Although evaluating and scoring wines is far from an exact science, it’s clear that certain standards must be met in order for the system to have any meaning at all. When we’re assessing them, flawed wines obviously do not merit a high score, or any score at all if the flaw is serious (the presence of TCA, or “corked” wine, for example). But once flawed wines are excluded, most of us (you, me) are guided by personal preference when it comes to evaluating wines. How much experience we’ve had tasting wine is also a factor that helps determine how we rank them (there’s nothing that sharpens a wine lover’s palate as effectively as tasting a whole lot of different wines).
In most academic circles, scores of 94-100 equal A to A+ grades, and as a former academic myself I am still somewhat influenced by this scale although I am not particularly generous when it comes to scoring wines. Looking back over the dozens and dozens of wines I reviewed here in 2018, I see that I gave scores of 94 and above to a mere eight wines (by contrast I awarded 90 points to more than thirty-three wines).
So, what differentiates a 94 or 95-point wine from one that gets 90 points? Most of us would agree, I think, that the highest scoring wines must have unusually well balanced and complex flavors, and probably aromas as well (does oak dominate the wine’s perfume, is the floral aspect too powerful?). Beyond these generally agreed upon basics, certain other criteria can push scores up. For example, the descriptors of my 94-plus wines all note that each of these particular wines has good length on the finish, which clearly is an essential quality for my palate.
Certain other characteristics may be important to one taster but less so to another. For example, I am apt to score a wine higher if it has a notable texture, whether light and silky, or full and velvety. My palate also tends to respond positively to savory minerality, especially of the chalky or saline type. And I definitely appreciate the marvel of wines that seem to resonate with contradictory qualities, or “duality,” such as the 94-point wine I described as being “both virile and elegant.”
As with certain people, some wines are simply more charismatic than others in ways that may be hard to pin down. For me, there is still mystery involved in assessing a singularly exciting wine. For example, most of us react favorably to big, full-bodied reds, but for a wine to be truly great, brawn must be tempered by character, brut force mitigated by majesty. The 2014 Mount Veeder Reserve to which I gave 95 points was just such a wine. At the other end of the spectrum a similar dualism can be found in a more delicate wine, one that might seem initially tight and restrained, but when it glides across the taste buds its charm and cohesion take over (this was my experience with the 2015 Massolino Moscato d’Asti that garnered 94 points from me). But above all else, the most satisfying wines are those that elicit an emotional rather than a purely analytical response. This usually happens unexpectedly when amidst a turbulent scramble of flavors, scents and textures, a particular wine provokes a mysterious reaction that is part awe, part admiration, and purely pleasurable. These are the rare wines that get my highest scores:
Grigich Hills Estate (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay Estate Grown 2014 ($43): One reason this wine is one of California’s most highly regarded Chardonnays is its duality. The wine is certainly assertive, with flavors that are laser focused as well as richly layered. Beautiful citrus, apple and pear fruitiness is balanced by vibrant acidity and a measure of minerality. This is a Chardonnay that is remarkably elegant as well as imminently accessible. While it lies against the palate lush and full, it is at the same time light and subtle. Although it is deliciously drinkable right now it promises to evolve into a rich and rewarding old age. 94
Mount Veeder Winery (Mount Veeder-Napa Valley, California) Reserve 2014 ($100): One of California’s most impressive red blends, this luscious wine yields a complex sensory amalgam of dark fruits such as plums and berries layered with black pepper spice, chocolate and mocha, and a haunting suggestion of minty eucalyptus flavor. The aromas are appetite-inducing, the texture is bold, the tannins are pleasantly assertive, and the wine is long, long, long on the palate. A blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot). 95
Ravenswood (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California) Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2015 ($39): This is one of the most elegant Zinfandels I’ve tasted in a long time. Yes it has layers of mixed berry flavors, but the overall impression is juicy rather than jammy, and the texture is fleshy without being flabby. Subtle smokiness, dustiness, earthy innuendos, and a direct, firm finish are among the many charms this Zin has to offer. 94
Massolino (Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy) 2015 ($23, imported by Vineyard Brands): Seductively fresh, bright and intense fruit and floral aromas are the introduction to this enchanting wine. On the palate, a rush of charismatic flavors (lightly minty, slightly peachy) is balanced by a mousse as light as fairy dust. Surprisingly low in alcohol (5%) yet high in pleasure quotient, this beautifully balanced wine is delicately sweet but never cloying. Serve it nicely chilled as an aperitif, or with cheese, or perhaps with a not-too-sweet dessert such as a peach tart. 94
Canvasback (Red Mountain, Washington) Cabernet Sauvignon “Grand Passage” 2014 ($80): This astonishingly delicious wine is as soft and silky as a kid glove, with all the power of the fist that might be sheltered in that glove. With beautiful textures layering together glossy fruit, cleansing acidity and lustrous tannins, this Cabernet is both virile and elegant. It’s a wine to savor sip after thrilling sip. 95
Goldeneye (Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, California) The Narrows Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($84): This is a wine of grace and nuance, whose fruit was sourced from a rugged mountain vineyard 10 miles from the Mendocino Coast. Affected by the site’s strong marine influence (including coastal fog and cooler daytime temperatures), the grapes have yielded a Pinot Noir with a whiff of floral in its aroma, and complex, layered flavors of red berries and a touch of cherry, plus mushroomy earthiness and a dash of spice. There is plenty of refreshing acidity on the long and lingering finish. 94
Maquis Colchagua Valley, Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($20, Global Vineyard Importers): This impressive Cabernet combines elegance with voluptuous texture and beautifully concentrated flavors. Along with notes of red fruit it delivers hints of spice and dark chocolate. Maquis is notable also for its considerable length and a long aftertaste. 94
Wines of Substance (Columbia Valley, Washington) Cabernet Sauvignon “CS” 2015 ($17): This stupendous Cabernet Sauvignon was made by Charles Smith, who sold his eponymous Charles Smith Wines in 2016 to concentrate on new projects, including Wines of Substance. A sleek and generous wine, it is beautifully balanced, and both deep and long on the palate. It will pair splendidly with a wide variety of foods, and I can tell you from experience that it’s a perfect wine to serve with a nice steak. 95