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Point score reflects quality, not my personal opinion

89 comments

I spoke on the phone yesterday with a winemaker who wanted to know what I thought of his wine. He was very excited about it, he said; the wine was in high demand by restaurateurs. It was a Sangiovese-Cabernet Franc blend from up in the Foothills. Alcohol 14.8%, case production only 65, retails for $30.

I told the man I liked his wine okay and gave it a decent, but not great, score. Even though he was 200 miles away and I couldn’t see him, through the telephone line I could feel his spirits sink.

This happens a lot. It’s always a tough thing for me to tell someone I wasn’t doing handstands over their wine. Often, they’ll rebut by telling me how “X” or “Y” gave it a big score, or how it won this or that medal someplace. I listen. I commiserate. I feel bad. I try to figure out what to say next without being hurtful, prideful, defensive, whatever. These are real people, with real bills to pay.

I told the man that I could see why a restaurateur or sommelier would want his wine. It’s very high in acidity, as Sangioveses are. It also was a little green and minty, although it had some good, rich cherry fruit flavor and a spicy dose of pepper. I said that, while my palate veers more toward a softer, lusher style, as exemplified by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, I could see how, if I were a sommelier looking for a food-friendly wine, I might choose his. Napa Cabernet is not particularly versatile with food. It’s practically a food group in itself. But this guy’s Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend would be pretty good with lots of different things.

But, I explained, I’m not a sommelier. I’m a wine critic. I’m not looking for food-friendly wines, although I like to praise them when I find them. I’m looking for wines of high quality, as we define them at Wine Enthusiast. Now, this gets back to some discussions we had here last week concerning typicity versus taste. Should a Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend from the Foothills be acidic and slightly green? I suppose a case could be made. If so, then was this man’s bottling a good example of one, and thus deserving of a higher score than I gave it? In other words, was it unfair or inappropriate for me to give it the score I did, simply because it lacked the richness of a Napa Cab?

Well, let’s break it down. High acidity works for me when it feels completely balanced with all the other parts. If it’s noticeable — if it tingles my mouth with tartness that’s almost sour — then it doesn’t work. A touch of green works for me, if it’s the kind of herbaceousness that Cabernet (or Cabernet Franc, or Bordeaux for that matter) sometimes shows. But too much green doesn’t feel right. Let’s admit these are questions of subjectivity.

Here’s another example. Somebody sent in a $75 Zinfandel from Paso Robles. This is a winery I’m quite familiar with. They make a lot of different SKUs, which I’ve tasted for years. Usually, I find the wines hot, sweet — and way overpriced (not that that has anything to do with the score). I don’t give them good numbers. The proprietor has let me know that others think a good deal more of his wines than I do. That’s fine. But here’s my question. Are we supposed to posit that Paso Robles Zinfandel should be hot and slightly sweet? After all, a lot of them are, maybe most of them. So am I being unfair, or biased, or inappropriate when I give them low scores?

I honestly don’t think so. There’s a slippery slope here. Consider Clarksburg Chenin Blanc. There’s not a lot of it, but it’s quite distinctive. I’ve had Chenins from Dry Creek, Vinum, Baron Herzog, Dancing Coyote, Ehrhardt, Bogle and others, and have given them a lot of Best Buys — 19, to be exact. That’s because, at average pricing between $9-$13, they’re exactly that, best buys.

Yet the highest score I ever gave a Clarksburg Chenin Blanc was 88 points, and that was only one of them, the Vinum 2007 ($12). All the rest scored 87 points or lower. So should I have given the Vinum a much higher score, because it was the best Clarksburg Chenin Blanc I ever tasted?

Again, I don’t think so. I have a Platonic vision in my mind of perfection. It’s a wine — white, red, dry, sweet, fortified, unfortified, oaked, unoaked, sparkling, still — in which all the parts are in the most exquisite harmony. I’ve never had a California Chenin Blanc where that was true, or even close. Ditto for Paso Robles Zinfandel.

