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Why the guy from Hourglass is right about the 100 point system

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Stark Insider is a cool site that ventures into all kinds of interesting territory, including wine. Their intrepid reporter, Loni Stark, put up this video interview yesterday with Hourglass owner/winemaker Jeff Smith.

I learned about it from my Facebook feed, and just had to watch it after reading the message: “Will the 100 point scoring system survive?”

Here’s what Jeff told Loni, in response to her question on the system, “Do you think it’s here to stay?” He replied:

 “I think the whole landscape of wine review is going through a bit of a change. There’s all kinds of different movements with Wine Advocate and the whole blogger world. So there is a sea change–and the general consumer has more information and is more wine savvy and sophisticated. So this plays into this idea of wine review. There are more points [i.e. sources] to draw your information from. Do I think the 100 point scale will go away? Absolutely not. I think it’s proved to be the dominant form of how to rank and classify [wine]. It’s a very flawed system, but it’s here to stay. We are critical beings and we do hierarchically judge the world around us. Why should wine be any different? I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it is a powerful communicating tool that will not disappear overnight.”

I agree with everything Jeff said. Yes, there are a lot more sources of information these days; that’s good. Not all of them use the 100 point system, especially the bloggers; they hardly could, if they’ve previously attacked it, which many of them have. And the 100 point system does have its flaws: What system doesn’t? (One flaw is that two critics, both of them seasoned professionals, might give the same wine different scores, resulting in cognitive dissonance for the consumer. Another flaw is inconsistent results from the same critic for the same wine on different occasions. I’ve written about both of these numerous times.)

But Jeff also is correct when he calls it “the dominant form of how to rank and classify wine.” This statement is objectively true: You may not like the 100 point system, but it’s very hard to argue that it’s not the dominant ranking system in the world. All the major American periodicals use it, and so do many of the minor ones. The public instantly understands it, which is why Jeff called it “a powerful communicating tool.” Why would anyone want to ditch something that helps the wine industry speak coherently to consumers?

I can envision a future (and you can, too) in which consumers are so smart about wine that they don’t need help from anyone. I hope that day arrives. But it won’t come “overnight,” to use Jeff’s timeframe, nor do I think it will come in the next ten years, at the very least. The 100 point system is too entrenched.

One question I wish Loni had asked Jeff is: Do you think that a younger generation–people below, say, 30–care about the 100 point system? It may be that the circle Jeff  travels in is older, richer and more infatuated with critics who use the 100 point system. (This is an inference on my part, but Hourglass is very expensive, so my hunch seems justified, especially in light of his reference to Wine Advocate.) The most practical anti-100 point argument essentially boils down to the claim that young people don’t read the critics, don’t have much of an opinion about the 100 point system one way or the other, and hence are not likely to be influenced by it.

This may be true. The counter-argument, though, is that those under-30s will be over 30 someday. In fact, they’ll be over 40 (hard as it may be for them to believe), and eventually they’ll be making enough money to be able to afford a wine like Hourglass. That’s when, I predict, they’re going to start getting fussier about what they drop $125 on (as opposed to $12 for something their friends liked on Twitter today). And that’s when, I further predict, they’re going to seek guidance from whoever the major critics of the day are, who will be employing, I predict finally, the 100 point system.

  1. george kaplan says:

    For comparative tastings the best system is that of The California Grapevine, with a 20-point system and a true statistical ranking. Even if one doesn’t follow the strict Davis organoleptics, a 20-point system is more reflective of degrees of difference, especially when wines are tasted young.

  2. Steve, you ask about the under 30 set and how they respond to the 100 point scale. Some of their taste-makers either don’t use the 100 point scale, or are actively put off by it. To that end, the 100 point scale may have lost some of its dominance, but it’s still a big part of the mix. Ultimately, what’s the difference of a five star, X puff, 10, 20, or 100 point scale? They are all hierarchical measures and that’s why they’re relevant. For years writers such as you have implored people to read beyond the points, and I think that’s happening more now. But the power of those three digits is so seductively simple, feeding our need to rank, that it has the tendency to dominate written prose. I think it will continue to do so regardless of the generation. That the next generation is hip to this dynamic and seeking creative foils for it, will only make wine review better, but you won’t get around it. The question isn’t will the 100 point scale go away, but will we find better ways to balance its potency?

  3. Dear Jeff Smith: No.

  4. Steve, I think you called it in your last paragraph: on an $8 wine from Trader Joe’s, I’ll take the advice of a random tweet, what do I have to lose? But a special port for a friend’s birthyear (’77 yes, spoiled for choice) or celebrating a big event in my wife’s life (deal closing, birthday, one of kid’s birthday) and I am looking to invest in a bottle of wine? (And that’s exactly what it is for us . . . if we are spending over 100$ for us, we are not only investing money, but to some degree the investing the evening itself, into the wine – ever crack a 200$ bottle of wine to find it corked, much less plain bad? Tell me your evening carried on wonderfully. Note: mine do not)

    When I get to that level, I’d love to trust the wineshop clerk, but is he the tequila buyer, or the bordeaux buyer? Is it a wine someone in the store recommended to him or did he actually taste it? What’s his context? He a buyer or a shelf stocker? 100 wines tasted per week or 10? Honest opinion or dumping excess inventory?

    For $100 plus, I can’t afford to kiss frogs. I need a princess. $100 bets are for Vegas, not special moments.

    I know the hype, get a wine merchant you trust. I do. Several. Still, when you want to INVEST in a wine, there is still no better frame of reference that a true critic whose palate you align with. Is the hundred point scale doing the critic or me or the wine injustice? Though it has its limitations, I’d say no. All it is doing is quickly telling me that regardless of style and tasting notes, this wine fits into a certain place in the wine heirarchy of the critics experience. Assuming he is completely objective, as I think most are, what a service!

    Would I make a large purchase of anything else without some frame of reference? And unless/until/etc I own a wine shop, I cannot drink myself into enough reference points for every major wine category in the world.

    We rate everything, to some degree that is the basis of fight or flight (pun) itself. For those against it because of splitting points/hairs on a wine’s intrinsic qualities, yes, I get it. But if I am spending $250 on something, is it important to me thatmajor critics at WA/WS/W&S/WE think it’s a 91 or a 99? You betcha. I can’t take a chance.

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