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On an Argentine Torrontes and how critics come up with those numbers

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I drank a very nice wine from Argentina last night, Michel Torino 2013 Don David Finca La Primavera #3 ($23), made from the Torrontes grape. It was quite delicious, offering layers of lime, quince and tangerine, with wonderfully brisk acidity, and while there was a honeyed richness, the finish was absolutely dry.

After 25 years of tasting mostly California wines, I now have the time to branch out. When I tasted that Don David (not blind!), my first thought was to compare it to what I know best: California. Had you given it to me without telling me what it was, I might have guessed Pinot Gris—or Sauvignon Blanc—possibly Chenin Blanc–but not quite. It had oakiness, but in a balanced, low-key way. Gorgeous acidity, too, mouthwatering and clean. There was minerality, but also something vegetal, not in a bad way, but in a wonderful way. I know this sounds weird, but it reminded me of lightly salted cream of broccoli soup. What’s not to like about that?

I liked it so much I looked to see if it had been reviewed in Wine Enthusiast, and there it was. The review was by my former colleague, Mike Schachner, who covers South America and Spain. He gave it 89 points and wrote: “This single-vineyard Salta Torrontés is virtually as good as it gets for the variety. Pure lychee, lime and mineral aromas precede a crisp, focused palate. Flavors of steely citrus are chiseled, while the finish is long and juicy. Drink prior to fall 2014.”

(Note: Salta is a region in Argentina. I have no idea if the name if related to salt, but there was definitely a saline character to the Don David that added to its savory character.)

I always admired Michael’s palate, and I thought, Wow, he really nailed it. I, personally, might have mentioned the honey, since the impression of sweetness is, it seems to me, a vital one to convey to readers. But that’s just me. And I also totally supported Michael’s judgment that the wine is best enjoyed soon. Its delicate structure, and rich fruit will fall apart sooner rather than later.

I mention all this because I’m fascinated by the concept of consumers having so many multiple sources of wine reviews. In addition to all the major wine magazines and newsletters, we have, at last count, 1.3 gazillion bloggers who review wine, not to mention the people who write all those shelf talkers at supermarkets and wine stores. If I put myself into the shoes of the wine consumer trying to figure out what to buy, I feel total sympathy if they feel dazed and confused.

I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck.

Had I formally reviewed the Don David, blind (as I’m sure Michael did), I think I would have given it an initial rating of 89 points too. Let me try to explain my rationale. The message of an 89-point rating is “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”

I don’t know the details of how Michael considers, or reconsiders, his scores, or how long he takes for each review. But once I had given that Don David an initial 89 points, I suspect I would have raised it to 90 points, maybe an hour or so later, because I liked it so much. I would have put it in the fridge and then, unable to stop thinking about it, I would have tried it again, and given it the extra magic point simply because it had fired up my imagination.

Is that fair—I mean, to give a wine a second chance or reconsideration? Maybe not. But it happens with all critics, whether they admit it or not. I point all this out simply to illuminate the somewhat capricious nature of critical reviews. A score is serious business, and should be considered so by readers. But it should also be taken into context for what it is: fungible. Today’s 88 can be tomorrow’s 92, tomorrow’s 100 can be yesterday’s 92. It all depends. But it’s also important to understand that critics have been known to “adjust” their scores to keep them consistent with past ones, and if you don’t believe that, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve wrote: I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck. –

    And mercifully, that seems to be changing. Like much in the wine world, it has begun in the major markets and will filter out into the rest of the American wine world. In NYC or Chicago, mentioning Parker scores is far more likely to alienate the buyer than command his attention, and that’s a good thing.

    The 100 point system evolved into a ridiculous straight jacket on the development of American wine culture, and it’s increasing irrelevance will be a good thing. While it arguably served its purpose, it’s time to take the training wheels off.

  2. “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”

    TL;DR – hence “89″

    I’ve always liked “puffs”

  3. Like the others I consider an 89 score to epitomize the absurdity and tragedy of the 100 point system. Not only is it overly precise with a standard deviation of probably 3 points, but it is being awarded by one person. At least on CellarTracker you get several review of previous vintages by Normal Wine Drinkers–all clustering in the mid to high 80s.

    Better a 5 star system with half stars.

  4. @TomMerle – no matter the system, there are always wines that just miss out on the higher rating. Isn’t it better to know that a wine was an 89 vs somewhere in the range 85-89? Or that it is 90 vs somewhere in the range 90-95?

    I get the standard deviation issue, but a scale with lower resolution still has the same problem with wines that just missed the next higher rating.

  5. I think Brian makes a pretty good point!

  6. Aside from having made 89 the most unfortunate of wine scores, the 100 point system feels very limited, e.g., in that it is almost unheard of to have a wine that is below 80 points.

    I personally prefer a 5-star system in which, for example, a 5-star review doesn’t paint a critic into the corner as much as giving a 100 point score might. There’s also more freedom to use the whole scale rather than follow a scale that is limited and, in effect, historically dictated by how it has been used by certain critics.

  7. Keasling says:

    100-pt system aside, I’m really liking these Torrontes from Salta. This coming summer’s beverage-of-choice for sure.

  8. I worked in a five tier system for years. The splits between tiers felt incredibly arbitrary and the differences between the top of a tier and the bottom of a tier were always far greater than the top of one tier and the bottom of the next.

    Every rating system has both strengths and weaknesses. And I also like puffs better than other systems. My readers like 100 pts.

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