Food & Wine Thursdays: The 100 Point Scale is Dead, of Pity for Wine Hath it Died

I’ve been perplexed in the last several months by online screeds titled “In Defense of the 100 Point Rating Scale” or some variation thereof. My perplexity wasn’t that I disagreed with the articles’ reasoning or conclusion (although I usually did), it’s that I didn’t realize wine writers still believed in the 100 point scale as something worth defending–as something beyond an arbitrary tool used by an influential part of the print-based wine media.

I’m not going to delve into the finer points of absurdity in rating anything subjective on something as purportedly specific as the 100 point scale, those arguments have already been laid out by writers attacking the scale from a process standpoint. But that’s a waste of time–you can argue process back and forth into infinity based on whether or not you agree, simply, with the process.

I will instead argue it substantively on the merits of its concept. I argue that A: the process is substantively meaningless rather than inherently flawed because B: in application, the use of it provides no net benefit to any party other than he who awards the score and he who receives a “good or great” score, commonly a score of 90 points or more. Such a system, while not inherently tautological, is always a step away from becoming a self-fulfilling loop.

Since this is a blog designed largely for wine novices or hobbyists, here’s a brief genesis of the 100 point scale. Prior to the late 1970’s, most English-language wine criticism came out of England and was written in a florid, cerebral style. Typically wines were critiqued using descriptors and nothing more. If a writer did use a scale, it was a 20-point system not dissimilar from A-F letter grades in schools. But wine criticism was the province of a relatively tiny group of geeks and premium wine sold largely on its reputation. To put it in the context of comic books, back then the critics were the R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar fans, while the majority of buyers bought Superman and Spiderman based on the reputation of the franchise, not necessarily the inherent quality of specific issues. But just as underground comics surged into the mainstream in the 1990s, the audience for fine wine grew, especially as California wine production grew in esteem and, in the late 1970’s, American wine enthusiasts began publishing their own tasting notes utilizing a 100 point rating scale. This movement was led primarily by Robert M. Parker, Jr. in Maryland and Wine Spectator, originally in California, now in New York City.

While the scale has always been meaningless, it did have significant worth in its early days. First, the world of fine wine–that is, not “jug” wine–was inherently knowable then. Widespread quality domestic wine production was in its infancy and there were a fraction of the number of producers there are now. Quality imported wine was limited largely to the well-known regions of France and Italy. Did drinkers in San Francisco and Manhattan have access to more eclectic wines from small importers? Sure–Kermit Lynch was starting out at this time, for instance. And there were importers who dealt with goods intended for ethnic markets, so savvy buyers could track down unusual wines from Spain, Portugal, Germany and beyond if they knew how to access those expatriate communities. But, in a very general sense, fine wine in the late 1970’s was California, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Northern Italy. A critic, and especially a small team of critics, could taste through much of what was available in the same way that a literate Englishman with enough leisure time in the 17th century could read nearly every printed book. Did this give their scoring system any more meaning? No. But at least it had the worth to the consumer of representing the opinions of tasters who had experienced a significant portion of fine wine available in America.

The second and much more simple (but more important) reason these ratings had more worth when they were first being developed was that the writers were not beholden to advertisers. Parker got his start with a newsletter that was funded entirely by subscriptions and produced it part time until it was established enough where he could quit his law career. Wine Spectator was largely a regional San Diego-area magazine that took mostly local advertisements. Wine Spectator is now a advertising behemoth, often referred to as “Wine Speculator” by independent-minded wine enthusiasts and, although Parker’s Wine Advocate remains independently-funded, the size of the machine he’s created behind it requires unwavering adherence to the validity of the system he pioneered so as to assure his subscribers that, despite the proliferation of alternative sources for wine recommendations, there is still a point in paying Parker specifically for his ratings. As I mentioned in a previous post, he has gone as far as deleting critical (but non-spam) comments from his web forums before finally putting all of his web content behind a pay wall.

So why then is that no longer the case? Why do we no longer need Parker, and Wine Spectator and the other old-guard American wine journalist’s 100 point scale? Because it’s limited worth is now virtually worthless and the process behind it is so transparently–however unintentionally–corrupt as to be laughable.

