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Wine Ratings and Personal Preferences

Today I was asked a question worthy of a blog post. The question is as follows:

“I had wine which was rated 84 points and I loved it! Does that mean that I have poor wine taste?”

I believe that any wine critic will agree with me when I say that wine should be enjoyed based on personal preferences rather than on wine ratings. The appreciation for wines has just recently made its way to the mainstream, so newcomers need some system to guide them. Wine critics want to be as unbiased as possible when making their wine recommendations to the public; as such, they give wines points or ratings based on a specific and defined methodology or benchmarking procedure. These wine ratings, however, should never be allowed to take precedence over your personal preferences.

I always tell my clients to think of wine as perfume. Some appeal to you and others don’t. Some people buy a certain perfume because they truly like its scent; some buy it because it is a famous brand or is endorsed by someone they admire. If you were to choose perfume, would you rather go with a trendy scent you don’t particularly like or a non-popular brand you really love? The answer is obvious, right? In the same way, you should choose wines based on your personal tastes and preferences rather than on wine ratings.

Wine Ratings: It Can Be All about Marketing

As with any industry, the world of wine can be all about marketing. A particular wine can become the hottest product to hit the market – or not – depending on how people perceive it.

The best way to market a product in the wine business is to get a high score from an accredited wine critic like Robert Parker Jr. If a highly respected wine critic decides that a particular wine deserves 95 points, the winemaker has hit the jackpot as this wine rating can be used to promote the wine to the public. On the flip side, if a certain wine receives 80 points or less from a wine critic, the winemaker will (and should) probably not mention the wine rating at all when he promotes his wine.

Defying Wine Ratings

I host blind tasting events to demonstrate to my clients that wine ratings are not infallible. In such blind wine tastings, I ask my guests to taste two wines. One is always a well-known wine that been received well by wine critics; it usually has wine ratings of 89 points and above. The other wine is always a poor performer in comparison to the first. It usually has a low eighties ratings; I choose, it however, because I believe it to be worth a lot more than its wine rating indicate.

You must understand that any wine can get a low wine rating because it wasn’t ready when it was sampled or because it had characteristics with which the wine critic was not pleased.

[Note to the wise winemaker: Do not release your wines to critics if it is not showing promising signs or if it is not yet ready for sampling. Moreover, you should not choose a critic to whom you know your wine – or certain characteristics of it – will not have any appeal. This is a mistake that many winemakers have made and will usually not repeat.]

What is so interesting about these blind tastings is that, 80% of the time, my guests prefer the wine that scored lower.

Wine Ratings Affect How Wines Are Perceived

I also conduct wine tastings to show that wine ratings affect how wines are perceived. In such tastings, I also present two bottles of wine. Like in the blind tastings described above, one of the wines is a highly rated wine and the other is a low-rated wine. This time though, I let each of the participants know what they are drinking and how many points the wine has been given by wine critics. As expected, almost 100% of my guests in such wine tastings prefer the highly rated wine over the low-rated wine.

This brings to mind one of my visits to a winery’s gift shop in Oregon. This shop sold a plate with a comic strip on it. The comic strip depicted a man who tastes a wine and finds it repulsive. He complains to the store owner about it. The store owner replies, “Well, I don’t understand. That has a rating of 93 points.” The man, embarrassed by his remark, ended up ordering 3 cases of the wine – the wine which he originally found repulsive but which has suddenly acquired appeal because of its high wine rating.

I ended up buying the plate, of course. I really liked the moral of the story: a man who doesn’t trust his taste in wines will probably buy wine he will not enjoy. People, especially wine novices, typically base their liking for a particular wine on the wine ratings that it has received from wine critics.

Indeed, wine ratings affect our perception of wines. Highly rated wines become popular, while low-rated wines (more often than not) fail. Wine stores may decide to liquidate their stock of the poorly rated wine and replace it with another that has a higher rating; these wine stores, moreover, will probably never carry this low-rated wine again on account of the profit losses it has caused.

Our Perceptions Can Affect Our Preferences

Our perceptions can also affect our wine preferences and wine buying behavior. California Merlot growers learned this painful lesson when America’s favorite wine was criticized in the movie Sideways. In the context of the movie, one of the characters (acted by Paul Giamatti) simply told another character that Merlot “sucks.”

This was just a movie. The criticism of Merlot was just part of the dialogue of a make-believe story! Yet, the effect was immediately felt. Merlot sales plummeted and Pinot Noir wines instantly took over a huge chunk of Merlot’s market share. To this day, Merlot sales have not recovered.

Is it possible that a mere line in a movie stopped people from buying Merlot? It could be that people tried another wine and found they like it better than Merlot. It is more likely, however, that the movie really played havoc with the public’s perception of Merlot. It is the power of marketing at work!

Your Tastes and Preferences Should Matter Most

Becoming a wine drinker is like a spiritual journey. You need to identify your personal preferences. This is extremely important if you want to fully enjoy wines! Do not be intimidated by what others may be thinking or saying. Ultimately, it’s your palate, not theirs. Remember, your nose knows what’s best for you.

My recommendation is for you to try a different wine style each time and make your marks accordingly. We live in the golden age of wine and it would be a shame if you miss out on the wondrous wines available just because a wine critic says it’s not up to par or just because a character in a movie says it sucks.