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Wine Guide - Price guides for old wine, perfect for your wine selection. The Wine PocketList is a guide to top-rated wines, using our system to deliver solid, usable ratings. We've rated thousands of wines, with new wines added continually as they are released and judged.

Wine Grading: A guide of guides, culled from a variety of expert's opinions, helps you make a safe bet on that untried bottle.
Bridget Booher, U.S. Airways Attaché Magazine, March 1998

You're standing in the wine shop scanning the rows of zinfandels and Sauvignon Blancs, trying to remember the name of that perky vintage a friend mentioned to you last week. Was it the Beringer or the Benziger? The '94 or the '95? The wine merchant approaches, all attitude, and asks if he can help you locate anything in particular. Feigning authority, you decline his offer and grab the first $10 bottle of Chardonnay you see that has a pleasing label. Later, you discover it's way too sweet for your tastes, and you vow never to be caught in such an awkward position again. .

But who keeps a vow like that? Who wants to chatter endlessly about the mysteries of organic blends or the effect of phylloxera on the Napa Valley, or research the subtle differences between a dry and a very champagne?  What you want is a good bottle of wine that doesn't require a Ph.D. to buy.

That's where John Vankat can help. He has a Ph.D. He's a botany professor at Miami University of Ohio. Vankat has long liked imbibing the fruit of the vine. For years he even subscribed to a couple of national magazines that rated wines. Problem was, he could never remember what to look for when he got to the store.

"I would take notes but then leave them at home," he said. "So I'd stand there looking at a wine that I'd read about and wonder, was this one [ranked] an 87 or a 78?" (Being a scientist and a test test-grading professor, he cared about such a difference.) Out of this frustration Vankat came up with a wonderfully simple solution. He started compiling lists of selections that both of his subscription magazines endorsed, figuring that "if two sources said something was good, the better change there was I'd like it." On his personal computer he updated the database every month or so, adding new offerings and deleting older picks (which become harder to find as newer arrivals replace them on the shelves). With an eye toward the bottom line, Vankat leaned toward the more affordable selections and soon friends were taking notice.

"I'd bring a couple bottles of wine to a dinner party and people would say, 'These are so good they must have been very expensive.' "When I told them, no, actually they were in the $9 to $12 range, people started asking to borrow my lists." As demand for the clever compilations grew, Vankat decided there might be a commercial advantage to his avocation. He expanded his resource base from two wine magazines to nearly a dozen. And soon thereafter [the Wine PocketList] was launched.

True to its name, the portable publication is a handy reference guide that you can slip into a jacket or purse. Each issue features hundreds of widely available selections; to quality, wines must have been produced in at least 1,000 case shipments. In addition to culling ratings from such august publications as The Wine Spectator, and Wine Enthusiast, Vankat also taps into such upstart 'zines as Wine X and Smart Wine. To make it into PocketList, wines must have received evaluations of 88 to 100 (or the equivalent) in the national magazines (or an 86 to 87 if mass marketed, like Fetzer), and have been reviewed in the last 12 months.

Still, there is some professional subjectivity that comes into play as Vankat amasses his statistics. "It's like a college course where several professors teach the same course. Depending on which section you're in, you may get a higher or lower grade for the same work your friend is doing in another section. It's the same thing with these publications. Some tend to assign a higher mean, some a lower mean; some rate within a broader range, some within a narrower range. In a sense, I'm coming up with a composite grade." Wines earning a B+ or higher make the final cut.

Adding to the convenience factor, Vankat arranges wines both by vineyard and by varietal. There's quick-take guide to pairing wines with food, a primer on the main characteristics of varietals, winery profiles, and fast facts about general wine topics. Last year Vankat added a section in each issue on "splurge" wines which range from $16 to $30 (the summer issue spotlighted superlative Chardonnays). While the majority of the cheaper buys are in the high B range, the splurge wines are top-of-the-class performers with A or A+ grades. Finally, the inside back cover features the PocketList honor roll of consistently high-rated varietals.

In addition to providing a service to forgetful wine lovers, Vankat says the PocketList is intended to demystify the pleasures of wine. "Everyone is a movie critic; we have no qualms about saying we hated this film or loved that one. Buy put a bottle of wine in front of someone and they immediately get nervous: 'What do you think about it?' I think it's important to get past that and help people become more confident of their own skill at judging wines. If you enjoy it, it's a good wine for you; if you don't, it's not for you – or it may be for you in a few months when your palate is more experienced."

With PocketList in tow, the sea of colored glass in the supermarket wine section suddenly becomes interpretable. Look: There's the Estancia Chardonnay, an A- dazzler at only $9. Or the Turning Leaf Zinfandel Reserve, a saucy B+ that would pair nicely with tonight's pizza. And who would guess that a nice Kendall-Jackson could fit into a chicken-and-rice budget?

Vankat was late to the glass, as it were, first venturing into wine territory as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. Given his meager income, he sometimes took to walking through the aromatic Enology Building just to inhale the wonderful, heady fragrances. As his interest and income grew, Vankat began to experiment with different wines, eventually becoming a member of the Society of Wine Educators. He also writes "Sips," a user-friendly wine column in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The user-friendly part is important to Vankat. "If someone is a thoroughly trained wine lover they have many sources to go to for their information," he says. "But I think the public, in general, is put off by the kind of writing that describes wine as having hints of 'dark cedar, tobacco, and a coffee-spiked finish.' If anything, the Pocketlist encourages people to explore. If you've never tried a petite syrah, for example, you might not want to spend $15 or $18 on something you're not sure you'll like. But if there's one for $8, you might feel more assured about taking the gamble."

Vankat's own gamble in launching PocketList in the fall of 1994 has paid off: It now boasts a subscriber base in 46 states (Wyoming, South Dakota, Rhode Island, and Idaho haven't yet bellied up to the wine bar) as well as several Canadian provinces. Vankat's wife, Betty Huffman, serves as vice president for sales and development, and the couple employs a graphic designer. There's also the requisite Website (www.winepocketlist.com), with links to online wine auctions, wine-related events, places to stay in the wine country, and a burgeoning nationwide network of Wine BRATS (Wine to Benefit Responsible Adults of Tomorrow's Society). Given the company's fast-growing empire, it's a wonder Vankat has time to teach is plant ecology courses at Miami University.

Not that he has any plans to scale back on extolling the virtues of the vine. "I thought that as I learned more about wine, I would become much choosier and like fewer and fewer varieties. But just the opposite has happened. The more I try, the more I like."

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"You, too, can play the game – and buy a decent bottle of wine without having to choose the pretty label….."
"The Wine PocketList [is] a truly superb guide for wine stocking and selection on a reasonable budget."
"There is nowhere near enough good wine to go around. It is a lesson that I have never seen spelled out in a beginner's guide."