So it’s clear why the 100 point system is beneficial to those who award the points: it builds the shell of legitimacy necessary to continue to garner subscribers and advertisers. And it’s clear why the system benefits those wineries whose wines receive good scores: it drives sales of those wines, particularly high-end sales, to a small but lucrative demographic. But why isn’t it beneficial to that same demographic? Why is it of no benefit or detriment?

Despite the proliferation of diverse wines available in the market, the 100 point media continues to generally focus on the same wines they always have. The only other regions that have really wrestled their way into esteem are Spain and, at least in the mid-2000s, Australia. And those regions’ elevation to 95+ point rarity interestingly coincided with a move driven not by wine makers but by importers and negociants to produce wines in the bigger, more intense style favored by these critics. It’s not a style that’s inherently better but it is a style that deliberately apes Napa, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Tuscany–the wines that Parker and company were weaned on.

When other regions are mentioned, it’s often either through cursory reviews buried in the back of the magazine or it will be in a feature devoted to, say, wine of the entire former Eastern Bloc when the tiniest sub-appellations of Napa or Bordeaux are given the same treatment. It’s a disparity that suggests that these regions are oddities, a sort of paternalistic pat on the head with assertions of “good effort” and “hang in there, you’ll get this wine thing yet.” It’s condescending at best when you consider that many of these regions have been making wine–quality wine–for as long or longer than France or Italy. They have their own traditions and practices, climates and terroirs, as well as varying levels of availability in the Anglo-American sphere. They’re not inherently better or worse, just intrinsically different.

By marginalizing much of the wine world, these critics do their audience a disservice. Judging a wine from Croatia against a wine from Paso Robles is unfair to Croatia. Does the critic deliberately judge the Plavac directly against a Zinfandel? Probably not. But critics who have generally favored ripe, concentrated wines will have a biased palate and also will not have the frame of reference to properly contextualize these less familiar wines. By ignoring or underreporting on many global wine regions they are cutting off their audience from experiencing more wine. The readers of Parker and Wine Spectator are wine buyers who will largely make decisions based upon these publications’ imprimatur. Some will make their wine drinking decisions solely on such. Presuming that the service of media is to inform so as to advance informed discourse, providing incomplete information and confusing wines they like with wines they should recommend, these publications are doing their audience a disservice, regardless of whether the audience views it as such. This isn’t a reader response argument.

It’s also doing a disservice to “wine” by shutting off a small but important group of wine enthusiasts–those who make their decisions based on the scores of these critics and magazines–from the complete scope of global wine. Buyers won’t stop buying wine if all of a sudden scores disappear, they’ll just be more engaged in their wine tasting and more engaged with the proprietors of whatever shops they frequent.

(This evidence of under-representation is based upon my own search of www.winespectator.com when it was free last November. I searched for wines from several small, well-regarded boutique California-based import portfolios and found fewer than 25% of those wines reviewed, with current vintages reviewed even fewer.)

Parker’s Wine Advocate asserts in every issue: “…wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full time wine professionals recognize.” Which is wonderfully false but also a well-worded ass-covering statement. Wine, food, sex, music, art and other products whose sole or primary purpose is to deliver stimulation and pleasure are so wildly different from other consumer products. Can a car be judged on its visceral appeal? Sure. But it can also be judged on its metrics: price, fuel economy, 0-60 speed, braking distance, crash safety. And these are more or less objective metrics that can be judged across cars in its category and, for the average car buyer, achievement in the specific metrics a buyer is looking for is most important. Raw visceral appeal sells cars to teenagers, middle-aged men, and may help a buyer finally differentiate a front runner among functionally similar vehicles. Most consumer products either work or don’t work and practical functionality forms the basis of consumer reviews. Visceral critiques, while often interesting and sometimes helpful, form only a small component of the finished product.