Look, wine critics forever have made distinctions between great wines and coarse ones. One of the best literary examples of this was Professor Saintsbury’s very famous observation concerning Hermitage. “It was…not a delicate wine,” he wrote; “if you want delicacy you don’t go to the Rhône…But it was the manliest [italics Saintsbury’s] French wine I ever drank.” The Professor recognized Hermitage’s essential Hermitage-ness, and could not bring himself to put it on the same level as Bordeaux. Yet he found a way of praising it even while condemning it to lesser status. I try to do the same thing: I have described Paso Robles Zinfandel as lusty.

Saintsbury

Professor Saintsbury

I suppose if I had a completely open mind, I would allow for the possibility of a 100 point Temecula Viognier. I do; and will let you know when, and if, I stumble across one.

  1. Steve:

    Haven’t you always come down on the side of “quality” (and the points awarded therefore) being subjective?

    As to the point regarding the 100-point Chenin Blanc, I commented at the very end of one of your threads a few days ago:

    “Nobody said that the best SBs match up to the best Chardonnays or that CA grenache is as ethereal as Pinot Noir; but by rating each of those wines on the Chard/Cab/PN scale you force them to – like Avis – try harder, instead of letting them be (and be judged against) the best of their type.

    I know words are important to you so this is where the text accompanying your score notes that “this is the finest example of CA SB I have tasted. It matches in every way the qualities I think a perfect SB should have. Though, it achieves SB perfection, it is not as interesting a wine as X.”

    You achieved both ends: you have compared like to like and you have placed that wine within you own personal hierarchy.”

  2. Steven, I do try to do what you say. Unfortunately it’s not always possible given the limitations of a 40-60 word review.

  3. What if someone said a Napa Cab can never be perfect because it is too full bodied? Too much of a food group in itself? How does a Platonic ideal work in this scenario?

    Since Sangiovese is typically a high acid wine, does that preclude it from greatness? You’d say yes. Well, I had a cheap, soft Chianti that was just plain dull yesterday. It was if the acidity had been deleted. Granted this wine was not shooting for greatness, but it was quite sad it had been turned into generic red wine because critics and consumers have decided high acidity has no room in the wine world.

    On a side note with respect to high acidity wines, I often find them a bit aggressive at first, but they grown on me when drinking with food over a glass or two. The same cannot be said about fat, extracted ponderous wines that become fatiguing after half a glass. Not ideal, platonic or otherwise, in my mind.

  4. Your foothill example made the typical rookie mistake – he got some praise for a decent wine and figured everyone he tasted it on would give him the same feedback. Rule #1 – know your audience. If he had been reading your reviews for – what is it now, like 20 years? – he would have known (or should have) that you were going to give it maybe 84-86 points.

  5. Great posts, both with merit. Unfortunately, numbers-driven readers and wine buyers will not appreciate Steve’s level of detail and wine-fidelity. The “Avis” situation results in oceans of middling high-alcohol or overly oaked wines that try too hard but it’s all good – we can’t drink first growth Bordeaux every night and crowd-pleasing wines help grow the wine market.

    Perhaps wine should have two scores as they do in figure skating where skaters are judged for technical ability and artistic expression – a conventional score and varietal/typicity score? Just what you needed, right Steve, more work and agita?

  6. Hi Steve,

    As glamorous as your job is to many, I think it would be really tough sometimes, especially because tasting wine can be so subjective. As Paul Simon put it, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that the recipients of poor ratings frequently bash critics.

    I have two major criteria for assessing wine: first and foremost is balance of fruit, alcohol, tannins, and acidity. The other is typicity, which is a little more subjective than the first. But the questions I use are: does the wine properly reflect the grape variety (or blend) and is there a sense of place represented in the wine that is in accordance with its origin? When I drink a California Cab or Zin or a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Barolo, I want to have a reasonable representation of the characteristics from its region. Anything else is fairly subjective and thus not as useful.

    I believe there has to be a benchmark for each variety from each region and even if Chenin Blanc was not my favorite white, I would make the comparison between the best CB I’ve had from the same region, and the wine being reviewed. I don’t think it would be fair to compare a California CB with a New Zealand or Loire CB because the style of winemaking and terroir are so different.

    It’s great that you’re sensitive enough to feel a tinge of trepidation when doling out scores that are not necessarily flattering. You know well that your score may affect the bottom line of that winery and it’s clear that you don’t take that responsibility lightly but your reviews are honest. That’s all anyone can ask for from a critic.

