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Defending point scores–again!

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Gotta weigh in on this one. Scores are under attack, yet again, and so SuperScore Man–that’s me, kids–has to fly to the rescue of the poor, beleaguered wine score.

Go ahead, read the link. It’s a short article. You’ve heard the arguments before: wine is too complicated to reduce to a score, a number. It’s about history, romance, authenticity. There’s even an organization, scorevolution, with its own website, where you can take the pledge not to use scores to sell or buy wine. I didn’t count the signatures but there seem to be a few hundred. I didn’t recognize most of the signers, but I do know a few of them.

Rod Smith. A great writer. Rod’s been anti-score forever. In fact, he’s not only anti-score, he’s anti-wine reviewing, period. He likes to write long articles and books about wine, and that’s just fine. I do, too.

Kermit Lynch. He’s the famous Berkeley wine merchant and importer. Kermit doesn’t use scores, but his newsletter–one of the most entertaining in the English language–certainly doesn’t shy away from hype. Here’s a made-up typical one: “I’ve tasted a lot of Sancerres in my 30 years, but this is the greatest ever.” That’s kind of like a 100 point score, don’t you think? And then sometimes Kermit’s newsletter will say something like, “Won’t set the world on fire, but it’s great on typicité and price,” which is more or less an 86. So the emperor’s house is made of glass, I’m afraid.

Clay Mauritson, Darek Trowbridge and Randall Grahm. Three winemakers. So why the heck are they sending me their wines for review if they don’t like scores? It makes me feel bad in particular to put Darek on this list because he’s a cool guy and I really like him. Ditto for Steven Washuta, Darek’s A.W. Guys: make up your minds. Love you all, but don’t be sending me your wines for review if you’re anti-score!

Rajat Parr. Well, what can I say? He doesn’t like high alcohol wines (except when they’re in a paper bag), he doesn’t like scores, end of story.

Jonathan Nossiter. I love this one. He’s the guy who directed “Mondovino,” the worst. movie. ever, a cheap, dishonest insult to the people, like the Staglins, who kindly agreed to be in it. Nossiter discredited himself forever with that bag of slime.

Okay, that was the fun part. Let’s get serious. The Manifesto says “The power of scores is limiting the discovery of numerous grower wines, encouraging formula wines, and even influencing the creation of brand icons and inflated pricing scenarios.”

Break it down.

- limiting the discovery of numerous grower wines

I suppose this means that the public is not buying small, lesser known brands, and prefers instead to buy well-known brands that get good scores: Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, things like that. But what does that have to do with scores? It’s always been true that consumers stick to trusted name brands. That’s why advertising exists. Any small family that gets into the wine business knows, or should know, what it’s up against. So don’t blame the scoring system because little wineries have a tough time. If you need to blame someone, blame distributors. Besides, speaking for myself, I review small brands all the time. I’ve given great scores to Darek Trowbridge (Old World Winery), Clay Mauritson and Randall Grahm. So this charge is bogus.

- encouraging formula wines

There’s some truth to the accusation that there’s a certain style of winemaking by which all wines of a particular variety taste similar. But I wouldn’t exaggerate this. It’s said that the Bordeaux communes used to be less similar to each other than they are today, so that there was a real difference between, say, a tannic, hard St.-Estephe and a rich Margaux. But since nobody alive today ever tasted wines from 100 years ago, we don’t know that for sure. Here in California, wines may have been more differentiated 50 years ago, but a lot of the reason for that was because they were flawed and underripe. Today, there are very few flawed wines and most everything is ripe; and ripeness does make things taste fruity-similar. But you know what? I’d rather drink a ripe wine than an unripe one.

- influencing the creation of brand icons and inflated pricing scenarios

If I had the slightest idea what this sentence means, I’d be able to respond to it. True, it has the form of an English language statement, with nouns and verbs, but it sounds like something Lewis Carroll wrote. But let me try anyway. “Brand icons” are, I suppose, things like Harlan or Araujo. Now, I’m the first to admit there are a lot of knockoff Harlans and Araujos. We live in a free country. Anybody who’s rich enough can start a new brand and hope to compete with Harlan. But I would say that, rather than the scoring system encouraging the creation of these wannabe brands, it (the scoring system) is the consumer’s best protector against being hoodwinked. We scoring critics are the first to taste these new brands, which makes us the police who protect you, the buying public, from buying a $125 bottle of mediocrity. That means we’’ve got the consumers back when it comes to “inflated pricing scenarios.” And besides, it is patently false historic nonsense that the scoring system has led to inflated pricing. The Manifesto people can borrow my old copy of Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s The Wines of Bordeaux to understand how the chateaux have been inflating their prices for 200 years. That’s even older than Parker!

So you see, this screed against scoring is just the latest silliness. I’m not saying that the 100 point system was handed down by God to Moses, who then gave it to Parker. No. Every system of wine reviewing and writing has its limitations. But the scoring system–whether it’s 10, 20, 100 points or puffs or icons, which are just another visual representation of rankings–is here to stay, for the simplest of reasons: it performs a useful function.

  1. Matt Mauldin says:

    It’s so passe to pick on wine scoring. If we can rate music and movies with stars, then surely to god we can rate wine with scores… numbers or otherwise. It’s interesting for those who follow it, if not then don’t worry about it.

  2. Dear Steve Heimoff,

    Please understand that I have the deepest respect for you and I’m truly not trying to say that I’m the only one on the planet that has reviewed lower-priced wine. The issue is that for many years, the majority of wine consumers have been underserved when it comes to information about the wines they actually purchase. Wine collectors have had a clear advantage about access to information about fine wine for decades.

    And in concert with the subject matter, many users of Better Wine Guide have really appreciated the usefulness of finally having information about the wines they buy. Several people during the company’s research, however, only wanted an app that gave them a green light or a red light – that’s the only information they wanted from a critic (Jancis was right – they only want “recommend or not”)! I insisted that at least there must be a score of some kind and some basic tasting notes.

    You may have very well reviewed the entire lines of Barefoot, Yellow Tail, Forestville, Tisdale, Pinecroft, Quail Oak, Gallo Family Vineyards, Andre (NV), Sutter Home, Crane Lake, Sea Ridge, Gato Negro, Glen Ellen, Douglass Hill, Fetzer, Frontera (Concha y Toro’s lower line), Turning Leaf, and Woodbridge. If you have reviewed these wines, I apologize profusely – I must have missed them somehow.

    I also reviewed wines that I know you have reviewed like Gary Ferrell, Raymond, Earthquake, Frei Bothers, Rodney Strong, Mondavi, Justin, Hess, St Zupery, Estanchia, KJ, Sterling, and more. I haven’t checked but I’ll bet we’re pretty close.

    My point is that in general, if a person wants to spend $8 to $10 dollars on a bottle of wine, which it seems most Americans do, there is scant information available for that buyer to rely on in terms of a purchasing decision. If you and Wine Enthusiast have a database filled with scores and tasting notes for the most widely distributed wines in the US, I’m happy to pass that information on to everyone.

    One question though: if a wine consumer is only willing or able to spend $8 on a bottle of wine and all of your reviews of $8 wines are between 75 and 84 points, is this helpful for the buyer? If you compare Barefoot or Yellow Tail to Continuum or Caymus Special Selection, is this consumer going to get it? So every wine at $8 dollars receives a score of 81 points (or less) because it’s being compared to a $125 bottle, which receives 94 or 96 points; I don’t think this guy is going to tune in until he has an epiphany about wine because it just won’t be within his sphere of consciousness and therefore will not be relevant to him.

    The only reason I did this project is because I believe that if people have a positive experience with wine, they will eventually ascend to better wine. I truly respect the work you do, you are one of my heroes, and I actually am always interested in your opinions. I just think given the size of the under $25 market, it’s time to take it seriously. With scores.

    Respectfully Yours,

    David Boyer
    classof1855.com

  3. Personally, I don’t like using a score to sell a wine unless I think the person wants it or cares about it. But I can sell a lot more wine by saying “Robert Parker gave this a 93″ versus “Robert Parker called this a beautiful, classic wine.” So, yeah, scores matter. Words don’t necessarily mean something in wine. I can say two different wines are both “beautiful” but if I say one received a 91 while the other received an 87, it means something.

