subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

How can a wine be better than 100 points?

30 comments

It was out of the mouths of babes — or, in this case, my cousin Keith — that this interesting question sprang.

We were on our annual drive down to Malibu, where we always do Thanksgiving at Ellen’s house with the rest of the Southern California branch of the family. I was telling Keith and Maxine, his wife, about how I’d just given a rare 100 point score to a certain wine — a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Is it ageable?” Maxine asked. I assured her it was.

That’s when Keith asked, ever so innocently, “Why would you want to age it, if it’s a 100 point wine? I mean, how much better can it get?”

Well, I get asked a lot of questions about wine, and some of them are pretty lame. There’s a relative who always asks me what she should drink at Thanksgiving. I mean, I open 10 bottles — a little of this, a little of that — and tell people to grab whatever you want, it doesn’t matter when the table is laden with everything from cheese croquettes and cranberry sauce to green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, fruit, green salad, chocolate chip cookies and, of course, the turkey itself. But this relative always insists that I help her decide which is the perfect wine to have with it all, which is something I just can’t do, and anyway is antithetical to the whole spirit of a Thanksgiving family meal.

But Keith’s question came down like a thunderbolt. How much better can it get?

Of course, this introduces the concept of aging wine. Strangely enough, I found myself struggling to explain to Keith and Maxine what the answer was. I said something like, “Well, it’s 100 points because it was the best wine in a blind tasting of 52 top Napa Cabs I tasted last week, and structurally and in every other respect, it blew away the competition. But it could get even better with time in the cellar.”

In other words, it was a perfect wine, in both what it was and what I believed it will be. But then, why would I advise readers to cellar it? Does 100 refer to now, or to some theoretical future point?

At Wine Enthusiast we’re encouraged to rate wines based on their potential. But since all of us are merely human, and lack crystal balls, precise predictions are precarious. I’ve written before how disappointed I’ve been by California wines I expected to age that didn’t. So here’s my rule: when I give a red wine 100 points, it’s based on a combination of hedonism, which is the “wow now” factor, and optimism, which is my belief in its future.

When a great young wine ages, it undergoes complicated chemical transformations that change its character. The truth is, sometimes a perfect wine doesn’t age as we expected or hoped. I’ve been let down more than I’ve been thrilled by older wines. Aging wine is always a gamble; one can’t stress this enough. It’s utterly counter-intuitive to the average person’s belief that aging always makes wine better and that any wine can be aged. Not so in either case. It’s also true that California wines are being made softer and riper (more alcoholic) and sweeter (apparently so, if not technically so) than at any time in the past, so when a critic says such-and-such a Cabernet will live for 15-20 years, the wise reader should see it for what it is: an educated guess, or, more properly speaking, a hope. But nobody really knows.

So when I gave 100 points to that wine Keith was talking about, the sub-text readers should infer — and the answer to Keith’s question — is this: This is a perfect wine now, with, of course, the proper food to accompany it. It is absolutely the finest expression of its variety and terroir as anything in California today. It is also tannic, so if you’re sensitive to tannins, you’ll find it puckery and tough. It will not die an easy death. It will be with us for a long time. But can I guarantee that you’ll love it in 8 or 12 or 15 years? Nope. Can I guarantee anyone will? Nope. When it comes to predicting the future of California wines, we have the (mostly-nearsighted) blind leading the blind. That 100 point Cabernet could someday be so astonishing that everybody who tastes it — Keith, Maxine, me — will fall to our knees and lift our hands and sing hosannahs to the God of Wine who created such a masterpiece. But more likely is it that Keith, in 12 or 15 years, will taste that wine and ask his cousin Stevie, “Why did you say this was ageable?”

inMalibu

Keith, Maxine, Ellen, Steve, on Big Rock, in Malibu

  1. Interesting – I’d always assumed that a wine’s score included some ascertainment of how well it would age, and when it **might** be at its optimal fruit / secondary aroma mix in the future (as determined by the review’s palate and preferences, of course)…

  2. Dude, my thinking on this continues to evolve. By this standard, that would mean that a wine that’s perfect now, but not particularly ageable, cannot get a high score (say a savory young Sauvignon Blanc). That doesn’t seem right.

  3. Oh, totally agree with what you’re saying there, Steve. I’m just sort of thinking out loud here about how my previous perception of wine scores was probably off the mark. IMO, nothing beats the written word in terms of describing a wine’s quality and potential.

    Cheers!

  4. I really liked what you wrote, but I’ve another questio for you:

    Let’s say the wine ages perfectly, could it in 8 years recieve more than 100 points??

    Cheers,
    Gorka
    TrotaMexico

  5. Steve, you are too modest. Your palate knows ageworthy structure in Napa Cabs from soft glop. And you know all the stops in between. That is why your words are trusted.

    And, your experience has taught you that some wines will be at their best relatively soon versus ten years or more from now. I have to assume, and to trust, that you do not bring the same standard of judgment to both early drinking wines and wines that demand cellaring except for: How good will this wine be, in your learned estimation, when it is likely to peak. Sure, that is a crapshoot at some level, and sometimes you have no way of knowing and your scores reflect that, I presume.

    But, I hope that your answer to Joe Roberts does mean what you have said. Wine does not have to be long-aging to get a positive review, but rather, that you take into account the likely results of cellar aging in determining your description, and thus your overall evaluation.

    I do want to raise this question, however. Is there such a thing as a 100-point wine? Maybe it is me, but I expect that I have yet to taste the best wines I will taste, and thus I do not and will not give ratings of 100. It is a small point, and maybe I lack the gumption to actually do it, but I have can’t get to 100 points.

  6. Interesting blog – and one that makes me ponder a bit as well.

    In your last paragraph, you make a remark that I think needs to be fleshed out a bit more:

    This is a perfect wine now, with, of course, the proper food to accompany it.

    Are you therefore inferring that if a wine was NOT food friendly and could not be paired with ‘proper food’ that it could nor nor should not receive the same score?!!?!?!?

    I’m not saying that this is ‘wrong’ – just wondering if this is a ‘necessity’ in your mind for a ‘perfect’ score.

    And not only that, does this also imply that wines that are not food friendly will automatically be scored lower than wines that are?!?!?!?

    Curious to hear . . . .

    Cheers!

  7. Larry: Oi, in the words of my sainted grandmother. Here’s my best: Like most critics, I taste wines without food (maybe a nibble of bread or cracker) and base my judgment on how they show in a flight. That is different from actually drinking the wine at a meal. Obviously, if I take a 100 point Napa Cabernet and drink it with (say) sole almondine it’s probably going to be a disaster! Yet the wine is still a 100 point Cabernet. So that’s all I meant by “proper food to accompany it.”

  8. Charlie, for a couple of years I’ve been wrestling with why we critics find it so hard to give 100 points to a non-ageable wine. Intellectually, there’s no excuse. It’s just a function of how the reviewing system evolved — a convention, more than a century old, that the “greatest” wines are the most ageworthy. It may be that we, as a critical community, are moving away from that, and that a younger generation of writers/bloggers will rewrite the rules. Or re-discover them, as the case may be.

  9. Gorka, your point is exactly the paradox I tried to write about. By definition no wine can score higher than 100 points. Yet it is possible for a perfect young wine to express itself in the future in what we may call different 100-point ways. It’s like a great actress (Meryl Streep) giving consisently good performances over the span of a long career. Was she better in “The Devil Wears Prada” than in “Sophie’s Choice”? I don’t think so. Just different, and older.

  10. This is why I use the HoseMaster Million Point Scale. On that scale, 100 point wines are terrible, and a dime a dozen. Sort of like in Wine Advocate.

    I have tasted many wines that were given 100 points by one critic or another and don’t recall ever thinking any of them were “perfect.” I’m with Charlie here, 100 points should be a mythical, unattainable goal for a winemaker, something to continually strive for but never achieve. But then, I guess, that would make 99 the new 100.

    As you said, Steve, oi.

  11. I rate Hosemaster’s post 999,999 points on the comment scale.

  12. As you say, high ratings are based on a combination of structure and tasting really good. Structure is correlated with aging. But if tannins are very high, that does not make the wine particularly good to drink now. Yet the only way to guarantee the “100 point experience” is to drink the wine young since all the pieces are certain to be there. I suspect a lot of people do this, and learn that youthful fruit, unintegrated oak and overt structure are what good wine should taste like.

