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.
People sometimes ask me why I don’t score as many wines with a perfect 100 points as some other wine critics do. Here’s my answer.
The only way a wine can score 100 points, IMHO, is for it to be in a large blind tasting of its peers. And by a large tasting, I mean at least, say, 30 or 40 wines. All the wines should come from the same region and be of the same type, e.g. California Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or Pinot Noirs.
Now, I know some people, including some winemakers, would argue that a statewide blind tasting is of little use, since it’s pitting apples versus oranges. Bob Cabral once told me he wishes I’d taste his Pinot Noirs against other Pinot Noirs from the same regions, so that, for example, I’d taste his Weir Vineyard Pinot only against other Yorkville Highlands Pinots. That would be pretty hard, since there are fewer Pinots from that Mendocino County AVA than I have fingers on one hand, but I take his point. Certainly, I could separate out his Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs and taste them only against other RRV Pinot Noirs (which thus wouldn’t include Weir or Bob’s Sonoma Coast bottlings).
That makes some sense. But I don’t think it’s the best way to do it. It’s certainly not the fairest. Take Cabernet Sauvignon. If I restricted myself to a large tasting only of Napa Valley Cabernet, then a Happy Canyon Cab, or one from Paso Robles or Alexander Valley, wouldn’t be able to compete against them. If I tasted the Paso Cab only in the company of other Paso Cabs, probably the overall lower quality of Paso (compared to Napa) would result in a degradation of the score of the best of those Cabernets. On the other hand, if I tasted it blind alongside Napa Cabs, it might score respectably well.
Wait a minute! Did I just imply that context is vital in reviewing a wine? Yes, I did. I know that the MW crowd is going to come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches, but it’s true. If you think Petrus is the greatest wine you ever had, and then you stick it in a blind tasting with 50 other red wines from all over the place, I guarantee you your perception of the Petrus will be influenced. You might still like it; you might like it less; it depends, because the context has shifted, and so have what Dr. Timothy Leary used to call “set and setting.”
Since I believe in contextual tasting, it seems obvious to me that the only way to accord a wine the supreme accolade is to taste it in a large setting in which, over the course of hours, the taster meticulously works his way through the wines. First, he goes through them in order, making preliminary notes, separating out the wheat from the chaff. Then, he revisits the outliers. He retastes those wines that seemed spectacular at first, in order to confirm his impressions. He might even revisit wines that seemed odd, or clumsy, to see what time in the glass has done. He revises his initial notes, making new ones. Then the process is repeated, as many times as it takes for the taster to decide that, finally, the tasting is over; all good things must come to an end. And if there remains one wine that, over all those hours, retains its supremecy to the end, then that wine deserves the highest score.
Consider the alternative: Could any reviewer with a shred of honesty or integrity blind taste a single wine, by itself, and declare it 100 points? Without context, without competitors, without calibrations to consider, such a thing is unthinkable. If you hear of anyone doing it, be skeptical. Very skeptical.
I look at other wine magazines and newsletters and see 100 point scores handed out like candy at Halloween, and I shake my head in dismay. I’d like to know the circumstances under which each of those wines was tasted. I, at least, can sign off on a 100 point score knowing that I tried my best to prevent it from happening. Why do I say that? Because a reviewer shouldn’t be profligate in awarding the highest scores. Score inflation lessens the value of high scores (and also makes the publication suspect). For a wine to be, literally, perfect in every way must always occur only rarely. Even when I am dazzled by a wine, there usually is some slight, small defect or distraction that shows up, sometimes after airing. But a 100 point wine may not have the slightest defect. It must continue to impress the mind and senses, and above all it must triumph above the competition. That means it has to be tasted in the context of a large tasting of its peers.
I recognize that others may feel differently, and I look forward to hearing your comments.
Give credit to Facebook for today’s blog. I went to my status page and found a post from Darek Trowbridge. He wrote:
“I like this manifesto! Terroir and complexity are not part of the 100 point rating system so why continue with it? But the Score Revolution doesn’t address the next way of rating wines without it. I like the way Dan Berger does it with only printing wines that make two categories: Exceptional and Highly Recommended.”
And then he provided a link to the manifesto:
Now, Darek is the young owner/winemaker of Old World Winery, whom I recently met in the Russian River Valley, where he helped me with an upcoming Wine Enthusiast article. He calls his winery “Old World” because he’s pretty anti-interventionist and what you would call a terroir guy, which is, I guess, why he’s so high on the manifesto.
