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Thoughts On The Spectator's Top 10

Every year around this time, the Wine Spectator releases their list of top 100 wines of the year. And then all around the country, people scramble to buy them. Stocks disappear overnight, and prices skyrocket.

This year's top 10 wines were:

#1 - 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia Red Blend, Napa
#2 - 2003 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Southern Rhone, France
#3 - 2003 Rosenblum Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile, Sonoma, CA
#4 - 2001 Concha y Toro "Puente Alto Don Melchor" Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile
#5 - 2003 Sette Ponti Toscana Oreno, Tuscany, Italy
#6 - 2003 Alban "Reva" Syrah, Edna Valley, CA
#7 - 2002 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
#8 - 1999 Castello Banfi "Poggio all'Oro Riserva " Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
#9 - 2002 Staglin "20th Anniversary" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa, CA
#10 - 2001 Château d'Yquem, Sauternes, France

Interestingly, I've actually tasted over half of these wines this year. But more on that in a minute.

One of the things that I've always found a bit mysterious is the way that the Spectator chooses this list. They are very explicit about their criteria -- a combination of score, "value," availability, and "excitement" -- but very unclear on how they actually apply them. Part of me wonder's why they don't just use score and nothing else. That's what I would do if I were making such a list.

I understand the reasons for using availability as a criteria -- reviewing a wine that no one can get in the first place is problematic, but I'd be hard pressed to figure out the best way to integrate notions of value or general excitement into a list that is supposed to be about how good the wines are. Maybe that's why they call the list "top 100" instead of "best 100." I'd love it if they actually used some sort of formula with weighted attributes for each of the wines.

Admittedly, I have a problem with 'top xx' lists of any kind.

One of the most interesting things about the list of top 100 wines to me is something that the Spectator also comments on -- the fact that Syrah is getting better and better. Nearly 25% of the top 100 wines this year were Syrah or Syrah based blends. That's extremely surprising, and very encouraging, as I'm a fan of varietal, as many of you know.

As for my notes on the top ten wines, well.... I really enjoy the Clos des Papes, but I wouldn't consider it to be in the top 10 in the world. Likewise for the Rosenblum Rockpile, which is tasty, but not so much better than many Zinfandels out there, or even other Rosenblum wines. Hard to argue with the choice of the Alban "Reva" -- stunning wine -- that is unless you object to really high alcohol wines. The Lewis and Staglin Cabs are both at the top of their form, but there were certainly others this year that were as good or better (Pride, Cliff Lede, Bond, to name a few). Castello Banfi -- good for sure, but there are certainly much better Brunellos out there in 1999 and James Suckling (and the Spectator as a whole) can no longer be trusted on Italy after the showing they made in Mondovino, laughing about giving good scores to the wines of Suckling's landlord Salvatore Ferragamo.

And finally the Insignia. I have no idea what it is about me, but I've never really liked this wine. Weird. I know. Everyone raves about it. But I tend to find it a bit characterless. Oh well. Perhaps that's why I'm not a major wine critic.

Comments (20)

Danny Burkes wrote:
12.03.05 at 10:42 PM

I agree with you about the Insignia- I have never found it interesting in the least.

Dave wrote:
12.03.05 at 11:47 PM

Agree with your comment about the Clod du Papes...nice wine but Top 10...I don't think so.

And what is the mysterious 'X' factor in the judging criteria....is it how much a winery spends on advertising with Wine Spectator a year?



Terry Hughes wrote:
12.04.05 at 5:01 AM

Alder, this list caused a brouhaha in Italy, as well you might imagine. The wine press and blogs (increasingly the same thing, so you ARE by now a pretty major wine critic!) have been full of comment and controversy since the story appeared.

Many people over there questioned the Italian choices, but many more wondered, "Why are 5 of the top 10 Californian?" A very good question, and Dave's comment about advertising revenues is widely echoed in Italy.