    I am coming up on a project for which I will be rating some 1500 wines over the course of several months. It scares me in some sense because I know once I put myself out there as a critic there will be repercussions, both positive and negative. It will be interesting to be in your shoes, if only for a minute, but your influence and integrity will certainly contribute to my experience in any event. Thanks!

    David Boyer
    Classof1855.com

  7. Dear David, thank you for your kind words. When you review those 1500 wines, all you can do is be honest and fair and have some self-doubt.

  8. John: and Rule #2: See Rule #1.

  9. Greg, I wouldn’t preclude Sangiovese from greatness due to high acidity. I’ve had Tuscan wines (usually aged) that have been unbelievable. But California has not yet succeeded with Sangiovese. The wines tend to be acidic and monochromatic.

  10. Steve,

    As producers we need honest reviewers. When I get a great score it feels like someone as noticed and is saying “you are on the right track”. I need this kind of feedback to get better. When we get a low score from someone we respect, we don’t whine, we get the message and we get back to work.

    Nicolas

  11. Hi Steve,
    Your comment about Temecula viognier gives me hope. There actually are a couple of prety good ones. Though I’m not there, I’m not that far away; though I don’t believe we have much in common terroir=wise.

    Anyway, Sangiovese is what I want to talk about. Although I would agree that California hasn’t produced stellar ones, there are some pretty good examples in our fair state. We are working diligently to elevate our bottlings above the ordinary and we are very encouraged by our progress and the potential our adolescent plantings. I’d be interested in your assessment of our efforts. We find that merlot, not cab franc is the synergistic blender, at least in our vineyard.

  12. Gee, I thought we had put all this to bed last week.

    Unless one goes to the two-score system advocated by Tilda (and by the way, as a kid who grew up on a skating rink in Boston, I have some familiarity with the topic and figure skating judging still does a lousy job of separating technical merit from artistic expression and there is no agreement in the sport as to the value of a quad jump versus a triple–go ask the Russian), there is going to be one score (some would say “one score too many”) for wines.

    And unless the best Chenin Blanc or the best Sauvignon Blanc can match the best Chardonnay, those wines are not going to score like Chardonnay. And by the way, there is a reason why the best Chardonnays sell for way more than the best Sauvignon Blancs (the late Mr. Dageneau notwithstanding). It is because people prefer them, think they are better wines. And that equation is not new. It was true fifty years ago and it is true today. It was and is true in France, and it is true today in France, the U. S. and Australia.

    And given that it is true, it stands to reason that better wines would score higher. But here is the kicker. Why does a 92 point Sv Blc or a 90 point Chenin Blanc or a 93 point Viognier, all of which cost between 25% and 50% of the top CA Chards, need 95 points to be desirable wines.

    The point system need not be turned on its head just so folks can sell more Chenin Blanc. If there were more 90+ point Chenins in CA, the wineries would sell more of it.

  13. Charlie, now I have an image I can’t shake: you on ice skates.

  14. Duncan, I’ve never tasted your sangiovese.

  15. Eldridge says:

    What score did Saintsbury give the manly Rhone?

  16. Steve.

    Let’s remedy that when the time comes. I’ll be happy to send some your way.

    Duncan

  17. He gave it 5 beards, his highest score

  18. Morton Leslie says:

    In the example of the Sangiovese in your post it is clear to me as someone who has not tasted the wine how the wine tastes to you. I know you taste a lot of wines, so I accept that you know it when one is a bit high in acid or green in aroma. In addition your statement about your Platonic standards for quality in a Sangiovese are equally clear, as is the comparison of those standards to the wine. Were I a winery that was disappointed with my score it would be clear to me why my wine didn’t do better with you. Were I a consumer interested in Sangiovese, I would have both an idea of how I could expect the wine to taste as well as a measure of your own regard for its quality.

    Unfortunately, the actual score tells me very little. Though it is a numeric symbol of how close the wine fits to a critic’s Platonic standard, what is that standard? Why didn’t the wine fit that standard? Are these standards cast in stone, or are they flexible and adaptable to something new and unexpected in a wine type?

    Your post shows us that the score has little value at all. To really get a perspective from a critic about how a wine tastes and its level of quality, we must have two paragraphs. Both are objective. One tells us how the wine tastes. The other tells us how that taste fits in the hierarchy of wine quality against a standard according an experts judgment and experience.

