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Part 2: Talkin’ 100-point blues


I wasn’t going to post again on the 100-point system, but yesterday’s post generated such a firestorm of comment that I decided to revisit the topic. Most of the reaction was negative. If I read the anti-100s correctly (and I’m sure they’ll let me know if I don’t), their criticisms fall into roughly two categories: That the 100-point system is hopelessly subjective, and that it is anachronistic and therefore unnecessary.

Let me deal with each of these in turn. On the subjectivity, the answer is easy: Of course wine reviewing is subjective as well as objective. It’s my mouth, my nose, my tongue, my brain that’s doing the work; I am the taster and the subject of my tastings. Look up the word “subjective” in the dictionary and it says things like “existing in the observor’s mind or sense organs and hence incapable of being checked externally or verified by other persons.” How else could it be? We humans are independent creatures and we reach our own decisions (unless we have the misfortune of being on a committee). You can no more replicate my tasting experience than I can replicate yours, which is why we can so happily disagree about things and have such rich back-and-forths about our disagreements

Philosophers since the Greeks have speculated about the nature of Reality — whether things exist on their own, or only in the mind. There’s really no answer to this (which is why the debate is still going on), nor is there an answer to the question, “Is wine tasting subjective or objective?” It’s both. It’s subjective because it’s what I think, but it’s objective because I try to be as fair and impartial as I can, which is really all you can ask of anyone in any decision-making capacity.

One of my correspondents also pointed out, correctly, that if I were to retaste 100 wines, double-blind, on most of them I would not give the same score, and that I’d be lucky to even identify the grape variety on half of them. I agree! I’ve been telling my Harry Waugh story (“not since lunch…”) for years in order to point this out. This is why the wine reviewer’s prime responsibility, once the work is done, is humility. I have always said that wine reviewing has elements of the irrational and that it’s a very strange way to make a living. (Parker has said much the same thing.) People want to make it into a science like algebra, as if there were laws governing it that are independent of the human mind, but of course that’s impossible. As I noted yesterday, if you want a completely objective analysis of a wine, send it to Enologix or Vinquiry or someplace like that. They’ll tell you all about the wine’s assimilable amino nitrogen, pH, total SO2, titratable acidity and dozens of other fascinating facts and figures. Is that what people want in a wine review? I don’t think so. They want to know if they’ll like the wine. And liking is subjective.

As for the anachronism criticism, another of my interlocutors said Buying Guides are a joke and ratings distract from true consumer education. All I can say is, I disagree. Consumers know what they want in wine education. They vote with their wallets, and Wine Enthusiast and other pubs that use the 100-point system are doing just fine.

P.S. I’m hoping not to have to revisit this topic for a while.

P.P.S. Please check out my other blog at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

  1. I was going to comment on the previous post, but then you addressed all of my issue here. Wine is absolutely a subjective experience and anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. When I was just learning about wine, there was a 50 point scale evaluation sheet that I used that supposedly was similar to what the Spectator or Parker used. It evaluated a wine on color, aroma, taste, intensity, and balance. Assigning different weight to some categories, now that I look back on it, what complete and total bunk it is. Trying to use the same criteria to rate a Napa Cab versus a Lambrusco di Sorbara is just silly.

  2. Jon, I agree. There is a lot of bunk to these supposedly “objective” scoring practices. I think the people who use them are perfectly sincere, but it’s fool’s gold they’re after. It’s impossible to objectify or quantify what is basically a subjective experience.

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