Conversely, while pleasure-stimulating activities like wine, food, music, art and–yes–sex can be evaluated to some degree on marginally objective criteria like form, function and response, the most significant part of any critique will be nothing more than a personal response drawn from the breadth of knowledge and personal preferences of the critic. If your tastes align with a critic, then he will often produce good recommendations, if they don’t then maybe he won’t. Of course, wine critics do have the benefit of evaluating fine wine which, to all but the most particular, will usually succeed in delivering some degree of pleasure.

(Short of it causing physical pain, a blowjob’s still a blowjob, afterall.)

To me, evaluating these types of products and activities is essentially a binary proposition. After considering the product and all accompanying metrics–price, availability, significant formal flaws, context for drinking the wine–would I recommend or not? Thumbs up or thumbs down? I admire Roger Ebert as a film critic because he’s quite good at contextualizing the films he reviews and quite cogent in articulating how well a film succeeds or fails against the expectations the film sets for itself. A heavy drama is judged differently than an action film, a political satire differently than light comedy. I have drunk Napa Cabs for $50 and Champagnes for $80 that have been worth every penny. I’ve also drunk imports from Trader Joe’s for $5.99 that were giant wastes of money and literal headaches.

I don’t care if you drink wines that are scored well in major wine publications. If you like the wine, you like the wine. I do think you will be, generally speaking, spending too much money for a product that is in many cases merely adequate or even inferior when judged against similar wines at much lower prices, but as long as you know that and don’t care–if that critical imprimatur gives you pleasure–then go ahead, drink away. A good guide’s a good guide–I don’t look to proscribe. Also, if utilizing your own 100 point scale to manage your own tasting notes works for you, fantastic. You know your likes and dislikes. You know what your 100 point wine is against your 80 point wine. The mistake is thinking that any institutional taster is any less subjective, he or she is (probably) merely more experienced.

I think it’s telling that some of the more forward-thinking publications are eschewing scores and ratings entirely. The San Francisco Chronicle no longer attaches ratings to its wine reviews (the only major newspaper to do so, as far as I know) and The New York Times utilizes a basic four star system. Many independent writers don’t issue ratings or they utilize a basic drink/don’t drink approach. These publications and writers are held by virtually everyone I know in the new generation of wine professionals to be more legitimate and thoughtful sources of wine information than Parker or Wine Spectator.

So it’s unfortunate that these critics who were so influential and so important in shaping the beginning of America’s rise as a wine-educated nation are ignoring the very generation that now consumes the most wine per capita. They’re assuring their own continued spiral into irrelevance.

The second-most important step that Parker, Wine Spectator, et al can do is stop issuing 100 point ratings and take a more active role in exploring all the world’s wine regions on their own merits. That’s because the most important thing they can do is spend more time in the wine bars and shops of Brooklyn or San Francisco’s Mission District or Eastside Los Angeles and see what the wine-savvy 20 and 30-somethings are drinking and enjoying on a large scale. It’s not cheap wine, it’s wine from a broad range of prices from all over the world and all over the United States. It’s weird small production wines being sold by the pallet out of storefronts in Silver Lake and Berkeley that haven’t touched the lips of anyone at the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate. It’s wine bars in Echo Park and SoMa serving hundreds of glasses a month of delicious unpronounceable Hungarian reds. It’s a quirky wine bar in the East Village devoting an entire summer to Riesling.

To improve American wine discourse at all levels, it’s time to finally bury the long-dead 100 point rating system. For the 100 point rating system is dead, of pity for wine hath it died.

(Which has been a very long way of explaining why so many people in the web-based wine community are giving James Suckling such a hard time.)

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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24 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: The 100 Point Scale is Dead, of Pity for Wine Hath it Died

  1. James says:

    Brilliant exposition on the topic- I thoroughly agree.

  2. Thomas Matthews says:

    Thank you for a cogent explanation of your dissatisfaction with the 100-point scale.

    However, I see no inherent conflict between what you appear to value — the “quirky wines” served in bars in Brooklyn or San Francisco — and Wine Spectator’s attempt to share information about wine and the people and places who produce it. Terroir may have devoted “an entire summer to Riesling,” but we reviewed more than 600 Rieslings over the past 12 months.