Maybe another factor is something that Italians, of all people, should be quite familiar with: cronyism.

What do the rest of you all think?

tom wrote:
12.04.05 at 7:22 AM

The charge of advertising bias at the Spectator is bogus. Many people have done the analysis looking at various ways the Spectator could reward advertisers. Nothing has ever been borne out.

Bob Montgomery wrote:
12.05.05 at 11:06 AM

I agree with the comment on the Rosenblum Zin. They make any number that are very good but they seem to be moving towards higher alcohol.

12.05.05 at 11:59 AM

At #11 on the list was Kosta Browne's 2003 Sonoma Coast. This was one of the few wines I've tasted this year where I practically had to sit down after the first sip, it was so damn good.

Alder, I know you disagree with top XX lists in general -- but I find they're really great ways of highlighting those wines that made you weak-in-the-knees that year.

And with the Kosta Browne rated so highly, I'm a little more excited now about tasting through some of the other wines on the list.

Alder wrote:
12.05.05 at 12:05 PM


When you pop that bottle of 01 Y'quem, please make sure I'm there.

I've had that Kosta Browne wine and it is very good, and dare I say, better than several others that made it into the top 10. But then again, probably NOT the best 03 Sonoma Coast Pinot I've had this year.

Bryan wrote:
12.05.05 at 12:52 PM

Thank God for the wine blog community and similar forums for wine discussion. The consumer doesn't have to rely on such pretentious lists that have agendas of thier own anyway.

Eric LECOURS wrote:
12.05.05 at 3:17 PM

I have trouble understanding Insignia as well. It is a California icon but I find it and similar wines universally powerful but often one-dimensional expressions of Napa Valley.

There are of course exeptions but it looks like the criteria for the list were roughly as follows:

High extract
High alcohol
New oak
Ripe tannin
Big fruit
Low acid (Italy exempt)

It would seem that the hot and warm climate regions of the New World, Italy and the Rhone are producing the best wines.

The cooler climate regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, Germany and Austria have declined to a lower status. These classic regions combined represent less than 10% of the list, the majority in the lower half.

The list is probably useful for those who are searching for hot or warm climate wines that exhibit the above-listed attributes. These are the action movies of wine--occasionally they struck an exeptional balance but often too many car chases and special effects lead to fatigue and boredom.

Ben wrote:
12.06.05 at 8:16 AM

"The action movies of wine." I like that. If Kung Fu Hustle were a wine I'd drink it.

Also, Insignia is Twister.

red wrote:
12.06.05 at 10:45 AM

The wine mafia--read: jaded, wine-blitzed palates--at wine spectator have done it again!
Agree with Eric. Where are the wines of finesse, balance, the intriguing nuance and complexity of great--rather than greatly overdone--wines? Wines you can deeply enjoy, without being smacked in the teeth.

Alder wrote:
12.06.05 at 2:45 PM

Heh heh. So that must mean that Silver Oak is Terminator.

12.07.05 at 3:53 AM

This is a link to my reflexions about Italian selection in Wine Spectator Top 100. I think that this choice is not much serious...
Best !
Franco Ziliani

doug wilder wrote:
12.09.05 at 5:19 PM

I enjoyed reading some of the comments here on what goes into a TOP xx list. Any list of this type regardless of its size, 10 wines or 100 would be pretty dull if it was simply based on ranking alone. It isn't NASCAR, accounting or statistics.

My recently published Top 25 List contained 9 Pinot Noir, but only one each Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. If I had sorted only by score both of these wines would have been off the list. My job as a wine professional is to make the best recommendations I can. Would the list have been better if there were 11 or more wines of the same category? Sometimes a 92 point Sauvigon Blanc is better than a 95 point Pinot Noir. I did get calls from a couple wineries I wrote about during the year that did not make it on the list wondering why.

