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Why the New York Times should use the 100-point system for wine

37 comments

The reason why Eric Asimov’s column last week in the N.Y. Times is so interesting is because it provides the perfect defense of a point scoring system–although that was inadvertant on Eric’s part, and he’d probably deny it even after reading this post.

Eric wrote about a tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs he found “underwhelming.” Also: “boring,” “lacking a sense of place,” “not engaging in that come-hither dance in which a glass of wine implicitly says, ‘Drink me, drink me’” and suffering from “a lack of definition [and] a sense of muddiness.”

The wines were not undrinkable, Eric notes. They simply did not express themselves “with clarity and precision.” Some were “not bad,” just “not exciting.” They were “pleasant,” but ultimately “disappointing” for wine lovers seeking “liveliness…framing and precision” in Pinot Noir.

Sounds to me like Eric went through a garden variety tasting of common wines, the kind people drink mindlessly every single day of the year, around the world, and always have, since the dawn of wine. All of us critics routinely drink these kinds of wines all the time. It’s part of our job. For every Lafite Eric tastes (or every Harlan I taste), there are five hundred ______s (fill in the blank) that have no definition, don’t sing come-hither, and are disappointing.

That this should go without saying in the life of a professional wine critic is obvious. So what was the point of Eric’s column? It was contained in the headline (which Eric may not have written. In Wine Enthusiast, I rarely write my own headlines. That’s what editors do.). The header was “In Wine, Friendliness Isn’t Always Enough,” “friendly” being a term (which I also use) to describe a sound, but lackluster, wine. Eric’s contention, if I read him correctly, was that it’s not good enough for a common wine to be merely common. It should, instead, be–what? Great? But common wines are by definition not great. They are common. They often bore. So what is the point of criticizing common wines for being common? There always have been common wines and there always will be, until the Sun swallows the Earth.

In the technical part of his column, Eric discusses the “structure” that Pinot Noir should have. It should “never be coarse.” A Pinot Noir should never “play to the crowd,” or be “easy to drink.”

Well, I’m not about to argue with that!

Eric is absolutely correct to point these things out about Pinot Noir or any wine. I just don’t understand why he would take highly coveted real estate in the world’s greatest newspaper to point out something so self-evident. It seems to me that, if Eric had a methodology for dealing with mediocre wines, he would not have to express his frustration in such a regal setting as the wine pages of the great Grey Lady herself.

There is such a methodology: point scores. I don’t have to get upset that a wine is simple, uncomplicated, unexciting or doesn’t beckon me to come hither. I simply give it 83 points (or whatever) and do my best, in the 40 or 50 words allotted to me, to explain myself. There’s another thing about the point system I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about, myself, until just now: It assumes that there’s a proper place for every wine under the sun: for great wines (97 and up), near great wines (94-97), etc., right down to acceptable wines and undrinkable ones. That’s what Wine Enthusiast’s point-score brackets are: like the allowable electron orbits described by Bohr, they assume that every wine has its proper place in the scheme of things. When the critic discovers which “orbit” to most properly assign any given wine, he is content with its place: there’s no need to fret that the wine is unexciting because, having discovered that the wine is 83 points, the critic knows that it’s exactly where it belongs; he has no cause to complain. (Of course, one can always knock a wine for being too expensive for its quality, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.)

As in any scheme of relativity, the existence of great wine not only assumes but demands the existence of a vast ocean of ordinary wine. Great wine is at the top of the pyramid, but there would not be a pyramid without a foundation of common, ordinary wines. It does no good to criticize common wines for being common; it’s like criticizing poor people for being poor, or uneducated people for not knowing who, for example, Nils Bohr was. One doesn’t need an extensive wine terminology to get the message across that a wine is common. One needs only a point system to communicate it clearly and distinctly. I highly recommend that Eric try using the 100-point system, or even a 20-point system, in the New York Times. It would make his job easier and also communicate better to the Times’ readers exactly what Eric is trying to say.

