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Behind the Ratings

April 15, 1998|MARY EWING-MULLIGAN

My students and I tasted our way through a half dozen Australian white wines. We were largely in agreement until we came to the 1996 Rosemount Hunter Valley "Show Reserve" Semillon, which I judged to be the finest wine of the night. "It tastes so odd," they protested.

"Think orange marmalade and lime," I suggested. "Notice the rich texture. This wine's a classic, and it will be even better in five years."

Although these students were far from novices, none of them was familiar with Australian Semillon, and they therefore judged the wine unfairly. Or did they? Is the quality of a wine conditioned by its type, or is wine quality an absolute? What constitutes wine quality, anyway?

In fact, the determination of wine quality is an inexact discipline whose standards vary according to the practitioner, and sometimes according to the type of wine. Many wine critics judge wines against a mental yardstick of greatness developed over years of wide-ranging tasting, while future winemakers who study at UC Davis learn that the definition of wine quality must also take into consideration a wine's price.

An unusual voice entered into the discussion of wine quality in October when Consumer Reports magazine, better known for its ratings of automobiles and small appliances, published its first wine report in 26 years. The magazine evaluated 57 wines and named four of them, ranging in price from $4 to $11, as the finest in their respective categories. The "best wines"--Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay, Beringer California White Zinfandel, Napa Ridge Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and Walnut Crest Rapel Valley (Chile) Merlot--were not startling choices, considering that the evaluation focused on widely available wines costing under $15 from those four grape varieties. But some of the magazine's assumptions illustrate just how arbitrary the criteria of wine quality can be.

Two anonymous "industry authorities" rated the 57 wines simply on flavor complexity and absence of off-notes. These are understandably lenient criteria, since they were evaluating inexpensive mass-market wines. On the same basis, it also made sense for them to give lower marks to wines that were not immediately drinkable, such as Cabernets from Robert Mondavi Winery and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars that would need aging to soften their tannins.

However, the writers of the report were apparently oblivious to the skew of these principles when they proclaimed, "Many outstanding wines cost less than $10 a bottle." All the tasting showed was that some of the best wines in the under-$15 category cost less than $10!

The problem in Consumer Reports' approach to wine is summed up by the fact that it referred to "testing"--rather than "tasting"--the wines. There is a vast difference between testing, which implies objective, scientific evaluation, and tasting, a subjective and experiential judgment.

"I don't believe you can absolutely test quality in wine, except the way that wineries do, by measuring a wine's alcohol or phenolics," says Jim Gordon, managing editor of Wine Spectator, a biweekly magazine whose ratings of wine are among the most influential in the country. "What we do is taste for quality, which is subjective in nature."

Most professional wine tasters use criteria such as balance, length on the palate, complexity, flavor concentration and trueness to the wine's type. Judges downgrade wines that have what they perceive to be flaws, though today, when the great majority of wines are sound and grossly flawed wines are rare, the notion of what constitutes a flaw is increasingly a matter of opinion.

The criteria may sound technical, but assessing them is inherently subjective. "You just can't measure wine's quality mathematically the way you can measure how much dirt a vacuum cleaner picks up," says Gordon.

Even a bastion of scientific winemaking such as UC Davis acknowledges that wine quality is subjective. "We don't have a yardstick of quality because quality is such a variable measure," says Carole Meredith, professor of Viticulture and Enology at Davis. "The one thing you can say about wine quality across the board is that you must consider whether the wine has any defects. But while some defects, such as corkiness, are obviously a flaw for everyone, other characteristics, such as high tannin, are acceptable or not depending on the tastes of the consumer who is purchasing the wine."

Ironically, considering how subjective all this is, wine quality is usually expressed in a number score. The most widespread scoring system, popularized by Robert M. Parker in his newsletter, the Wine Advocate, gives 100 points to a wine of the highest possible quality.

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