Seeking the Holy Grail of wines
How important are wine ratings?
Wine industry members have a love-hate relationship with wine ratings—those tasting scores given by critics that can greatly influence wine sales. While some dismiss the wine rating game as being biased, high scores can result in financial gain for both the winery and grower. A panel of growers, critics, and winemakers recently shared their views on the quest to produce the perfect, 100-point wine.
While perfect wine scores are rare, with only a handful of wineries achieving such status, two Washington State wines made by Quilceda Creek Vintners of Snohomish, a 2002 and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, received 100-point ratings last year from Wine Advocate. The perfect scores were a first for Washington wines.
Wine writer and critic Paul Gregutt has written about Pacific Northwest wines for nearly 25 years. A one-man enterprise, he writes wine columns for four newspapers, critiques Washington wines, and will release a Washington wine book later this year. Though he spent much of the 1990s writing about what is wrong with the 100-point ratings, he now uses the 100-point formula for rating wines that he reviews.
"It was a sea change for me to come to grips with my own animosity toward 100-point ratings," he said during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. "I don't come to the 100-point scale as a full-blown believer."
Gregutt keeps an extensive database on the wines and wineries that he critiques. "My focus is Washington. Washington is my calling card. I want to know everything you do and be the first or second to taste your wines. I want to get you into my database because I believe in track records and points on a graph that help explain how you do over time, vintage after vintage."
He explained that he tastes an average of 30 wines per day and likes to spend time with a wine, tasting it throughout the day, letting it sit, pairing it with food, and revisiting it the next day.
What's good about the points? It's an easy marketing tool for retailers to use in reaching a nation of consumers obsessed by numbers, he said. "Consumers have been trained to respond to that Pavlovian bell, but they are equally to blame because they buy the numbers."
Gregutt noted that he's never tasted what he considers to be a 100-point wine, though he's tasted 100-point wines rated by other critics. "The 100-point wine is a phantom. Those wines really, truly don't exist. Maybe it's pure stubbornness, but also hopefulness that winemakers can always improve and that there's always a better wine out there."
Andy Perdue, editor of Wine Press Northwest, said that his major complaint with the wine ratings of most wine magazines is that they provide little information to the consumer.
"There are no descriptions about the wine, only the winery name, rating, and price," he said, adding that there is no background on the wine, like what food it goes best with. His publication includes a paragraph about each wine tasted, highlighting winery information and vineyard designations, taste descriptions, and the type of food to enjoy with it.
"When we're not learning anything about the wine, something has gone terribly 'sideways,'" Perdue said, pun intended.
Growing great wine
There is pride and financial incentive on the grower's part to produce the highest quality grapes. Vineyard-designated wines bring recognition to the grower, and some winery contracts include a grower bonus for wines made from grapes that receive a high rating.
Prosser wine grape grower Paul Champoux, whose vineyard is located in the Horse Heaven Hills, believes that all great wines are made in the vineyard. Quilceda Creek is one of several partners in Champoux Vineyards. "It's not one thing that will improve your quality, but it's the whole process." He focuses on providing nutritional balance to coincide with the seasons or growth stages of the vine.
Dick Boushey, grape and tree fruit grower from Grandview, sells his wine grapes to 25 wineries. He agrees that points are powerful and can help bring recognition to new wineries and new wine regions, such as Washington State, but the system has its flaws. Some criticize the ratings for contributing to homogenization of wines, losing regional character of wines, and favoring certain varietal wines.
In creating a top wine, site is a good place to start, he said. To produce great grapes, one needs a mature vineyard that is well understood and well managed.
"And it takes a lot of money. You can't do it on the cheap. It's not a casual thing anymore, and it takes a lifetime commitment," Boushey said, adding that he has the benefit of 25 years of learning on the job. He also encouraged growers to visit wineries and wine shops to learn about wines and the market.
"It's a lot of work for a box of grapes," he said. "You can't do it on your own. You need to rely on the resources of this industry—growers, winemakers, researchers at Washington State University."
Making great wine
Head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Bob Bertheau defines quality as "overdelivering at any price point to show the value of Washington State and Chateau Ste. Michelle."
As the largest winery in the state, Ste. Michelle uses very large and small blends when making wine. "The bigger the blend, the more I have to listen to the wine styles group that serves as our blending team. The smaller blends are my personal statement. Single-vineyard blends are all about the grapes."
Bertheau views wine scores as a sales tool and doesn't get too excited about scores, up or down. "If we keep making good quality wine, the scores will follow."
Rob Griffin, owner and winemaker at Barnard Griffin, the largest family-owned wine producer in the state, said that the concept of wine scoring has several drawbacks because it is slanted towards more expensive price categories. "Nobody is going to give 100 points to a wine in the $16 price point."
He also questioned the ability of critics to taste wines in an unbiased manner, particularly when the critic knows what brand he or she is tasting. "The wine writer who knows what he is tasting is tasting more than just the wine in the glass." Griffin argued that wine scoring is complex and frequently includes the "coolness" of the wine and the writer's knowledge about the winery.