The Emperor’s Flimsy Wardrobe

Every year around this time, The Wine Spectator publishes its list of the year’s 100 most exciting wines. This year’s list has duly (you may read that with two “l”s) appeared, and it disappoints as deeply as ever. For years now, for me the most exciting thing about the Spectator’s Hundred Best List has been its omissions.

If the Spectator was as insignificant as this blog, I would have no quarrel with its listing anything it wanted. But the Spectator is influential, if only because retailers and public relations people keep citing its numbers – its numerical scores, based as near as I can tell, on a 20-point scale of 80 to 100 – as if they were engraved on stone by the finger of the Almighty. In my opinion, they are written on water by very fallible human beings, and I often find the Spectator’s evaluations and comments on wines wildly off the mark. For me, the Spectator’s Hundred Best List concentrates all its quintessential off-the-mark-ness in one splendid spot.

Let’s start with some numbers, since the Spectator is so fond of numbers. Of any given year’s hundred best wines, how many would you reasonably expect would come from the Old World, the homeland of Vitis vinifera? Just think of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Let’s not complicate things with Germany or Austria, Greece or Hungary. Would you say fifty percent? Maybe even two-thirds? Dream on: Those four great, historic wine-producing nations get fewer citations among them than does the American west coast. California, Washington, and Oregon, according to the Spectator, last year produced a full third of the world’s one hundred finest wines. California by itself gave the world one-quarter of them – 25 listings to France’s puny 17, Italy’s weakling 9, and Spain and Portugal’s near-insignificant 6.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

If you count in the Spectator’s other New World listings – Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina – the US and the rest of the New World last year gifted us with a full fifty percent of the top wines in the world. Oh: I almost forgot – fifty-one percent if you throw in the list’s one New York wine.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

Some inferences are fair from these numbers. Given the preponderance of New World wines and the strong presence in the European listings of international-style or “auteur” wines, it’s obvious that the Spectator’s tasters have markedly California palates. That makes it very difficult for them to appreciate wines that aren’t strongly fruit forward, that opt for elegance, balance, and restraint over vigor, or that show a marked acidity. Those three characteristics describe most of the estimable wines of Europe, which means the Spectator is largely groping in the dark when it comes to evaluating them.

This was very vividly demonstrated for me a few years back, when the Spectator’s then Italian stringer James Suckling (more about Mr. Suckling below) pronounced 2000 Barolo a perfect, 100-point vintage. When most of the rest of us who regularly cover Italian wines stopped laughing, we wept. That corps of journalists of many nations (in whose company, by the way, neither Mr. Suckling nor anyone else from the Spectator has ever been seen) pretty unanimously considered 2000 at best a middling, not to say mediocre, Barolo vintage. It had been marred by excessive heat, so that at harvest many grapes were over-ripe while the tannins were green and harsh.

To hide these defects (though you really can’t hide them, if a taster is paying attention), a lot of producers aged the wines in new or heavily charred barriques. The result: wines with plenty of fruit up front, with a layer of oaky vanilla or espresso from the barriques, and harsh, biting tannins behind – essentially unbalanced wines, with little prospect of cellar development. (Most 2000 Barolos are already dead, bitter tannic corpses.) That’s not exactly what anyone but the Spectator would call a classic Barolo vintage – but hey! It had lots of fruit. Pity the poor souls who bought it on the Spectator’s recommendation with the thought that they had acquired a classic, long-lived Barolo.

The Italian selections on this year’s list merit some closer attention. One is an Amarone (Zenato ’06; good but very, very young) and one is a Pinot Grigio (Atems ’08: a nice wine, but one of the world’s top 100?). The other seven are all Tuscan wines. Think about that: not a single Barolo or Barbaresco or Gattinara or Ghemme. No Barbera or Dolcetto. Not a wine from the Marches or Abruzzo, Puglia or Sicily. Not a single bottle from Campania – no Taurasi, no Fiano, no Greco. Not a white from Jermann or Gravner or the whole of Alto Adige.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

I am not one of those who think that the Spectator is just the journalistic arm of the California Chamber of Commerce. But I am certainly one of those who wish that the Spectator would either learn European wines or just leave them alone. As matters now stand, I really believe its pronouncements do far more harm than good: They misdirect people rather than enlighten them.

Postscript: It gave me some hope a little while back when James Suckling left the Spectator. I thought that just maybe the Spectator had gotten embarrassed about the Vintage 2000 fiasco and that we would hear no more such gross misjudgments from Mr. Suckling. Alas, I was wrong. He’s back. What his PR agent calls “the wine world’s most important voice” – so much for Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates, Parker and Spurrier, Broadbent and Sutcliffe, and all the rest of the world’s apparently-Suckling-wannabees – is starting up a website. I looked at the trailer for it (no, I’m not going to give you the URL) and I would certainly rate it at or near 100 on the pretention meter. If nothing else, I will check it regularly in the future for its inadvertent comedy content. If you can’t beat ‘em, you can at least laugh at them.

4 Responses to “The Emperor’s Flimsy Wardrobe”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    A very restrained response to Mr. Matthews’ reply- very classy. Well done!

    As for their preference of New World wines, it reminds me of the classic New Yorker cartoon where the end of the world is basically the Hudson River. For the Spectator, you can flip the map over, as the end of their wine world (or is it the start?) is the West Coast of the United States, specifically California.

  2. Thomas Matthews Says:

    Tom,

    I’m sorry you find so little merit in Wine Spectator’s Top 100, but I appreciate your bringing it to your readers’ attention. Our goal is to stimulate conversation about the world of wine, and in that, at least, we have succeeded.

    As for the specific selections, and the balance of wines from various regions, that of course changes every year, as vintages change, new regions emerge and new producers come to attention. (In 2009, for example, 6 of the top 10 wines were from Europe, including 4 from Italy.) These are our choices of the year’s most exciting wines, judged on a matrix of quality, value and excitement. We don’t expect anyone to agree with all of them. We hope that the Top 100 brings wines of interest to the attention of people who are interested in wines.

    As for Mr. DeSalvo, there is no merit to his implication that advertising influences placement on the Top 100 (nor, by extension, their scores or editorial coverage). I had never examined the list in that perspective before, but did a quick review (which may not be completely accurate, since advertising is not my department), and counted 7 wines of the 100 that have at one point been advertisers in Wine Spectator; 6 Old World, 1 New World.

    Tom, I would be curious to know YOUR “most exciting wines” among the new releases you tasted in 2010. I think that would be a more interesting response to our list, than simply criticizing our taste, our judgment, or our ethics.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Tom:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my critique of the Spectator’s 100 Most Exciting Wines list. I disagree with you on several points, however.

      First, your final comment: I was very careful NOT to criticize the Spectator’s ethics. It is the publication’s judgment I’m calling into question. I realize that your choices for this list vary from year to year: I think, however, without having done a scientific analysis of it, that the distribution of this year’s listings stands as pretty typical, and therefore my comments on that distribution remain valid. It is the distribution that reveals the pattern, that in turn reveals the standards (or biases) of the publication — in this case, heavily slanted towards New World, international-style wines.

      Second: my Most Exciting Wines List would serve no purpose at all, since it would be based on a much smaller sample (I am one person, after all, not a magazine, and I have to buy a high percentage of the wines I taste in the course of a year) and it would reflect only my own highly eccentric taste. The last thing the wine world needs (well, next to last: another Cabernet or Chardonnay would be first) is yet another meaningless list.

      The point, I think, is that all of us, bloggers and Spectator alike, should be prodding people to taste for themselves and form their own judgment. All “Best” lists are de facto coercive, particularly so when issued by an organ with the distribution and influence of the Spectator. I stand professionally and personally at the other end of that spectrum: I don’t trust tasting notes (much less lists), and I think that what we ought to be preaching is simply that “You only taste with your own mouth.”

      Best, Tom

  3. Ernie DeSalvo Says:

    I totally agree. Have you calculated advertising revenues (or even ad volume) to WS from new vs. old world producers? There’s a bet worth taking.

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