Wine tasting in a Napa winery. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Columnist, Food

What’s the best wine in the world? Every winemaker would love to produce it. Every wine lover would love to drink it and hoard a few bottles in the cellar. Every wine writer would love to anoint it and tell you to buy it.

Vivino, the popular wine app with 35 million subscribers worldwide, says the best wine in the world is the Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, from Napa Valley in California. That’s based on Vivino’s data mining of the 40 million reviews and 120 million ratings its members posted online last year.

Never heard of Scarecrow cabernet? Neither had I, though I’ve been a fan of its winemaker, Celia Welch, for the past 20 years. Welch is a consulting winemaker who has crafted some of Napa’s most touted, and most expensive, cabernets. The winery sells directly to an exclusive members list. A quick Internet search finds the 2015 Scarecrow cabernet listed at $450 a bottle at Total Wine & More in Las Vegas’s South Strip or $950 at the Burlington, Mass., store. Despite the price variation, the wine is apparently not available at either location.


Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015. (Courtesy of Vivino)

Other top red wines in the Vivino 2019 Wine Awards included two from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most exclusive Burgundy producer. The DRC La Tache 2000, the No. 2 wine, averages $4,810 a bottle on Wine-searcher.com, while the DRC 2011 Grands Echezeaux Grand Cru, the fourth-ranked wine, averages about $2,100. Other top-ranked vinos included glitzy names like Petrus and Kistler.

You may think these are not your kind of wine people. Vivino and similar apps create a social media dynamic. They become bragging boards for members to showcase the rare and expensive wines they are drinking. It’s a vinous one-upmanship, as members boast about the wines in their cellars (that La Tache 2000, for example) or the wines they buy through exclusive subscriber lists. If 35 million subscribers filed 120 million reviews, that’s only three to four reviews per member over the course of the year. That means a smaller contingent of the most avid wine lovers are posting the majority of reviews and ratings. (Disclosure: I have a Vivino account, but I use it so rarely that I forgot my password and needed to re-create the account while researching this column.)

The Vivino Wine Awards should be taken with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean they don’t provide insight into how we are buying and enjoying wine. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the annual restaurant survey by Wine & Spirits magazine. That survey saw expensive wines, especially Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, doing well even as more consumers demand value. The result was the “middle falling out” of the market. The Vivino results are consistent with the top end of that survey. Wine as a luxury item and status symbol is going strong.

The Vivino Wine Style Awards includes “top 10” lists for various categories, such as Argentine malbec. That list was dominated by two familiar names, Vina Cobos and Catena Zapata, with their top-of-the-line wines represented. Looking at another of my favorite categories, Oregon pinot noir, it would be easy to assume Vivino’s users rarely venture beyond Antica Terra, Beaux Freres or Domaine Serene. Even the lists for regions known for bargains, such as Portugal’s Alentejo, are dominated by rare bottles, made more rare and expensive by being aged for years in someone’s cellar.

Of course, the world’s best wines are expensive. They require meticulous care in the vineyard and winery. They often come from small, historic vineyards that carry prestige with their name on the label. And they often are produced in limited quantities. Tight supply and high demand drive prices up, as do the egos of the winemakers and the collectors.

Reading these Vivino best-of lists is a wistful, aspirational exercise. They give me the same feeling of not belonging that led me to stop using the app. I have written favorably about Vivino and similar apps such as Delectable and Wine Ring, but eventually I grew weary of the showmanship and braggadocio inherent in every post. I try to be inclusive in this column by sharing the joy of wine as accessible to all. But these online communities resemble the social media echo chambers of political discourse, with a small group listening only to itself and ignoring the wider world.

Vivino’s data miners would do that wider world a service by including a category of best-rated wines under $25 or $30. Which countries and regions produce the best bargains, and which are seeing more success over time? That might broaden Vivino’s appeal to a wider audience. It certainly wouldn’t alienate the collectors, who often look for inexpensive wines that play above their price. They just may not brag about them on social media.