    Yesterday, I ran across a winery promoting their wine with a Parker quote about the wine’s “exquisite nose of crushed rocks, acacia flowers, blue, red, and black fruits.” (What a crock!) This is where the majority of wine criticism fails both the winery and the reader. We get served up a number accompanied by an imaginative description that has no bearing on the wine’s actual flavor along with some words telling us how good, or bad the wine. This builds the foundation of wine snobbery and is antithetical to learning.

  19. Charlie:

    You miss the point. The best apple is not supposed to be judged against the best orange. Just as SB is not supposed to be judged against Chardonnay. How artificially reductive can one get?

  20. Having (in my mind) something that is subjective graded on an “objective” scale is problematic enough. But having one scale upon which to grade all white (at least California whites) wines borders on the absurd.

  21. Hey Steven, then why do you send me your wines if it’s all so absurd?

  22. Morton, first off, I work for a publication that uses the 100 point scale. So I respect that. It’s like any other job. You work within the parameters your employer expects of you. If you can’t deal with it, then don’t work there. Secondly, the 100 point system makes sense to me. I’ve written before that I kind of feel it in my bones. To give the Sangiovese in question a score of 86 was both fair and accurate. 86 is a GOOD wine in W.E. hierarchy, just one point below a VERY GOOD wine. By giving it 86 points, I let readers know that, while they can tell from my text that I didn’t particularly care for the wine due to its acidity and greenness, I nonetheless recognize it as a GOOD wine. The scores of 84 and 85 also are GOOD wines in our hierarchy, yet I chose to give that wine the highest possible GOOD score. You know, with all this nit-picking that goes on here with 100 points, typicity, etc., I doubt if there’s any system in the world that would satisfy everybody.

  23. Steven M.

    I compare apples and oranges all the time. So do you.

    My wife puts out cut fruit after dinner sometimes. Wedges or slices as the spirit moves her, of apples, oranges, pears, other fruits plus berries, especially strawberries in season as they are now.

    I sometimes choose one or the other or several. Depending on the flavors I go back for seconds of my favorites.

    So does my 7 year old granddaughter. She also chooses based on what she likes. Pineapple is a really good case in point. Fresh pineapple ranges from green and brutally tart to sweet and succulent.

    When the apples are right and the oranges are not, she knows which one to choose. So do you. And she could rate them on the 100-point scale according to how good they are if challenged to do so.

    What this comes down to is that we make choices about quality all the time. Sometimes they are apples and oranges choices. Sometimes they are Wonder Bread and Acme Baking, but we do make those choices.

    So why, if Wonder Bread is still Wonder Bread and Spam is still Spam must there be a 100-point rating for the best of them.

    And why is Chenin Blanc any different? There is a reason why your handsome little winery out there in Livermore makes more Pinot Noir than Chenin Blanc. And it is not just that you get a higher price for Pinot.

    You get a higher price for Pinot than for Chenin because, on the whole, it makes more desirable wine. You know that and I know that and the wine-buying public knows that.

    So, why should a wine critic like Steve H. or Charlie O. or the Emporer act as if 95-point Chenin arrived with the same frequency as 95-point Pinot? Critics are not cheerleaders. They are critics. If you and other wineries want a market for Chenin, please start making really good ones. I would bet that you would find an instant acceptance of really well-made Chenin Blanc. Not just technically clean, without flaws Chenin Blanc, but tasty, ephemeral, ethereal Chenin Blanc of the type that takes your breath away like the best Pinots do.

    So, far, I would posit that Chenin of that quality has not yet been seen in these parts. But when it does, I will be standing there jumping up and down and cheering. Until then, Chenin is not going to get a bunch of 95 point ratings–and should not.

  24. I like fact you mentioned our Chenin Blanc in your post! 🙂 But of course, I did. On a completely different topic Steve, I was in New York last week and we had TONS of success selling our el cheapo Chenin Blanc to NYC soms. They just loved it. I think domestic Chenin is making a comeback. And I’m glad to see – it’s a great wine at a ridiculously low price.

    In fact, I think I’ll reach for a glass right now…

    Happy Friday all.

