if there were 10,000 to 15,000 significant movies a year, as there are wines, film critics would probably move to a finer scale than four or five stars to differentiate them.

To spin my original point a bit differently, a point rating does not tell you much about a wine's flavor profile and style, and there are occasions when the character and style you want are better found in wines that may rate in the 80s. Dismiss wines with the characteristics you want because they rate below 90 and you may miss a lot of happy experiences. Bottom lime, read the words, too.
Erin Bakonyvari
Imaichi, Japan —  October 25, 2007 8:06pm ET
Harvey and Jeffrey,Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Just to clarify: I understand the role of points in reviews and in the marketplace as an easy way for buyers to gauge the relative quality of a wine (or a movie or restaurant etc, as Harvey pointed out) according to the specific critic. In this case I was simply surprised that the experienced and knowledgeable wine drinkers in this forum would care about points. I thought for you it is more simple: once you have tasted it the points obviously don't matter, only your opinion of it does (unless you want to put points on your opinion like Jeffrey does). Sorry to make a bigger deal out of this than it deserves.
Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  October 26, 2007 8:16am ET
Jordan Horoschak
Houston, TX —  October 26, 2007 5:37pm ET
I think Anthony and GG hit upon the most important elements. The idea of scoring less than 90 pts reverts back to our school days... a wine scoring less than 90 pts is not going to an Ivy League school. But, you don't always want to interact with an Ivy Leaguer! Sometimes they can be overbearing and a little exhausting - you don't always want to wear a suit and talk about politics and mathematical equations. Sometimes you just want to talk about how your day went - and an 88 point wine is perfect for such an occasion. As Anthony comically eluded - the numerical scoring system relates to a verbal recommendation that we have lost touch with. Wines in the 87-88 range are considered "very good" by its critic. Who wouldn't want a very good wine?

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