    I was struck by this remark: “the most significant part of any critique will be nothing more than a personal response drawn from the breadth of knowledge and personal preferences of the critic. If your tastes align with a critic, then he will often produce good recommendations, if they don’t then maybe he won’t. ”

    Each review in Wine Spectator is “nothing more” — but nothing less — than a personal response to a specific wine, a response unbiased by knowledge of the producer or the price. The tasting note attempts to characterize the wine, while the score attempts to evaluate its quality relative to other wines.

    In 2010, Wine Spectator reviewed more than 15,000 newly-released wines from more than 20 countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece, Israel… While acknowledging that we cannot review every wine that becomes available in the US, we do our best to cover both established and emerging wine regions as best we can.

    All of our reviewers have many years of experience tasting wine, and each undergoes a rigorous apprenticeship program to ensure a fundamental consistency in Wine Spectator’s approach. All are passionate about wine and committed to the ethical standards of fair, accurate journalism.

    We agree that wine drinkers should judge our recommendations against their own preferences, and we hope that they will find Wine Spectator a source of reliable information and guidance. As MRI, an independent research firm, estimates our readership at 2.9 million people, it seems that there is a significant, and growing, community that finds value in what we do.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  3. David D. says:

    Thank you for your prompt and thoughtful response.

    I am aware that Wine Spectator reviews wines from all over the world, but would you not agree that there is a certain emphasis in terms of what the bulk of your pages are devoted to? I don’t recall seeing an entire issue–or even a cover story–devoted to, say, the Dao or wines from Arizona.

    I did not intend to say that I necessarily value “quirky” wines more than mainstream wines. Burgundy is still my go-t0 desert island wine and an expensive Napa Cab–(the Howell Mountain Estate from White Cottage Ranch–unrated though it appears to be) is among my favorite wines in the world. What I meant to do was illustrate what those drinkers who exist largely outside of the sphere of your readership are enjoying on a large scale. It was also meant to illustrate that there is a large and growing base of wine drinkers that recognizes the wine world for what it is: large and unknowable, open to independent exploration without the guiding hand of faceless critics in hilltop towers.

    And in theory you’re right, your critics’ assessments are nothing more than a personal response to a specific wine. But in practice, those responses and specifically the score rating awarded have a significant impact on the buying behavior of a significant minority of wine drinkers. I know firsthand that there are some wine buyers (both retail and consumer) who make purchasing decisions because a wine received a 90 instead of an 89, despite the razor-thin difference in perceived quality that indicates. These buyers don’t necessarily know your methodology, they don’t necessarily keep regular tabs on your critics, they’re buying mostly (or solely) because of a score slapped on a shelf talker or hung around the neck of the bottle.

    Buyers should judge your recommendations against their preferences but many of them don’t. They take your preferences as their preferences.

    The purpose of my article was essentially this: I’m 28 years old. I’ve worked in and around wine professionally since I’ve been legally allowed to. Me and my colleagues in my so-called “demographic cohort” in the wine community in California have little interest in your publication, Wine Advocate and the 100 Point wine media in general for the reasons I articulated. That’s not meant as a judgment on the quality of your magazine, only its relevance to us. In 20 years are we all of a sudden going to change our minds and start loving to rate wines in the context of a 100 point scale just because we can now afford first growth Bordeaux? Probably not. For us, that system is already dead–a relic from a wine world that existed before we were born, or at least before we could legally drink and definitely before we knew enough to be passionate about serious wine.

    (And I also don’t want to exclude the many wine professionals I know who are in their 40s and 50s who also find little relevance in the 100 Point wine media.)

    Obviously your publication is successful and it has a significant readership, but rectitude doesn’t come from acclamation.

    If your publication’s financial success is dependent upon issuing scores, my own assumption is that there are difficult times in store a few years down the road. But I don’t think your success has to be dependent on your scores. You have talented, knowledgeable writers who produce excellent tasting notes. Why can’t it be about the writing and the information as an end to itself?

    As the pre-eminent national wine publication, isn’t it time to lead the way for a new model? Leave Parker his points, they won’t be worth much soon anyway.