  25. Charlie tells it like it is!

  26. Bill, a lot of the Best Buys I’ve given to Chenin over the years are for Dry Creek’s. Tasty, dry, savory wines.

  27. This post reminds so vividly why my wines don’t go to “professional” reviewers. Know your audience is right. The good thing is I don’t recall any pro reviewer dudes walking into my tasting room and supporting me, my wines and my wine philosophy. To look at a wine with out looking at all the components as Steve seems to be saying is simply looking at only half or less of the whole system, which really only gives a portion of the story… Certainly not all, but as Steve and many of the other “pro’s” have stated, they don’t look at numbers. That’s why Steve could give a guy like Hobbs or KB realllly high scores for shriveled raisins that have been tweaked, engineered and manipulated to the nth degree. How long do you guys think this unsustainable judging method will last until all you get in your daily wine arrivals is liquid brown sugar and flat cherry soda?

    Keyboard connoisseurs encouraging California Cocktails

  28. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve, I didn’t mean for my comments to be interpreted as a slam on the 100 point scale. And I meant to have my comment subtly compliment you for being on what I consider the right track, given the realities of assessing hundreds of wines a month. In fact, I believe that a hundred point system that is really a 40 point system added on to a 60 point base can be as useful as any point system, if the points are assigned on the basis of various quality factors in the wine. Color, clarity, aroma, bouquet, taste, and general qualitative assessments about the integration of these sensory characteristics.

    I am beyond complaining about the 100 point system. It is not going away. My mission in life now is to make it relevant. I meant to slam any point system or critical analysis that does not illuminate or educate. Creating fictitious descriptions of a wine (crushed rocks, blue, red, and black fruits) to impress the reader or merely adding hedonistic references to a score (Wonderful, exciting, delicious….95 points) is lazy and unprofessional. And believe me, I was not talking about you or the Wine Enthusiast. If I did I would go bother someone else.

  29. Charlie:

    No doubt I make choices…the succulent orange to the dried-out apple. We all have preferences. But that is not what this is about at all.

    I assume that you and Steve and all the others who rate wine have an idea what your ideal Chardonnay or Pinot or Cabernet taste, smell and feel like. The wine in the flight that gets closest to that “ideal” picture, YOUR ideal picture, gets the highest score. No problem with that.

    The idea, though, that you would compare a Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris or Trebbiano to that same Chardonnay picture…one alien to the varieties to which you are comparing it, is just hinky. It’s like saying the Boston Red Sox are a better baseball team than the Boston Bruins.

    I submit wines for review; I’ve gotten scores I didn’t think I deserved, both high and low. I’m not complaining about the system. I am just seeking to understand a part of it that, as practiced by many of you, doesn’t make much sense.

    BTW, the Celtics are a better hockey team than the Patriots.

  30. Hey, Randy, you forgot to mention Merry Edwards, DuMol, Williams Selyem, Chasseur, Dehlinger, Rochioli, Kistler and about 400 other Pinot makers.

    Question: How many Pinot makers actually make wine the way you want to dictate? I am guessing that it is no more than a handful.

  31. I feel sorry for the foothills winemaker — frankly, all winemakers and marketers — who a) don’t know better than to tell a critic what other people think and b) who have staked their business on what any critic thinks.

    This thread illustrates the agendas, biases, strictures and desperation facing the industry.

    Critics are an important voice. But they are but one voice.

    Winemakers: it’s okay to be insecure; all creative people are, in some measure. But it is bad business to stake your success on “tasters” versus “drinkers.”

  32. Charley’s analogy to fruit is apt. Putting aside that kids will automatically go to the ripe pineapple, he acknowledges that all the fruits have the potential of being the most appealing on a given day. An Orange wedge, he says, may be may get the 90+ score, as it were, on one day, an apple may scroe highest on another. All the fresh fruits put out by Mrs. O have the potential of hitting high marks.

    But I don’t think this reflects the Heimoffian approach. Sure the occasional Sangio or Chenin may make it into the 90’s but these are the exceptions that prove Steve’s rule which dismays the winemakers-Steve, John and Randy among others. Which is why I made my crack in our last go around about which types of wine producers submit to the WE. And I don’t think I am taking a cheap shot; I believe this follows from what Steve has acknowledged.

