You Don’t Score Wine? You’re Full of Crap
Okay, now that you’re here reading this, hear me out. I used the title, “You Don’t Score Wine? You’re Full of Crap” because of all the posts that denounce the practice of scoring wine. They range from “Wine Scores are Full of Shit,” “Points Are Pointless,” “Hype and Illusion” and my favorite “Robert Parker Must Die” (okay I made that last one up). Everyone seems to be on this never ending cycle of crapping on the 100 point, 5 point, 12 point, 2 stems up scale, that rarely do I see anyone talking about the benefits and reasons WHY it is so popular.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way:
- Scoring wine is partially subjective and imprecise. We’re talking about a sensory experience. What you like is different than what I like…yeah, yeah I get that. My 92 might be your 94…big deal. We’re also talking a little science here. Acid, balance, varietal characteristics all play into the documentable repeatable part of wine scoring. Wine is an agricultural product. It’s obvious when you get a flawed peach. You don’t hear anyone saying, “How can you call that peach bad…some people like under-ripe crunchy peaches.” Well, they might, but it’s not how a peach is supposed to be.
- A score will not dictate if you will like or dislike a wine. Just because Ebert and Roeper give a movie two thumbs up, does that mean you’re going to love it? Hell no, but it might give you an indication if all the critics are giving it two thumbs, five reels, four stars, or whatever rating they’re using. Face it, we’re not talking three selections of rum or even 10-20 selections of beer, we’re talking hundreds and sometimes thousands of different wine bottles at different price points staring at consumers in a mocking, snooty tone. A score offers a starting point.
- It is human nature to score and rate. We rate everything from football (with a draft day scorecard) to hot dogs. We make decision on hotels bookings (show me only 4 star rated hotels) to restaurants (needs to have a Zagat rating of 25 or higher). At our house we rate the dinners on a five star rating. If a new recipe doesn’t get 4 or 5 stars, it doesn’t get made again. Life’s too short to eat a 3 star meal.
- The 100 point scale is flawed. Partially subjective sensory experiences like movies, art, food and wine don’t lend themselves to a precision based scale like 100 points. While I appreciate the fact that Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and International Wine Cellar can taste through thousands of wines that I will never try, there is no discernable difference between 88 and 89 points (or 99 and 100 points). Do I look through their list and make mental notes of high scoring wines that fit my budget and preferences…you bet (as I’m sure most subscribers do)! BUT, I would never spend more than $50 on a wine that I didn’t have at least some personal experience with (previous vintage, personal referral, tasting room sample) regardless of the score. Granted, this is my stance…many of you may have different thresholds.
There Is Value In Those Numbers
With all of its controversy and flaws, I think there is some tangible value in wine ratings. You may be a rating naysayer but I guarantee you, everyone is a wine critic. You’re drinking a great bottle of Riesling from Finger Lakes and it pairs perfectly with your lemon chicken and scallop pasta. You rave about it the next day at work. At its most basic you have a rating system of don’t like, meh, like, love (a four point scale). Sometimes that co-worker goes the extra step and says, “Oh man, sounds like a great bottle of wine. On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate it?” Boom, you just became a wine reviewer with a full blown 10 point scale.
Wine Scores Have Made Wine Better
Stick with me here…if Consumer Reports didn’t provide detailed ratings and reviews on cars that held automakers accountable for quality and reliability, do you think Detroit (Japan and Germany) would really go the extra mile to blow you away with fit and finish and long lasting parts? Auto makers are held to a higher standard by the court of public opinion and formal reviews. The same holds true for wine. For 30 years, the power of review was held by a few. These traditional “Booze Lit Crit” as Tony Greenberg calls them could make or break a wine, winery and an entire vintage with the powerful stroke of their quill. In the world of the internet, hundreds of wine bloggers and thousands of consumers pass judgment (cast reviews) on a wine in 140 character tweets or 300 word reviews. The aggregation of this information on sites like Cellar Tracker, Cork’d or Snooth provide a valuable resource of information to consumers. If information and knowledge is power then traditional print Bruce Banner has been transformed into the Incredible Hulk through the internet. This power (along with more modern wine making practices) has caused the quality of wine to improve. Look on the shelves, there is a whole hell of a lot less Boones Farm and Carlo Rossi Jug Wine than there used to be.
