Consumer Reports’ top wines

One would think that it would be incredibly difficult to rate wine as if it was a refrigerator. There are objective measurements for refrigerators — how well does it maintain temperature? — and hardly any for wine.

Nevertheless, Consumer Reports, which has been rating products for some 80 years, does wine. I don't know that I agree with all of the choices in the December issue (a famous critter wine made it), but I can't argue with their methodology. This is about as objective as wine tasting gets.

"We're very specific about what we're looking for," says Maxine Siegel (no relation), who oversees the wine project for the magazine. "There are acceptable standards that we're looking for. And it does have to be a tasty wine."

More, after the jump:

The key to Consumer Reports' approach? Establishing standards for quality wine, and then teaching its tasters how to identify whether the wine meets those standards. For example, says Siegel, a cabernet sauvignon should have certain fruit flavors, acid levels, and tannins. Before the tasting begins, the tasters "calibrate" their palates with these standards using a scoring system. That way, when each of the tasters — all of whom are wine professionals, says Siegel — taste the wines (and they taste them blind), each is theoretically scoring the wine the same way.

This is, easily, the best procedure I've seen for judging wine quality. It seems to go a long way toward eliminating palate difference, which makes so much wine judging so unreliable. Having said that, it does seem a bit impractical to use in anything other than a controlled scientific setting, but it's a start for those of use who are looking for better ways to judge wine.

Also important: The testing includes more expensive wines, but focuses on wines that cost $15 and less and that are generally available — "wine that you can stop and buy on the way home from work," says Siegel. In addition, the magazine uses a proprietary algorithm that combines quality and price to identify the magazine's best buys. There are two in the December issue, both Chiantis.

This issue (subscription only) rates cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot grigio, pinot noir, and Chianti. Some old friends made appearances, including Bogle's chardonnay and Estancia's pinot grigio. And some, like Rosemount's $8 cabernet, deserve to be better known. Dec. 9 update: A sharp-eyed visitor noted that the Melini Chianti that earned a best buy was one of my favorites last year. Thanks, Kristin.

Frankly, several of the wines, like the Yellow Tail and Little Penguin merlots, surprised me. Though, given the paucity of quality cheap merlot and the availability algorithm, maybe I shouldn't be surprised. And a couple of Trader Joe's wines made the list, which doesn't do those of us who live in the 20 or so states that don't have Trader Joe's any good.

Still, it's a commendable effort, especially when combined with the educational material included in the package — wine terms, buying advice, and the like. Would that more of us in the wine writing business tried this hard.

2 thoughts on “Consumer Reports’ top wines

  • By Jim Caudill - Reply

    Another screening variable they use is simply this: they really mean it when they say “wines you can buy on the way home from the office”. While they ask for information from producers, the only thing that gets considered are wines they buy locally in their neighborhood in New York. If your distribution in that neighborhood is scarce, even though you might be widely available by any other definition, you’re not going to be considered. Their impact is quite real. A chain guy once said to me when the reviews were published and I asked him about impact “it’s the Wine Spectator for the rest of us….”

  • By Jeff Siegel - Reply

    I asked Maxine Siegel about that, and specifically how it fit into the value algorithm, she said that their readers just want to go to the store and buy something they know will be OK. They don’t want to mess around with wine foolishness.

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