Before I deal with the manifesto, I want first to complain about anonymity in social media. I cannot find the creator’s name on the manifesto’s website. Maybe it’s there someplace, buried deep in the links, but I tried my best, and no luck. Nor can I find a creator’s name on the manifesto’s Facebook page, which is called ScoREVOLTution, with the emphasis on the word “revolt.” The company overview describes it as “A movement against quantifying the subjective experience of drinking wine” and the mission is “To bring down the 100 point system.” But, once again, there’s no way to identify who’s behind this thing. Hello, creator of ScoREVOLTution and The Manifesto, are you out there? Call me at 1-800-PERFECT100.
(Darek, are you the manifesto man? Because your signature is the first on it, like John Hancock’s on the Declaration of Independence.)
Okay, got that out of my system. Now it’s onto the manifesto itself. Read it; it’s not very long. It’s a plea for terroir and then an attack on the 100 point system, which the author calls “a clumsy and useless tool…a static symbol [and] completely ineffective when applied to a dynamic, evolving and multifaceted produce.”
Readers, if you’re expecting a steveheimoff.com jeremiad, complete with thundering insults and the hurling of lightning bolts from on high, you’ll be disappointed. I’ve always allowed for the fact that the 100 point system is not without faults. I blogged about this 1-1/2 years ago, here and here and numerous times since. Here’s the email I sent Darek in reply to his Facebook post:
Hey Darek my man,
If the 100 point system is such an abomination, then howcum you send me wine!!!???
I would just say that in our complicated world, there are many ways to write about wine. This is because the millions of people who read about wine prefer different approaches. Some of them like a very brief, capsule description, with a score or some other visual icon (puffs, stars, etc.) Some of them prefer a longer, more educated discourse. Some people actually write entire books on single wines. There’s no right or wrong, just individual approaches.
I don’t think any approach is evil or “useless.” Whenever we wine writers write about wine, in whatever fashion we do it, it increases people’s awareness of, and respect for, wine. And that’s the point, isn’t it?
I said that respectfully, because I like Darek a lot, and I “get” where the knockers of the 100 point system are coming from. In another incarnation, I might be one of them. (And by the way, I gave Darek’s wines pretty good scores!)
But I really believe what I told Darek: the millions of people who read about wine prefer different approaches. I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about that. It seems to me the same crowd that lambastes the 100 point system and praises terroir also hates wines from big wine companies like Gallo or Bronco. They’re entitled to drink or not drink whatever they want, but big wine companies introduce wine drinkers to affordable wines, they keep growers going through tough times, and they conduct or fund research that’s applicable even to high-end producers. So we should quit the class-based antagonism toward them.
I like the fact that the manifesto people, whoever they are, feel so passionate about the topic. It forces a good debate and makes those of us who support the 100 point system explain ourselves. As an old karate fighter, I have no problem defending myself, or to signing my name to what I write. I just wish the manifesto author would do the same.
I don’t mean to be a contrarian, but when Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, says the 100-point scoring system was not “the change agent” responsible for “the worldwide transformation of wines and winemaking styles starting in the 1970s,” it’s like Paul McCartney saying The Beatles didn’t change popular music in the 1960s.
But that’s what Matt writes in this column.
Now, stay with me here as I deconstruct this. First of all, Matt posits that there has been a change in winemaking style. His definition of that change is the word “authenticity.” We’ll get back to that in a moment.
If you were to ask me what the “change” has been in wine over the last 40 years, I’d say it’s pretty obvious: it’s been in the direction of richer, riper wines. (I’m talking, as is Matt, about wines of quality and pedigree, the upper tier, if you will, not mass-produced stuff.) And that this change has been influenced, in large part, by Robert Parker, who invented the 100-point system, and by Wine Spectator, who popularized it in the 1980s, seems indisputable. (I began subscribing to the Spectator around 1982, when it was still a tabloid published out of my home town of San Francisco.) There already had been in place a tendency for wines to be picked riper when Wine Spectator and Parker rose to prominance, but can anyone seriously question the fact that that trend accelerated hugely throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and that Parker and Spectator fueled it? To deny that P&S preferred bigger, riper, oakier wines is to deny reality. So I don’t see how Matt can say Parker and Spectator were not responsible for the change.
But then, Matt never really admits that the change has been (as I wrote above) toward richer and riper. Instead, he says “what has really driven the changes in wines is the issue of authenticity.” I can’t go into detail explaining what Matt means by “authenticity,” except to refer to his use of words such as “authenticity,” “place-ness” and “somewhere-ness,” among others of that class. He has established his reputation praising what he called, in Making Sense of California Wine, “a sensibility of place,” and so it isn’t surprising that Matt should see that “sensibility of place” as being the driving force behind the changes of the last three decades. It validates his position.
