Wine scores and price: What really matters

Last night, I tasted the Sterling Vineyards Pinot Noir Vintner's Collection 2006. As I always do, I tried to guess how much it cost while I was tasting it. And I figured the Sterling was around $18, which I thought made it an OK wine ? nothing more.

Turns out the suggested retail is $13, which means it ?s probably available for as little as $11 in some parts of the country. Which means the Sterling is a heck of a wine. Which is when the Wine Curmudgeon had a brainstorm: Wine scores don ?t matter ? prices matter. Shouldn't there be a way to take that into account when evaluating wine?

Scores, as noted, have two significant flaws. First, they’re palate-dependent. If I don’t like merlot, I’m never going to give a merlot a great score. Second, and most important for our purposes here, scores are intrinsically related to price. A $100 wine should always get a better score than a $10 wine, and a $100 wine should always get a terrific score. In fact, if scores were actually legitimate, it would be impossible for a $10 wine to ever get a score of 90 or more (the equivalent of getting an A on a term paper). If I don’t have the resources to study rocket science, how am I going to get an A on a rocket science term paper?

This is not a new concept, and there have been many attempts to take the price conundrm into account. The WineBlueBook, for instance, compares scores and then correlates those scores against retail prices. Consider a cabernet sauvignon that got a 94 and cost $80. The WineBlueBook then calculates the average price of a 94-point cabernet in its database (which is $220) and rates the wine based on how much less it costs then the average. The $80 wine is one-third of the average, so it’s a "great value." If a wine is one-half the price, it’s a "value."

The problem here (besides being entirely too complicated) is that the system still depends on scores. You can average as many ratings you can find, but you’re still averaging ratings — with all of their flaws. So what’s a wine drinker to do?

Why not devise a system based on what the drinker thinks it costs, and what it actually costs? Yes, there are obstacles to overcome. Most wine drinkers aren’t retailers, and their palates aren’t attuned to what wine costs and what it should cost. And this concept is also dependent on individual palates. If I don’t like merlot, I’m not going to think any merlot is worth $50.

But I do think there’s a germ of a possibility here that should be considered. Which I will do, and report back.

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