How To Pair Wine With Red Herring

redherring“A rating, while striving to communicate the quality differences among wines, can’t tell you if one wine or another is better in different circumstances. In fact, a lower rated wine considered far more simple than a higher rated wine, might be a far better wine in a particular circumstance.”

This is what I’ve heard for 25 years as people criticize wine ratings. The criticism is that a wine rating can’t forecast the quality of a wine in any given circumstance. The simple Provencal rose might be a better wine on a summer afternoon by the pool.

This criticism of the wine rating process is a perfect example of a Red Herring. The dictionary tells us that a red herring “is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.

Whether or not a fresh, delightful Provencal Rose appeals more on a summer afternoon by the pool, this has nothing to do with whether a wine reviewer believes that this Petaluma Gap Syrah is in fact a better made wine and deserving of a higher rating. Likewise, the fact that a Russian River Pinot Noir might be the perfect wine to serve with braised boar, does not take away from the fact that a wine reviewer concludes that finely structured, minerally Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon is a better made and better wine.

These are two different statements. One does not discount the other.

So, here’s what I’m saying: When you hear someone criticize the idea of wine ratings and reviews by noting that a rating misses or ignores the fact that the lower rated wine is probably a better wine for a given circumstances, tell that critic: “So What!” Tell them that their own statement ignores the fact that the reviewer had no intent of discussing what wine to drink at what time of day or what wine is better with a particular dish. Tell them what “Red Herring” means.

Posted In: Rating Wine


21 Responses

  1. Stanley Yucikas - July 15, 2015

    Well now you’ve gone and done it. What is it that you’ve done you may ask? You’ve opened up that old can of worms about suitability of purpose vs. work of art and I’m not sure I could possibly add anything constructive to the argument other than to very clearly and emphatically state that herring, red or otherwise, pairs best with Aalborg Akvavit and Carlsberg beer! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Skål….

  2. Samantha Dugan - July 15, 2015

    “A better wine”…um, better for what?

  3. Tom Wark - July 15, 2015


    Better for being wine.

    • Samantha Dugan - July 15, 2015

      Well I’ve seen a brilliant wine rendered to utter garbage when paired with the wrong food. Did it to myself last night in fact. I’m not arguing for or against scores Tom. I never read them or use them to sell wine in our shop, nor do we get more than a couple requests a year for a scored wine, (and I’ll point out that several times when questioned, “90 or more by whom?” the consumer has no idea, or doesn’t care from whom” but I think saying one wine is better is simply incorrect because as I said, a good wine can be obliterated by competing flavors. Had a couple in this week that was having veal piccata, with truffle cheese melted over it, serving BV Georges de Lator with it….because it was a highly rated wine, therefore “better” right? Better is just too loose a term for me….

      • Tom Wark - July 15, 2015


        Would you be willing to agree that the Nigl Austrian Riesling is a better wine than the Charles Shaw Riesling? What about the Barefoot NV White Zinfandel vs. the Château d’Esclans Cotes de Provence Rosé?

        • Samantha Dugan - July 15, 2015

          “Better” for whom? Someone expecting Barefoot and getting Cotes de Provence Rose sure wouldn’t think so. Which was my point to begin with, better for?

          • Tom Wark - July 15, 2015

            Yes. I know it was your point. I really do. However, I’m willing to argue that the Cote de Provance Rose is better than the barefoot for ANYONE and EVERYONE, under any circumstances. This goes double for the Austrian Riesling. I’m merely in a mood.

        • Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2015

          Now, who’s presenting a red herring?

          How many wine critics rate Barefoot against Cote de Provence? You need a much better argument than that, Tom. But as long as you pin it on the word “better” you ahve no argument.

          • Tom Wark - July 16, 2015

            Hey Thomas….

            No argument because the qualitative claim I’m making with “better” is a subjective claim and can’t be measured?

          • Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2015

            Exactly, Tom.

            When the “better” evaluation can be replicated, and by everyone, it might have a shot at being valid.

          • Tom Wark - July 16, 2015

            If I were reviewing wines and wrote at the top of my newsletter, “The following are the critical assessments of Tom Wark, and Tom Wark alone”, would you then take any issue with me making the following statement in my newsletter: “The 2015 Wine X is a far better wine than the 2015 Wine Y”?

          • Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2015

            No. I would not. Your disclaimer at the top tells me nothing concerning your credentials to make evaluations.

            You would have to change the wording to: “I liked the 2015 Wine X far better than the 2015 Wine Y”

            If you want to say it IS better, you need to establish your credentials and also explain in what context you use the word “better” since used the way you are using it makes it a relative word, not an absolute.

          • Tom Wark - July 16, 2015


            How about this: In every one of my newsletters I make note of the fact that I have been professionally evaluating wines for 25 years and I’m the founder of “The Best Wines of the World Foundations. Additionally, i was awarded the GREAT GOLDEN GOBLET award from The Organization of Winemaker Countries in honor of my superb palate.

            Given all these credentials, what If I wrote, “The 2015 X Wine is a far better wine than the 2015 Y Wine because X wine is much more yummy and because x wine possess far better balance and because x wine has far more varietal typicity?”

          • Thomas Pellechia - July 16, 2015


            Provided yummy, balance, and varietal typicity are known standards for that particular wine, and provided everyone agrees that “evaluating wines for 25 years” constitutes knowledge and talent, you are fine with me.

  4. Egmont Labadie - July 15, 2015

    I mainly agree with you, or any wine critic should each time compare every wine existing in every circumstance possible…Which would take some time…Or all wine critics in the world could try to build a gigantic database compiling all their commentaries about all the wines they have ever tasted…Mmmm…A work for Jorge Luis Borges 😉
    Egmont Labadie

  5. Tish - July 15, 2015

    Tom, I would counter by suggesting that your purported red herring is the real red herring. The problem is not the ratings, it is how they get abused.

    In virtually any circle of reasonable and intelligent wine drinkers, everyone realizes that ratings can’t account for food and context. That’s a flaw, but not really a problem. For people like Samantha Dugan, this is just one reason never to care about scores; others simply overlook this flaw. All fine.

    The bigger problem is the degree to which marketers and retailers abuse the ratings. Nothing is wrong with a 92 point review of a wine, replete with descriptive terms and perhaps even background. But when that score gets snipped and pasted on a website or an ad, THAT is a much greater threat to distract a wine drinker from considering that wine’s best possible context.

    American wine drinkers are growing up, and they are now numb to the tinny drone of one 90point wine after another. THe numbers themselves have become a distraction.

    • Tom Wark - July 15, 2015

      You wrote: “The bigger problem is the degree to which marketers and retailers abuse the ratings. Nothing is wrong with a 92 point review of a wine, replete with descriptive terms and perhaps even background. But when that score gets snipped and pasted on a website or an ad, THAT is a much greater threat to distract a wine drinker from considering that wine’s best possible context.”

      I agree with you. But this isn’t a problem with ratings. It’s a problem with marketers. Additionally, I’m not sure I have much sympathy for someone (regardless of wine knowledge) who sees a “91” score and who should know they don’t have any context for that score, yet goes ahead and trusts it. All I know for sure is I REALLY want that buyer to return to my store or winery.

      • Tish - July 16, 2015

        You say “But this isn’t a problem with ratings. It’s a problem with marketers.”
        And I agree. But why has the whole nature of wine ratings led to the 100-point-scale-wielding media positioning THEMSELVES as marketers, not critics.

        OK, maybe not Charlie Olken.
        — But witness the fact that Wine Spectator offers its ratings to retailers before subscribers, thus reinforcing the market clout of their scores.
        — Witness how the Wine Enthusiast uses the ratings (and ratings alone) ahead of publication to sell label reproductions (aka advertisements, disguised as editorial) AND then uses the highest rating available (even from competing publications) to pimp wines they sell on their retail site, Wine Express.
        — Witness the unquestionable grade inflation that seemingly blind critics have wrought upon their own “buying guides” — which is emphasized further by media not even bothering to print sub-87 scores and score-happy retailers pretending such mediocre reviews don’t even exist.

        I agree with you Tom. Ratings with reviews are not the problem. But when marketing abuse IS the problem, and such abuse is actively fostered by the very “critics” creating the reviews, I believe it is fair to say that the scale itself has become disfunctional.

  6. Gabriel Froymovich - July 16, 2015


    Good article. I agree. My only issue is that I thought this article was going to tell me what wine pairs with red herring. I figure that meant pickled, spiced virgin herring, known as matyas, which is pink-fleshed and I was excited, as I never thought of pairing wine with matyas, as it’s more of a morning food to me.

  7. Tom Natan - July 16, 2015

    So why is it that restaurant reviews don’t say that the cassoulet should only be eaten on a cold day, and that maybe if you’ve been out in the summer heat it won’t taste quite as good? Because they figure you’ll understand the context if they just say the cassoulet is tasty. Unless of course it’s a version of cassoulet made for the summer, then that’s part of its composition and worth noting.

    The same people objecting probably wouldn’t make similar objections to movie criticism, for example. I don’t understand why wine criticism/review is expected to reach a higher standard than any other kind of reviewing. Or why anyone doesn’t expect that there can be different levels of wine criticism aimed at different audiences.

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