  4. Pingback: The 100-Point Scale is Dead, of Pity for Wine Hath it Died | Wine Resources Reviews and Ratings

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  6. Thomas Matthews says:

    David,

    Let me respond to some comments in your response.

    It’s true that we have never run a cover story on the wines of Arizona. But we have reviewed more than 125 wines from Arizona, and Arizona winemaker (and rocker) James Maynard Keenan was a guest blogger on WineSpectator.com for more than a year. That is to say: we understand how big the wine world is, and we too are passionate to explore every nook and cranny we can. We don’t claim to be encyclopedic, but I’d wager we cover more wines, grapes and regions than any other wine-centered publication.

    Nor are we “faceless critics in hilltop towers” as you suggest. You can see our photos and read our blogs and note our preferences in every review we sign. You are setting up a straw man; we are journalists and wine lovers who have devoted ourselves to the same goals as you: understanding, appreciating and enjoying the wide world of wine.

    I don’t see anything wrong with wine drinkers buying wines based on Wine Spectator recommendations, especially in regions or from producers they don’t know. I buy books based on book reviews, go to restaurants based on restaurant reviews, even choose doctors based on the recommendations of other doctors. What’s wrong with benefiting from the hard-earned expertise of others? If, after trying the wines we recommend, those drinkers find the wines are not to their taste, well, then they can look elsewhere for guidance.

    Your line of criticism seems to imply that the wines you think are wonderful are very different from the wines we rate highly, so that our recommendations would be opposed. Is that the case? Our preferences are on record: look for the high scores. What about yours? Are there many specific wines, or entire regions or vintages, where you think Wine Spectator is simply wrong? That would be worth a debate. I find it less interesting to debate whether the scale on which we rank our preferences is more or less defensible than the scale on which you rank your preferences.

    Finally, I do not believe that Wine Spectator’s success is dependent on issuing scores. Our goal is to educate and entertain people, and engage them in the world of wine. We cover business, political and science news stories as they pertain to wine. We offer advice to travelers who enjoy places where good wine can be found. We profile people who make, sell and collect wine. We write about coffee and chocolate and cheese and spirits. Reducing Wine Spectator to a handful of numbers is a distortion of who we are and what we do. It is principally “about the writing and the information,” as you put it. But it is also about being willing to explain our preferences and our judgments about particular wines, and scores are a transparent way of being honest and specific. Our readers want that, and we will continue to give them our guidance as fairly, honestly and expertly as we can.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

    • DavidJD82 says:

      Thomas-

      Thank you for your follow up. Let’s begin–

      Why, then, haven’t you run a cover story on wines from Arizona? As I mentioned before, it’s one thing to bury reviews in the back of a magazine and another thing to have enthusiasts and wine makers like Maynard James Keenan blog on your website, but cover stories and features in your magazine are how you draw strong attention to the underexplored. Perhaps one month you can afford to axe yet another cover story about a 50-something mustachioed Napa wine maker and do something underexplored?

      While you may cover more WINES you definitely don’t cover more REGIONS. That distinction probably goes to the World Atlas of Wine. And if you compare a 1975 World Atlas with a 2010 World Atlas, you’ll notice a significant change in its scope and emphases.

      I also don’t see anything wrong with consumers buying wine based on Spectator scores or reviews. That’s their prerogative. I just don’t think you should rate your wines on a 100-point scale. It’s a thought-terminating cliche. Consumer decisions that result are based largely (in some cases, entirely) on the score. Not the notes. Not the dialogue with the wine, wine maker, or wine merchant. Yes, in an ideal world the average Wine Spectator-reading consumer reads every issue cover-to-cover and uses it to inform their decisions. In reality, they see a score on a shelf-talker and buy a wine.

      I do take my recommendations for doctors from other doctors. Restaurants from chefs and waiters and trusted culinary-minded friends. Wineries to visit from winery staff, wine makers and wine sellers. I don’t take recommendations, however, from “Doctor Spectator Magazine” or Zagat or wine publications. And, I think increasingly, drinkers are finding your recommendations wanting and going elsewhere, exactly as you suggest they do. I take my fitness advice from physically fit, active friends and trainers. I don’t take it from Men’s Health. Wine Spectator is increasingly becoming like Men’s Health–there are only so many ways you can write the same article about running.