  1. I’m wondering if Eric doesn’t think his three or four star ratings, of the wines that make the final cut, aren’t sufficient. If he went to a numerical point system, I’d like to see proof that the particulars he’s commenting or “grading” have been clearly defined and given a point value. Maybe he keeps it vague because he believes that the universally subjective palate responds better to notes that don’t deal in overly precise components. I guess we’ll find out.

  2. Steve, good point about the ___ point scale: “So what is the point of criticizing common wines for being common? There always have been common wines and there always will be, until the Sun swallows the Earth.”
    This certainly helps explain your other remark (Below), and why you drink more than the rays:
    ‘So sometimes, you just have to carpe the old diem and say, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”’ Entropy, (The, cold death will follow).
    With no scale, but descriptors, there’s no relative comparison; this leaves the wine searcher searching. That’ fine for an experienced expert, but what about me?
    Thanks for your due diligence. (A)n act with a certain standard of care. It can be a legal obligation, but the term will more commonly apply to voluntary investigations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Due_diligence
    Dennis

  3. You got one thing correct: “common wines are by definition not great. They are common.” What a revelation! However, you’re wrong on two points.

    First, criticizing common wines for being common is needed, especially when those wines are supposed to not be common. Did you see the some of the names and prices in the NYT tasting? Those are supposed to be some of the top NZ pinots. If they are only common, the should be criticized for failing to live up to their hype.

    Second, wine critics don’t “discover” that a wine is 83 pts. Critics discover the qualities that speak, or don’t speak, to them and then proclaim that they think a wine is valued at 83 pts to them. Yes, every wine has a proper place in the scheme of things, but every person has a different scheme. A wine that 83-pt qualities to you might have 94-pt qualities to a stay at home mom who loves wine. Points may make your job easier, but I think Eric communicated his thoughts perfectly without that crutch.

  4. CWP–You always make strong and salient points, ahd you have again here. But I think you miss the point when you describe the 100-point system as a crutch. For thoughtful critics whose prose, in 40-50 words in Steve’s case or something longer in my verbose rag, the use of points, stars, puffs, chopsticks, cloudbursts, thumbs up, etc are a not crutches upon which we lean lest we fall on our faces.

    They are value judgments based on the very criteria you expect a critic to use. A rating is nothing more than added communication. It is why so many critical evaluations of food, restaurants, movies, wine, cars, computers come with that added bit of communication. Rating systems amplify the meaning of the words. They do not substitute for them nor do they rely on them in order to be upstanding.

  5. Charlie, point taken and I agree to a point (no pun intended). I was using the word “crutch” more to speak to Steve not being able to discern Eric’s point without points. He said, “one needs only a point system to communicate it clearly and distinctly.” Eric probably thinks he communicates clearly and distinctly without the use of the added points accessory. If you “need” points to communicate properly, then it is both and added communication and a crutch. I definitely see the purpose of the 100-pt system and Steve’s point, just don’t blindly agree.

  6. Wow. If ever there was an argument for the 100-point scoring process, this is it. Well done.

  7. Eric’s prose accomplished perfectly what he set out to do. To insert an 83 would undo his more general comments. Common wine would have a range of points. Why the false precision of a specific number? Maybe the number should be 80 or 84 and if so the deviation in the 100 pt. system undermines it. Better to have the four or five star approach that captures general categories; if you want more precision add a half star so you are left with a range of, say, a three point spread. This also has the advantage of narrowing the different subjective responses that CWP describes.

  8. Tom, if five stars is good and half stars, meaning an 11-data point system from 0 to 1/2 to 1 to 1 1/2 to 2, up to five, is better, than the 100 point system, which is effectively a 25 point system is not a priori inferior.

    The problem is that rating systems are part of the communication and if a writer like Asimov refuses to use one, then he is saying that his words are so perfect, are so precise in their meanings that he can create clear, understandable gradations in the English language, or any other language, save for binary, better than the rest of us.

