Each week, Wine Spectator's critics swirl, sip and spit hundreds of wines before bestowing on each a score on the magazine's famed 100-point scale.
A high score -- 90 or better -- can help make a winery's year, and a low score can relegate bottles to dusty shelves.
With so much at stake, wine researcher Patrick Rooney wondered, was there any way to handicap the scoring? Were there certain flavors each critic preferred?
Rooney figured that vintners would pay for a little insight.
So he and his wife, Eva Simonsson, a former sales manager at Chalone Wine Group, combed through more than 15 years' worth of Wine Spectator, deconstructing critiques of more than 30,000 wines and cataloging the essences mentioned most often in high scorers -- blackberry and sage in Syrahs, for example, and plum and spice in Pinot Noirs.
Calling themselves the Wine Angels, Rooney and Simonsson published their findings in the Unauthorized Guide to Wine Spectator and two other recent reports. In the process, they exposed a long-standing debate in wine country: Do vintners engage in taste profiling, blending their wines to meet power critics' penchants? And does that make for varietals that don't have much variety?
The answer to the first question isn't nearly so hotly disputed as the second.
In fact, there's a laboratory in Sonoma County, run by Enologix Inc., that dissects the different chemical compounds found in wine critics' favorites and top sellers. The lab hires itself out to help vintners fine-tune their batches.
Among Enologix's clients: British beverage giant Diageo; Robert Mondavi Corp., California's largest publicly traded winery; Domaine Carneros, a Napa, Calif.-based winery owned by international champagne house Tattinger; and boutique vintners Eberle Winery of Paso Robles, Calif., and Fess Parker Winery of Los Olivos, Calif.
Appealing to Critics
George Rose, a marketing and public relations executive for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa, says there's nothing untoward about "always trying to ascertain what exactly will be appealing" to critics because critics, after all, are supposed to have good taste.
According to the Wine Angels, their tastes run like this:
Harvey Steiman, who reviews products from Washington, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand for Wine Spectator, likes pear in his Chardonnay and also thinks highly of spice, citrus, honey and apple.
James Laube, the magazine's California specialist, tends to give higher scores -- often 90 points or above -- to Chardonnay with pear, fig and melon flavors. Laube also has a predilection for anise, referring to it in a great number of the wines to which he gives the best scores.
"He's really got a thing for anise," Rooney says.
And what's wrong with winemakers knowing that?
"Go out and buy 20 bottles of Chardonnay at the same price point and taste them," says winemaker Margaret Davenport, formerly with British food and beverage giant Allied Domecq's Clos du Bois winery in Sonoma County. "They will all be so much alike."
Hildegarde Heymann, a UC Davis enologist, is also among those who have been troubled by pandering to critics.
"I have a problem with an industry creating wine to please some external powerful individual -- not the ones that are going to be drinking the wine," she says. "You lose some of the nuances that make the wine different and somewhat interesting."
Despite such feelings, Rooney says sales are brisk of the Wine Angels' $495 report called the Wine Marketer's Companion, which purports to reveal the flavors and aromas most appealing to Wine Spectator's elite fleet of connoisseurs.
Several online wine forums, including Wine Spectator's own, posted links to the Wine Angels' site after excerpts from its first report were posted there in May. Some of the responses were brutal.
"These statisticians should be lined up and shot for encouraging wineries to fashion wines that that will make an amateur like James Laube say the magic words 'pear' and 'fig' about" some winery's "over-oaked lame Chardonnay," wrote a wine drinker in Raleigh, N.C., on one Internet forum.
For his part, Laube says it's all much ado about nothing. The 5,000 or so reviews he writes every year are based on a host of factors, he says, including things that can't easily be mimicked but that his "sophisticated palate" can discern, such as complexity, depth and texture.
"The consumer has a daunting array of choices," Laube says. "It's our intention to help them sort out what wines are the best."
There's little doubt that consumers are listening. Steve Wallace, owner of Wally's wine shop in Westwood, says people who used to come to him for advice now are asking him about Wine Spectator's top picks.
"People go by the Wine Spectator's scores," he says. "If you don't have a score over 90, it's hard to sell the wine."
Kimberly Stare-Wallace, vice president of marketing for Dry Creek Vineyards in Healdsburg, agrees. "These scores from Wine Spectator can make or break a vintage."