Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 shows the chaos of vino

Courtesy Wine Enthusiast
After I wrote last month about Wine & Spirits' top 100 wineries, and last week about Wine Spectator's top 100 wines, I got a comment from Jim Gordon,  one of the critics at Wine Enthusiast, saying essentially, "Hey, what about us?"*

Wine Enthusiast often gets left out of discussions of wine media, which used to irk its longtime California critic Steve Heimoff. In the print era, I'm sorry Steve, but the Enthusiast did seem minor-league, like a company created to sell accessories that also had a magazine. It didn't have the pompous importance of the Spectator or the enophile seriousness of Wine & Spirits.

That latter description is still true, and has become a plus. Wine Enthusiast's short cheerful stories are made for iPhone consumption. And after Heimoff moved on, the Enthusiast upgraded its California critics, splitting the state between two well-respected writers, Gordon and Virginie Boone. I really should take the Enthusiast more seriously even though it doesn't take itself too seriously.

So I decided to take Gordon up on his implied challenge and take a look at Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 wines.

I couldn't make sense of the list. It was too lacking in focus. I put the list aside for a few days, rubbed my eyes and looked at it again. Still pretty weird.

Maybe I have an understanding now, and maybe I don't, but here's what I think.

Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 list represents a bunch of people who love wine arguing for their favorites. There's no consistency of vision because that's not how wine works, unless you have a top-down editor in charge.

They basically lost me personally as a wine drinker when the first words about their No. 1 wine, a California Chardonnay, were "A scent of French butter." Sure, some Americans still love their buttery Chardonnays, but is that the kind of wine you want to be calling the best wine in the entire world?

Yet then how to explain the rest of the top 10, which includes a Kerner from Alto Adige -- not a wine that buttery Chardonnay fans would want to touch -- an Alsatian Riesling and a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir with just 13.3% alcohol, enophile wines all?

* Gordon's actual comment that got me to look at this list was to point out that the Enthusiast lists alcohol percentages for each of its wines. It's true, and I want to applaud them for it. πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸΌπŸ‘πŸΎ. The alcohol data in the top 10 is all over the map: the buttery Chard at No. 1 is just 13.8% alcohol; the Argentine Malbec at No. 3 is 15% alcohol.

Wine Enthusiast's list gets more enophile-focused after the top 10: there's a 12% alcohol Nebbiolo from a lesser region of Piedmont at No. 12, ahead of everything from Barolo. But it doesn't boost the usual sommelier darlings.

It also stands up to money and power: there are four wines from Napa Valley in the top 100, not a bad performance, but, and it's a big BUT, only one of those Napa Valley wines is a red, listed at No. 70 overall. This is noticeably different from Wine Spectator which has two Napa reds in its top eight.

For that matter, the Wine Advocate gave out 100 point scores to 10 different Napa reds in the Oct. 2017 issue alone. You can't do a top 10 when they all have 100 points.

I digress. The Napa comparison helps explain the different philosophies here. Wine Spectator likes big established names and full-flavored wines. Wine & Spirits likes two poles, very traditional wineries and ambitious newcomers, but in all cases it likes enophile wines; sommelier wines, even. I couldn't figure out, for a week, what Wine Enthusiast likes.

Then it dawned on me: Wine Enthusiast likes a lot of stuff without a coherent philosophy of taste. The Enthusiast prefers wines that are more affordable, but not necessarily cheap: the average price of its top 10 is $39.50, compared to $61.80 for the Spectator.

Basically, the Wine Enthusiast list reads like its critics get in a room and fight for their favorites, which are all over the map, both geographically and philosophically. It's incoherent and that's why it's hard to generalize about.

But it also represents the way the modern wine world actually is. I'm guessing the Enthusiast's desired readership is more diverse than either Spectator's or Wine & Spirits', and it's trying to please all of them. The chaos makes it harder to make a pronouncement about a Wine of the Year in the way that one can about the more coherent Spectator list. But it is worth perusing Wine Enthusiast's top 100 list, because these are at the very least wines that one wine professional was very enthusiastic about.

One more time for Wine Enthusiast listing all the alcohol percentages:

Here's Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 wines.

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Jack Everitt said...

1. You have to give your email address to read it.
2. It's spread out over FOUR pages rather than one!
3. Are these really "enthiusiast's" wines?

Jack Everitt said...

I'm not sure the point of this list. It just seems like 100 random wines that they gave high scores to. (Wait, the other publications to that too.)

Still, I don't know how any readers are served by this. (Then again, the WS top 100 has always seemed like a goofy marketing thing.)