    He does not need points, however, to throw NZ Pinots or CA Cabs under the bus. He is perfectly capable of slamming everything in sight without using points. Comprehensive reviewers make their meaning clearer through the use of rating systems. Asimov might have made his individual judgments clearer, but he does not care about that. He is content to generalize in the negative and leave it at that. I am less worried about his use or not of points than his general dyspepsia.

  9. Why can’t critics (instead of relying on poor metaphors as descriptors and on blunt, random scores) explain readers/drinkers the objective reasons why a wine is good, bad or common? i.e., assess the quality of the inputs and techniques employed in the grape-growing and winemaking phases, so that the overall evaluation (with or without point-scores) is more meaningful and can be easily correlated with the wine’s attributes and properties by a third-party.
    It seems evident that this subconscious pattern recognition process would improve and speed up most people’s learning curve.

  10. Charlie, it seems like you have some problems with Asimov that predate this column. I can’t speak to his dyspepsia or lack thereof, but I will say that I’m a big fan of his un-numerical approach to wine rating (and, in fact, his “stars” list at the end of his column is always the most useless part, I find). In this day and age, points have come to be little more than crude shorthand employed by critics and bloggers whose prose is insufficiently expressive to get their point across (not in all cases, naturally, but in many).

    Worse, they also have the effect of “closing the debate,” as it were, rather than letting the prose resonate and be interpreted subjectively by readers. If a critic clearly and distinctly describes a Chinon red as “pleasantly full-bodied, but overzealous in its earthiness and with a persistent suggestion of salad greens,” he might rate it an 82 for its flaws. Absent that rating, though, I might interpret his words as positive — if those are qualities that appeal to me — and eagerly head out to buy it. I’d be far less likely to do so if his review were punctuated by a 82-point stinker of a rating.

    Wine critics have the responsibility to tell us what they liked or didn’t about a wine so that we can make informed purchasing decisions based on our own personal taste. They’re not responsible for being the final arbiters of quality, numerically rating highly subjective organic creations as if they were spelling quizzes.

  11. Seems Mr. Asimov’s call last February for all wines to be divided into two camps, sweet or savory, has gone unheeded even by himself. “In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.”

    A lot more of the Grey Lady’s precious column inches could be conserved if he followed his own advice and did away with all those words and descriptors — or maybe just used a numerical points score? ;)

  12. OK, Steve, here’s a question: Are there any wine writers who should NOT use the 100 point system?

  13. Patrick: Yes! Antonio Galloni.

  14. HA! Trying to get rid of the competition, huh Steve?? ;)

  15. Jesse writes ==> Charlie, it seems like you have some problems with Asimov that predate this column. I can’t speak to his dyspepsia or lack thereof, but I will say that I’m a big fan of his un-numerical approach to wine rating <==

    Jesse, Eric is one of the smartest guys around, but he also spends so much time throwing various wines out the window and offering facetious advice about how we should all talk about wine that he has become a caricature of himself. We learn about what he does not like than we learn about what is right.

    I do understand that his role is not to be a comprehensive reviewer like Steve H or Jim L or Galloni (nice one, Steve) or me and thus he has less need for a formal rating system. Despite some of the comments one reads, the rating system part of wine reviewing is not going to disappear any time soon. Indeed, it is getting stronger and more widely accepted with the emergence of sites like Cellar Tracker and Snooth.

    I write tens of thousands of words every month, indeed, on most days between what I write for publication in Connoisseurs' Guide and what I publish in the blog on the public part of the website, but words do have limits when it comes to absolute precision.

    Numbers have a value in their simplicity. That is why in fields as far away from wine as pain management, numbers are used to help in the communication. Asimov may not need words to throw NZ Pinot or CA Cab under the bus, but, for reviewers, like those mentioned above, who do not deal in generalizations in small differences among hundreds of wines, the use of symbolic notation is an aid in the delivery of opinion. And since those symbols are embraced by millions of paid and non-paying readers, the symbol in whatever form presented, must have value to those folks.

    Not everyone is going to find value in numbers or letter grades or stars, of course, but they are not going away any time soon.

