With but one thin page left on the calendar, media of all sorts are chiming in with “Best of 2009” and “The Year in _____” lists. With respect to wine, that means it’s time for Top 100 lists. This year, I thought it would be interesting to analyze the five major Top 100 lists by focusing not on the recommended wines, but rather on the tastemakers behind them. Let’s take a closer look…

Top 100

Wine Spectator. This Top 100 list is all about shock and awe. The editors deliberately (if temporarily) toss aside their devotion to numerical scores as they re-evalulate thousands of wines based on quality, value, availability and  the so-called “X factor,” as in excitement. Wines are not so much judged as they are anointed. Surely much of it is political, and the top ten—revealed one day at a time before the total 100 are revealed, in a sort of cyber striptease—is ridiculously pompous.

But let’s give them credit: they spread the wine-critic wealth in all sorts of directions, and with 100 bottles in play, it’s harder to knock them for this year-end ritual than it is for other things they do (e.g., a pattern of rewarding high-alcohol, high-priced reds with their highest ratings). In turn, countless retailers, scrambling to sell what’s left in the market of the WS-approved goods, help the magazine reassert its steeltoe bootprint on the psyche of the U.S. wine scene.

Missing from the annual hubbub over these “exciting” wines is, well, the excitement. You won’t find the magazine’s write-ups of the lucky 100 online, but they are basically brief bundles of just-the-facts-ma’am—and are about as exciting as watching grapes change color during veraison. In the end, the Spectator Top 100 is a case of the wine media’s ultimate snobs playing anti-snob, and for the most part getting away with it.

Wine.Com. If the WS Top 100 is all about the muscle-flexing, Wine.com’s approach is its clinical opposite. Now in its third annual incarnation, the Wine.com Top 100 is, as explained in a press release, “based entirely on customer preferences.”In other words, sales figures. The ranking reflects the top 1% of wines sold nationally on Wine.com during 2009 based on unit volume (excluding wines used in monthly wine clubs, gift sets and gift baskets).

So it aims to be the people’s list, as it were. But it’s really as much a list of Wine.com’s inventory; the only wines eligible to make the Top 100 are those that the online retailer was able/willing to sell in large quantity over the course of the year. The ability of any one bottling to outsell others in its genre was inevitably also a function of what others were being offered. So while I can certainly understand the #1 wine, Cambria 2006 Pinot Noir, selling well (as it does every vintage), I wonder (and can not tell) whether Wine.com was also selling, say, the even cheaper but pretty fine Mark West 2007 California Pinot. If they were, might both have made the Top 100, with neither in the top ten?

Another caveat: the default setting of wine being sorted by popularity during searches would seem to give extra mojo to prevailing best-sellers. And the presence of producers with multiple wines on the 2009 list (Veramonte had seven; Crios, d’Arenberg and Geyser Peak had three each) suggests that buying habits of loyal customers may play a role as well. The list had 16 wines from Australia and eight from Spain; at another retailer, those stats could easily have been reversed. Bottom line: the Wine.com 100 is just one retailer’s list of what was able to fly in and out the door. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special.

Wine Enthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Top 100 is an exercise in imitation, with a dose of inflation and a subtle advertising opp tossed in.  [Disclosure: I edited WE from 1988-’98, before the magazine did any in-house Top 100). Taking a page from Wine Spectator, the Enthusiast claims to shed the numbers-first approach; as the WE editors write in the preface to their Top 100 Wines of 2009 article: “We also strive to consider newsworthiness or excitement factor [sic], and whether a wine represents notable trends in the wine market.”

But there’s not just one Top 100 list; there are three (can’t forget your 100 Best Buys and 100 Cellar Selections). With zero overlap. Add ’em up and you’ve got 2.5% of the year’s 11,800 reviews earnng year-end honors; by comparison, Wine Spectator’s elite 100 represents less than .6% of their wines tasted.

Perhaps the rationale behind Wine Enthusiast’s generosity stems from the reality that the WE Top 100 lists are, in practice, advertising vehicles. While fine print in the magazine’s regular buying guide reveals that label reproductions are “paid promotions” (that’s advertising in plain English), no such notation appears in the Top 100 articles. In fact, in the online versions the labels are even hyperlinked to the producer.

Meanwhile, while Wine Spectator re-packages the wines in their Top 100 editorially, the Enthusiast lists are no more than a re-printing of the exact tasting notes already published, stripped of their original critics’ initials. Newsworthy and exciting!

