By The Glass
Rating quality wines is not an easy task
I enjoyed reading fellow columnist Roberto Viernes' recent article on the difficulty of verbally describing the taste of a wine. It is a very difficult task indeed. Robert Parker revolutionized wine writing with his prose and unique style in his publication, the Wine Advocate. Parker is recognized as the most influential critic in the industry - possibly the most influential in any industry. His notes and scores on Bordeaux, Rhone and California wines are generally regarded as the gold standard, and set market prices.
Given the universal surge in wine quality around the world, it is impossible for one person to review all the noteworthy wines. In addition, Parker recently turned 60 and is cutting back his workload, so more often you will see work delegated to a team of writers. Wine Spectator already has various reviewers for different regions, as does Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar. We may never again see a critic as powerful and universally regarded as Robert Parker.
The merits of Parker's 100-point scale have been debated ad nauseam. I've always told my customers that it is hard to put a numerical score on something so subjective, yet it does serve a useful purpose. I've always recommended finding a critic whose palate aligns well with yours and following them closely.
Unfortunately this will be increasingly difficult as we see more specialization among critics. Alan Meadows, founder of Burghound, has made his niche as the world's foremost Burgundy and pinot noir reviewer. His service is great if 1) your palate is attuned to his, and 2) you want to buy pinot noir. What do you do if you want a zinfandel, sauvignon blanc or riesling?
The Internet has provided us with options. We can read reviews from various known publications, but increasingly, in my opinion, the amateur reviewer will become more important.
Cellartracker (www.Cellartraciker.com), founded by Eric Levine, was born of Levine's frustration trying to track his cellar on a spreadsheet. His Web-based software helps people keep track of their wine cellars. It has over 54,000 registered users and more than 9 million bottles tracked, making it the largest database of wine.
While the inventory-management feature of his software is great, I find the tasting notes posted by members even more useful. Cellartracker has more than 586,000 tasting notes in its database - far more than Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator. Often, multiple notes for a given wine provide useful data points to judge how a wine is aging. I used Cellartracker for this purpose last week to make sure my 1983 Haut Brion was likely in a good drinking stage. It was.
I'm not certain how the wine-critique industry will evolve, but I do know it is highly unlikely that anyone will grow as powerful as Robert Parker soon, if ever. Wine enthusiasts will see more specialization in reviewers, which is fine if you like only one type of wine, but problematic if you like a variety, as you'll have to keep track of more reviewers.
Amateur reviews will grow in importance based on the sheer volume or wines available. Twenty-five years ago, far fewer regions and wineries were making quality wine. With the growth we've seen, it is only inevitable that we will see more regionalized critics. For the casual wine drinker, this might pose a problem. For the serious wine drinker, it could be great.
Jay Kam is president of Vintage Wine Cellar. This column is written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org