If you, the reader, had to say what the biggest change in wine has been since Parker and Spectator both arose (let’s say, roughly 1980), would it be “a tendency toward richer and riper” (as I assert) or “a sense of place”? I think it’s the former, but I also suggest that there’s no conflict between the two. In fact, there’s an inherent connection: one implies the other. To get the highest Parker and Spectator scores, winemakers had to change their viticulture to push ripening before the rains came. They had to change their rootstocks and clones, for the same reason. They had to reduce yields, boost fruity concentration, increase extract, because that’s what Parker and Spectator liked. They had to plant the right varieties in the right locations, because otherwise, the wines would taste vegetal, or stewed, and Parker and the Spectator would destroy them. They had to pay the utmost attention to every detail, as long as it was ripe.
That’s why it’s disingenuous to say, as Matt does, “if you think that scores were the change agent, I respectfully beg to differ.” Of course they were! I think even Matt knew that what he was writing was disputatious, because of all the disclaimers he issued (“I realize that invoking the term ‘authenticity’ invites ire among some observers,” “I can hear you already: Who is to say what is or isn’t ‘authentic’”?, etc.). When he writes “Forget scores. They’re just the way the message is sent,” what message is that? Is Matt saying that a 100-point Wine Spectator score is a guarantee of “authenticity”? That strains credulity. I think the message is that a 100-point Spectator score is a guarantee of richness and ripeness. Ditto for a 100-point Parker score. Ditto, I will admit, for a 100-point Heimoff score (rare as they are).
From my perspective in California, I know that the 100-point system has been responsible for almost all the changes that have occurred. Winemakers and growers, one after another after another, have told me so for 20 years. They have changed their styles because they wanted big scores from P&S. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m not saying it hasn’t resulted in better wines. I’m not apologizing for it. I’m just saying.
Hey, I respect a wine “of place” that expresses its terroir as much as anyone. (Just yesterday I was raving about Cathy Corison’s Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon and those of Far Niente.) I’m just saying that “authenticity” is in the eye of the beholder (as even Matt seems to concede), and anything that subjective and amorphous cannot seriously be said to have impacted a worldwide trend in wine. No, ’twas Parkerization, followed by Spectatorization — phenomena that were real, measurable and concrete — that killed the old ways, and brought about the new.
Most of the time we talk about high-scoring wines and why they got those numbers. Today I want to talk about the poops in the room, because I’ve been tasting a lot of them lately. Don’t know why August is turning out to be such a Monthus Horribilis, but it is.
Not everything, of course. Since the first of the month, I’ve had awesome wines from Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Gainey, Rusack, Justin, Cakebread and others, and the new sparklers from Schramsberg were, well, schwonderful, schmarvelous.
But there have been an awful lot of 80s, 81s and 82s, which under Wine Enthusiast’s system means “acceptable…simple with discussable deficiencies,” and with some of those low 80s, I was tempted to use our coup de grâce, 22, put them out of their misery and bury them.
What makes for an 80, 81 or 82? Most of them bore a California appellation. That tells me (a) the wines contained a lot of Central Valley grapes or juice, seldom a good thing, or (b) the wines were bulked out from producers who didn’t want to bottle the stuff on their own. That’s not a good thing, either.
The low scorers included Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there were as many Chardonnays as all the rest put together. My most common complaint: too fruit juicy. One of my favorite breakfast drinks is an orange-pineapple-mango juice blend I get at Whole Foods. I love it as fruit juice, but as wine, it doesn’t work. Too simple and sweet, and that’s the problem with too many Chardonnays these days. (I could say the same about some Sauvignon Blancs.)
With the reds, it was a different story. They were so thin, there was nothing going on, except alcohol, tannins and acidity. Not a good recipe for a wine. I figure this was due to overcropping in inferior vineyards, where the vines are stretched to give so much fruit, the berries just can’t develop much flavor. This also is suggested when you look at the high production numbers on some of these wines.
At average costs for all these wines at $7-$12, I guess the wine companies that put them out make their profit at this tier; and that profit, I suppose, helps defray the cost of producing higher-quality wine. But it’s dreary to have to review these dullards, and it’s always a challenge trying to figure out how to frame my text, without causing anyone undue discomfort. Sometimes I want to write, “Run! Get away quickly! Flee from this monstrosity!” but of course I can’t say that. So I’ve developed code words: “everyday,” “easy,” “useful,” and so on. Another thing I’ve been tempted to say is, “This is the kind of wine you drink in a paper cup at somebody’s party.” Would that be an insult? Probably the producer would consider it so, but I’ve had wines in paper cups at parties and didn’t feel at all insulted or lessened as a human being or a wine lover. If I had a great time at the party, I didn’t care what the wine was, and if I had a lousy time, it wouldn’t have mattered if the wine were ‘47 Cheval Blanc, served from Marie Antoinette’s slipper.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sommeliers, because last week I went to that big TopSomm 2010 thing in San Francisco, and then somebody sent me the book on sommeliers I blogged about yesterday. Somms and I both have the same job, on the surface: we both taste a lot of wine, and then make judgments about them. But on closer examination, our jobs are very different. I suspect I taste a lot more common and bad wine than most somms. The way I see it, part of my job is to find the silk purses among the sows’ ears that I can happily recommend to readers, who don’t want to have to spend $40, $50 or more for a decent bottle of wine. That’s what makes going through a month like August worth it.
