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A wine point-scoring system — from 1892!

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Wes Hagen, at Clos Pepe, sent me (and also Mr. Laube) a PDF of an old wine book he stumbled across. “It’s an 1892 book on the evaluation of wine, written in CA!,” Wes wrote. “Note his suggestion of a 6 point and 10 point wine evaluation scale.  I’m sure you guys get questions all the time about ‘points’—it may be the idea’s been around for longer than 100 years.”

The book, published in 1892 by the University of California’s Viticultural Section (in its pre-Davis, Berkeley era), is entitled WINE: Classification – Wine Tasting – Qualities and Defects. Yet it was written, not in California or by a Californian but an Italian (Grazzi-Soncini), and happened to be translated by F.T. Bioletti, the polymath whose work at U.C. included classifying vinifera grapes in California, founding the school’s grape breeding program, and research into grape diseases. He also was the V&E department’s first chair.

Grazzi-Soncini begins by making a vital distinction between “the taster” and “the chemist.” The former is able to make inferences about wine’s quality and defects, even without a thorough understanding of “the physical components of wine,” while the latter “is limited to making a diagnosis,” which Grazzi-Soncini implies is not particularly useful for the wine drinker or wine seller. He then lays out his own classification system, dividing wine into “High-class Wines” (Lafite, la-Tour [sic], certain Chiantis), “Fine Wines” (Saint-Julien, St.-Estephe), “Fine Common Wines” (“produced in large quantities in Italy”), and “Common Wines, or Wines of the Plains,” which are for “the working classes.” Finally there are “Low-grade Wines,” of which the less said, the better. So once again we see the universal need, which seems always to have existed, at least since the Greeks, for classifying wines.

Having set the stage, Grazzi-Soncini now moves to his chapter on “Tasting.” His cogent point is that “Any one can say whether a wine pleases him or not” but “only the experienced taster can pronounce with any degree of certainty…”. Without “long practice” the “somewhat difficult art” of tasting “cannot be acquired” (which will frustrate some of my young blogger friends but is inescapably true).

Grazzi-Soncini’s 10-point scale, like his classification system, also testifies to the need in the human soul or mind for hierarchies and tiers, of which the 100-point system (actually in Wine Enthusiast’s case a 21-point system) is merely an elaboration. I quote from Grazzi-Soncini:

10. Perfect.
9. Almost perfect.
8. Quite good.
7. Relatively good.
6. Fair; sound, but not harmonious.
From 5 to 0 indicates various defects, according to their gravity.

(Could this have been the origin of the famous U.C. Davis 20-point scoring system?)

Grazzi-Soncini reserves his longest chapter for wine defects. Then, as now, it was more difficult to pinpoint why a wine is good than explain why it is not. When a wine is good, all you can do is use qualitative adjectives, such as “Perfect” or “harmonious,” which really have no meaning at all to anyone, unless you know what they mean or think you do. It is much easier to explain that a wine is, for example, “decrepit” and “past its prime” because it has lost “all, or nearly all, of [its] color” and become “disagreeable” in bouquet and “vapid, flat, insipid” in the mouth. (All italicized descriptors are Grazzi-Soncini’s.)

If Grazzi-Soncini were involved in the conversation or debate that occurs frequently here on my blog in the Comments section, I think he would side with those who say a wine taster doesn’t need rigorous scientific training or academic winemaking credentials to be good at his job. Rather what is needed is, as I have quoted, “long experience,”…“a clear eye [and] very delicate organs of taste and smell.” Here’s a key phrase: “When the last two organs [i.e. taste and smell] have the requisite sensibility, practice alone is necessary to give [tasters] the skill needed in tasting a wine.” Not viticultural and enological aptitude; not a thorough knowledge of wine chemistry; not even (dare I say it?) a moment of work-time in a winery. A sharp eye, nose and palate, and long, practical years of experience: that’s what it takes to be a good wine critic.

  1. Grazzi-Soncini’s understanding of viticulture an enology was (much like that of his contemporaries) only a few miles ahead of his understanding of neuroscience and sensation and perception.

    Fortunately, we have advanced our collective knowledge of both fields considerably in the last 110 years or so.

    Grazzi-Sonci’s statements are perfect illustrations of what I mean when I say that statements based on uninformed experiences are opinions – and those are not necessarily congruous with the facts – which may be borne out at a later time.

    Steve, you assert that having tasted a bunch of wines qualifies one to make reliable quality judgments. But not long ago you wrote that in blind tastings you can guess the wine only about half the time.

