How I score wine
It comes in. I taste it in a flight of similar wines, insofar as possible. Let’s say they’re Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Since I have no staff, I know, perforce, what the wines are in advance, because I’m the one opening them and setting them up. But I don’t know what they are at the time I’m tasting. I might know that among them is Caymus Special Selection, but I don’t know which bottle.
(Anticipating the inevitable objections, let me say that no critic I ever heard of knows absolutely nothing about the wines he’s tasting. That would be a double-blind tasting. My tastings are single-blind. I like to have a little context. We can talk more about this later.)
I open the bottles about 1 hour before the session begins, to give them a little air. Let’s say I have 12 wines. I’ll pour the first six into identical glasses, then let them breathe for a few minutes. (I’ll repeat the process for the second six.) Then I sniff each, one after the other, forming my first impressions. No notes yet, just mental quick takes. “This one smells like classic Cabernet,” or “pretty oaky,” or “smells vegetal.” Things like this form the preliminaries to a formal comparative ranking.
By then, I have tentative favorites. Then it’s on to the mouth! I’ll sip each of the six, being careful to spit. Once in the mouth, I can confirm, or not, the initial impressions formed during smelling. That one with classic Cab aromas? Maybe it’s classic in the mouth, but then again, maybe it’s not, and turns overly tannic and astringent. Here’s where the mental calculations get more complex. Let’s say that Cab is classic all the way, from aroma through finish. I can’t find any flaws. I’ll push it to the front of the group — it becomes the pace-setter for the rest. Maybe I’ll give it a tentative “96.”
From here on, it’s a matter of re-smelling, re-tasting, re-calibrating, thinking, comparing and refining. Once I determine I really want to give the classic Cab 96, everything else falls into place. The Cab that’s almost as classic, but not quite, gets 92 or 93. The Cab that’s vegetal gets 84. And so on.
Why 96 and not 97? For one thing, I give almost no 100s, 99s or 98s. I have, and can, but I want to keep such exceptional scores rare, so that when they do occur, they’re taken seriously. Some magazines have “score inflation,” which I don’t like. A score of 96 is really the highest “regular” or everyday score a wine can aspire to, in my system.
Okay, so the classic Cab gets 96. Why does the vegetal Cab get 84? Well, on Wine Enthusiast’s rating guidelines, a score of 84 means a wine that’s “good,” i.e. sound and proper, without notable technical flaws, or at least without large flaws. Vegetal smells in a Cab lower a score, but I don’t consider them flaws. I could have given the wine 83 (the lowest “good” rating), but that seems overly harsh. I could have given it 86, but 86 verges on “very good” (87 points), and a vegetal Cab is certainly not “very good.” An argument can be made for 85 points; I admit, this is a judgment call. My judgment is 84, so 84 it is. Could it have been 85 on another day? Certainly.
At some point, I hand-carry the glass with the wine to my computer, where I fill in the actual score and text into Wine Enthusiast’s database. This is the final act of the tasting process, where everything is confirmed. When I hit the “send” button, the review is transported to the magazine’s server, in New York, and my part in the ratings chain is over.
I hope this gives readers more of an insight into how I determine numbers. Yet I suspect those who don’t like numbers won’t be convinced by anything I write, anyway.