Wine Scores Act As a Guide
The majority of people don’t analyze wine like writers / bloggers do. They couldn’t tell a cassis from a cranberry and tannin is something you do at the beach. My guess is that 80% of wine drinkers, even those that consider themselves regular drinkers are just looking for something that tastes good, fits their style, goes with their food and is in their budget (often times the label makes the decision).
- Case Study #1: I recently went on a shopping trip with two people that drink wine on a pretty regular basis (2-4 bottles per week). As we walked around this little eclectic wine shop in East Portland, I watched them pick up bottles and look at the cards, “Wow, 92 points Wine Spectator.” “Oh, honey look at this one, the staff here rates it a top pick, and it’s only $18.” What I noticed from this shopping adventure was that the couple sought out red wine, was okay venturing to the wild side of Nebbiolo and Granache, but was more comfortable having the score as a guide to make a decision. It told them, someone else with more wine tasting experience than them, tasted this wine and thought it was a 9 out of 10.
- Case Study #2: I asked people on my Facebook page about wine scores and buying decisions. The non-scientific results of 20+ comments were pretty mixed from, “I know what I like” to “It helps when picking a new wine.” While not for everyone, a rating system acts as a referral and source of trust when navigating the sea of selection.
Scores should act as a guide or a baseline as one reviewers experience with the wine. I think consumers are smart enough to make that connection in the same way that they don’t blindly spend $20-30 on a movie date just because it got good reviews. They analyze the plot, the actors, and length; then they compare that with the mood they are in. If they are really on the fence, they may check a few more reviews before making their decision. Before dropping $30 on a night of entertainment with wine, smart consumers are going to do their homework. They’ll check the score and read the tasting notes on the card. “Deep muscular flavors of sour berry, earth, black tea, and leather,” may not be their thing but, “Bright red berry flavors with hints of pie filling and a smooth velvet finish that lingers for eternity,” could be right up their alley.
Moreover, wine information shouldn’t come from only one source. Wine as the province of one solitary palate is a sham, no matter how skilled and experienced that palate. Why? Because palates are different. Some like salt and some like sugar. (Doug Frost; Points are Pointless)
Wine Ratings Aren’t Going Anywhere, Deal With It
As I mentioned earlier, it is human nature to evaluate, rate and pass judgment on things. Those who do so with experience and consistency (see Consumer Reports or Wine Enthusiast) end up being trusted resources for information and decision making. Do you go to Consumer Reports when looking at buying your next brand of ice cream? Neither do it, but obviously enough people cared for them to review it in the July 2010 issue. When it comes to wine, I’m a fan of 5-10 point scales, letter grades, and things customers understand (I’d buy it, I’d drink it if someone else was paying, I’ll skip it ~ Atlanta Wine Guy)
The most effective wine reviews must contain ALL the pertinent information to help in making an informed buying decision. Wine reviews that leave out important facts like alcohol percentages are potentially misleading the consumer on how the wine will pair with food. I also feel that tasting notes are king. So what if that Syrah scores 97 points. If I’m not a fan of powerfully extracted, big cherry, spicy wine, I’m not going to like it. The score gives an impression paired with the experience; the tasting note describes the sensory encounter with the wine. A great example of this in the blog world is Steve Paulo from Notes from the Cellar.
In a comment on Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Charlie Olken writes, “The writing, the ability to describe wine in a way that someone else tasting that wine will agree is, in fact, of great value.”
You can express your frustration and disdain for the 100 point system all day long. Chances are you’ll see the removal of the three-tier system before the dismantling of the 100 point system.
My Advice To Consumers
- Seek out several reviewers that you can trust. Over time you’ll find people who have similar likes and dislikes with text you can relate to.
- Drink more wine. You will learn so much by drinking a variety of wine. Be sure to take notes on what you like and don’t like about your experiences (be careful…if you do that long enough and it ends up on the computer, they’ll call you a blogger).
- Use scores as a guide if you need them, otherwise drink what you like.
For the rest of you, don’t tell me that my points are pointless or that my rating scale is full of shit. If you say you don’t score wine, I think you’re full of crap.