    Could those personal experiences be skewing your conclusions on this issue?

    And, with respect, how can one make a qualitative judgment about wines if half the time they can’t tell know what wine is before them?

    So it’s not the eye, nose, palate (an organ with no gustatory receptors) or even uvula that need to be practiced and cultivated, but the brain – by learning, thinking and connecting the dots between what the senses detect and what it actually means about the wine.

  2. “long experience,”…“a clear eye [and] very delicate organs of taste and smell.”

    This is the aesthetic argument of self-appointment. But even it were completely true, what good does that do the rest of the world of cretins without experience, without clear eyes and with miserable taste buds? Is it
    their plight to appreciate wine only that they are told to appreciate?

    These arguments reinforce the superiority of an aesthetic sensibility; they say that wine has no particular life or structure other than the one that certain tasters give it, based solely on their perceptions; they say little about wine, but volumes about those who consider themselves the arbiters of taste.

    What gives these arguments currency is that they cannot be either proved or disproved because they are based on a philosophy. Philosophical thought is an endless loop.

    As for the truly specious concept that because someone a century ago devised an aesthetic point system the idea has a certain level of merit: with that kind of reasoning you’d have to admit that war is a good thing, and genocide an even better thing, since humans have been doing it for eons.

  3. Also, I doubt that I have ever espoused the belief that you can’t evaluate wine without training. Once again: My position is that it would be nice if those who believe that they have this talent would give us a little proof beyond the fact that they have readers.

    After all, as Grazzi-Soncini claimed, all the others have no taste, so how are we supposed to know that what a critic says is accurate?

  4. Hey Steve, Bioletti also pushed for California wine producers to clean up their act–and their wines. He was behind moves to get rid of the high v.a. and general sloppiness of California winemakers.

    I wonder if today’s critics were to taste the wines that Bioletti once criticized harshly if all of you would find that v.a. Just sayin’… ;)

  5. Steve,

    You can put all my ramblings into one post, if you like. Thoughts are flowing out of my head this morning in spurts.

  6. This is the first scoring system I could buy into…!

  7. Well, what do you know? Its the same group arguing the same point. I guess we will never learn.

    Tom P. I have asked now several times for the standards you think are necessary. How about telling us? What is this proof that you want?

    The single greatest talent a wine critic can have is to be able to describe what he or she is tasting in a way that comports with what other people are tasting. If that measure is not in your calculus, then your calculus is not related to the real world. But, since you will not tell us your standards, you are free to criticize mine or Steve’s or Steven Mirassou’s or Sue Langstaff’s without exposing yourself to examination. Not fair, my friend.

    Tom, let’s make this a two-way street instead of one in which there is only criticism of others.

  8. Charlie,

    You might have good taste, a subject on which I have not commented, but you obviously don’t read very well.

    1. TASTE DOUBLE BLIND EVERY WINE THAT YOU EVALUATE

    2. ESTABLISH CODIFIED PARAMETERS WITH WHICH YOUR DOUBLE BLIND EVALUATIONS CAN BE MEASURED AND AGAINST WHICH ALL EVALUATIONS CAN BE COMPARED

    3. TAKE A WINE SENSORY DEVELOPMENT CLASS JUST TO SHOW UP EVERYONE ELSE IN THE CLASS ;)

  9. If there is a movement afoot to establish a certified quality scoring system and evaluate judges, I would like to be included. Hildegarde Heymann at UCD (Ann Noble’s replacement) has been trying for years to come up with a “new” quality scoring method that will be useful to both consumers and producers but she hasn’t been able to get funding. I think that this is an important issue and will be willing to volunteer my time and my perspective as a sensory scientist.

    Knowledge of winemaking techniques is not essential to evaluate wine quality. However, as a producer, it is crucial to know how a defect has developed in order to eliminate it or prevent it’s formation in the future.

    As has been mentioned, the best way to become a wine taster is through “studied” tastings. This means analyzing the wine and thinking about the various attributes that constitute its appearance, aroma, taste, texture and afterfeel in addition to harmony, balance, complexity, trueness to type, etc. Some people can do this best by themselves, others work better in a group. There is no right or wrong way to learn.

  10. Sue

    Contact me through my web site.

    We are already organizing a portal for such a “think tank”.

  11. This is the system used by Decanter mag/Broadbent (this may not array properly).

    5 stars Decanter: Outstanding quality, virtually perfect example. Michael Broadbent: Outstanding quality.
    4 stars D-Highly recommended.
    B-Very good.
    3 stars D-Recommended.
    B-Good.
    2 stars D-Quite Good.
    B-Quite good.
    1 star D-Acceptable.
    B-Fair, average, acceptable.