    This aging capacity ‘bonus’ is up there in terms of curiosity with every vintage rating being 85+ when 75 is defined as an average year. Should a properly aged wine where the structure has softened only get a 95 instead of a 100 because its aging potential isn’t as strong? Technically, yes, based on the system, but in practice, no. Or maybe points are only compatible with young wines?

    All I know is the highly rated wines I’ve tasted young have been badly balanced. Maybe with time, if one gambles, the excessive fruit, tannins and extract will resolve.

  13. Greg, totally agree with everything you say.

  14. But it also makes me wonder: Let’s say a wine is rated 98 points and then it is aged correctly and tried again. Can it now get 100 points? Or conversely, could it now sink to 94 points?

    If a wine is rated with the ageworthiness being part of the rating criteria, should it not be applied after aging as well??

    By example, I have tried several wines that were rated stratospherically high after aging the recommended period of time and have been both disappointed and surprised.

  15. This is yet another problem I have had as a retailer trying to explain to customers how to properly use the 100 point (25 point in most cases) rating scale. A memorable experience in this was when a young man and his girlfriend came in to the shop looking for a wine to take to dinner that evening. The dinner was going to be the first time this young man met his girlfriends father, so he was trying to impress. He brought with him two different rating journals and, instead of asking the very well trained staff for a suggestion, proceeded to check for a rating for each bottle on the shelf. They were looking for the highest number that they could afford, and settled on a $60 bottle of 2004 Brunello that had received 96 points.

    I can only imagine their disappointment that night trying to taste through the abrasive tannins that were still overpowering the fruit. If they would have simply asked the staff instead of blindly trusting a number that means very little to the average consumer, they would have walked out with an ’03 Chateauneuf or an ’05 Aussie Shiraz for less money, and her father probably would have asked for a second glass…

  16. Steve,

    These are the questions I usually ask:

    What constitutes perfection in wine?

    Is perfection varietal or appellation specific, or is it an all-encompassing parameter transferable from one varietal to another or one region to another?

    Where exactly are the rules of perfection housed? I’d like to read them.

    If critics disagree on perfection, are they forced to engage in a duel? They should be…

  17. Steve, Oy is right! On a certain day with certain other wines around you rated this wine a 100. Good enough for me. My guess is that it is pretty darn good. On another day it could be a 95. With turkey a 93.72 and in 10 years an 89. I also think you could open up another bottle in the same case and have a different experience.

    I know you find yourself having to defend or explain scores a lot and it must be frustrating. I would respectfully suggest that you quit engaging in this kind of discussion. It just makes the situation worse for you and your readership.

    I know you don’t think a wine can be summed up in a score. You’ve said it before. So the world just has to accept your very educated opinion on the wine within the context of your trying it. I know you must feel compelled to engage with people on this topic(everytime you think you are out, they pull you back in!), but don’t.

    I really don’t see others(Parker, Spectator) talking about this like you have. They explain how they taste and that’s that. Some may find it arrogant, but this approach is the right one. If something is unexplainable why engage in trying to explain? No amount of discussion will resolve this or even illuminate the topic. It’s an opinion, enough said.

  18. Steve:

    You alluded to something viz. your Sauvignon Blanc aside above that we corresponded about briefly: is there a different 100-point scale for each variety? And if whites get rated against a Chard scale and reds against Pinot or Cab, how does that shape your thought about those other wines?

  19. Dear David, couldn’t disagree with you more when you say Parker/Spectator do NOT engage and you support that. I am proud that I engage and wouldn’t have it otherwise, warts and all. Engaging obviously means that contradictions pop up. But that’s real. The discussion on this blog is real and it’s the main reason why people come here. If Parker/Spectator refuse to engage, but merely lay down the law and “that’s that,” fine. Let their readers be satisfied with that. My readers would not be, and neither would I. This blog, and the comments it receives, advance the discussion forward. It’s not always a smooth path and indeed can contain pitfalls and stumbling blocks, but I believe it does lead forward, not backward or more of the same old same old. So let the conversation continue into a fruitful future!

  20. Thomas, okay, it’s into the UFC octagon for us critics! Time to dust off my roundhouse.

  21. Future tasting should not be compared against previous tasting. If you try the wine again and you still believe it is perfect then great it gets 100 points if it has loft something then it is a 98, 96, 94. We see the often with tasting of older wines. For the point scale to work it should only include that experience not the context of other tasting.