  4. Christian Miller says:

    Patrick: “Drinking wine is more like having sex than like looking at an art work. By that I mean, the sensory and sensuous elements in wine drinking outweigh the intellectual ones.”

    Tom: “Guess I would quibble w/ this one a bit…For a Beauj or a rose, the intellectual component is near zero. For a 30 yr old Cab or a 20 yr old Syrah, than the intellectual component usually outweighs the sensual content.”

    Tom – some would say this makes wine MORE like sex! Or maybe Patrick is just drinking better wine than we are.

  5. Tobias,

    Point (pardon the pun) taken, and I am certain that you are an excellent teacher, guide and merchant, but that is not precisely what the movement is about though, is it?

    Perhaps we can clone a million of you and position you in every shop and market around the country to provide guidance for shoppers without points, but that is a) impractical, and b) won’t your palate be the dominant one?

    I am also not aware of anyone that has ever argued that in any given circumstance that points are the definitive description of a wine. If so, a certain Mr. Parker will be publishing spreadsheets rather than books. The world hardly needs a movement to remind people that points are not ALL there is to wine.

    It is also a touch harsh (and perhaps patronising) to imply ALL consumers don’t understand that points are merely a simple subjective indication of preference from a reviewer. Given that most consumers have a pretty good understanding of scores for TVs, cars, restaurants and movies, I would give (most of) them the benefit of the doubt. They know there is more, but neither have the time, money, inclination or desire to know more. I can assure you that I know very little about the camera that I just bought, but know if I wanted to there is so much more that I can learn about the history, science and technology behind it.

    The fact that SOME consumers are blind chasers of points, so be it. Or perhaps the movement should chase them down and educate them?

    I leave you with perhaps the most succinct and considered view on scoring wines from Andrew Jefford: http://bit.ly/nEF96U . He talks about points from 2:24, and before you start to get too excited, there is a huge BUT, and he explains why points are useful.

  6. It would be interesting to see what the preferences are to scores from millennials to x’rs to boomers. Seems to me boomers were responsible for the scoring system, X’rs had no other alternative due to the static media system in place until recently, and X’rs are adaptive to multiple ideas of ratings. Something will change about scores…maybe not immediately, but over time I have a feeling the way we see scores or weight scores as they relate to the buying experience(after all, isn’t a score a basis to decide if you want it or not) will change.

  7. of course you will defend the point system. It’s what you’ve based your entire professional wine career on. YOU, along with the other antiquated gatekeepers, OWN the point system Steve. forever. The traditional gatekeepers have no room in the future wine country. Good luck with it.

  8. Randy, sorry I haven’t been able to give YOU higher scores over the years.

  9. Steve,

    I like and respect you, but really, what a steaming load of BS. You write:

    Here’s a made-up typical one: “I’ve tasted a lot of Sancerres in my 30 years, but this is the greatest ever.” That’s kind of like a 100 point score, don’t you think? And then sometimes Kermit’s newsletter will say something like, “Won’t set the world on fire, but it’s great on typicité and price,” which is more or less an 86. So the emperor’s house is made of glass, I’m afraid.

    In writing this, you not only miss the point, you put “I MISSED THE POINT” in lights on your own marquee. You see, there is a tremendous difference between ’86″ and “more or less an 86.” Why? Because “more or less an 86″ means 84-88 and offers no promise of accuracy, a promise that can’t be made. Change the numbers a bit and write a review that is “more or less an 89″ and you identified the problem. No doubt, though, you know that, which is why you picked “86″ as your target. If somebody writes “89″ they might as well stamp a skull and crossbones on the label. On the other hand, if they write a review that can range from 88-92, well, now customers will look at the words, take price into consideration, and treat the wine as more than a number.

    The problem isn’t that you can translate your personal numbers into somebody else’s reviews. The problem is that your numbers aren’t “more or less.” They are pronouncements of numerical accuracy, when, at best, your accuracy is “more or less.”

  10. The 100 pt system has one major floor (as do most rating systems)… namely glass ceilings for wine styles and grape varieties.
    A good example of this is Sauvignon Blanc. The Ceiling for Sauvignon Blanc is around 94 pts. They tend to never get higher than this score no matter what!
    Question: Steve, If you taste a Sauvignon Blanc and it is the greatest SB you have ever tasted and you doubt you will ever taste a better Sauvignon in your life… shouldn’t it score 100/100? … The perfect SB?
    You know the answer … it is not “allowed” to get 100/100. Instead you will score it 94-95/100.
    I believe that their needs to be a split rating system. A system that compares each wine against others of the same varietal as well as a rating against all others.

    Under this system, the aforementioned Sauvignon could be rated 94/94 (perfect score) for varietal and 94/100 (pretty damn good) against all wines combined.

    Think of it like boxing weight divisions… Sauvignon Blanc is a Middle weight fighter, Cabernet is a heavy weight. Is it unfair to put them in the ring together and expect the lighter SB to prevail and it is unfair to lump all fighters into one class and judge who is the best.

    Just a thought… be kind to me and my wines!

    Croney

  11. Hey David Boyer – we’re back to the “like / dislike” wine rating system I discussed recently on 1WD! :)

    It occurred to me this past weekend that if point scores were really that accurate, we’d see people taking them out to three decimal points…

  12. David Boyer, I do review most of the lower priced wines you listed. If you don’t see them in the Buying Guide, try Wine Enthusiast’s free database, at winemag.com. We don’t have room to print all reviews in the magazine, but they do all go into the database. Many of these inexpensive wines get Best Buy or Editor’s Choice designations, meaning that even if the score isn’t real high, there’s a great price-quality ratio.

  13. Steve……….thanks for the mention in the blog, I think. You have given our wines some great scores over the years and we greatly appreciate it. I hope that illustrates that I did not sign the manifesto because I am an embittered winemaker who thinks his wines deserve better scores. Nor did I sign the manifesto as a personal attack on wine writers and their publications. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the wine media. Without publications like WE, WS, CG, WA, F&W, and numerous others, the wine industry would not be anywhere near what it is today. The wine media have helped educate consumers, promoted the marriage of food and wine, aided in building brands, and made wine more mainstream in our society.

    I signed the manifesto because I think the scoring system is flawed. I personally do not believe there is such thing as a perfect wine, there is only the perfect expression of a place and time. The scoring system places a tremendous amount of emphasis on style, which I believe has led to an increased homogenization of wine. It could be argued that this is a case of the chicken and the egg: is it the scoring system’s fault, or the winemakers for chasing a score? Instead of a winemaker simply trying to make a wine that is the best expression of their vineyards, many attempt to emulate a style that they think will garner a high review. I understand the reasoning behind “blind tasting”, but how can you compare a Sonoma Cabernet to a Napa Cabernet, they should not taste the same. If anything, only the producers should be kept confidential to erase preconceived notions and the wines should be tasted by appellation. Don’t get me wrong, the scoring “system” is not the only culprit, there are other factors that have aided in the homogenization of wine: increased technology and the corporatization of the industry, to name a few.

    As a winery we choose not to promote scores when presenting our wines in our tasting room or to distributors and trade. I hope that people will buy the wines because they like them and we have given them a better understanding of vineyards and the winemaking philosophy. I understand that the previously mentioned demographic only represents a fraction of the potential consumers out there, which is why we submit wines for review: to reach as broad of an audience as possible. Ultimately, I just want to put food on my families table. I compare this perceived “contradiction” to our government. We may not be happy with any number of government policies, but that doesn’t mean we stop: driving on city streets, sending our kids to public schools, calling our local fire & police, or paying our taxes. We affect change where we can while working within the system.

    I apologize for the long winded post; I know that I should stick to winemaking and leave the writing to the experts .I don’t pretend to have the answer, or any answers for that matter. I will close by saying that I hope you will continue to objectively review all wines that come your way, including mine!

  14. ps-If you want to write a blog on something less controversial and more heartfelt, please check out http://www.projectzin.org. My wife and I have created a charity event to raise money for Down syndrome. This is something that is near and dear to our hearts as our oldest son has Down syndrome. We would love for you to attend the innagural Project Zin on Oct 29,2011 at Hotel Healdsburg. Some of the best Zinfandel producers in California will be pairing their wines with some of the great restaurants in Sonoma County to raise money for a wonderful cause.

