No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.
Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.
Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.
Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.
Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.
Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.
Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.
Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.
Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.
Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.
Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.
The reason why Eric Asimov’s column last week in the N.Y. Times is so interesting is because it provides the perfect defense of a point scoring system–although that was inadvertant on Eric’s part, and he’d probably deny it even after reading this post.
Eric wrote about a tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs he found “underwhelming.” Also: “boring,” “lacking a sense of place,” “not engaging in that come-hither dance in which a glass of wine implicitly says, ‘Drink me, drink me’” and suffering from “a lack of definition [and] a sense of muddiness.”
The wines were not undrinkable, Eric notes. They simply did not express themselves “with clarity and precision.” Some were “not bad,” just “not exciting.” They were “pleasant,” but ultimately “disappointing” for wine lovers seeking “liveliness…framing and precision” in Pinot Noir.
Sounds to me like Eric went through a garden variety tasting of common wines, the kind people drink mindlessly every single day of the year, around the world, and always have, since the dawn of wine. All of us critics routinely drink these kinds of wines all the time. It’s part of our job. For every Lafite Eric tastes (or every Harlan I taste), there are five hundred ______s (fill in the blank) that have no definition, don’t sing come-hither, and are disappointing.
That this should go without saying in the life of a professional wine critic is obvious. So what was the point of Eric’s column? It was contained in the headline (which Eric may not have written. In Wine Enthusiast, I rarely write my own headlines. That’s what editors do.). The header was “In Wine, Friendliness Isn’t Always Enough,” “friendly” being a term (which I also use) to describe a sound, but lackluster, wine. Eric’s contention, if I read him correctly, was that it’s not good enough for a common wine to be merely common. It should, instead, be–what? Great? But common wines are by definition not great. They are common. They often bore. So what is the point of criticizing common wines for being common? There always have been common wines and there always will be, until the Sun swallows the Earth.
In the technical part of his column, Eric discusses the “structure” that Pinot Noir should have. It should “never be coarse.” A Pinot Noir should never “play to the crowd,” or be “easy to drink.”
Well, I’m not about to argue with that!
Eric is absolutely correct to point these things out about Pinot Noir or any wine. I just don’t understand why he would take highly coveted real estate in the world’s greatest newspaper to point out something so self-evident. It seems to me that, if Eric had a methodology for dealing with mediocre wines, he would not have to express his frustration in such a regal setting as the wine pages of the great Grey Lady herself.
There is such a methodology: point scores. I don’t have to get upset that a wine is simple, uncomplicated, unexciting or doesn’t beckon me to come hither. I simply give it 83 points (or whatever) and do my best, in the 40 or 50 words allotted to me, to explain myself. There’s another thing about the point system I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about, myself, until just now: It assumes that there’s a proper place for every wine under the sun: for great wines (97 and up), near great wines (94-97), etc., right down to acceptable wines and undrinkable ones. That’s what Wine Enthusiast’s point-score brackets are: like the allowable electron orbits described by Bohr, they assume that every wine has its proper place in the scheme of things. When the critic discovers which “orbit” to most properly assign any given wine, he is content with its place: there’s no need to fret that the wine is unexciting because, having discovered that the wine is 83 points, the critic knows that it’s exactly where it belongs; he has no cause to complain. (Of course, one can always knock a wine for being too expensive for its quality, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.)
As in any scheme of relativity, the existence of great wine not only assumes but demands the existence of a vast ocean of ordinary wine. Great wine is at the top of the pyramid, but there would not be a pyramid without a foundation of common, ordinary wines. It does no good to criticize common wines for being common; it’s like criticizing poor people for being poor, or uneducated people for not knowing who, for example, Nils Bohr was. One doesn’t need an extensive wine terminology to get the message across that a wine is common. One needs only a point system to communicate it clearly and distinctly. I highly recommend that Eric try using the 100-point system, or even a 20-point system, in the New York Times. It would make his job easier and also communicate better to the Times’ readers exactly what Eric is trying to say.
If you don’t think that wining and dining tastemakers isn’t one of the keys (if not the key) to boosting a winery’s reputation, then you don’t live in the real world.
I’ll get to examples in a moment, but first, let me explain what I just said. Take two wines that are equal in quality. Give one of them a huge budget to dazzle tastemakers (wine and food writers especially, but also sommeliers, merchants and so on). Let that budget be spent on fantastic tastings with unbelievably good food, held in fancy settings such as hotel ballrooms and four star restaurants. Even better if you can underwrite the attendees’ travel expenses, since wine and food writers aren’t exactly paid very well. As for the other wine–the one without the budget–let it depend on sending a sample out to the same tastemakers. Do you know which wine will be the cause celebre? I do, and it’s not the wine with the puny budget. They’re lucky if they can send a free corkscrew with the sample.
The fact is, dazzling tastemakers and influencers has been the way certain wineries and wine regions got famous to begin with, and it still is. When I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Tom Jordan, who created Jordan Winery, told me how he got tastemakers to pay attention. Quote: “Early on, I realized the challenge was, How are you going to get recognized?” What Tom did was to invite restaurateurs, somms, wine merchants, distributors and food and wine writers to the winery (which is one of the showplaces of California wine country) and wow them. “We had guest suites and guest houses and a superb kitchen operation, and we brought chefs in from France to cook,” Tom said, adding, “I knew the wine was never going to taste better than it would in that nice setting…”.
Now, I don’t mean to criticize what Tom did. He had learned well from the Bordelais, who have been plying influencers with goodies for centuries. This is simply how the game is played, and the fact that it works is proved by Jordan’s being one of the top winery brands on American restaurant wine lists, a feat it has replicated for many years.
Which brings us to–where else?–Asia, the El Dorado of today’s wine trade, the Lost City of Gold, only it is no longer a lost city but one that definitely has been discovered and is in the process of being exploited by those who can afford it. Read this article about how the cellarmaster at South Africa’s Rupert & Rothschild (yes, that Rothschild, on the Baron Edmund/Lafite side, meaning there’s a lot of money) flew to Bangkok to host a dinner. I’ll quote just a little from the article so you get a general idea of what you missed: “After a refreshing round of amuse bouche, the action kicked off with the first course: poached seafood, mussel tomato gelee, kaffir lime, dill and smoked herring pearls paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine [Chardonnay]…Next up was seared Wagyu beef flank, mixed bean salad, rucola [sic] and red currant with raspberry, paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Classique…” etc. etc.
Well, the guy who wrote this up was suitably impressed, for his descriptors were glowing (“perfect,” “classic,” “exciting”), and I bet anybody who read his account went away thinking, “Hmm, I sure would like to get my hands on those Rupert & Rothschild wines.” Which is the point, isn’t it? If you’re a little family winery, you’re not going to be able to wine and dine tastemakers in Bangkok (much less Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, and so on). So you’re probably never going to get on the Asian “A” list, even if you’re making spectacular wine. (It can happen, but it would take a minor miracle.)
So consider today’s posting another in my occasional debunkings of how famous wines get and stay famous. Sometimes it’s about the quality, but sometimes it’s about the credulity of the tastemakers who are gobbling all that smoked salmon and filet mignon and then telling people how fabulous everything was. (Say, I wonder what was in the swag bag at the Bangkok dinner?)
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.