I sometimes come under fire from commenters on this blog when I say stuff like “Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time.” That’s from my blog a couple days ago, when I owned up to the truth that “obviously a point score is not meant to be taken as a mathematical certainty.” That wasn’t the first time I’ve said so, but whenever I do, the point-score doubters pile on. Gregg Burke said my confession was “Kind of a problem wouldn’t you say?” David Honig said “if a wine can vary from 87 to 90, depending upon your mood, the temperature, what you had for breakfast, whether your dog threw up in the car, and whether you drink it before or after listening to Michelle Bachmann argue that the HPV vaccine causes retardation in young girls, then it is flawed.” Et cetera et cetera.
So, this being an extremely important issue, I want to explore it further. I am aware that some people will say “Steve is just writing about the 100 point system to increase his readership” but that isn’t true. My regular readers know that I write about whatever I’m thinking about that day, without regard to eyeballs.
I want to start by quoting Daniel Baron. He had been the winemaker at Dominus, and was at Silver Oak when he was interviewed in the wonderful 2004 book, The Winemaker’s Dance. (I haven’t researched where Daniel is now, but it doesn’t matter from the point of view of his quote.)
Daniel said: “You have to remember this when you think about judging wines. They’re alive and changing moment to moment; they have good days and bad; they show well in a particular glass or with particular food. Judging a wine at any particular moment in life is like giving a kid a letter grade based on his behavior in the supermarket.”
I’m not sure about that analogy concerning the kid in the supermarket. but other than that, Daniel’s message couldn’t be clearer. Read it again. It speaks for itself. This is the viewpoint of a professional winemaker, working at a top winery. He’s not trying to defend the 100 point system, or point scores in general, and he’s certainly not offering an apologia for critics. He’s just speaking a truth that, apparently, some critics of the 100 point system fail to understand.
Bottles do vary. Anybody who’s been in this business for more than two minutes knows that. There is an infinitude of reasons why bottles or, more exactly, bottle impressions vary, in addition to the ones Daniel listed, which I need not explain now, although I can if you want. This variation is why it is unlikely if not impossible that any particular review can stand the test of time, the way an empirical finding, such as a mathematical or chemical result, can.
So what is the conusmer’s touchstone of reality? I repeat what I said in my blog: “The more reliable the critic, the more trustworthy you may assume his reaction to be.” The consumer should not assume that any critic in the world–whether his last name is Parker or he has the letters M.W. following his name–is mathematically precise, or that his review is replicable across all times, spaces and conditions. That is utter nonsense. Instead, the consumer should react this way: “Okay. So-and-so rates such-and-such wine at [whatever] score, and then explains his score in the text. I trust so-and-so; therefore, if he felt that way when he tasted the wine, there’s a reasonable certainty that I will feel the same way when I taste it.”
That is not mathematical certainty. It’s not the same as saying, “Okay, my math teacher demonstrated on the blackboard that two plus two equals four. So when I add them, there’s a reasonable certainty I’ll arrive at the same conclusion.” No. Your math teacher is absolutely certain of his results, and he knows that he will arrive at the same result every time he does the calculation, for the rest of his life, and so will everyone else when they add the same numbers. Wine reviewing is not and cannot be like that. It is soft objectivity. A score, properly speaking, should be considered as guidance. And as with any guidance, it should be taken in a certain context.
“Yes,” Gary Vaynerchuk replied to Tom Wark yesterday, when Tom asked him “Is the 100-point wine rating scale a good thing?” on the Fermentation blog.
Finally something GeeVee and I can agree on! Yes, the 100 point scale is a good thing, and here’s why. If you see that a wine got 100 points from a reputable critic, it will get your attention. I don’t care who you are or what your views are on the 100 point system. It’s going to make you think about that wine. You will remember that wine. I still remember the first wine I ever heard about that Parker gave 100 points to. It was Groth Reserve, from (I think) 1985. I never even tasted that wine. But it was memorable.
Now, another critic who doesn’t use the 100 point system might give a wine his highest rating: 4 puffs, or 20 points, or 5 stars, or whatever. But you will not remember that wine because these things are not iconic enough to penetrate the mass of information we take in each day. But 100 points is. I can’t quite explain why, but there’s something so strong about 100 points that it just goes into the eyeball, hits the brain and lights up the mind like a pinball machine.
Now, if 100 points can have that impact on consciousness, I would argue so does every other number below 100 points. If you see 99 points, you’ll think, “Wow, that was almost 100 points.” You’ll wonder what it was that made the critic deduct that final point of perfection. You might find yourself reading the review to learn why. You might even Google the wine to see what other critics said about it. Same with 98 points, or 88 points, or whatever. Every point score, from a critic who uses the 100 point system, is measured against the 100 points the wine theoretically could have scored. When the reader sees the score, he or she automatically begins an internal evaluation process. It may not be fully conscious, but it occurs on some level: the 100 point system allows any wine to click into place on the quality spectrum, which is very easy for readers to comprehend.
People often ask me how I can justify any particular point score. Why 88, they’ll say. Why not 87, or 89? I’ve replied before that an 88 could easily be an 87 one day or an 89 the next day, maybe a 90 the day after that. I admit it. Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time. The more reliable the critic, the more trustworthy you may assume his reaction to be. But obviously a point score is not meant to be taken as a mathematical certainty. This is what the haters of the 100 point system always fail to appreciate. They’re the ones who insist it purports to be a mathematical certainty–not the actual critics who use it. This is a straw man argument: opponents of the 100 point system claim something for it that not even its proponents do, in order to attack the thing claimed. It’s like one of my karate teachers, George, used to do. He’d go to a bar, get drunk, then walk up to some perfect stranger and accuse him of flirting with his girlfriend. In reality, the stranger hadn’t done anything, but George just loved pushing it to the point where he could beat the living daylights out of the poor shlep. This was a nasty, mean and probably insane thing for George to do (the truth is, George was a little crazy), but it’s like what the 100 point bashers do. They impute something to somebody that’s not true, and then they beat the guy up for it.
Anyway, Gary V. is right on when he says the 100 point system is a good thing. It is. It’s the best, most precise and comprehensible wine rating system ever invented. I add only that people should also read the accompanying text, not look only at the number.
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.