  15. How would you rate blends, Greg?

  16. Gregg Burke says:

    I signed the manifesto because I find points to be silly. You and every other critic spend countless hours writing about wine and the only thing people look at is the score. How does that not drive you crazy? Truly what is the difference between an 89 and a 90, besides more boxes moved? Points are bad because it has become a 10 point scale. Points have given too much power to a small group of people. And what does a point taste like? In my dozen years tasting wine I have no idea. The attack on the point system should be embraced by critics like yourself because it encourges people to read what you wrote.

  17. Tone Kelly says:

    One thing to consider around the score/not score debate. Everyone seems to assume that if I write a review in words, that someone else who then tastes the wine will identify these same identifiers in my review with the wine. Or that they will like the wine. A number of studies have shown that this is mostly bunk. I have run American Wine Society tastings with this concept and most people couldn’t identify which wine went with which reviewers comments. A number of professional tasting studies show the same thing.

    Also relative to points, true the 100 point scale is really just 15. But the 20 point scale is only about 5 or 6 points. And Decanter is only about 3-4 points.

    I personally have moved on beyond JUST using the score. The words matter more to me. But I don’t want to go back to the 60′s and 70′s when we only had flowery descriptors and you could tell if the wine was any good.

    For the reader, scores do sell. And for the average consumer who isn’t going to earn a Masters Thesis in wine education before buying a wine for dinner – a simple shorthand is a good approach.

    I am concerned that the no score movement is really a reaction to the professional reviewer as a concept. As an individual involved in wine for the last 40 years, I buy wines that no reviewer reviews, because I have found them enjoyable and different than the new world/modern wine palate that a lot of producers are constructing wines for.

  18. “I’ve tasted a lot of Sancerres in my 30 years, but this is the greatest ever.” That’s kind of like a 100 point score, don’t you think? And then sometimes Kermit’s newsletter will say something like, “Won’t set the world on fire, but it’s great on typicité and price,” which is more or less an 86. So the emperor’s house is made of glass, I’m afraid.”

    What a very strange thing to say…. :S

  19. Wine scores have their problems, true. Every system does. But I think for every evil that the scores have brought they’ve brought some good too. Wine scores at best are democratizing. Buying wine is complicated and let’s be honest most people, Americans and French included, that won’t be able to find their way around a wine store. Personally scores allow me to triage wines to try among cheap wines that I can’t taste before buying, which is what I drink most. The problem is that when a few people wield the power of scores it leads to all the things that anti-score drinkers hate and all of which was present at the start of wine scores.

    That being said, their thesis is poorly written. Your breakdown:
    - encouraging formula wines
    - limiting the discovery of numerous grower wines
    - influencing the creation of brand icons and inflated pricing scenarios

    These things are the same and not individual points. Scores in the presence of super powerful critics, promotes a certain palate and makes wines formulaic. Give the drive for $ people are making big brands and wine is now big business (or should I say bigger business), brands are being formed with the goal of getting big scores and charging top dollar for wine and doing what it takes to get their. Do they make good wine? Sometimes. Do they love wine? I don’t know, but they are clearly more driven by $ more than a love of wine and agriculture. Personally, I don’t care if your wine is good if you’re a global brand with a marketing firm, yada yada yada. It’s not wine made with love and care. There are exceptions, but in order to get everyone reasoably paid, healthcare, etc., hand picked grapes, oak barrels etc, costs $30 (more for lower producing varietals and wine types such as Pinot and noble rot wines). Anything that costs much more than that is ego.

    There is already so much misdirection in wine as it is. Meomi was having scantily clad girls hand out samples at SF Pinot days because they are trying to sell a glamorous side of wine that is simply false. This is no different that wines that do half of biodymanic farming but market themselves as such (see your interview with Merry Edwards).

    Mondovino was a hamfisted attempt at trying to find honesty, but just because he is a terrible filmmaker doesn’t disqualify everything in the film. I’m sure you know the Staglin family, but what they said about their workers is insulting. They are living to make rich wine for rich people. There’s nothing so wrong with that but I won’t drink their wine.

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  1. Wine as a Backdrop | Catavino - [...] intense debate has been brewing on various blogs across the internet that condem, or support, the “points” system. For …
  2. Wine Points Critics: Please...At Least Make a Case - Fermentation - [...] within the world of wine media, we are talking about the 100 Point system…again. [...]

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