You draft wines, like players in fantasy baseball, and score points based on how many points they get from critics. Whoever gets the most points wins.
It doesn't matter whose roster of wines is actually best; it matters who scores the most points. Just as in fantasy football, you don't have to actually own the wines to score with them.
Test your score-predicting acumen by forming a league with coworkers, friends, or wine geeks you met on the Internet. It's not any less useful than fantasy baseball, and the conversations about your team will be a lot more interesting to people who aren't in your league. I'd much rather discuss your daring pick of Penfolds Grange over Screaming Eagle than listen to you whine about your need for saves.
Here's how it works.
You have to make 4 basic decisions about how to arrange your league.
1) Number of members
Unlike fantasy baseball, where you can't have more players in your league than there are actual teams, the number of players in a fantasy wine league is theoretically unlimited. However, for convenience on draft day I suggest a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 12.
2) Scoring system
I suggest using the Wine Advocate because it reviews the most wines. However, you could also use Wine Spectator, the Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits; any of the 100-point-scale raters. You could also use Decanter and its 20-point scale, or you could use my and my colleagues' scores at Wine Review Online. Whatever you choose, you'll have the fewest complaints about consistency if you pick an organization with fewer tasters.
As a side benefit, you'll learn how winemakers feel when they get a big score, even from a critic they don't respect. Nobody in your league will complain about the Wine Advocate handing out 100-pointers like Halloween candy if they happen to have chosen a syrupy Syrah thus anointed. Perfect score! Match that with your Grand Cru Burgundy, sucka.
One important point: if you go with the Advocate, you have to issue a written decision on how to count a score like "96-98:" lowest, highest or midpoint. Personally I'd take the midpoint, but that's up to you. As for "97+," I never have understood what Parker's trying to say; I think it just means 97 in capital letters (NINETY-SEVEN!) and I'd count it as 97.
3) Which wines are eligible
I love allowing any wine in the world to be drafted. But when I first proposed Fantasy Wine to Mark Golodetz, a Bordeaux expert, he wanted to form a league just based on Bordeaux. That's fine: that's how all fantasy sports work, by agreement of the team owners. You could play an all-Burgundy league based on Allen Meadows' scores, or an all-California Pinot Noir league based on James Laube's scores. Whatever seems most interesting.
The reason I like allowing any wine in the world is it makes the league a year-long diversion. If you pick Bordeaux and Parker, and he issues all his scores in one issue, your season is done. But if your No. 4 draft pick was Penfolds Grange, you'll be involved until the Australian ratings are released. Moreover, unless you're a league full of fans of the same type of wine, the any-wine-in-the-world rule gets you thinking about great stuff your friends might ignore: German TBAs, vintage Champagnes, Tokaji Essencia, whatever.
Note that there's always a risk that a wine won't be reviewed at all, or in the case of special reserves, won't even have a release during your season. Fantasy baseball has the same risk: You could spend a top pick on a player who gets hurt in spring training and misses the season.
Whoever gets the most points by the end of the season, wins, which is why an unreviewed wine is worse than a bad wine. If that really bothers you, you can create a more complicated system where any score under 90 counts as negative points; say, an 88-point wine is -2. (Like it or not, this is how the wine market works.)
4) Number of wines and length of season
There's really no limit to the number of wines you could possibly draft, but for the sake of keeping the game manageable, I suggest a maximum of 25 wines per person, and 15 might be more sensible for a first try.
If a year is too long, you can play on just wines reviewed in the next three months, or six months, though that will mean the winner will be the player who best researches the reviewing schedule of your chosen publication.
You start a league of just California wines, using Wine Spectator, with the season running for all issues published from Jan. 1 to June 30. Will the Spectator review top Cabernets during that period, or are you safer choosing the butteriest Chardonnays? You'll quickly learn what successful fantasy baseball players learn: You can't win by picking your own favorites; you have to take the numbers where you can get them.
Now you're ready to play. Here's how.
Schedule a draft day
You should plan on the draft taking several hours, so everyone should put aside a full afternoon or evening. It's possible to do it by Internet chat, but it's more fun in person.
The draft is the most fun day of any fantasy league; it's when you get to play God as general manager, breaking all the players' contracts. It's the same with wine; you can choose wines that you could never get your hands on, like Chateau Le Pin, or wines you can't afford, like Chateau Petrus. More complicated leagues could include a budget for buying the wines, but for your first try, hey, that's why it's called Fantasy Wine League.
Let's say you have 12 players. The most fair way to draft is this: Draw numbers out of a hat to determine the order of drafting in the first round. Then, reverse it for the second round. After the second round, it's generally OK to keep the same order.
In other words, you pick 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12; then 12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. If you get the No. 1 draft pick, you won't pick again until No. 24. For most leagues that makes the top pick a mixed blessing. If you gave me, right now, the No. 1 pick in the world using Wine Advocate scores, I'm not sure what I would take. What's the most likely 100-point wine year after year? Lafite-Rothschild? Quilceda Creek? With the No. 1 overall pick, nothing less than 100 points is successful.
You have to be prepared for draft day. You might have a list of 25 wines you want to pick, but others have the same wines in mind; don't expect to scoop up any first-growth Bordeaux in the third round. Be ready to improvise.
Running the season
Somebody has to be designated scorekeeper. If you're gambling on the game, just pay somebody a percentage of the kitty. If you're doing it for fun, stick one of the players with this job.
Fantasy Wine League is very simple statistically. The scorekeeper gets the new issue of the Spectator or Advocate or Wine Review Online and checks to see if any of the wines chosen by anyone in the league are on the list.
Maintain two spreadsheets: One listed by player, so you can easily sum up each person's running scores, and the other by wine region, so you can easily spot wines that were drafted that someone needs to get credit for.
Add up the scores for each player after each issue of your scoring magazine is released. Send a group email that reads something like this: Blake 10 wines total 937 points, Mark 8 wines total 780 points, Steve 14 wines total 1264 points. In this scenario Steve seems to be ahead, but Mark is averaging more points per wine, so if all of his wines are reviewed, he's in great shape.
That's it! That's all you need to know to set up your own Fantasy Wine League.
I wish I could think of some way to profit from this, but I can't. There are people making a living from fantasy baseball advice, but I don't relish the idea of spending my career trying to predict Wine Advocate scores, and besides, that's Leo McCloskey's job already.
So if you do end up playing, consider tossing a tip into my virtual tip jar (it's Paypal, you can use a credit card safely) on the right side of the blog.
Have fun! Play