Wine & Spirits. Lest readers fear I am harping on the double-zero in Top 1-0-0, please consider the year-end work of Wine & Spirits magazine. Actually, W&S is so far ahead of the game here that their list came out in October, with selection no doubt having occurred over the summer. It is all part of a program that reflects an in-depth (and in-touch) approach to Top 100-dom.

The editors set clear criteria (performance in the mag’s blind tastings) and aim to gauge portfolios, not just single bottlings. The write-ups of the Top 100 wineries—representing fresh and detailed profiles, putting each winery in the context of its history and peers—is not made available free online. And why should it? This is some serious editorial work.

But once the work is done, things are not so so serious. In fact, while other magazines nod toward the idea of availability, W&S winners are literally made available—in the form of a public tasting. (Alder Yarrow raved about the San Francisco event several months ago at Vinography.) Go see some pictures here. And if you’re not afraid of paper cuts, check out the full coverage in the Winter issue.

The San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle, anchored by Jon Bonné, shoulders a big responsibility as America’s West Coast voice in wine coverage. And they do not disappoint in year-end accolades. The introductory article digs into trends and contextual issues that give the actual 100 selections more, well, raison d’être. From the “traction” of rosé to the ongoing “identity crisis” of Chardonnay and embrace of Pinot-philia (there are 20 Pinots on the list), the Chronicle Top 100 represents an old school treatment of the cutting-edge wines on the West Coast. Personally, I appreciate the way the presentation by category—rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…through 100—lends a little more esteem to each wine.  And a separate list spotlighting bottles under $30 serves to support the Chronicle identifying “less can indeed be more” as the essence of West Coast wine-think in 2009.

What’s Missing?

So… five sources, five very different Top 100 lists. And by their very nature—zeroing in on new releases—they all miss two vital elements that helped define Wine in America circa 2009.

#1. Dump! Since the end of 2008, there has been constant downward pressure on prices, particularly at the high end. As fresh new releases push into the pipeline, older vintages are being squeezed out the door with severe price cuts. I subscribe to a lot of online and bricks-and-mortar retailer’s Web feeds. The parade of deals and steals has been unprecedented. Famous producers (Caymus practically got run up a flagpole this summer), classic regions (Brunello, Champagne, Chateauneuf-du-Pape), all formats, with vintages sometimes surprisingly old. Simply put, the amount of pedigreed wine at lower-than-ever prices exploded in 2009.

#2. We’re swimming in the good stuff. The Top 100 lists I took a lens to here represent different approaches, different attitudes, different results. In fact, the results are so distinct that we should see them as an inspiring reminder that we are living in the midst of the greatest wine boom of all time. Consider what might happen if you asked 100 wine experts who taste 1,000 or more wines a year to come up with their Top 100 lists. What do you think the overlap would be? My guess: minimal. That’s natural. And that’s what I call “exciting.”

— W. R. Tish is the editor of Palate Press, as well as a blogger (The Wine Skewer) and wine event specialist (http://wineforall.com). He has done work for multiple wine regions of France and Spain.

  • http://twitter.com/tricerapops tricerapops

    great read – and good summary of top 100’s (good enough so i actually don’t have to go and read any of them, unless i’m really interested). is it me (wine neophyte) – that top 100 is just TOO much? i appreciate categorized listings, breaking it out by region perhaps? decanter’s world wine awards issue was like drinking from a fire hose, but their ‘top wines’ issue was just a recap of their awarded wines throughout the year’s tastings, which was easier to navigate. i find concise listings easier to manage (i do realize that the wines tasted in decanter are often hard to get in the US) – but that’s just me.

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  • http://wellesleywinepress.com Robert Dwyer

    Great piece of writing, Tish- concise and witty. I think you’ve captured the essence of each of these lists.

    I couldn’t agree more with your point about wine publications not mentioning the amazing number of wine deals- specifically in terms of how it’s impacting wineries and the wine trade. I sense that wineries are trying very hard to protect their brands as being recession proof, and major publications either don’t want to talk about this -or- can’t get wineries to share stories they can run. This creates opportunities for wine liquidation businesses of various forms and I believe is where some of the best values exist today.

  • http://WineEconomist.com Mike Veseth

    Here’s my take on why the Wine Spectator Top 100 is like the Nobel Peace Prize!
    http://wineeconomist.com/2009/12/02/wine-spectator-100-north-and-south/