It was probably 40 years ago. I was at a gathering, and a couple brought what they referred to as a “really good bottle of wine.” Basically, it was an expensive bottle. After the wine was poured, they were stunned to discover they had purchased a very pricy and very sweet German dessert wine.

In this case, it was a quality wine, but not exactly what they expected. Price might tell us something, but it does not guarantee we will be satisfied with our purchase.

It was also 40 years ago, in 1978, that Robert Parker began publishing the Baltimore-based Wine Advocate. This ushered in an era of access to real information that helped decipher the mysteries of wine. His 100-point rating system provided a way of distinguishing quality from plonk. Descriptions also gave us some way of knowing, for instance, if the expensive German wine was the right wine for the occasion.

In the intervening years other agencies have borrowed Parker’s system, and a variety of competing systems have been introduced. Now in the age of information, we are presented with a wide range of tools, numbers and descriptions. These have come in response to the overwhelming number of wines we are presented with both online and in local shops.

So Many Ratings

When searching online or in a wine shop, you might notice a numbered rating with a letter or letters that indicate the rating agency. Some of the most common are:

WA—Wine Advocate (this might
  also be RP for Robert Parker)

WS—Wine Spectator

WE—Wine Enthusiast

W&S—Wine and Spirits

JS—James Suckling

TP—Tasting Panel

D—Decanter

There are certainly more rating agencies than the ones listed above. In addition, if I had a nickel for every wine writer trying to establish themselves as rating authorities, I would be a wealthy man. So what do we make of all the numbers?

First of all, you will seldom see a rating below 80. This is simply because rating agencies are reluctant to assign scores to wines they consider “flawed.” It’s probably a mistake to assume that a rated wine and similar unrated wine from the same vintage are equal. There are many reasons for this, but they are too numerous to cover in this article.

You may also find multiple ratings, and they can vary by several points. You should know that different agencies look for different qualities. Various authorities give more weight to some rating agencies over others, but that seems equally subjective. I typically look at the average.

Hint: In an effort to impress guests, only share the highest score while pouring the wine.

Finally, it seems like a no-brainer, but look at the written description of the wine, and consider it in addition to the rating. Numbers alone will not match the wine to your palate or an intended food pairing.

Wine Tools In The Digital Age

For the purposes of this article, I will not advocate for one wine app over another. You will need to ask me directly, and you can do that through my website thevirginiagrape.com.

I dare say there are a number of different applications, and they have grown exponentially in sophistication. I recently downloaded an app that allows me to photograph a wine label, and within seconds I will be provided with ratings, descriptions and an average retail price. There also are applications that can interpret a photograph of an entire wine list and provide feedback. How cool is that?

Maybe I’m a geek and I almost certainly spend too much time looking at wine, but I have found such apps to be extremely helpful, and they are, for the most part, free.

Buying Online vs. Wine Shops

Online sites have become popular resources for wine shopping. I went through a long phase of online wine buying. It’s convenient; the price point is often lower, and online sites offer access to wines that are unavailable locally. These are advantages, but shopping online also presents a few pitfalls.

One little-known fact is wine does not travel well. This is particularly true for unfiltered wines, but no purchase that arrives in the mail should be opened immediately. The rule of thumb is to let a wine “rest” for between seven and 10 days before drinking.

Another consideration is the time of year the wine is shipped. Extreme heat or cold are bad for wine. Glowing wine ratings mean little after your wine has bounced around in the back of a delivery truck during a July heat wave.

Brick and mortar wine shops, on the other hand, may lack convenience and may seem a bit old school, but they do offer some advantages. Not the least of these is regularly scheduled wine tastings. No less an authority than Robert Parker pointed out, “There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”

Wine shops and even higher-end grocery stores frequently label wines with clues like “best buy” or “staff favorite,” which are ratings in their own right. In addition, they typically have experts on hand to offer advice.

Finally, the local wine shop received their wine through regular wine distribution channels. Wine importers and distributors have an interest in maintaining the best possible conditions during shipping. At the end of the distribution chain, retailers are likely to store the wine properly. So you can have a little more confidence in the bottle’s treatment prior to purchase.

Buying Local

Since I am “The Virginia Grape,” I would be remiss in not plugging local wine. Of course, local tasting rooms are dedicated entirely to educating visitors about their offerings and providing curated tastings. We also are beginning to see some superior Virginia wines rated 90 points or higher, but let your palate be your guide.

It’s important to know Virginia wine is not the same from vintage to vintage. This is largely due to differences in growing season. So if you loved a particular wine from 2010, do not assume the 2015 will taste the same.

Depending on whom you ask, 2007 and 2010 are regarded as two of the best Virginia vintages. Of course, those are nearly impossible to find. I am a huge fan of 2013, but many winemakers prefer 2014. The 2017 vintage is being lauded as one of the best in the history of Virginia wine, but it will be a while before we start seeing those wines in shops and tasting rooms.

Final Note

We have come a long way in the last 40 years. It is infinitely easier these days to avoid accidentally purchasing the very pricy and very sweet German dessert wine. Unless, of course, that is the wine we want. Access to tools and ratings is really at the tip of our fingers, and we can all capitalize on collective expertise. ML

Brian Yost blogs as The Virginia Grape and writes for a number of local, regional and national publications. His articles concentrate on wine trends and wineries in the Eastern United States. Find more of his writing at thevirginiagrape.com.