So I was in my therapist’s waiting room looking for a new magazine among the pile of old Scientific Americans and Smithsonians when I came across the Nov. 23, 2009 ish of The New Yorker. Not exactly new, but I hadn’t seen it before. Thumbed through it and saw, on page 44, “Lunch With M.,” a story about a reviewer for the New York City edition of the Michelin restaurant guide (and if you have to ask what that is, your idea of a great meal is Red Lobster).
I’d got about halfway through when Doc poked his head in the waiting room and said “Hi.” I was tempted to finish the article instead of having my head shrunk, but instead, I took the magazine and told Doc I was stealing it. He didn’t seem to mind, bless his larcenous soul.
So here’s the thing. The parallels between a Michelin Guide reviewer, or inspector, as they’re called, and me, as a wine reviewer, are eerie. The Michelin inspector profiled in the article is a woman whom the writer refers to only as “Maxime” (the M. of the headline). It’s not her real name, because Michelin inspectors are never publicly identified. In fact, they have been scrupulously, almost paranoically shielded from visibility for many decades, in the way of restaurant reviewers everywhere. Here in San Francisco, I’ve seen Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s restaurant critic, admonish audiences for taking his picture and jeopardizing his independence. So that’s a little different from me — no anonymity here; everybody knows my mug.
With this penchant for secrecy, why did the Michelin people make Maxime available to a reporter from The New Yorker? Because the American editions of the Guide (there’s also a San Francisco edition) haven’t been selling well, and have not achieved the clout of local critics from the Chronicle, L.A. papers and the New York Times; and so the Michelin people launched this “effort to promote…a better understanding of the guides’ means and methods.” Well, if that doesn’t sound like transparency, I don’t know what does. “A better understanding of…means and methods” is exactly what I’ve been forced to explain in this blog due to unceasing demands for same from readers (and I am not complaining, just observing). It’s nice to see Michelin being confronted with the same transparency as I’ve been.
What does Maxime look for in the food she reviews? “You’re looking for something that really tests a number of quality ingredients and then something that’s a little complex…”, she says, noting that “We would never order something like a salad. We rarely order soup.” That’s different from what I do. I review everything from California — not just complex wines but wines that are the “salads” and “soups” of supermarket shelves; hopefully, those can be Best Buys, but Michelin does not include value in its reviews, only quality. But there is another similarity when the New Yorker writer says Maxime “is required to eat everything on her plate…a regimen that calls to mind the force-feeding of the ducks that supply [Jean-Georges] Vongerichten with his velvety foie gras…”. Yes, quack quack, there are days when I too feel force fed, only with wine.
A further similarity: the Michelin Guide has come under attack from its competitors. The Zagat people, interviewed for the article, complained about Michelin’s elitism. “We’ve never believed that there were experts that should tell you what to do,” Nina Zagat huffed.
Hello! Can we talk? How many times have bloggers said that ivory-tower critics should not purport to tell everybody what to drink? That’s what the bloggers call “the democratization of wine reviewing.” So this is a big parallel between Maxime and me.
The similarities pile up. A former Michelin inspector published a tell-all book revealing “the inspector’s life as one of loneliness and underpaid drudgery…dining alone and under intense pressure to file reports.” This, too, is the woeful tale of the wine critic — this one, anyway. Believe me, it’s not all glamor — far from it.
The most interesting part of the article comes when Maxime makes the distinction between her personal preferences and objective quality. “It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’” she observes. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products…You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’” Readers of this blog will recall the many conversations here concerning objectivity vs. subjectivity. Maxime believes in objectivity: she feels she really can differentiate between her personal taste and the existential reality of a properly prepared food, with math-like certainty. And I feel like I too can tell a “technically correct” wine from a bad one.
One can argue, of course, that the line between “analysis” and “liking” is so blurry as to be indistinguishable; and, since there’s no way to prove or disprove that, there will always be two camps: one that accepts the notion of objective judgment, and one that doesn’t. So it is with wine criticism.
And then, a final similarity between Maxime and me: dining at restaurant Jean-Georges, she tries an Artic char, on a bed of watercress remoulade, accompanied by a julienne of apple, and tells the writer, excitedly, “It’s perfectly cooked. I mean, it’s textbook.” It is, in other words, a 100-point fish.