The Variations of Wine Evaluation Fully Explained

There are so many wines on the market it can be a confusing mess to determine which one you would like to try. Do you go for red or white? Wine with bubbles or still stuff? Wine from America or something with a label you don’t understand at all? Does Grüner Veltliner deserve a chance to impress you, or do you stick with Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir?

The only thing that may possibly be more confusing than the wines are professional wine evaluations. And do those messages stuck to a bottle about “Medal Winner in the Greater Hartford Monthly Wine Competition,” or “Rated 92 points by Wine Consultant Magazine” have any validity when it comes to you buying wine?

First of all, I must confess to you that the headline is a lie. I am not able to explain how a wine comes to be recognized by the myriad of evaluation processes. Some are quite legitimate, while others, not so much. Some might be helpful to you, while others may just be fodder for further confusion and obfuscation. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be able to use “obfuscation” in a sentence. Even correctly, I think.

The process of wine evaluation is pretty much the same no matter what the methodology, although the reporting of the outcomes differs. The taster(s) is supposed to check out the appearance of the wine, but today, most wines are made to “appear” bright and clear by the winemaker. “Fresh” is the operative word here.

Then there are the important qualities of aroma. A wine’s bouquet is a giveaway to so many things about the wine. Are the characters of the grape varietal(s) used in making the wine in proper order and proportion? Are there any objectionable underlying odors, like sulfur or a wet cardboard component? Is there any aroma at all? More than 85 percent of our perception of “taste” comes through our nose. Reread that last sentence to be certain you understand that truth.

Finally you get to taste and texture. Humans can taste only five values. We can do sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and a controversial one called “umami,” which is more directed to texture than actual taste. And that’s it. Our species is very limited in this regard. As noted above, most of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. It’s the reason when we have a cold and we are always blowing our nose that we say we can’t taste anything. Our sense of smell has been hindered and so we don’t “taste.”

The last evaluation quality is aftertaste. Does the wine remain pleasant for minutes after we have swallowed it, or are there qualities, like sour, that come into play? The finish of a wine should be long and continue to exude all the good qualities of the beverage for a good bit, at least two minutes, after it has left the mouth.

Which brings us to the reporting structure. The 100-point scale, used by respected publications, like Wine Spectator, has been the source of much derision as well as acceptance. Wines that score 90-points are immediately bought off the shelves. True commercial successes. But what is the difference between a wine that rates 91 points and one that achieves 89?

And since wines in the main never go below 60 in scoring, you in effect have a 40-point scale, not a 100. The challenge is taking a product that is measured in qualitative terms of personal preferences and trying to quantify the results of a particular group of judges’ experiences.

The same can be said for the actual results of the many wine competitions that occur in this country and abroad. The wines end up with the rewards of Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medal, as determined by a panel of experienced tasters, and then the results are noted in the media as well as marketing messages pasted to the wine bottle.

(Full disclosure: I am invited to judge in about 10 professional wine competitions each year in every corner of America, and sometimes Europe.)

I put more stock into wine competitions than I do into wine scoring. Competition judges are usually closer to the tastes of the casual drinker consumer group than to the professional winemaker/media group. And for most consumers, usually competition judges bring to the party a palate that is closer to what you like.

Professional wine tasters are looking for other things than consumers. Most consumers are looking for pleasant and enjoyable experiences at a good value. Professional wine ratings on a point scale are seeking specific levels of residual sugars, over-sulfur levels, presence of brettanomyces, premature aging, results of heat exposure, and such other quantifiable characteristics.

I do a lot of wine judging all over the country, and, as a group, the most difficult people to have on the panel are professional winemakers. They seek minute and detailed flaws which, for the most part, don’t bother the typical consumer. They also bring to the judging a “local palate.” Many winemakers don’t taste wines from other areas. They only taste their own and their neighbor’s juice. That’s way too narrow a context to be meaningful to a consumer.

Here are a few random results from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest judging of American wines in the world (more than 5,880 entries); and the South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival judging, an international competition, with almost 700 entries. Both were held earlier this month and I was honored to judge at both competitions.



Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut was well rewarded, as was (are you sitting down?) the Korbel Rosé Brut, although the wine really is a semi-dry. Domaine Carneros scored Gold in one competition, and did not medal in another.


Sauvignon Blanc

Our panel judged sauvignon blanc from South Africa and it was a very tough call. Too many good wines to limit the medal count. We settled on a Klein Costantia and Porcupine Ridge.

Domestically, Napa Valley Winery scored Gold and Lake Sonoma was the overall winner of Best White in San Francisco.



Wow, there’s some mighty good juice out there! Winemakers have gotten away from the big, buttery oak bombs and are making delightful wines in great quantities. And they are not expensive.

Husch Vineyards from Mendocino, Starmont along with Roche, Bouchaine, and Baldacci from Carneros. Gary Farrell and Black Dog from Russian River are all worthy of your attention.


Pinot Noir

Seaglass and Wild Horse both from Santa Barbara, Montes from Chile, Mohua and Kim Crawford from New Zealand, Goldeneye from Anderson Valley, and CRU from Santa Lucia Highlands, all were awarded significant medals.


If you want to know more wines that have been recognized as outstanding, check out for the San Francisco Chronicle results, or let me know and I’ll send you the Florida results.

This offer is made for information and entertainment purposes only. Wagering or gaming of any kind is not sanctioned. And I have no idea what that means in this context.




Digital Sponsors

Become a sponsor ...

New Orleans Magazine FOOD CUBES!

Want to know what to eat while headed to the Festival Stage or sitting under the tree at the Gentilly Stage? Get the New Orleans Magazine "Food Cubes" sent directly to your email for FREE!

Unlock the New Orleans Magazine FOOD CUBES!

Cubes sent straight to your email!

Sign up for our FREE

New Orleans Magazine email newsletter

Get the the best in New Orleans dining, shopping, events and more delivered to your inbox.