The Humble Steward
Jim Raper, The Virginian-Pilot, February 1996
[The Wine PocketList] is a guide to buying affordable, highly rated wines
Not long ago, John Vankat was a hit-or-miss wine buyer. He subscribed to wine publications and eagerly read the ratings that these magazines and newsletters had given to newly released wines. But, for one reason or another, he didn’t use the buying tips, often choosing wines that were disappointing.
“I’d forget the scores, or if I did remember one or two, I couldn’t find the bottle I was looking for,” he said in a telephone interview.
The fact that he lived in somewhat out of the way Oxford, Ohio, didn’t do anything to help his search for good, inexpensive wines.
So, scientist that he is – he teaches botany at Miami (Ohio) University – he organized his wine-ratings data. He collected and crunched scores using his personal computer and kept an updated list of affordable wines he wanted to try. A wine made his list if it earned a high “composite” score, meaning it was generally praised by publications and contest judges.
He took a printout of this list with him when he went shopping for wine and the results pleased him. “I had enough wines on the list so I could always find a good one in stock, “ he said. “Then friends who came over for dinner began asking me about the wines I was serving, and after a while, they began asking for the list.”
Vankat and his wife, who has a marketing background, wondered if they had “something with commercial potential.” A business plan and bank loan followed and in 1994, they began publishing the [The Wine PocketList].
The seventh issue of the “PocketList” was mailed this month to subscribers in 47 states, and Vankat hopes that by year’s end his fledgling publishing company, Grapevine Associates, will show a profit. “We knew it would take some time to get out of the red,” he said. “We’re pleased by how it’s going, but it’s not like we’re thinking of giving up our real jobs.”
The first six issues alternated between American wines and imported wines, but beginning with the latest issue, that scheme has changed. Subscribers have convinced Vankat to focus on American wines, as well as on a smaller number of imports that are widely available.
In the “PocketList” released this month, most of the 500 wines rated are domestics. Imports included are mostly from Australia and Chile. Three issues each year will follow this format. The fourth will give a fuller accounting of imports but also will include some domestics.
Wines on the “PocketList” get composite ratings of B+, A-, A or A+, based on scores and reviews Vankat has gleaned from Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, The Wine News, International Wine Cellar, Mead on Wine and Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.
If the critics describe a wine costing $15 or less as very good, excellent, exceptional or extraordinary, Vankat wants it on his list.
The guide emphasizes wines that are widely available in the United States, as well as those that have won gold medals in major competitions.
An “Honor Roll” on the inside of the back cover allows quick reference to widely available wines with composite grades of A+ or A. one such roll promoted Beringer 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley ($14), Gallo Sonoma 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), Hogue 1994 Chardonnay Columbia Valley ($10), Kenwood 1992 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($14), Robert Mondavi 1993 Fume Blanc Napa valley ($10), Columbia Crest 1994 Johannisberg Riesling Columbia Valley ($6) and Bel Arbors 1994 White Zinfandel California ($5).
Also included in each issue is a small section listing “splurge” wines, which cost from $16 to $30 but which reviewers contend are exceptional values.
A review of three issues of the “PocketList” revealed no significant flaws. Each 36-page edition is crammed with information, but logical organization makes it easy to use.
Beyond its use as a buying guide, the booklet is interesting reading, much like box scores are for the sports fan. For instance, a recent “PocketList” gave 13 red zinfandels a rating of A, and on – St. Francis 1993 Old Vines Sonoma County ($15) – was given a rate A+. But among the domestic pinot noirs that were listed, only one – Dehlinger 1993 Goldridge Vineyard Russian River Valley ($15) – rated even and A. Just shows that most of the really good pinots cost too much to make Vankat’s list. And, by contrast, zinfandel is a bargain.
As for nits to pick: I would like to see all the raw scores that the various publications have given to the wines. But copyrights probably prohibit this, and Vankat’s typical subscriber probably is satisfied with the composite letter grade.