    To overcome this hierarchical approach, I wish “the Curmudgeon”–Jerry Mead–were still alive and syndicated or someone who wrote as well as he did and followed his methodology were on the scene. As I’ve mentioned in the past, we do need a two score system, but not the one proposed by Tilda and David. Mr. Mead would publish an absolute score and a value score. In these financially perilous times, consumers would appreciate learning about a wine that fell below the $50+ wines in quality, but for 15 bucks deserved an equally high score for QPR. Many more non Cabs/Pinots/Chards would made the best buy list (and yes I know all the mags publish such lists, but they’re still bedeviled by all those 85-89 scores that run down the margin). Nothing replaces 90-95 scores even if weighted toward affordability.

  33. Charles says:

    You seriously think that a wine that DOESN’T go with food has more merit then one that does. That food friendly wines are not of high quality. Give me a break. That should be one of the most important components of the wine otherwise I suggest having a cocktail instead.

  34. Steve,
    I think Steven M had a good suggestion – use the score for one purpose and your verbal abilities for another. I mean, if you must have a score then, like standardized testing, you must have this very limited list of expectations. While one might hold the expectations of Sauvignon Blanc to perform like a great Pouilly-Fume like a Dag, one still might be allowed to enjoy the unusual Merry Edwards and express this enjoyment. Whatever. This struggle is why I do not give scores but only do verbal reviews. But then again, I do not work for a magazine that is purchased as a buying guide.

  35. Steve,
    I empathize with the idea of a Platonic ideal of perfection, “a wine … in which all the parts are in the most exquisite harmony”, for the highest score. Educated palates like yours can easily grasp this transcendental feature, or holistic attribute; that outstanding wine can be greater than the sum of its parts. This concept seems to be one solid fundament for the sensory-hedonic evaluation of wine.
    Still, IMHO, it takes one more step to evaluate wine. An example: Randy gave a perfect description of the taste of wines made through reductive fermentation (rotary fermentors, vinimatics, carbonic maceration): flat cherry soda. These (low risk, low cost) fermentation processes have always been associated with the industrial amelioration of cheap, low quality wines from overcropped/unripe grapes. Regrettably, these days, there is a huge number of upscale, high-priced wines (Pinot Noir in California, Nebbiolo in Piemont, Touriga Nacional in Portugal, Shiraz in Australia…) being produced in this way. And, even though, it is straightforward to detect these wines (residual gas, dead yeast, fizzy, one-dimensional, sour cherry soda flavors, salty…), it is rare, almost unimaginable, to read a single line, from any renowned wine critic (perhaps with the sole exception of Jancis Robinson), mentioning this demeaning feature in a tasting note.
    So my question is: why wine critics despise most objective attributes of grape growing and winemaking when evaluating wine?

  36. The problem is that wine is too subjective to place a numerical value, and as much as we all talk about the 100 point system it is in all reality a 20 point system 80-100. Sadly for too many it is a 10 point system. Points reflect opinion whether that is what you intended or not. Criticism is opinion, no matter how intellectually we want to dress it up. There is no question that you have a great palate and tremendous experience in tasting wine, but your observations beyond the basic structure are opinion. You perceive fruit flavors, spice character, mineral character and you relate your perceptions. That is the problem, perception is not reality. A critic unlike an artist has to justify his art, and that art is the informed opinion.

  37. Gregg, you are correct that much of what I do is opinion. However it is, as you say, informed opinion, like that of an art or film critic. If you want “fact” as opposed to opinion, you should obtain a complete laboratory analysis of a wine.

  38. Peter, I’m not sure I understand your last question: “why wine critics despise most objective attributes of grape growing and winemaking when evaluating wine?” But if I interpret it correctly, you’re asking why I shy away from attributing certain techniques when I write about wine. The answer is, because I may not necessarily know what techniques were used. Could I say that a wine was carbonically macerated if I don’t know for a fact that it was? No. I can say that it tastes a bit fizzy or gassy. I can say that it tastes like a pop soda drink. But I can’t imply technique when I don’t know. Besides, I think that the consumer doesn’t care HOW a wine was made. She wants to know what the wine tastes and feels like. That’s what I do.

