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Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic

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Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.

I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.

The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.

We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.

I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.

I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.

  1. The conversation over on Wark’s Fermentation Blog is a continuation of the debate about 100 points that has existed since its inception.

    One or two points, though, about the so-called 20-point system need be referenced for historical accuracy.

    It was brought into vogue by the University of California as a system of judging jug wine, which seven or so decades ago was often woeful stuff. Points were awarded for correct color and other basic technical evaluations.

    Later, and not all that much later, the 20-point system found its way into the collectible wine evaluations of the day. of which there were more than a few. And with it came gradations down to one tenth of a point. Thus, 20-points was, in reality, 200 points.

    We tend to think that these discussions about ranking systems are new. They are not because the uses of various hierarchical schema for separating level of perceived attractiveness are also not new.

    People older than me, if there is such a thing, will remember evaluative systems older than the Michelin Three-Stars and five roofs (there when I first went to Europe as a college freshmen back in the late 50s) and the S. F. Chronicle’s sitting, standing theater man.

    When I came into wine in the late sixties, Robert Lawrence Balzer and Robert Finigan and Kurt Petrovsky/Francis Peterson (Joel Peterson’s mother) all had forms of hierarchical ratings.

    So, I don’t really get more than a little peeved when each new generation embraces and simultaneously disrespects both critics and hierarchical notation. It is ever thus.

  2. A lot of us winemakers have concerns at just how level the playing field is in publications focused on wine scores, especially ones that carry advertising. Steve, what is your perspective from your current vantage point–how strong is the firewall?

  3. I couldn’t speak of other magazines, but at Wine Enthusiast it’s pretty strong, at least in terms of scores and reviews. My hunch is that at all wine magazines, the firewall is less strong in the editorial area, i.e. advertisers get more mention in articles.

  4. Steve, I’d agree that wine quality overall has never been higher generally. And I’d give people like you credit for helping to bring that about (points or no points!).

  5. Steve, great perspective and I completely agree regarding Harry Waugh. I have read all his books and was recently given a copy of his Diary of a Winetaster from one of our wine club members as a gift. This was published in 1972 and I noticed he was using a 10 point system along with a 20 point. One wine of note, he gave Mouton-Baron-Philippe 1961 10/10.

    Always appreciate your perspectives Steve. Cheers!

  6. CA Winediva says:

    I’ve followed your blog since a mutual friend mentioned it to me several years ago. I have enjoyed reading your point of view. It seems to be grounded, where quite often others not so much.
    I have a question now that you are more liberated to answer: what is the best wine you have ever had that an every day consumer could obtain?
    No esoteric stuff you have to be on a list for years to get.
    Best of luck on your new gig.

  7. Mr Steve I am 100 points on your blog…

  8. Dear CA Wine Diva, it’s hard to answer your question. On any given day I might fall in love with a particular wine–then the next day I’ll fall in love with another one! But thanks for asking.

  9. Thanks Ryan. Are you related to Harry?

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