Alder wrote:
12.10.05 at 11:02 AM


Thanks for the comments. I totally understand the thought behind creating a list that is dominated by a single varietal, but at the same time, I think it's also very interesting to know that in terms of score, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel wouldn't have made the cut on a score based list.

I almost wish people would do one of two things: A TRUE "best of" list, that was the true, highest scoring wines of the year; or a best of varietal or something like that if there was concern for representation across varietals or regions.

I don't follow your reviews with any regularity, so I have no idea what your results would be, but I have a feeling that had the Spectator created a top 10 list by score alone, their bias towards giving their highest scores to expensive Big Cabs and very expensive Dessert wines would be exceptionally clear. Not that there's anything particularly damning about that, by the way (I'm sure my high scores lean in a particular direction, too), but I think that these biases, or taste preferences if you want to be very neuetral about it, should be more visible than they are.

mike d. wrote:
12.13.05 at 11:50 PM

it's a shame that so many people place so much weight on wine spectator. they have, for so many years, been the only reputable source of information and/or ratings for wine consumers. along the way, wine spectator was placed on a pedestal (by it's readers, by it's supporters, by the industry itself)...on this hardrock foundation that refused to be challenged, questioned. today's consumer is more advanced, more savvy, more informed.

wine spectator's stronghold on the wine world will, most likely, continue to be challenged. in the not too distant future, another publication or two will be produced or redeveloped that will compare and contrast with wine spectator.

honestly, and most of you would probably confere, of the ten wines listed in this post...(i have personally had five of the list as well)...i could leave all ten at the door and sleep fine knowing that wine spectator doesn't always deserve to live up to the hype.

12.14.05 at 4:02 AM

Of course lists and ratings can be pretty bogus but they can also be fun. Let’s face it: the wine blog industry would be in trouble without them.

I’ve done a quick calculation. If you combined all of the top 10 you’d have a 14.2% alcohol wine made of 39% Cab Sauv. 15% Sangiovese, 11% Syrah, 10% Zinfandel, 8% Semillon, 6.5% Grenache, 3.9% Merlot, 2% Mourvedre, 2% Sauv. Blanc., 1% Cab Franc, 0.7% Petite Verdot, 0.25% Muscardin, 0.25% Counoise, and 0.1% Malbec. I would imagine it would taste something like a Parkerized Bonny Doon Big House Red.

A few more thoughts on the Spectator’s list:

Now that I’ve moved to London, I find it more surprising that half of the wines are from California. Nobody gives a shit about CA wines here

What about white wines? Doesn’t Gruner Veltliner have x-factor?

D’Yquem? Appears to be a softball lobbed into the list – highly rated since 1855 – is that x-factor?

What about port? The only logical outcome I can see in 2010 and beyond – if the WS continues along the lines that Eric points out so clearly – is a top ten port list.

Cecil Lubitz wrote:
12.19.05 at 9:04 PM

i just tried some don melchor 2001 and it was quite ordinary. is there something wrong with my tastebuds?

Alder wrote:
12.20.05 at 9:47 AM


Everyone likes different things, and there's nothing wrong with you. Many consumers have this reaction when they taste a highly rated wine and aren't impressed. Just because it is rated highly doesn't mean that you'll like it, nor does it mean that you SHOULD like it.

Imagine if we all started wondering about our own deficiencies when we didn't like a movie that the LA Times critic gave high marks to! Critics, and magazines like the Spectator, are only authorities if you grant them that position after careful matching of their recommendations to your palate.

stevec wrote:
12.24.05 at 6:52 AM

just discovered this page (and site) after some google search on ws's top 10. just like to comment that being a wine newbie myself, ws was a great starting point to get my feet wet. where else can i find such a wealth of diverse information in one place. i know i can't go wrong with their picks but it is websites like this that help me discover my palate. i know i still like the big bad red but i am starting to appreciate the other types of wines.

okay. time to get ready to go fight the crowds for my last two gifts. maybe i'll give them wines instead...

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