  39. Gibson, well I do work for a magazine that gives scores, so there you have it. The one thing I might wish is that I could write longer reviews, but that isn’t possible in any wine magazine I’m aware of. I’ve often said my “dream job” as a critic would be to review two wines a day, and then write a thousand words on each. I’d write all about the history, the vineyard, the technique, vintages, food pairing, how the wine changes in the glass. Basically a Gerald Asher-type essay of the type he used to do for Gourmet RIP. But that ain’t gonna happen.

  40. Charles, you ask a very serious question, one I will attempt to answer. I think of this as two ends of a spectrum: “versatile” wines vs. “elite” wines. A versatile wine is one that is acidic and a little direct, like Albarino. It’s a wonderful wine you can drink as a cocktail or with almost anything that wants a dry, crisp white. But I’m not going to give a high score to an Albarino. Then there are elite wines, such as a good Burgundy or Pinot Noir. They are more limited in what you would pair them with. Generally the great wines of the world are said to be best with the cuisine of their regions. I would drink a great Russian River Pinot Noir with grilled salmon or roast lamb or a nice steak. But I wouldn’t call Pinot Noir particularly “versatile” when it comes to food. A versatile red wine might be something like Handley’s Syrah from Dry Creek Valley ($20). Another way to think of it is in terms of the usefulness of a wine. A $70 Pinot Noir, even one that gets 100 points, is not a terribly useful wine because it’s too expensive to drink everyday. A $15 Cotes-du-Rhone is a very useful wine, and at 87 points, it may in fact be a better wine 99% of the time.

  41. Tom, actually at Wine Enthusiast we do have something like a “two score system.” That is our system of Special Designations. For example, if I give 88 points to a $13 wine, I would automatically award it a “Best Buy.” That alerts the reader that it’s not just an 88 point wine (not that there’s anything wrong with 88 points) but a wine of considerable interest and value. Or I might have a $45 wine that earns 93 points but that has such interest (for whatever reasons) that I choose to award it an Editor’s Choice. So these are dual-track ratings systems. The Special Designations are meant to give a bit more depth and nuance to the simple point score.

  42. Fred, I often feel sorry for winemakers too. But then, I feel sorry for a lot of people these days — including myself. Life’s a beach, then you die.

  43. “Point score reflects quality, not my personal opinion”

    “…what I do is opinion. However it is, as you say, informed opinion, like that of an art or film critic. If you want “fact” as opposed to opinion, you should obtain a complete laboratory analysis of a wine.”

    So would quality fall under opinion? Or “fact” ?

    Also you said that you would never give a high rating to Albarino, does that mean that Albarino is never high quality?

  44. David Snyder, CS says:

    Steve,

    You know better…

    But, I explained, I’m not a sommelier. I’m a wine critic. I’m not looking for food-friendly wines,… ???????

    Are you kidding me with this comment????

    Wine IS food… Anyone who considers themselves a serious fan of wine, let alone a critic, should only be looking for and admiring wines that are compatible with food.

    Any moment a wine is assessed in a vacuum, monolithically, on a pedestal in a glass box, without the perspective of potential food compatibility is also the exact moment when whoever it is assessing the wine has demonstrated clearly they have missed the point completely.

    I have been in the fine wine business for over 15 yrs and it never ceases to amaze me how many consumers ‘…don’t think about food when I’m choosing wine’

    It is statements like yours that help pervade this and keep the American consumer in that glass box, in that vacuum reaching for that wine on that pedestal wondering ‘What’s Missing’?, what am I not getting?…

    Well you are not getting the true experience, or understanding of wine and what it has brought us for millenia. That’s all not much

    Unfortunately some may never know… It is up to you and me and others in this industry to help them understand regionality, typicity, etc. and especially history and why wine comes to us today as it does. As a great companion to food… Tried and tested through selection, trial and error, and human experience.

    The two should never be seperated. They don’t want to be., and they don’t want you or I seperating them. Their are already to many people in the world that don’t know they should never have one without the other.

  45. When people trust their own palate and stop worrying if a wine is rated 90+ before they actually read the tasting notes, then maybe the literary aspect will be as important as the number it’s accompanied with. It would also be nice if certain publications would actually have notes that describe a wine rated 83 and below(thankfully not Wine Enthusiast).