  12. How many times have you 1/2 stars? By using 1/2s you are essentially doubling the scale from 5 points to 10 points. What is between “highly recommended” and “recommended” or “very good” and “good?” “Moderately recommended” and “somewhat good?”

  13. Yes, I incorporate 1/2 stars for my tastings, which translates to a three point spread in the standard 100 point system (=30 points). More precision than this is unwarrented.

    I just thought it was interesting how much the Decanter methodology comports with Grazzi-Soncini’s 10-point scale (=5 points, since his first five categories deal with flawed wines). Decanter does not use half stars as, say, Snooth.com does.

  14. Tom–

    As much as I enjoy our conversations, I disagree with most of what you have said in points 1 and 3, and it is point two at which you have yet to tell us what you mean.

    You might have good taste, a subject on which I have not commented, but you obviously don’t read very well.

    –>: 1. TASTE DOUBLE BLIND EVERY WINE THAT YOU EVALUATE

    This is procedural. It has nothing to do with qualifications. And, frankly, it really does not make a lot of sense to taste wine without any sense of the parameters because there is no way to bring a set of standards of kind to the process of analyzing what one is tasting.

    –> 2. ESTABLISH CODIFIED PARAMETERS WITH WHICH YOUR DOUBLE BLIND EVALUATIONS CAN BE MEASURED AND AGAINST WHICH ALL EVALUATIONS CAN BE COMPARED

    I keep asking you for some further insight to what you mean here. Codified parameters of what? Acidity? pH? Color? Oak? Adherance to terroir? Tannin? Aromatic intensity? Aromatic range? Acceptable and non-acceptable levels of VA, Brett, RS? How many more do I need to name?

    3. TAKE A WINE SENSORY DEVELOPMENT CLASS JUST TO SHOW UP EVERYONE ELSE IN THE CLASS

    I hope this was a joke. Whose class? How often? Refresher courses required? If no one has passed the class, who administers it? OK, that last question was facetious. But you get the point.

    What you have offered here comes nowhere near responding to the level of unacceptance you have of sensory tasting notes. So, Tom, define your terms.

  15. The “point system” is mercenary and only shows part of the picture…

    Flowery prose makes wine seem elitist and it makes outsiders of those who disagree with “redolent with the scent of slate and April’s dewy blooms”.

    At our tasting room we use four terms which pair thusly:

    1) You’re paying for it vs. I’m paying for it.

    2) High Five vs. Belly-bump

    3) Priced for Mortals vs. Overpriced

    and

    4) buy a single vs. buy a case

  16. Who is the arbiter of whether one has acquired the “somewhat difficult art” of tasting? Self-appointed “expert” tasters? Seems like self-fulfilling criteria to me.

    However, I do think that the skill of being able to taste a wine has nothing to do with your knowledge of the winemaking process. In fact, tasters should steer clear of commenting on the winemaking process altogether.

    Interesting that Grazzi-Soncini’s 10-point scale is also more lenient than today’s 20-point scale (80-100).

  17. While I agree that there is no substitute for practical tasting experience, I would counter that winemaking experience provides an insight to certain sensory aspects that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. I have tasted and judged with writers and winemakers, and there is definitely a difference in how our brains process the same information. Technical experience is not necessary, as you say, it’s just better. :)

  18. I feel lame not noticing it was a translation.

    I dove right into the meat of it and should have been a but more cautious before I spazzed off and sent it out to the wine intelligensia.

    Oh well, enjoy the translation. :-)

  19. Post of the day goes to David for being the ‘man on the street’ and not letting us forget (up here in these ivory towers), what is happening where the bottles are being popped and the credit cards are emerging cautiously.

    :-)

  20. Arthur:

    I will be in touch through the portal, but perhaps not until Friday…lots of cooking, and wine planning to do. Have a great T-Giving.

  21. No Worries, Steve.
    I sent you some direct emails with passwords and the list of folks on board.

  22. As a younger reader, I’m shocked. I thought I could just jump right into tasting wines and be an immediate expert in discerning its qualities. I hope my sarcasm reads through. As with any trade or skill, I don’t consider it revelatory that it requires long amounts of time and practice to be any good.

  23. My goal has always been to make wines that a novice would find appealing and a vinophile would find complex and age worthy. To me that is the goal of great winemaking!!!!

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