  22. I would agree with Phil on this. We do lots of retrospective tastngs for my rag. The wines are reviewed for what they are, and if still developing, for what they can become, but, aside from referencing what they showed earlier, they have to be called for what they show at present for better or for worse, whether we had the future of the wine predicted correctly or not.

  23. “For the point scale to work it should only include that experience not the context of other tasting.”

    Phil,

    Perhaps, but for any point scale to work wouldn’t finite numbers need finite definition rather than an infinite array of possibilities?

    Steve,

    I make a good second, and I have woods behind me into which duelers can get lost–forever!

  24. I was worried when I read the title of this blog. I thought it was going to be about the emergence of +100 wine ratings. I would hate to see wine ratings get overinflated, so wines were getting say a “105″ rating. This reminds me of women’s fashion sizes, but in the opposite direction. The old size 4 is the new size 0. What’s the point of that, anyway?

  25. Steve your question in this piece is “How much better can it get”? right?
    Well call me crazy for saying the following…I Keith Miller feels if you gave a wine 100 Pts it possibly can go higher. If someone can say “I gave 110 Percent”, why can’t someone give something that they rated 100 pts one day, 101 pts etc the next day or even an hour later.

    I feel points given to wines are useful when the consumer can trust that person … I have made many friends in the wine buisness that feel my rating is all that and the gospel… why you ask. Very simply put it is trust that has come from developing a relationship. I have been tested from my customer and still am with new ones meaning will he stay around and how commited is he to his industry.

    Parker has gained trust from many people. I feel the reason he is so trusted (and you can say disliked in some cases) is because he is so consistent in putting out his product for so many years (His newsletter).

    Being consistent in what you do is they key. Do that and you can say 105 pts and your customer / reader will go with it.

    Keep smiling : )

  26. Tom, I agree to a point but my context is to say that comparing a youthful wine to a five year old wine is taking the wine out of context. If the wine was perfect upon release and receives 100 points great then five years down the road the wine is still perfect great another 100 points but you are not saying its perfect in reference to how it tasted upon release but instead how you would expect a five year old wine to taste.

    This is one of the issues with those who always want true blind tasting. For the reviewer to deicide if this is truly a great bottling the need some context. i.e Willamette pinot or Aussie Shiraz. As I think most would agree the context that makes a great Oregon pinot is not the same for what makes a great Aussie shiraz. Not that one would mistake the two but they need to be judged in the proper context. The cab may be too tannic for something from Rutherford but just right for something from diamond mountain.

  27. Phil,

    It wouldn’t mean much if the person doing the evaluation couldn’t tell a Pinot Noir from a Syrah from a Cabernet. Shouldn’t the reviewer bear some of the responsibility for the review? When context tells you what it is it makes life too easy.

    I’ve heard the b., er, argument that in order to make a judgment on longevity one needs the context of wine, vintage, and producer name, to gauge the track record. I have a feeling that with that much information, even I could make that kind of judgment and probably be right as often as the critic.

  28. I agree any reviewer worth the ink should be able to tell the difference but it was simply an example. Going into tastings fully blind is in my opinion tasting out of context.

    To me context is not an open tasting that would name the producer and price point just variety and region. Vintage could be up for debate, while I appreciate that it could help in some cases most of us our too biased by the hype surrounding “good” or “bad” vintages that it can alter reviews.

    As for longevity I am not sure why anyone try’s to guess this in the first place it is about as logical as deciding how long a person will live when they are born. Sure you can look at the averages but people like wine take many different paths and some long lived and some painfully short.

    As for your comments about non blind tastings not being useful. I appreciate some will always have bias but it sounds like you are saying that with the producer information it somehow makes the review more accurate? If this is the case and non-blind tastings are easier and more statistically accurate then what is the benefit of blind tasting other than the intellectual challenge?

  29. Phil,

    Blind tasting isn’t merely an intellectual challenge; it challenges objectivity as well as ability, and it might also expose the arbitrariness of assigning scores.

  30. 100pts means 100percent perfect, “giving 110 percent doesn’t mean you gave 110 percent its jsut a saying you can only give a 100%, you can not give more then what you are capable of giving’

    really no wine IMO should be given a 100pts.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Good Reads Wednesday « Artisan Family of Wines - [...] http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2009/11/30/how-can-a-wine-be-better-than-100-points/ [...]

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives