MARK SPIVAK has been reviewing wine since 1992. He spent five years as wine columnist for the Palm Beach Post, and was honored by the Academy of Wine Communications in 1997 for excellence in wine coverage "in a graceful and approachable style." Since 2001, he has been the Wine and Spirits Editor for the Palm Beach Media Group. His wine columns, restaurant reviews and feature stories appear monthly in Palm Beach Illustrated, Naples Illustrated and Tampa Bay Illustrated, as well as in national magazines.
In addition, Mark is the host of "Uncorked!", a wine-related talk show which airs on Tuesdays from 7-8 p.m. on WXEL-FM, the NPR affiliate for the Palm Beaches. He is the holder of the Certificate and Advanced Diplomas from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and has lectured for the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, Food And Wines From France and the Swiss Wine Information Council.
KENNETH SCHECHET is a retired marketing executive for IBM who has been a serious cook since he was a teenager; he has been trained in French, Italian, Chinese and Russian Jewish culinary techniques. At some point, he noticed that certain wines went very well with certain dishes, and began acquiring a more systematic knowledge of wine. Like all hobbies, this quickly got out of control, and today he works with us.
WHAT WE DO
In our experience, most wine consumers are not interested in reading dissertations on topics such as malolactic fermentation. They want to know how this stuff fits into their lives: How do I order wine in a restaurant? What do I serve my boss when she comes for dinner? What goes best with sauerkraut, sea urchin or stuffed veal loin?
So we attempt to place wine in a cultural and/or lifestyle context. After all, everything is context: A 1982 Mouton consumed with your worst enemy is swill, yet a Columbia Crest Merlot with the one you love is the nectar of the Gods. Wine critics typically evaluate wine without food, in an antiseptic setting of bright lights and white tablecloths, with dozens of glasses arrayed before them; the average consumer drinks wine with dinner, in a restaurant or at a party. Small wonder there's a disconnect at times. Whenever possible, we try to taste in a relaxed setting, accompanied by a meal and some kindred spirits (of the human variety).
By necessity, we record our opinions and judgements. They are offered to you as a road map, not as gospel. Our hope is to provide a stimulus for you to taste on your own, form your own opinions, and rely on your judgement.
HOW WE DO IT: RATINGS
Most publications that review wine tend to focus on the upper-bracket collectibles, thus performing a useful function for the wine geek. Many worthwhile publications exist, along with various systems of evaluation. Some writers and critics use the 100-point scale; some employ 20 points; still others have devised different levels of symbols and codes.
Our position is that the average person will not readily distinguish between a wine rated 91 points and one scoring 88, and that he/she is dealing with more basic concerns ("Is this worth the money?" or "If I open this for company, will it taste like pickle juice?"). Since we taste a wide range of wine, from grocery store selections to world-class collectibles and everything in between, we wanted to devise a system of evaluation which was understandable and fair.
With that in mind, we use the following scale:
A= An excellent to outstanding wine of spectacular depth and character; worth a splurge; cellar material.
B= Good to very good; worth the money for current drinking or laying down.
C= Fair to average; suitable for current drinking; pricey compared to other wines of its type.
D= Poor to below average; a weak example of its type; seriously overpriced.
Plusses and minuses are awarded. The value-for-money ratio always comes into play; a wine which deserves a B at $15 may rate a B+ at $10, or a B- at $20. If most wines within a category normally cost $15, those selling for $25 bear a special burden. If a wine sells for $75-100, it bears a burden regardless of its peers: this is a steep tariff for a bottle of fermented grape juice, and we all expect it to perform accordingly.
For those addicted to the 100-point scale, here are the rough equivalents:
Wines which receive an A are not necessarily perfect, but tend to be such magnificent examples of their type that no sane person could find anything to complain about.
Bear in mind that everything exists within a range, even bottles of the same wine from the same vintage. Consumers often ascribe quality differences in wine to "bottle variation" or similar explanations (storage conditions, the wine is closed, the wine is going through a dumb stage, etc). In fact, we suspect that most bottles of wine with corks are subject to some subtle degree of contamination from TCA or other bacteria. While the worst examples present themselves as "corked" (exuding a dank, musty, cardboard smell), others may simply be aromatically stunted. In wine, as in life, perfection is hard to come by.
Frequently, wine publications make a fuss over the fact that they taste wines blind before rating them. In these cases, the stated intention is a desire for objectivity: without knowing what these wines were or what they cost, we came to an impartial judgement of how they fared within their peer group. While there is something to be said for such a practice, it does not equate to the average person's experience. Most consumers begin with a budget and work backward from there ("I can spend $20 tonight. What's the best wine I can get?"). We find it useful to know what the wine is and what it cost, so we can assess how it performs for the money, not to mention how it stacks up to expectations.
We are currently working on a database of wines available in the supermarket which cost $20 or less. Unless you are incredibly wealthy, profligate or both, this is what you drink on a daily basis. Roughly 65% of the wine sold in the United States is purchased in grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores or big-box outfits such as Costco. In spite of this, these wines are hardly ever reviewed in the mainstream wine press, and everyone conveniently ignores their existence. The database will be available either as a desktop or PDA application, and will provide tasting notes and ratings on the wines most people are consuming every day.