  46. Well, this has turned out to be a very smart and entertaining thread.

    Note to Steven M. I think we agree but are having a problem with words. One does not use a Chardonnay standard to judge other whites, but one does use a standard for wine excellence having to do with things like depth, range, balance, intensity, varietal precision, geographic adherance, usefulness with food (which I comment on all the time and have since the very beginnings of my rag), complexity and pure hedonistic enjoyment. Ageworthiness helps but is not a requirement so much as the potential for a wine to reach the full potential that wine offers.

    I like Albarino/Alvarinho but it does not excel on all the standards listed above. Riesling does, and so I tend to think more highly of best Rieslings than I do of the best Albarinos. I am not judging on a Riesling standard or on a Chardonnay standard but on a wine greatness standard.

    And, according to my palate, the best Chenin Blanc in CA rarely reaches the same heights as dozens and dozens of best Chardonnays. It is not the standard of judgment that falls short. It is the wine.

    And, Steven, these days, the Celtics may be better at any sport than the other teams in Boston. Oh, and while we are being silly, you obviously understand that the Bruins are history this year and the Celtics not, thus making the Celtics the BETTER TEAM–and that is the comparison, not whether the Sox or Bruins or the Celtics are the better hockey team.

  47. Yes, Steve, as I noted, and so does WS have such categories. But my point was the almighty power of 90 pts and above is what drives buying decisions… coupled with price. I’m arguing for a composite score that when you take into account cost an 88 pt wine becomes 94. Jerry published both and this approach does far more than designate a few wines for Best Buys out of those wines above 85 and below 90–“the middle of the bell curve” wines. All of those wines that have particularly attractive prices should get a 90+ scores IMHO.

  48. Maybe comparisons with U.S. Presidents are apt. We all agree that Washington, Lincoln, FDR were great Presidents, right? They were 100 points. On the other hand we have Chester A. Arthur, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. Not so great Presidents. Same with wine types. Some great, some not so.

  49. A brief note on causality.

    I totally agree with Steve that wine critics, those who like Steve and me and the rest of us who write for the public and are examining the character of wine, have no business discussing causality.

    Sure, we recognize the character of oak, the influence of sur lie aging, the character of fixed sulfur or free sulfur, and we can and do mention some of those things, but our job is to describe the wines we taste in a manner that our readers will recognize the wine when they pull the cork, to tell our readers about our judgments of quality and to suggest (at least for some of us), the best uses of those wines. The latter point is a personal one, and it is helpful to readers but not a universal requirement.

    Oh, and we do not judge by a single, narrow, meet-the-golden-rule standard. Otherwise, it would be impossible to give high scores to wines as disparate as Freestone Chardonnay with its less than 14% alcohol and its stern but deep and still-developing fruit and to David Ramey Chardonnay from the Hudson Vineyard with its rich, juicy, more rounded fruit.

    Sure, we all have limits and volume is not everything. I cannot remember liking many wines that taste like raisins, Randy, or are fizzy, one-dimensional and taste like sour cherry juice, Mr. O’Connor (but are the Aussies wrong to like sparkling Shiraz?), so please, let’s try to keep centered in this discussion.

    Critics taste wine, not technique. We know the differences (most of us) between good and bad wine. We disagree because we have different palates and we agree because we tend (most of us) to have a pretty good idea of where greatness lies. Sure, Dan Berger would rather slash his wrists than drink some of the wine that Robert Parker recommends. And my rag tends to score all wine a few points lower than most other critics. But none of those differences begins to suggest that most of would fail to recognize technically flawed wines or that we have an obligation to provide the chemical analysis of the flaw.

    It is enough to say that a wine smells vinegary or sharp or like airplane glue without telling the readers about the legal limits of volatile acidity. We describe character and give our assessments of quality. Some of us write 25 words; some of us write 40-60 words; some of us write 50-150 words, but very few of us need or should attempt to discuss causality rather than character.

  50. Gregg, what I meant was my opinion of its quality. Substitute “judgment” for opinion and maybe it makes more sense. My “opinion” of a wine might be colored by my affection for the winemaker, or something like that. My judgment of its quality is not affected by anything other than my perception. Of course, we could get into a massive epistemological argument over the nature of perception, but this perhaps is not the best place for that.

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