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The numbers game
Why ratings, stats, and other figures matter in the world of wine

Two predictions for the world of wine this year: consumers will be more price sensitive (i.e., they’ll spend less and expect more " bang " for the buck), and they’re going to appreciate the limited significance of ratings, making the " scores " received by wines less meaningful. As a result, other numbers may count more.

You’re probably already aware of some important numbers. First there’s price, which actually involves three numbers: the distributors’ price, the wholesale price the importer/distributor charges the retailer, and the retail price you’re charged (which of course is different in stores than in restaurants). As I’ve mentioned before, different wines have different profit margins, which means retailers and restaurateurs have biases that go beyond their specific tastes. Though you won’t normally know what the profit number is, believe me — it often affects what gets recommended to you.

The second number, and the most dominant (and, in my opinion, the most overrated), is a wine’s " score. " Often this is the number that Wine Spectator or Robert Parker (who is the Wine Advocate), the two most influential raters of wine, have given a particular bottle. This score reflects the tastes (and biases) of those doing the scoring. Enologix, a wine-consulting company in Sonoma, claims it can predict scores simply by measuring the presence or absence of certain compounds in a given wine. It sounds so futuristic: without even tasting a wine, the analysts know how good it will be just by looking at its chemical composition. But regardless of who assigns a score or how the number is arrived at, it’s only useful if your taste happens to coincide with the taste of the scorers. If you think your taste might differ (and I would assert that people’s tastes vary widely), then knowing the official " score " won’t really help you in determining quality.

The number of cases produced also matters. This is not required label information in the US, and it’s often a difficult statistic to track down. But how much of a particular wine is made affects its availability, price, and the kind of marketing push it gets (which I believe can affect its ratings). A number that shouldn’t matter so much, but does, is the year. Year 2000 wines, especially Bordeaux, will cost more simply because of the powerful associations with that year. And far too often, people expect good wines to be made only in " good " years, when in fact well-made wines from less-than-stellar vintages offer some of the best wine values around. While I love drinking ’82 Bordeaux and ’90 Burgundies as much as the next aficionado, I derive special pleasure from a great ’78 Margaux or a ripping ’97 red Burgundy from Volnay.

I’ll throw in a bonus number: trends of varietals consumed. Industry insiders care that people are drinking more syrah and pinot noir, and you’ll likely see more of these wines available, at affordable prices, in the coming year because their numbers are now " up. " Add in these various figures, and you realize that even if the math sometimes gets a little fuzzy, numbers make the (wine) world go ’round.

Here are a few wines that I would score highly.

1998 Storrs Petite Sirah Santa Cruz California. Fleshy and voluptuous, but not over the top. Quite round, actually, and primed for steak or beef, but with a little chill; could work well with a robust chicken dish. Packs a bunch of black fruit and a judicious oak smack.

2000 Beaulieu Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Valley California. Bold and assertive, ripe and jammy, with lively, classic zin flavors. The year 2000 was phenomenal for Napa zin, and this is one of the first I’ve tasted, boding well for a bevy of new releases this year. Round and plummy, sumptuous with brisket, venison, or a burger.

1998 Vina Sastre Crianza Ribera del Duero Spain. Not the best year, but a beautiful wine nonetheless, showing dark and handsome fruits; mysterious, with Bing cherry explosions and a full oaky finish. New World–style, but classy and elegant all the same. Great with chorizo stew, a funky pesto-potato pizza, or roast chicken.

1994 Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Gran Reserva Spain. Balanced, with medium alcohol (13 percent) and fruit concentrated in the center. Tempranillo, but again, a New World wine (unusual for Rioja) showing why Spain is probably the most " up-and-coming " wine country in Europe these days.

Peter Rumball Sparkling Shiraz Australia. Deep red color, refreshing and flavorful. A wine I come back to often for its finesse, its pizzazz, and its versatility. Drinks well by itself, but can accompany almost anything. I like it with pizza as much as with Thai food. Like a sophisticated grape soda!

2000 Landmark " Overlook " Chardonnay Sonoma/Monterey. Chardonnay still rocks my world, especially when it has all this pineapple and citrus, with a deft use of oak to give it backbone. Perfect with Chilean sea bass, Thai-grilled red snapper, or even chicken.

2000 Honig Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley California. I like the regular better than the reserve, though both are good in this vintage. It tastes of pineapple and lemon, zesty, with a touch of that grassy effervescence I love. Great with Dover sole or raw shellfish.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: January 3-10, 2002

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