Rating Wine: Is There A Glass Ceiling On Certain Wine Grapes?

By Dan Berger
Most wine lovers buy their wines, especially expensive ones, after consulting an authority, such as a wine shop owner, a glossy magazine or even a friend.

And although I never use numbers in reviewing wine, I am aware that the 100-point scoring “system” does have a major impact on wine buying habits.

Chenin and the bias in rating wineOver the years I have looked at this “system” for rating wine, and found numerous fatal flaws in it.

But, I know Americans like this simple shorthand way of evaluating wine quality on a thermometer-like basis.

It’s easy: the higher the score, the better the wine. Period.

Of course what constitutes a ”better” wine is still a matter of judgment since two people can differ widely and each can justify his or her opinion.

I have long believed that there is a varietal and regional prejudice embedded in the scores generated by many wine magazines.

This prejudice is obvious when you see a score of 85 accorded to a stupendous Chenin Blanc.

There are those who would argue that Chenin Blanc is a grape that doesn’t deserve any kind of high score no matter how good it is. And the fact is I have never seen a score higher than 86 given to any Chenin ever.

One wine lover who was a retail wine shop owner for years says that certain categories of wine simply are not looked upon with much favor by some writers. Some wines, including a vast array of exceptionally fascinating wines, never score above 90.

The Chenin Blanc analogy used above could easily be applied to non-mainstream grape varieties.

You might say there’s a glass ceiling on certain grapes that are not often accorded much careful analysis.

What would the highest score be for the best California Cabernet Franc? I’d say in the mid 90s, with 97 or 98 virtually impossible.

And no matter how good a Petite Sirah is, I have never seen a score higher than the low 90s.

Let’s look at Riesling. The greatest in the world, by some estimates, are the sweetest wines that are made in Germany in tiny quantities and which sell for outrageously high prices.  Does this alone suffice to make them better than dry Rieslings?

With Germany today making some fabulous dry Rieslings, you would think that major wine writers would take a serious look at them. In most of the articles I have seen they claim to have done so, But with scores no higher than the high 90s. And never a 97 or more. It’s only dry Riesling after all! they say.

Sauvignon Blanc? Perhaps a Pouilly-Fume might be worth a 96 or 97 from one of the self-esteemed critics, but the very best New Zealand SB? It couldn’t even get a 92.

“It’s only a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” after all the wine expert would say.

Demeaning a wine based not on taste or aroma but on its varietal or the region from which incomes is like demeaning the achievements of someone from a minority group because the critic doesn’t like the minority.

Prejudice is prejudice. And a $20 Semillon that is fabulous, based on many parameters, is probably a far better wine then some $35 Viognier whose price is based solely on the wine maker’s ego.

But the latter will get a higher score, I’d bet.

My friend the former wine shop owner, a curmudgeon of the first water, commented on this.

“We’ve lost Charbono,” he said, “we’ve lost Chenin, we almost lost Riesling and we are in danger of losing a whole lot more simply because of varietal prejudice.”

The glass ceiling is a living phenomenon.

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