Think wine scores don't matter? Three ways to use them to help you drink better wine
Wow. Who knew that The Infinite Monkey Theorem (aka Denver's little winery that could) scoring Colorado's first 88-point Wine Spectator review would stir up so many passionate responses about the validity of wine reviews? Laura Shunk's scathing critique of most wine industry rags' random, somewhat archaic approach to rewarding lesser-known wineries provoked several readers to weigh in on the debate -- a debate that makes us ask: Is there any point to paying attention to point systems? The answer? Absolutely.
As cool as it may seem to eschew wine reviews in favor of figuring out which wines to drink the old-fashioned way (by just drinking shitloads of different wines), the fact of the matter is that the average wine drinker probably isn't prepared to do that. For one, you probably can't afford to drop that kind of cash on wines you're not sure will even be drinkable. For another, unless you've had some amount of wine education it can be pretty damned intimidating to waltz into a wine shop and put together a mixed case based upon your own God-given awesome wine finding skills.
That's where all those ridiculously subjective wine reviewers and shelf talkers extolling the myriad virtues of a particular bottle can really be your friend. We all crave input that helps us make better decisions -- imagine attempting to choose anything from your morning coffee (Starbucks much?) to the vehicle you drive without the benefit of marketing. And that's what wine reviews and cute little tags are ultimately all about: giving you a few kernels of information to help you navigate the incredibly daunting array of wines staring back at you from the shelf. Hell, some of the labels are in a language you don't even speak, so how on earth are you supposed to know what's what? But as with any important relationship, it's important not to spend all of your time with the same person. Here are three ways to make wine reviews work for you:
Learn the tricks of the trade: Ever wonder where those jazzy little signs you see on the wine shelves come from? Not the magazine for whom the wine reviewer writes. Not the winemaker. Try the wine distributor (or the wine shop itself). These are the people responsible for those brightly colored tags commanding you to just buy the damn bottle, already. But it's the job of distributors and liquor store owners to sell wine, so don't hate the players, hate the game. Instead, befriend these folks (in a manner of speaking) by getting to know them and learning exactly why they love the wines so much. Figure out which wines come from the same distributor by looking for bottles with shelf talkers that look the same. Then strike up a conversation with one of those helpful folks who seem to be coincidentally strolling the exact same wine aisle as you (they're probably hand sellers -- people who are hired by distributors to help customers find their wines on the shelf). Make them -- or the wine shop employees -- use their words to explain why you should buy the wine, without mentioning the score.
Compare notes: Say you were to stumble upon a positively glowing review of a wine (90 points!) that's in your price range (less than $15!). Before you buy, do a little comparison shopping. Jot down the name of the wine -- and make sure you get the vintage too, because it matters -- and then get your Google on. You'll be rewarded for your efforts: Most wines rated that highly will have an array of additional reviews which will help you get a more balanced picture of the wine. If you discover that three out of five of a particular wine's write-ups are favorable, chances are it's worth checking out.
Drink outside the box: Some fancy-pants wine reviewers' scores are so coveted that winemakers actually attempt to make their wines specifically to appeal to them. That's why some people (myself among them) feel like many of those reviewers can't be trusted to lead you to wines that are anything but banal. If you want to find interesting, out-of-the-ordinary bottles that will stretch your palate, seek out wine publications and blogs that offer alternative scoring systems (thumbs-up/thumbs-down, stars, tomatoes, you get the idea) along with detailed descriptions of the wine. When you read about one that sounds tasty, scoop it up and then judge for yourself.
Are wine reviews still subjective? Hell, yes. But as long as you know that going in, chances are they'll still help you drink better wine than those you'd probably choose without them. And drinking better wine is what it's all about.