  16. Paul in Boca says:

    Numbers, schmumbers. Stars, schmars. Puffs, schmuffs. If I like the wine and I think the price is reasonable, that’s all that counts.

  17. Great discussion. Can you (or Charlie) comment on:

    1. Is the 100 point scale really a 20 point scale n disguise? I mean, who in their right mind would ever want to seek out and drink a wine that got an 80 (good, solid well made wine-WS). This usually makes a winemaker want to go into a dark room and open a vein.

    2. I heard a well know reviewer give a wine at a winery tasting an 87. The winemaker said “Aw c’mon (name withheld)” and the reviewer said “Ok its an 89″.

    3. What is your opinion of Diageo’s ongoing ad campaign in the WS with their “90 point club”. These are some nice wines for sure. Big focus here on scores (as opposed to the people producing the wines or the fruit source etc).

    4. Can you comment on the speculation that there is suspense surrounding what style of wine Antonio Galloni likes?

    5. Is the company is Sonoma that does chemical analysis on wines and guarantees to tell producers what they need to do to get high scores from WS & WA still around?

    6. Has there ever been a study done on the wine consumer purchase decision process that rates wine scores as a factor?

    Thanks! Fun read here.

  18. I do not mean to criticize here but wine critics critiquing other wine critics!

    Criminny this is critical.

  19. Antonio, what else can a critic do besides be a critic? You want maybe I should make omelettes instead?

    John–So many good questions. I hope Steve answers them all in great detail. :-}

    Here are my quick takes

    1. More like a 25 or 30 point scale but some publications do not print the low scores. 30 data points is enough.
    2. That is why reviewers should taste blind at their own tables, not at wineries with the winemakers, owners and the family dog telling them what to think.
    3. I know of no one who is as bad at marketing as I am so I am unqualified to say what sells. As an intellectual concept, I am opposed.
    4. I hope Galloni likes clean, well-made, balanced wines with depth and come-hither power. If he has a high-acid, only Europe can have terroir mentality, then he will be laughed out of CA. I suspect he will be even-handed and less prone to bombast than his master.
    5. Yes.
    6. UC Davis is doing one now.

  20. mike lane says:

    85 points meant something 20 years ago–a good wine worth drinking. If it was under $10 all the better. Today that same rating is considered swill to the consumer, so the push for 87-88 point ratings on the “common wines”. A really good Napa cab, for example, with an 88 point rating and over $15 price will be treated like it has the plague–sometimes the ratings just don’t do justice for the wine. Fine wine is held to a much higher standard, which it should be, but keep the mass produced junk down where it belongs.

  21. Gregg Burke says:

    Steve,
    Eric is a wine writer, who critiques wine, not a critic. The 100 point system does not work for what he does. The point of calling out common wines is to make the public expect better. Everyday mass market wines are most of the times not worth drinking. Constellation, Diagio, … etc are great at marketing low quality wines for everyday. I teach my customers to expect better out of the under $10 catagory. These are not wines that you will confuse with top labels but they have character and bring something more to the table then the price point normally does. The point debate has been beaten more often then Tina Turner in the 60’s so I will not comment.

  22. To further my point regarding the 100 point scale really being a 15 or 20 point scale, here is what Eric said in his 8/19 column on Napa cabs in reference to older style ‘restrained’ cabs:

    “Smooth and harmonious, if on a modest scale,” its California critic, James Laube, wrote of the Dominus Napanook 2004, awarding it a ho-hum score of 87. And of the Dominus Estate 2003, to which he gave an 81, Mr. Laube wrote, ’’disappointingly dry and austere.’’

    Even Eric sees an 87 score as ‘ho-hum’.

    The WS says an 87 is : “Very good-a wine with special qualities”. Wine critics interpretation: “ho hum”.

    Now the 100 point scale is a 10 point scale where heretofore wines assessed by JL as “Very good-a wine with special qualities” are deemed ho hum. 2004 Napanook is $47 on wine searcher. I’m not even sure now that the producer of a $20 Napa Cab (if such a thing exists) would want to advertise “hey-I made a ‘very good wine with special qualities’ that got an 87.

    I always also wonder if JL missed the light at 2nd and Jefferson here in Napa, or got cut off by a tourist that cannot navigate the intersection of California and Second after a night the Giants lost on the same day the Dow dropped 400 points (perhaps you get my point here) if a 89 might not turn into an 87.

  23. Peter wrote:

    “Why can’t critics (instead of relying on poor metaphors as descriptors and on blunt, random scores) explain readers/drinkers the objective reasons why a wine is good, bad or common?”

    Because that’s generally the antithesis of what critics do.

  24. Ah, it is the rare day that my worlds of theoretical chemistry and wine are so perfectly set up for me. I’d first like to state that I’ve never been a big fan of point systems in proper criticism. This is probably due to the fact I spent too many years in college, “wasting time” in liberal arts classes. But, points seem to be an artifact of the commercialization of artistic endeavors. Thus we see their dominance in the criticisms of the arts which involve large companies with marketing arms such as music and film. (The strange outlier here is the lack of points in literary criticism. Perhaps due to the literary nature itself of written criticism forces the critic to take the act more seriously.) For the most part we don’t see numerical scores in serious criticism in fields without large corporate players like painting or architecture. I’ve never read a gallery review by Kenneth Baker in the SF Chronicle with a point score, nor in a building review by Nicolai Ouroussoff in the NY Times. Can you blame Mr. Asimov for being driven to write criticisms to the same standard of those he considers his peers? (My theory of corporate marketing may not be correct, but it is the leader in the clubhouse to me right now. I’d love opinions back on this.)
    Lastly, your mention of the Bohr model of the atom is a perfect example of why I don’t fully endorse points based criticism. The Bohr model is an antiquated system which fell apart when confronted with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Simply put, the rigid form of the Bohr model was found to be completely lacking when attempting to describe the more nuanced reality unveiled by quantum mechanics. Thus it was cast away about 90 years ago, replaced by Valence Shell Theory. This is exactly how a “common” wines could blow the doors off some 98 point critical darling when considering the more nuanced enjoyment of wine, which is so dependent upon set and setting.
    To me, point scales are like the Bohr model, simplistic, rigid, and not conveying deep understanding or context. I realize though that they are never going away. It is a cold hard fact of this industry that selling wine is more difficult than making wine. Those that can beautifully convey in few words a story and message that can dramatically increase sales are a rare breed. Unless the world develops a slower more thoughtful consumer attitude, industries selling art will embrace scale based criticism. At the end of the day, marketing and promotion is much easier when you have some points, stars, or a couple of thumbs to talk about.

  25. Jason said: (My theory of corporate marketing may not be correct, but it is the leader in the clubhouse to me right now. I’d love opinions back on this.)
    Doesn’t appear you have any takers (Not yet).
    My humble thoughts come from MAD MEN in the back of my mind: advertisers are like scientists as they miss nothing that can be observed or surmised, the wineries know that, from wine labels to eliciting favorable reviews, to having their wines placed on a table in “Casino Royale”. The right way to explore Napa maybe just to go and explore, but realistically a plan or a guide is helpful, so too wine tasting for the novice; the 100 point scale has been a helpful jump-off point for me. I for one am glad of it. The 100 point scale is also the best way I’ve found to hold the critic accountable.
    Finally, it’s still a “free” country: we can skip the systems we don’t like.

  26. Dennis,

    May I ask to what do you hold a critic accountable?

  27. Thomas: a critic is accountable to (1) his own conscience and to the truth. And when he’s an employed critic, he’s also accountable to (2) his editors and publisher. Hopefully, there’s never any conflict between (1) and (2).

  28. Jason, the critic is accountable to his/her reputation.
    As a blogger, I surf the net for interesting vinophiles, (Steve, David Boyer, Fred Koeppel are great examples)and when a host/hostess fails in significant ways, I stop visiting them, putting futility (Granted, in a small way)to their effort to influence. When a person considers that one day the Sun will swallow the earth, the adage applies: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

  29. Sorry Thomas Pellechia,I should have addressed my last comment to you.

  30. Neil Barham says:

    Eric please change nothing – your style, your writing or your scale. I am over point scores that allow yellow tail to get the same scores as sublime Loire Valley wines. Site is it, these critics that over score industrial wines is ruining the business much like American large beers brands once did.

