Defending point scores–again!
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.