A new look at an old topic: wine points

Friday, 29. June 2018 - 10:00

Imagine for a moment that, while you enjoy drinking wine, you have relatively little knowledge of, or interest in, it as a subject. (I know this may be a challenge for some wine professionals, but the fact that significantly fewer people search for ‘wine’ on Google than ‘cake’ or ‘chocolate’, might help to offer a little perspective).

So as an unengaged wine drinker, how do you choose a bottle? 

You most likely do not seek help from an employee of the retailer where you buy your wine, because the chances are at least 75% in most developed countries that you are shopping in a supermarket, and knowledgeable advice will not usually be available.

You look at the labels. Assuming, for a moment, that you don’t recognise a brand - or there isn’t one at the price, or in the style you are looking for - the key words are going to be the region and/or grape variety. If you’re lucky and have gone into the store looking for a Chablis, Chianti or a Chateauneuf du Pape and there’s only one on offer and it’s within your budget, your task is simple. But what if there are two or three on offer, at different prices? Or you have to choose an alternative?

Price is tricky, because you have almost certainly read newspaper reports of inexpensive supermarket own-label wines beating the big names in blind tastings, but you have no way of knowing whether the retailer success story applies across the board. What if their Chablis is a real dud? And besides, what impression will a retailer brand have on your guests? On the other hand, how much more do you have to pay to be sure of getting something better? And, to be frank, are you sure that your and your friends’ palates will be capable of appreciating the fine nuances that have impressed wine experts with decades of experience?

A medal sticker might help to influence your choice, but this can be difficult too. Does a silver medal on one bottle trump ‘Winemaker of the Year’ on another? 

There might be a few words on a card attached to the shelf, but these tend to say the same sorts of thing, and in any case you might subconsciously - and quite reasonably - wonder if some producers have paid for the card to be there.

All of this consideration is taking time, of course, and you have lots of other shopping to do, a meal to prepare, and quite possibly a small child tugging at your clothes. So, more than likely you hope for the best, trust your instincts and reach for the most aesthetically pleasing or confidence-inspiring looking bottle on offer within your price range.

Now, dear reader, please set aside the confused supermarket shopper and do something that might be even trickier: put yourself in my shoes, standing in a shop in a skiing village in France, confronted by eight different examples of Aprémont, ranging in price from €8.00 to €28.00. Having written a book on the subject, I know a bit about French wine, and might even be able to summon up the name of an Aprémont producer or two (though I have almost never actually come across an example of this Savoie wine outside the region). But none of the names on the labels is familiar. The shopkeeper is no help; all they can do is tell me which of the wines seems to be popular with customers. There are no wine guides in the store and I cannot get an internet signal. I have absolutely no idea about Savoie vintages. Was the weather in 2013 bad here too? My family and friends are back at the chalet waiting for a drink.

Ultimately, I do the predictable thing. I choose the most plausible looking mid-price wine and leave the shop feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Should I have spent more? Have I paid too much?
Would my life - or that of the supermarket shopper’s - have been made easier by some Parker or Wine Spectator points? Of course it would. Just as the Michelin Guide rosette simplified the choice of restaurant the previous evening.

Might I have found a 4.0/5 score from a few hundred Vivino users helpful? Too true I would - just as I found the TripAdvisor rating a help when selecting the ski resort and chalet.
All of which is to say that, quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of the endless carping about points and peer reviews that continues to be churned out by the well-informed vinous chatterati who only ever source their wine from merchants whom they know and trust, and take the same kind of satisfaction from browsing for wine as others might get from fishing or watching a football match. I love wine shopping too, but believe me, I got as little pleasure out of that Savoie experience as I did from a previous foray into shopping for an Iberico ham in a Spanish supermarket. But that’s a story for another day.
Robert Joseph