By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich

When it comes to things like music, cars, sports, food or even clothes, Americans are adamant about their likes and dislikes. Why is it when it comes to the subject of wine, so many Americans act like a deer in the headlights?

How often have you heard someone say, as you them pour a glass of wine –  “I’m not a wine connoisseur…I really don’t know much about it.” Of course we know it’s partly due to the fact that most of us didn’t grow up with wine like kids in European countries. The “foreign origin” of wine creates a disconnect within our culture, resulting in an elitist image. And, because of the vast number of wines available to us, especially here in New York, the world of wine has become a difficult thing for the average American to understand and navigate. 

Most Europeans are raised with at least some understanding of wine from their own local region and country. They are not schooled initially in the wines of the world — that’s something that takes time. Maybe the lesson is we should simply start by appreciating the wine in our own region before trying to understand the rest of the world.

We’ve seen the slow changes occurring in American wine consumption, much of it due to the well-documented health benefits of wine as well as the abundance of good wine available at good prices. Still, the average consumer remains somewhat intimidated with the world of wine. Over half of all wine consumers report that they would like to learn more about it. This brings me to the topic of wine ratings.

Much has been written regarding the use of the 100-point scale for wine evaluation. The amount of space needed to discuss all the merits and failings of this system doesn’t exist on this blog – but I would argue that most, if not all consumers could do better all by themselves.

More and more wine pundits are telling us the 100-point scale is fast becoming a relic of decades past, when Americans needed the advice of an “expert” to tell them what they should like. Just last week, The New York Times covered the topic by interviewing a number of major players in the wine ratings world.  All agreed that the 100-point systems used by Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator can be critical to a wine producers’ commercial success. At the same time however, most of these critics tell us they would like to see the system disappear altogether – that it has become in essence, a necessary evil in the wine world.

Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine and Spirits magazine states that “on many levels it’s nonsensical. I don’t think it’s a very valuable piece of information.” This comes in part from understanding that the 100-point scale is not an exact science. It’s actually not a science at all – it’s just a matter of opinion.

The many versions used by the wine intelligentsia can have little or
no relation to one another. Many of these evaluations are not done
completely “blind,” leaving much to the taster’s preconceived opinions.

Wines are typically tasted in groupings by region. The producer may
not be known, but the area of origin surely is. Add to this the fact
that the vast majority of tasters used by most of the 100-point
publications are middle-aged, white males. A recent survey by Rossman,
Graham Associates found that while women account for 70% of the
shopping for households, only 5% are influenced by advertising or wine
ratings. I can only believe that these evaluations are missing are huge
part of the equation.

The potential “dark side” of the wine rating game was detailed just last year when the New York Times ran
a story about Enologix in California, a consulting company in business
specifically to help producers manipulate wines in order to achieve
higher scores. Enologix claims to have supposedly “solved the math of
flavor for wine” and figured out how to break down all the chemical
components of wine in order that they may be reproduced anywhere. Sound
like a terroirists worst nightmare?

I don’t know about you but I think its best not to think about math
and wine at the same time. Somehow this approach reminds me of the
music industry’s formula for a producing a hit single. Find out what is
selling, put together the right faces and voices and give them the
perfectly crafted song to sing. Creative? No…but it does make a lot
of money for the people involved. But it begs the question, is this
really all you want to listen to?

As consumers continue to become increasingly aware of the origin of
what they put into their bodies, the where and how of winemaking will
become more of an issue – which also could lead one right back into
their own backyard – where producers are known, techniques verified and
fruit origin validated. What kinds of vineyard management was used –
was it sustainable to the surrounding environment? How and under what
conditions was it harvested? Does it embody the local conditions of the
region? What if any, additives were used in the production of the wine
in the cellar? And ultimately– does it taste good to you? 

I would ask one final question: Since when did you need someone to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like?

Believe it or not, we are all born with the same number of taste
buds in our mouths. You have just as much potential ability as any wine
critic to figure out what tastes good. After all, who knows your taste
buds better than you?

The best way to learn abut wine is to try lots of different kinds.
“Practice makes perfect,” they say – and it’s a heck of a lot more fun
than those piano lessons you were forced to take. All you need to do is
find out what styles of wine you enjoy, and most importantly, learn to
trust your own opinion. And I think you’ll agree– it’s a lot more fun than math.

This post was written by Richard Olsen-Harbich, managing director and winemaker at Raphael in Peconic,
New York. He is a contributing columnist to LENNDEVOURS.