How I Rate Wine
My lovely daughter — when she was 4 years old — used to say things like “I love you 1,000,” and “Do you know how big my kitties’ house is? A million forty.”
As a consumer of wine, I can’t help but think that a 94-point Pinot Noir is just about as arbitrary. I understand that a professional wine taster has a system, and they apply that system to come up with that score. But their palate is not mine, and when you consider how many wines they taste each day — and what all that does to their teeth, gums and oral hygiene — well, it becomes harder and harder to put any faith in points.
And yet, wine is a tricky thing to make sense of. Part of the allure of wine is its mysteriousness, yet the natural tendency is to compare one wine against others. And the easiest way to do that is to score them, or at the very least, rank them in some fashion. None of which solves for the fact that my palate is not yours, and yours is not mine.
So after careful consideration, I have developed a rather open system for rating the wines that get covered on Opening a Bottle. The intent is not to reduce them to a simple quantity. That would be a disservice to the story behind each wine, and imply that my palate has some infallible truth. After all, when it comes to taste, one man’s Eiffel Tower is another man’s Paris Las Vegas.
Instead, my system is meant to be more nuanced and rate my impressions on three key elements: profile, food friendliness and value. If you are a wine consumer like me, hopefully these ratings will give you an alternate perspective before buying.
Aromas, Flavors & Structure (fka Profile)
What this means to me: This rating dives into the complexity of aromas and flavors, the texture of the wine (I hate the phrase “mouthfeel”), and how long it lingers. I also like to factor in how typical the wine is of its origins: e.g. an Tuscan wine that evokes Tuscany, a new take on an old classic, a specific wine for a specific moment, etc.
How I rate it: I focus on intrigue. Does each sip invite another one? Are its complexities harmonious or just confusing? Is an empty bottle of this wine a sad sight? Wines that score high under profile are worth buying again and drinking several times over.
What this means to me: The ability of a wine to make food better, and the humility of the wine to be better with food. I rarely drink a bottle of wine without cooking something to go along with it (or vice versa). Master Sommelier and author Richard Betts notes that “wine is a grocery,” and I try to stay true to that outlook.
How I rate it: I focus on versatility. The higher the number of stars (out of 5) the more likely it will work well with lots of different foods. That’s not to say any Riesling (whose food-friendliness is famous) gets a five. The wine needs to have characteristics that are only exposed when served with food to get a high rating.
What this means to me: Someone once pointed out to me “when you think of the labor and overhead that goes into making wine, it is amazing its not more expensive.” That’s a good point, but I don’t care if a wine is made on the moon. The cost has to be justified by the experience.
How I rate it: Simple: was it worth it? A five-star value is a head-scratcher: “why aren’t they charging twice that for this wine? They certainly could.” A three-star value indicates a wine that meets my expectations on cost vs. quality. Lower, and its not worth the coin.
What this means to me: The overall score is not an average of the other three elements. It is merely an independent, gut-level assessment on how the wine stacks up.
How I rate it: A five-star wine is one for the ages. A three-star wine is good, but I probably won’t buy it again. You will only occasionally see me write about wines ranked lower than three overall stars on Opening a Bottle, in which case, they will be profiled only because my opinion differs from wine-press consensus or it compelled me to discover something about wine that I didn’t yet know.