Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Problem with Wine Ratings by Guest Blogger Greg Lawson

--A Lawson Rant

Do you drink wine based on its ratings? Do you like wine based on its ratings? Do you buy wine based on its ratings? I firmly believe if you truly love wine, at some point, you have to throw ratings out the door and trust yourself. You need to know what you like, and more importantly, you need to know your own palate.

Being in the wine business both directly and indirectly over the years (all right, my entire life) has taught me many things about wine. One very important thing is: you can never know enough. Wine (I’m talking about the big picture here, not just the stuff in the bottle) has a history and like history it is the most humbling of subjects primarily due to its voluminous character. The difficulty with mastering wine as a subject is like mastering history as a subject; both are living, ever changing organisms that are impossible to fully keep pace with. All one can do is try to understand, learn and embrace what wine and history have to offer and succumb to the simple fact that you are human, you can only comprehend so much. Our wonderful and prophetic wine critics have succumbed… so why not you?

If I told you I had a $15 million winery, wine rating (all in the 90 point area), and limited allotment/production because the grape sources were so rare and demand was so high, would this make you believe that the wine must taste good? What if I told you it tastes good because it’s a $400 bottle and the critics love it? Or would you think the truer test of whether a given wine was great or not would be you, your nose, your mouth, your tongue, and your brain?

We are at a crossroads here in Napa Valley. I believe too many people (corporations included) are making wine for all the wrong reasons. The homogenization of the industry is in front of us and it is very similar to having three Starbucks in every town in the United States, sometimes even across the street from one another. It may be a good product, but it is also sadly the same. Huge companies control larger and larger chunks of the market by buying up wineries and vineyards. They in turn are patronized by large volume wine distribution chains that shun the “small guy” because it’s just too much trouble to deal with so many little brands --it’s easier to sell one wine in every market than to sell many wines in a few markets. I believe these “corporate wines” are just numbing the consumer with sameness. Another problem is the producer making wine not to please the consumer, or to please his or her own palates, but to please the critic in hopes of a great score that will launch the brand successfully. Wines that might have shown some originality if treated differently and respectfully are becoming more and more alike. The true sufferer in all of this is the consumer.

Eleven things the consumer needs to know:

1. There are people out there making wonderful wines (all over the United States) that you may never hear about.
2. A thrill of wine drinking is taking a risk, finding the unknown, and making it your own.
3. Not all winemakers want or seek ratings.
4. Just because some winemakers make very little wine does not mean it is good (or just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good).
5. Just because you never heard about it does not mean you won’t (you might have to look).
6. Cooking for 10 is a lot easier than cooking for 300 (winemaking is much the same).
7. Owning a sports team, a private jet, or a “state of the art facility” (i.e. being famous) does not guarantee great wine.
8. Drink what you like and like what you drink… meaning: looking for only negative characteristics will ruin ANY bottle of wine.
9. Change is a good thing for your palate and your likes/dislikes will change over time… embrace the change.
10. Drinking wine blind in a group of other wines is the truest test for any bottle.
11. Passion can penetrate anything. The love of wine from the vineyard to the bottle has a profound effect.

Greg Lawson is owner and winemaker of Valley Legend, single vineyard cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley.