Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wine hives

~When I was a teenager, I suffered from an unidentified allergy. I took volumes of tests, plus copious amounts of the most dangerous steroids without having been made aware of the dangers. Alas, it was to no particular avail.
~ At one point I had been given a list of the foods and things to avoid, which any sane person could see would have meant living in a bubble and so I never could follow the ridiculous advice.
~This so-called allergic response went on for about four years and then, to my delight, the seeming allergies simply melted away. I am happy about that, but I never want to experience those hives again.
~After my trip through the medical wonderland, I certainly understand people who suffer from allergies—and it is great if they know what to avoid so that they no longer suffer.
~So, if you are allergic to fish, milk, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and yeast you should stop drinking wine; at least you should stop drinking it until the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau makes a decision whether or not to require ingredient labeling for wine.
~Is this another case of the nanny culture or is there anything to wine label ingredient requirements?
~What are fish, milk, eggs, nuts, et al, doing in wine anyway?
~Mostly, they are clarifying wine.

Casein, egg white, evaporated milk, isinglass (derived from sturgeon bladder) are all used as fining agents, to remove components and proteins that cause hazing or cloudiness. Wheat gluten is also a potential fining agent for red wine.
Tannin is natural to grapes; it is the substance that helps wine to age. A wine with too little tannin might be manipulated and have tannin added to it; for this purpose, tannins derived from chestnut or oak trees are sometimes used.

~I certainly understand the need for labeling wine for its potential allergens and yet, I hesitate to endorse the label requirement.
~In Australia, a ten-year database of consumer information by the regulatory information manager of the Australian Wine Research Institute found that out of about 850 cases only one allergic reaction was attributed to fining agents used in wine.
~Further, the cases of adverse reactions attributed to other substances found in wine, like biogenic amines and sulfites, are mostly unsubstantiated anecdotes, and even they amount to but a few cases.

In many other studies, not much conclusive about allergens and wine seems available beyond the potential asthmatic/respiratory reaction from sulfites.

~The wine industry’s general position is that filtration removes enough of the potential allergen particles as to render wine safe. The industry also points out that a scientific method of detecting traces of most of the substances does not exist. If you can’t measure a substance, how can you say on the label that it is in the wine?
~Maybe you can’t.
~ If the filter and detection argument is true, then the government might be over reacting to some sort of outside pressure. What could that pressure be? Could it be anti-alcohol or pseudo scientists at work?

A statement made to the government by one advocate of wine labeling for allergens talked about the many children between 2 and 5 who have allergies to peanuts, eggs, and milk. I suspect the minimum drinking age of 21 would take care of that problem, or am I missing something?
In an attempt to maintain their monopolistic hold on wine distribution, the national wine wholesalers’ association makes a specious argument that allowing wine to be purchased online and shipped across state lines would increase under-age drinking, but even they likely wouldn’t go so far as to say that we need to protect children between 2 and 5 from allergens in wine!

~As much as I enjoy ripping government apart whenever it presents an opportunity, as much as I abhor ideologues, and as much as I think consumers need to be responsible for their own lives, I find myself in a bad spot on this issue.
~I’ve been saying for years that even if the present government warning on wine were completely justified, the way it is written makes it useless information. But in the case of allergies, it generally doesn’t take much for an allergen to cause a human reaction. The best course is to avoid the offending substance—to do that, you don’t need a warning, just a list.
~So, to the question, should wine producers be required to print ingredient labels, I equivocate—MAYBE.
~There is of course another alternative: the government can ban additives to wine. For the life of me I cannot understand, since tannin can be derived from grapes, grape cluster stems, and grape seeds, why is added tannin derived from nut trees, except maybe that it is a cheaper source. Losing that additive doesn’t seem like a big deal. I am sure other additives can be addressed.
~Then there are the many wines that claim to have been produced “unfined and unfiltered.” With no additives, these wines should be allergen free.

But one problem would still remain. To paraphrase a famous Humphrey Bogart line: wine’ll always have yeast.

Here are some links: grape, allerg,

Natalie Maclean sent me a copy of her book, Red, White and Drunk All Over. I found it fun to read. Blended with stories of her wine travels, you will find educational tidbits about winemaking in various locations. There is a riff on wine critics, but Natalie doesn't take a stand, which I wish she had done. A link for the book is to your left, with my book links.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What's in a name?

Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Rhein, Napa, Mendocino, Willamette, Yakima, Long Island, Finger Lakes.

~Each of the above is the name of a place where wine is produced, and the wine is uniquely identified by the general style of wines dictated by the type of grapes, the climate or a combination of the two.

Some of the above names have major currency while others have no particular currency with wine geeks. But that is not the issue of this post—wine geeks are generally followers; it is usually a matter of time and the discovery of some critic before wine geeks are awakened. That is why other names—names of famous winemakers or producers—remain in the news; after these names develop currency, the wines are priced out of most people’s range and usually out of the range of the wine’s deserved value. But this post is not about that—it is about place names.

~Frankly, I assumed that by now, with the reported growth in wine interest and sales in the United States, plus the supposed learning curve of wine knowledge in the country, that the subject of wine place names would no longer have to be addressed. But I find that even some daily wine drinkers do not know that Chardonnay is a grape and Chablis is not the name of an American wine.
~It almost pains me to have to report, as I have been reporting for twenty years, that Chardonnay is the name of a grape, and, because it is produced in so many styles, Chardonnay is not necessarily the name of a wine. Plus, Chablis, the real stuff, is produced from Chardonnay, but not in the United States.
~Recently, the European Union and the United States came to an agreement that the Europeans have been pressing to reach for decades. In the future, names like Chablis, Burgundy, et al., names of European places where wine is produced under strict regulations, will no longer be allowed use on American wine labels. (Another major offending wine nation, Australia has also agreed.)
~It is about time. Perhaps, after a decade or so, Americans will finally come to understand that names like Hearty Burgundy or California Champagne are an abomination, akin to a French wine producer labeling his wines Napa Valley or Finger Lakes.
~Maybe one day all American wines will stand on the merits of their own location and style rather than some standing on the merits of deservedly recognized European places. It’s going to take at least a decade for this to happen, first because people are generally slow to change; second, because the EU agreed to a so-called “grandfather” clause that allows that American producers who had been misusing European place names before the agreement can continue to do so. These producers will stop doing so on their own accord after enough time has elapsed for the general consumer to finally understand the reason behind their use of the names, which is not savory.

To a related subject: on the Internet Wine Lovers Page a recent discussion ensued concerning the word claret.

~Claret is a British word that is now but hasn’t always been used to identify red wines from Bordeaux. Generally, few people have any idea concerning the word’s etymology—there are a number of wine writers from the past who have tried to enlighten, but few people in the present either don't care to be enlightened or simply aren’t.
~In any event, the Bordelais, the producers of wines of Bordeaux, as far as is discernable, have never referred to their wines by the name claret. With that in mind, the question is: whose name is it, and what is its legal standing?
~Unlike the word Meritage, which has little meaning but is trademarked and so has legal standing, claret belongs only to British wine consumers. It is not the name of a place and it is not a trademark. It has no legal standing.

The word claret may have developed a few hundred years ago from a particular French wine of a similar name, but it is uncertain how it came about plus, it appears the wine in question was not a Bordeaux red. Our own Bob Ross has promised to post the results of his research on this word. Sit tight. Bob’s in no hurry…

~While I am on names, do you know how many wine grape varieties grow on this earth?
~I am told about 10,000 wine grapes exist (I am also told that Italy alone is host to about half that number).
~With 10,000 wine grape varieties grown worldwide, why is it that we generally hear and read about a few dozen at best?
~I shall take up that subject in a future post.
~In the meanwhile, check out these links for a combined discussion on claret and Meritage, and for the EU/US place name agreement: claretage, EU/US,

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's pronounced the same as heritage...

~I am talking about Meritage—don’t say Meri-tahge.
~It is a made up word, this Meritage. Unlike words like Chablis or Burgundy, Meritage has no legal standing in wine regulations. But it is a trademarked word, and that has its own legal standing; its use identifies mainly New World wines produced from the grapes that were made famous in the Old World of Bordeaux.
~Here’s an excerpt from the Meritage Association’s Web site:

“In 1988, a group of American vintners formed The Meritage Association to identify handcrafted wines blended from the traditional "noble" Bordeaux varietals.”

~Oh how I wish there were a legal standing behind rules of grammar. I'll say it again: wine varietals are adjectives, grape varieties are nouns. If the Meritage Association is talking about noble Bordeaux grapes, then they ought to call them “varieties” not “varietals.” In a later paragraph the association uses the ill-advised construction, “comprised of,” but I am digressing too much…
~The original Meritage idea was born in 1988 as a reaction against the federal government ruling for varietal labeling, which requires that 75 percent of the wine’s volume be derived from the grape name used on the label to identify the wine. In other words, a wine labeled Cabernet Sauvignon need be only 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; the remaining 25 percent can be from any variety. I don’t particularly like the 75 percent rule, but I also don’t find conforting the Meritage Association’s fix for the rule. Here is an excerpt:

“Many winemakers…believed the varietal requirement (the 75 percent rule) did not necessarily result in the highest quality wine from their vineyards. "Meritage" was coined to identify wines that represent the highest form of the winemaker's art, blending...”

~From what I understand of the federal regulations, a winemaker who chooses to produce a 100 percent varietal wine can go right ahead and do so. Plus, a winemaker who chooses to blend doesn’t necessarily have to give the wine a varietal name—it can have a proprietary name or it can come with a list of the blend with percentages of each variety.
~In other words, winemakers can produce wine that results in the highest quality from their vineyards whether or not they blend, and they can do it in any combination of blending that they choose—they just have to name the wine within the blend percentage guidelines.
~I simply don’t see what the word Meritage does to make the situation any better. Plus, the federal guidelines apply to all wines, and all blends. Meritage applies to only a select few grapes—the few from Bordeaux. Is the Meritage Association claiming that all other wine regions and grapes are inferior? I certainly hope not.
~I seem to remember, as many others who have followed this subject, that when the Meritage Association established itself there were some rules laid down relating to what constituted a Meritage blend—I think it had to do with certain percentages of each variety and something about a quality statement or at least a minimum quality parameter.
~In Europe (including Bordeaux) before a producer can tack an official regional designation on the label the wine must meet a variety of standards that cover things like grape varieties, percentages in the blend, harvest parameters, alcohol levels, barrel aging timelines, and so on. I recently checked on the Meritage Association rules and I can’t find parameters that guarantee much of anything except a limitation to produce wine from the few grape varieties allowed.

According to the Web site, if a Meritage wine is red the grapes in the blend might be any combination that includes at least two of the following: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, and two truly obscure Bordeaux red grapes. A white Meritage blend might be any combination of at least two of the following: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and the relatively obscure Sauvignon Vert.

In addition, a wine is still a Meritage when any one of the allowed varieties makes up as much as 90 percent of the blend. Yet, Meritage “…was coined to identify wines that represent the highest form of the winemaker's art, blending…”

~To me, 90 percent of any one grape variety seems counterintuitive to the elevation of the art of blending. At 90 percent, the wine would be allowed a varietal label under federal regulations, which seems to me to carry more weight than the 75 percent rule, especially in our varietal-centric New World market.
~Wineries have to pay for a license to use the Meritage trademark on their label. If I were a wine producer I would gladly pay the price, had the association kept its initial focus. But as it stands today, a Meritage label assures only that a minimum of two of the allowed grapes will be contained in the blend. I read the Web site and came up with no other assurance. I simply don’t see the point of paying for the privilege of producing under a system as meaningful (or as meaningless, depending upon perspective) as the 75 percent rule.
~It seems to me that Meritage is merely marketing.

Disclaimer: I was drinking wine a little before the New World penchant for varietal labeling had exploded globally. My early wine experience was mainly with European wines, which taught me to mostly trust wine regions or place names as well as producer names rather than to follow grape names.

~I have never worried about how much of which grapes were blended into a wine, and I still don’t. I worried only whether or not the wine represented its place of birth and whether or not it was to my liking. In that regard, I remain a curmudgeon.

Link to: Meritage,

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Whose wine do I have?

~The following are designations you will find on American wine labels.

Estate Bottled
Grown, Produced and Bottled By
Produced and Bottled By
Made and Bottled By
Cellared and Bottled By
Vinted (is there such a word in English?) and Bottled By
Prepared and Bottled By
Either Produced, Made, Cellared, Vinted, or Prepared plus either Packed or Blended By
Imported By or Bottled (Packed) in the United States For…

~All the above phrases are on wine labels to inform us. I suspect, however, that the real reason for them has to do with making sure that the federal agency responsible for collecting excise tax revenue has a lead to the paper trail, but let us not be cynical.
~Let us assume that the phrases are information for us; what, then, do they mean?
~First, here is a statement I found in the government regulations:

“No term other than Estate Bottled may be used on a label to indicate combined growing and bottling conditions.”

~I bring up the above comment because it illustrates how confusing this post might be.
If it is true that only the term Estate Bottled may be used to indicate combined growing and bottling conditions, then what in the world does Grown, Produced and Bottled By indicate? I know I have seen that phrase many times, but I could not locate it in the regulations.
~Perhaps, Bob Ross can find the regulation of that phrase for us.
~In any event, Estate Bottled means that the wine company named on the label had dominion over all aspects of the process, from growing the grapes to corking the bottles—screw capping them if the winery is progressive. But there is a slight catch, which makes me wonder about the term Estate Bottled.
~To use the words Produced By or Made By, the wine producer had to have fermented not less than 75% of the volume of wine represented in the bottle. Does that mean that an Estate Bottled wine doesn’t necessarily all have to be fermented by the estate? Sure sounds like it.
~Calling Bob again!
~Here’s another quote from the regulations:

“Cellared, Vinted or Prepared means that the named winery, at the stated address, subjected the wine to cellar treatment in accordance with §4.22(c)”

~I hope you don’t really want me to go into what that 4.22 says about what cellar treatment means—I’d have you sleeping soon enough. Suffice to say, cellar treatment has nothing to do with fermenting (making) the wine. So, whenever you see any one of the three words—cellared, vinted, prepared—the operative words that follow are the address of the licensee, which could very well be (but doesn’t have to be) what is known as a virtual winery, a place that has a license but no real winemaking facility of its own.
~After reading the regulations it occurred to me that a wine labeled cellared, vinted or prepared by so and so number 1 could very well be the same wine that is cellared, vinted or prepared by so and so number 2, 3, or 4 and at varying prices; plus, each winery that puts the wine on the market doesn’t have to have had much of anything to do with producing the wine. That’s one way to handle a wine glut.
~What bothers me most is that I used to think that it was safe to believe Estate Bottled By and Grown, Produced and Bottled By assured me that one producer had a hand in all the volume of wine in that bottle, either starting in the vineyard or at least as juice. But while researching for this post I developed the distinct feeling that I have been wrong all along.
~The following is another quote from the regulations:

“If the wine was bottled or packed in the United States, the label shall also state one of the following: Bottled by” or “packed by” followed by the name of the bottler or packer and the address of the place where the wine was bottled or packed; or if the wine was bottled or packed for the person responsible for the importation, the words “imported by and bottled (packed) in the United States for” followed by the name and address of the principal place of business in the United States of the person responsible for the importation…”

~The above is one of the few areas in the voluminous regulations that is not qualified with “wherefores” and “in accordance with” and “75% of” verbiage.
~It appears the only words on the label that assure me of anything regarding who was responsible for the various stages of the wine production are the words that follow Bottled By, that would be a name and an address.
~Am I right Bob? Here's a link, try to figure it out... regs

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A broker sells stocks--right?

~One harried day when I sold wine at retail I received a phone call from someone who not only had a deal for me—he had the best deal in the world. He could sell me 25 cases of wine and deliver customers to take them off my hands. All I had to do was to pay him up front for the wine.
~I’ve been around long enough to know the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Plus, in New York it is not legal for someone to sell wine without either a wholesale or retail license. This fellow represented no wholesaler that I knew of in New York.
~I made him a counter offer. I told him to send me the customers. I will gladly take their orders and payment and then have him send me the wines to deliver. In New York, wines sold to consumers must go through a retailer with a license.
~He was incredulous that I would not take him up on his offer. He also wondered why I didn’t trust him. At that point, I hung up the phone, and when you get a call from someone pressuring you into buying wine—or anything—you should do the same.
~Ask yourself this question: are you really that lazy not to go to the Saturday tasting at your favorite wine shop to try out the latest find, or to attend one of the big wine tastings that usually show up around town? If so, then a so-called wine broker may be for you, but if you do go with a broker do some homework.
~I’ve been told numerous stories about wine brokers not only pressuring people on the phone to buy certain wines but also pressuring people to buy in large quantities. The worst part of the stories is that, when pressed, my friends and acquaintances tell me that the brokers don’t seem to know much about the product they sell. Whenever I hear such stories I think of those boiler room scam operations that one reads about in the newspapers.
~The wine brokerage operations that I have heard about seem to sell the most obscure wines on the planet—the brokers seem to be the only ones who have ever heard of them. It seems that way because it is likely accurate. A lot of those wines are bottled just for the telephone operations.
~From my perspective, there are two problems with buying wine I’ve never heard of from someone who hasn’t a clue what to say about the wine, let alone try to pronounce it properly (I’ve heard of that happening with brokers).

The first problem is that the wine could be pretty bad. That’s why I either taste before I buy wine or I know the person who recommends a wine to me. I’ve heard that brokers get agitated when they are asked to let you taste the wine.

The second problem is that even if by a remote chance the wine is quite good, it likely is a wine that is also found under a different, and maybe recognized, label. The probability is that the one in the broker’s label will cost much more.

Now that I think of it, there’s a third problem with buying wine from a broker. Some—not all of them—are skirting the law. If you deal with someone skirting the law, odds are customer service may be fleeting, especially if you are unhappy with your contraband delivery.

~Don’t get me wrong. Some reputable wine retail operations sell by telephone and many reputable operations sell wine online. Mostly, however, their sales people are employees and quite often they even know something about wine.
~I’m not going to include links in this post The only broker I know is on Wall Street; judging by my portfolio, you don’t want to know him.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, January 5, 2007

How do you like your toast?

~Some winemakers like their toast light, some prefer dark, and some go for the deep, nearly burnt, flavor—I am not talking about breakfast.
~Wine industries have existed for about 8,000 years, yet oak barrels began to become a wine industry mainstay after the decline of the Western Roman Empire about 1,500 years ago.
~Before Rome, wood was used only every so often to transport wine—there’s evidence that Armenians transported their cargo of wine to Babylon 4,000 years ago in barrels made of willow wood. The ancients had decided that the best vessel for wine storage was in airtight ceramics: the amphora probably holds the distinction of being the longest-lasting wine vessel in history.
~Before Rome fell, however, its province of Gaul (France) had already developed a preference for oak barrels. Maybe this was so because of the dense forests of northern Europe, or maybe they simply didn’t like doing as they do in Rome. Whatever their motive, the initial idea was neither to age nor to flavor the wine with wood—just to store and transport it in barrels.
~Barrels posed a few problems. In winter, the wine often froze while in transport, bursting the barrels. In summer, the wine sometimes got warm enough for it to expand and to leak from the barrels, which were not exactly airtight. Not being airtight, the barrels could help ruin a lot of wine through lengthy exposure to oxygen.
~Somewhere in the Age of Enlightenment cooperage became better understood: barrels were put together more tightly plus, wine producers and their customers discovered that slow oxidation in barrels made the wine more complex and thereby more interesting. Oak became, and still is, the preferred wood, for its density and its component make-up, not to mention its own age-ability.
~Jump ahead a few centuries and you find that barrels still provide that wonderful function of adding complexity to wine through gradual oxidation, but—and to me this is a BIG BUT—wood has also become the most identifiable flavor of so many wines, and I don’t necessarily mean wood from barrels.

Not long ago, American oak was considered inferior for wine, it having mainly been used for whiskey. The grain and density of American oak is different from French, and it imparts flavors in wine separate from the flavors of French oak. The flavors, however, have become more and more malleable by way of techniques like shaving the inside of used barrels and toasting the inside of new and used ones.

~The ballooning need for oak barrels coupled with more refined cooperage and winemaking techniques, not to mention diminishing natural resources, has brought the price of oak barrels to great heights. French oak, which, until recently, was preferred both here and in West Europe, is between $700 and $800 for one approximate 55-gallon barrel; American oak is about half the price.
~For a couple of decades New World wines kept upping the ante of oak flavor in wine. Some of us wine drinkers don’t like the direction. We remember wine as an agricultural product produced from grapes, and not from wood. Trouble is, we are getting old. So many people of legal drinking age today have been led to believe that oak flavor in wine is a given, and those consumers have come to like their wooded wines quite a lot.
~Unfortunately, not every wood lover has as much money as it takes to buy a daily bottle of oak barrel-aged wine. The wine industry has responded to this problem.
~A long time ago most tea was brewed as crushed leaves in a pot that had hot water poured over them; they brewed a bit and the resulting infused liquid was poured through a strainer into the cup. Then came the teabag and the straining was no longer needed, nor was the brewing pot. You stick the teabag into the cup, pour the hot water over it and you have instant tea. This is how a lot of wine gets its wood these days.
~They are called oak chips or dust. I have no idea how they are produced, but I assume it has to do with used up barrels being re-toasted, ground, and packed into bags. Winemakers dip the bags into their stainless steel tanks and let the wood flavor seep into the wine.
~Notice, I said stainless steel tank. Such large tanks are inert—no oxygen passes through them. So the purpose of the oak chips is not to create complex wine through oxidation; it is to flavor the wine with wood.
~The effects of barrel aging take long to take full hold because not all the surface of the wine gets to touch the wood directly. The effects of oak bags dipped into the wine are near instantaneous, and judging by the results of some wines on the market, a few winemakers must have fallen asleep after dumping their bags in.
~Oak bags are not the only choice; wood staves have joined them in the tanks. In a variety of patterns and forms (including a fan shape) wood slats are either hung inside or directly attached to stainless steel tanks. The slats are strategically placed to allow as much of the wine surface to “benefit” from the exposure to wood—for flavoring.

Tip: if that bottle of wood-saturated wine cost you about $12 or less (maybe up to $15 these days) it’s a cinch that the stuff never saw the inside of a barrel. Also, when you wade through the often deplorable grammar of the back label, where you learn about the producer’s family legend or the hillsides surrounding the vineyards, if, when describing the wine, the word “wood” shows up without the corresponding words of “barrel” or “aged” odds are that barrels had nothing to do with it.

~In either case—dipped bags or wood staves—if the winemaker happens to be one who remembers with fondness the oxidation effect of aging wine in real barrels he or she can always subject the wood-flavored wines to a process known as micro-oxygenation, a way to slowly add oxygen to wine to make it develop complexity by simulating aging.
~There was a time when I would have had to type this essay on something known as a typewriter that made an ink-stained imprint onto something else called paper. How in the world I would have distributed this blog to as many of you who read it is beyond my desire to calculate. I therefore suppose that railing any further against the tide of winemaking technology will seem like resistance to change.
~Change and technology notwithstanding, some of us tire quickly of wines that remind of a sawmill instead of a farm. Even if we preferred a lot of wood, we’d rather it got there by way of nice, long aging in a barrel.
~How about you?

Try these sites: air, air/wood, morewood,

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All Right Reserved.

Monday, January 1, 2007

What's the point?

Before you read this post you need to know that, contrary to what you read and hear all too often, the words variety and varietal are not interchangeable; the former is a noun; the latter is an adjective. Chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon—are the names of grape varieties. Wines named after grape varieties—chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon—are varietal wines.

Plus, if a wine is named after a grape variety, wine from that grape must represent a minimum of 75% of the volume. Please remember this fact as you read on.

~A friend of mine in grade school used to justify his recurring grade of 65 with a shrug of his shoulders and the comment, “it’s better than halfway.”
~Of course, what my friend meant was that 50 out of 100 is only halfway, so 65 was a good grade to him. The New York City school system felt the same way and so my friend always passed, whether or not he learned anything.
~I suppose I am of a certain age to measure success by way of a 100-point scale (I’m told it isn’t necessarily done that way in school anymore). In any event, the fellow who made popular the well-known 100-point scoring system to rate wine entered grade school a year or two after I had, so he surely must have been influenced by the grading system—or maybe not.
~This is how the 100-point wine rating system has been explained to me: 5 points for color; 15 for aroma; 20 for flavor-finish; 10 for overall potential for aging, the wine not the rater.
~It took me only a few seconds to realize that the categories add up to 50. Was I was being taken for a fool?
~When I asked about the discrepancy I was told that every wine that shows up for the rating starts with 50 points. I wish that was the case with bowling points when I show up at the alley.
~Obviously, if all wines receive 50 points out of 100 just for showing up, it is a 50-point rating system—or maybe not.
~Under this rating system a wine scoring below 75 is usually considered faulty—my old friend in grade school would have been ecstatic with that grade. I figure that if a rating of 75 denotes a faulty wine the 100-point wine rating system that I thought to be a 50-point system really is a 25-point system—or maybe not.
~ It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that 75 out of 100 represents 75%. But this is a 50-point system impersonating as a 100-point system, then a rating of 75 is in fact a rating of 25, which would be 50% and that, I suppose, can be considered a low score or a faulty wine. But this rating system is getting complex—or maybe not.
~People who follow the ratings seem to get excited only when a wine scores 85 or above (had my friend in grade school received an 85% mark he might have died young of a heart attack). But then, what percentage does an 85 score represent when the scoring starts at 50? Under the 50-point system, that 85 really represents 35, and that represents 70%.
~By now you must be wondering where the rabbit is in this hat. I’m getting bogged down. Let me try to make some sense by analyzing what the 50 points mean.

5 for color:
Unless a wine is oxidized (brown) or the wrong color from what it says it is (red instead of white), I suspect most wines score 5. I am not sure if clarity is considered in the equation; since many people using this scoring system prefer unfiltered wines, I have to guess not. Unfiltered wines often have things floating in them. I likely would score an unfiltered wine 2 out of 5, but I don’t score wines, so I don’t matter.
15 for aroma:
This category is tricky because some wines smell a lot better than others, and it is supposed to be that way. I suspect points are lost based on the weakness of the sought-after smell. I do hope the ones with the right smell are getting the top points allowed. But how can anyone be sure, especially with that pesky 75% varietal rule that allows the remaining 25% of volume to be from any variety than the one named on the label? That 25% must certainly have an effect on aroma, or why else would the rule be in place?
20 for flavor-finish:
Flavor is not so tricky a category because once you know what the grape variety is you should get a certain flavor profile from the wine; of course, there is that pesky 75% rule again, but let’s not quibble and give benefit of doubt here.
As for finish, many in the industry agree (count me in) that the mark of a good wine is a lingering, fine finish—easy to score that one. But I do wonder if the value of flavor and finish are equally divided in those 20 points. Hmmm. I might weight finish more, but again, I don’t matter.
10 for overall potential for aging:
Industry estimates are that upwards of 90% of all wines sold in the U.S. are consumed within hours of purchase, which makes me wonder if this category implies that more than 90% of wines produced are not eligible for the 100, er, 50-point system. But if the 90% of wines are eligible, do they forfeit these 10 points, which would then make this a 40-point rating system—whew!

~I’ve been toying with you. I’ve known all along that people who follow this wine rating system don’t take much stock in any wine that scores below 90, which always leaves them stuttering when someone asks about the difference between a wine that scores 89 and one that scores 90. This is where a 100-point system would begin to merge with a 50-point system—in the former, 89 is one percentage point away from 90; in the latter, the numbers represent 78 and 80% of 50, a 2 percentage point spread.
~The general answer scorers and score followers give when asked about the difference between 89 and 90 is that the judge favored the 90 a little more. That’s a big help.

And so I ask: where have the established parameters been quantified, agreed to, and recorded so that the wine rating system can be “proved” as in proofing the validity of an equation?
Seems the answer is nowhere.
Those who rate wine by this system claim that after a while they don’t need to refer to their numbers; a sniff and a taste and the overall number rating appears in their head.

~Now I get it. We need not concern ourselves with the numerical wine rating system at all; it is completely arbitrary. The ratings are the hedonistic expression of the individual/s who apply the scores. In fact, the system’s defenders say that the numbers are less important than the commentary that accompanies them.
~I agree. So why do the numerical ratings get top billing? And if the benefit is in the words, why rate the wines with a number at all?
~It appears the numerical wine rating system is a fast, easy way for its practitioners to capitalize from that age-old human condition: there are leaders and there are followers, and the latter far outnumber the former.
~The world also provides us with people who take matters into their own hands and go their own way. In wine, they are the winemakers and wine consumers who aren’t chasing a points system, whether 100, 50, 40, or 25.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All rights reserved.