  31. Wine critics are indeed accountable to their reputations and employers.
    On the other hand, they do not bother to comply with any logical or scientific framework, set of algorithmic rules, or systematic analytical criteria.
    Wine critics’ point-scores have no ability to explain the past or to predict future; they cannot be evaluated, refuted, falsified and, IMHO, not even have any aesthetic appeal.
    So then the question remains: are point-scores meaningful, substantive?
    Nay, I don’t think so.

  32. Steve your argument about the 100 point scale is dead on. The larger issue is Eric Asimov’s writing. His reversals and lack of consistent logic show the kind of “muddiness” he talks about in the New Zealand Pinot Noir. In general I have liked some of his articles and I think his writing would be fine for a regional newspaper. But when you compare it to the standard of the New York Times, I find it “underwhelming” and “not engaging”.

  33. Peter,

    I couldn’t have said it better…

    …except for the part about aesthetic appeal.

    The point of wine criticism is for the critic to impart his/her aesthetic sensibility to the reader; those who agree with that aesthetic will find the critic accountable; those who do not agree, will not find the critic accountable.

    Few consider the possibility that they may not have a lien on the truth, and even fewer consider the possibility that they are mostly talking about themselves and not about the merits of the wine, which you and I agree are constituted in objective reasons.

    In fact, unless they are accompanied by objective explanation, use of words like good, bad, common, et al, belie a quest for truth. Numbers give the appearance of truth and so they negate having to provide objective explanation, which has been my complaint about the points system: it is an attempt at giving the appearance of objectivity.

  34. I am not a fan of the point system for many reasons. As a retailer, I am a sales professional, not an order taker. If I were an order taker I would simply stock the store with well scored wines, put the scores in front of the wines on the shelves, sit at the cash register and collect money. Instead of doing this, I take the consultative approach to sales in which I try to engage with and educate my customer. I make my own POS materials. If a wine has scores then I include the scores in my shelf cards accordingly.

    Also, many of my products do not have scores. Many producers, distributors and importers are very small businesses from all over the world. They usually do not have a lot of spare money. They oftentimes have very limited production. Simply stated, many producers, importers and distributors simply do not have the wherewithal to send samples to Monkton and Napa. It might not sound like much money, but many producers, importers and distributors can not afford to constantly give away product in the hopes that they will get 90+ points.

    Another one of my difficulties with “the” 100 point system is that I don’t know where to find it. In other words, what is the 100 point system? Are there generally agreed upon scoring criteria? Does Gary V use the same system as Steve Heimoff and Robert Parker? If so, is this system in writing somewhere? If so, can someone post a url? In sporting competitions such as figure skating or gymnastics, even though the scores are subjective, it is my understanding that the scoring system is detailed in writing by a governing body. These scoring systems are probably readily available to anyone who makes an inquiry of the governing body which produced the system.

    Lastly, another problem I have with the scoring system is that the scores are not based upon objectively verifiable information. In another sports analogy, a player scores three points in basketball for making a shot that is taken from, or beyond, an objectively verifiable distance from the basket. The same player earns two points for shots made within a shorter, objectively verifiable distance from the basket and a player scores one point for making a shot from another objectively verifiable distance from the basket. As I suggested above in competitions that are necessarily subjective at least the scoring system is agreed upon ahead of time by a governing body. There seems to be no such governing body on the world of wine.

  35. michael peters says:

    for those like me who have grown weary of eric asimov’s flimsy writing, i heard at this moment the new york times is sending pink slips to the staffers not pulling their weight. doubtful asimov will make it to next month.

  36. Michael Peters: Really? We’ll just have to wait and see. I wouldn’t call Eric’s writing “flimsy.” We all have our styles. Maybe his is not for you.

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