Tuesday, November 15, 2011

5 Reasons Why The WS Top 100 Is Crap

With all the fanfare a well-funded PR machine can manufacture, it's Wine Spectator Top 100 time!   The pipeline is primed with hype as it is this time every year.  Despite being as much a rubber-necker as the next guy, I've grown tired of this annual ritual.  Here's why:
  1. The Formula.  Reducing the tens of thousands of wines released in the US every year to a scant 100 requires some aggressive separation of colts from the studs.  So much so that the folks at WS rely on a statistical barrage to feed a highly complex formula based on score, availability, X factor, and (based on casual observation) Y, Z, and Ω factors, one or more of which might be projected advertising revenue.  The list is logically irreconcilable when compared to just skimming even one issue's worth of ratings.  No sense at all. 
  2. The Scores.  This isn't a rant on the fallibility of the 100 point system - but it is a jab at the inconsistency of the scores awarded wines, especially at the high end.  I unknowingly tasted 3 of last year's top 10, (including #2, reviewed here), which were fine.  Fine. Meh. There are dozens of wines that somehow make this list every year which fail to inspire or, at a minimum don't deserve inclusion on such haughtily-named list.  This really is inexcusable in this, the land of plenty, where there are available thousands of affordable wines which impress with their value and enjoyment.  Another interesting anecdote: more than a third of all the 16,000+ wines they reviewed for contention this year were given a rating of outstanding or better.  If a third of the wines I tasted were outstanding, I'd be ecstatic.  
  3. The Prices.  According to Wine Spectator's site, "The average price per bottle dipped from last year from $48 to $44, compared with a $70 average for 90-point wines reviewed this year."  People, $44 buys an awful lot of groceries - and $70 will get you some damn good wine to go with them.  I'm not saying I've never spent more than $40 on a bottle of wine, but above a certain price point, expectations are that it ought to be soul-stirring, attention-commanding, maybe even mind blowing.  And that price point is definitely below $44 - at least for this cheapskate frequent wine drinker.  Besides, there are plenty of terrific wines out there, not all of which you need to mortgage your house to enjoy. 
  4. It's Sensationalist.  WS leverages the bejeezus out of the market share they have admirably amassed.  The machine gets cranked up, the hype is built like steam in a locomotive engine, and they tease the list out over weeks like stops on a local line.  And it works.  Hell, I'm not even immune from skimming the list, so terrific is the engine.  Bitch as the may in private, retailers are also complicit, often advertising wines from the list before the list is even published, as though the picks were hard-earned trophies lauding the buyers' clairvoyance.  (The list is shared with retailers ahead of the public, by the way.) 
  5. It's Detrimental.  My biggest gripe, though, is that the sensationalism creates an island effect for wines a good three months of the year.  The island is inhabited by those wines on the list and no others.  This effect causes a huge market share to shop for 'on the island' wines at the expense of considering others.  This isn't doing wine drinkers or the industry any favors.  During the the traditionally slow months following the holidays, what everyone in the supply chain needs is customers excited to experiment, not suffering from myopia.  The consequences of this bottle hunt focus in the market is awful on the thousands of wineries that didn't make the list, not to mention retailers who weren't lucky enough to get their allocation of winners.
In the end it's their list and they can gin it up however the hell they like. Doesn't mean we have to like it.  Will I be buying any Top 100 wines this year?  I'm sure I already have.


  1. Agree, agree, agree, agree. #5 is the most significant factor here: thousands of fine winemakers are left behind in the dust as the list appears each year.

    Don't get me started on WS's love of a handful of chefs, all of whom are good chefs, but the emphasis on Michael Mina 25 out of 26 issues each year smells of some kind of contaminated relationship between WS and Mr. Mina.

    And, then there's the "award" for restaurant wine lists, which could be had by paying a registration fee of, what is it, like $650?

  2. Thanks for chiming in. The acceptance that WS (among others) has become a pay-to-play publication is more widespread than ever. Yet people seem to want to led by the nose with highly specific instructions, no matter the quality.

    Another tangent from #5 is that the list has become a holy grail of sorts for wineries, not unlike a 90+ Parker score. To some degree, it's inevitable that at least some winemakers will sacrifice their product's identity in pursuit of the grail by pandering to critics' preferences. And as I've said here before,
    we, consumers and critics alike, should be vigilantly reinforcing the line that separates opinion from influence.

    PS - What's with all those Mina references, anyway? It's not like there aren't better wine lists out there.

  3. So, you are right about retailers getting a heads-up on the list. At 11 AM, WS revealed that Kosta Browne's 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot was the #1 wine of the year (probably a well-deserved selection). A quick Google-shopping search revealed prices ranging from $90-115 per bottle for a wine that costs $54 at the winery. Yowzah!


Please add your comment here: