A wine point-scoring system — from 1892!
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:
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.