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By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 10/28/2004 9:59:57 AM ET 2004-10-28T13:59:57

Nothing beats the thrill of finding a transcendent bottle of wine. Then you have to ask about price.

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Hence why I recently devised my own personal wine rating system. Given my mixed feelings about 100-point systems, and my reluctance to copy other well-known schemes, I settled on a five-point scale, in increments of 0.1.

I don't intend these as public ratings, at least not yet; they're shorthand to remember, beyond my notes, an overall impression of quality. In my head, I know what separates a 4.2 from a 4.5.

Quality is only half the story. Bad wine is bad wine no matter the cost, but wonderful wine can be found at every price. The real fun is finding those bargain gems — a Porsche at Kia prices.

So my wine notes are filled with two numbers: one just for quality and one for quality adjusted for price. At $15, a 4.1 wine might be a 4.1/4.4; at $40, it's likely to be a 4.1/3.6. (The adjustment is subjective.)

Others have tried similar methods. Andrea Immer includes two 30-point ratings in her wine guides, one for taste and one for value.

No one has taken the concept as far as Neil Monnens.

Last month, Monnens unveiled QPRwines, a Web-based service dedicated to rooting out wine values from the ratings jungle.  Monnens doesn't rate wines himself; he retabulates critics' ratings based on the actual prices available on the open market. His quality-price ratios (hence QPR) tell readers whether they're getting a steal or getting gouged.

Checking the shelf price
He begins with a universe of wines — 2000 Bordeaux, say — and compiles 100-point reviews from three major reviewers. (For copyright reasons, he won't disclose which.) Only wines with at least two ratings, and available in the United States, qualify. The ratings are averaged.

Rather than use a suggested retail price, he derives a cost for each wine using search engine Wine-searcher.com, which compiles retailers' actual prices. These are tabulated to arrive at an average price for each numerical rating. His average price for 91-point 2001 West Coast pinot noirs was $57; for 90-point pinots, it was $50.

Then he compares prices. Higher than average and the wine gets a ratio above 100 percent; lower and it comes in below. "As in golf," he says, "you always want the lower score."  Anything below 75 percent he calls a value; below 50 percent is a great value.

Thus among 90-point 2000 Bordeaux, which average $36, the Chateau Cantemerle is a steal at Monnens' listed price of $18.  I couldn't find it that cheap, though I dug up a bottle at $22.95, or a ratio of 64 percent — still a good value. Most retailers, savvy to the bargain, have hiked prices.

It's all basic math — nothing you couldn't achieve with a stack of Robert Parker ratings, a spreadsheet and a Web browser — but a single newsletter can take Monnens 14 hours as he works through a heap of data.

He's betting subscribers will find it useful enough to pay $25 for 12 issues a year. He also hopes to expand with price lists comparing multiple varietals and multiple vintages.

Monnens is no online newcomer.  He co-founded online ad firm Webrep before selling it in 1999, and in 2000 he launched Winerelease.com, which tracks wineries' upcoming releases.

Wallets big and small
For the past four years, he was part of a San Francisco wine-tasting group and kept tabs on their numerical rankings — running averages, sorting wines by price.  That geekery became QPRwines.

The real charm to Monnens' method: It can aid bibulous skinflints with any sized wallet.

At $220 (or $230, as I found it this week), the 98-point 2000 Chateau Leoville Las Cases may not be destined for your cellar, but would you rather buy that or the 2000 Chateau Petrus for $1,600?

Of course, there are people who would opt for the Petrus simply because it is a Petrus. The statistical precision of Monnens' system can't account for a winery's reputation, a wine's scarcity or for critics' equivalent of grade inflation.

Nor does it help if you don't believe in the 100-point systems, which are both indispensable and overexploited. Or if you don't like certain types of wine.

On the other hand, QPRwines has a terrific side benefit. A frustrating offshoot of ratings is their ability to rapidly inflate wineries' reputations — and prices. Experienced drinkers can easily parse Monnens' ratios and see who's pricing below or beyond their quality level, at least according to critics' palates.

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