What’s in a rating?

Recently, I drank an excellent Australian red wine, of which the brand and grape variety are rather irrelevant to this particular discussion.  What is relevant is that when I, out of curiosity, checked the ratings for this wine from both “The Wine Spectator” and “The Wine Advocate”, one publication scored it 92/100 and the other scored it 77/100.  What does this tell us?

Primarily this tells us that sensory perceptions like taste and smell are, by definition, universally subjective.  As much as any professional wine critic would like to be purely objective in the process of rating a particular wine, the tools he or she uses to make the assessment can only produce a subjective opinion.  One can attempt to speculate how others might react to the same stimulus of their senses, but this can only be an educated guess at best.  Does anyone ever enjoy a specific food simply because others like it?  Obviously we make these decisions based on our own sensory preferences.  So now that we’ve established the inherent subjectivity of wine ratings, we can and probably should lean more on our own sensory judgments when choosing wines.

Of course a little advice never hurt anyone, so most of us are ready and willing to give audience to those giving advice; with the simple caveat that we trust the advice-giver enough to take the advice itself seriously.  And so this leads to another large question:  Is there a reliable hierarchy among the many wine critics in terms of trust and reliability?

For my money there is.  The two most reliable and accessible sources for competent wine ratings are “The Wine Advocate” and “The Wine Spectator”.  While these two publications may occasionally differ dramatically in their assessment of a specific wine, as they did in the earlier example, they boast respective staffs that are head and shoulders more qualified to rate wines than nearly every other publication in the industry.  Additionally, “The Wine Advocate” does not accept advertising and subsists solely on subscription fees, while “The Wine Spectator” tastes most wines blindly in order to avoid conflicts of interest with its advertisers.  There are some European-based magazines that could make these same claims, but their presence in this country is limited, and they tend to focus on wines that are not always available to consumers in this country.  The rest of the magazines that are out there are, in my opinion, far too generous with their ratings, and many seem to employ very questionable ethics, such as the many cases in which a winery might “coincidentally” receive high scores and positive accolades whenever they purchases advertising space that same magazine.  For me, I trust The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate enough to assist me in making purchasing decisions, but I never trust anyone or anything as much as my own taste buds.

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