      I have no doubt that your staff is a well-tasted, intelligent, and thorough crew. But why then the dearth of articles on the underexplored? Whenever I bring up this point, you mention that you review all kinds of wines. It can’t help but sound a bit like the “I have a lot of black friends” disclaimer prior to a bigoted statement. That’s fine that you review them, but do you write about them? Do you give them scores above 90-92 points? It’s one thing to acknowledge their existence, or even that there are good examples, but do you do anything to elevate them?

      As far as specifics where I think Spectator has gotten/gets it wrong–yeah, I’ve got examples. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m including some wines or regions that got 90+ from you or that you’ve written about recently since it hasn’t been since I was working wine retail several years ago that I read your magazine with monthly regularity, but (and this list is by no means inclusive)….

      AUSTRALIA: Screwed the pooch with this one. Between your scores and the marketing efforts of the Australian government, you inflated a bubble whose bursting is still having rippling effects in the Australian wine economy. In the end, it was a gun with one bullet, facilitated by 16% alcohol Shiraz mania. For what it’s worth, in 2006 I worked in a successful wine shop in Berkeley which had all of ONE Australian wine the entire time I worked there, despite it being peak Shirazfest time.

      SPAIN: You’ve favored immediate, ripe, oaky, front-loaded wines from producers like Bodegas El Nido over more traditional terroir-oriented producers. It has facilitated in some parts–thankfully not many–the destruction of over a century of wine making tradition. What about Riojas producers like Don Jacobo and Vina Valoria?

      PASO ROBLES: Another bubble region, though it seemed at the time that you were chasing Parker on this region by, again, favoring the immediate, front-loaded ripe and oaky style that was the mid-2000s zeitgeist.

      NAPA: A favoring of, yet again, a dense front-loaded style as opposed to a lower alcohol, lower oaked style that I find more appealing. I’ve had more Pahlmeyer than I care to mention (I have a friend who gets it for free and it’s his go-to red wine) and I’ve yet to find for me what makes it superior to numerous Napa Cabs (or other California Cabs from Alexander Valley or Mendocino County) for a fraction of the price. And 95 points? Seriously? Put a good dark chocolate bar in a glass of vodka and you essentially have the same wine. My friend also gets free Kistler Chardonnay and I can barely stomach this viscous, flabby wine. And forgive me if I’m in error: I know Parker goes crazy for Kistler but I’m not sure if you guys do.

      PORTUGAL: Admittedly I have some skin in this game, but your neglect for this historic wine-making nation is criminal, especially when it comes to white wines. I find Portuguese whites, whether the Alvarinhos from the Minho or the oak-aged Arintos from Bairrada to be among the world’s great white wines. Also, very recent good Dao press aside, there is more to Portuguese red wines than the Douro.

      IN GENERAL: It seems to me that, in general, your critics favor immediate front-loaded wines that nose and taste well but don’t necessarily drink well. You like rich, layered aromas and dense flavors on the front palate at the expense of acid, structural tannins and long finishes. A “tasting” wine is different from a drinking wine and I, for one, like to drink my wine.

      Thoughts and response to those specifics? I can recommend specific wines if you’d like.

      I’m not the one who is reducing your magazine to a collection of scores, you are by issuing them. If you want to let the journalism shine, then I again suggest you forgo scores. Force it to be about the content, not the 95-point money-shot at the end.

      The fact is, I’m not calling for a change inasmuch as I’m bringing attention to the new wine paradigm that exists. There are a lot of drinkers making informed decisions without the guidance or even cognizance of your publication. The drinkers who are making decisions based on your guidance are aging with you. Do you want to be relevant for another 30 years? If so, I might suggest you be proactive in adapting. If you honestly don’t want guys like me reading your magazine, that’s fine. It’s not like I’m the go-to for wine purchasing advice for a network of a hundred or more friends or anything. And there are more like me.

      Lastly….transparent? What’s transparent about your 100-point scores? I can’t think of anything murkier. I’ve never been able to fathom what makes a 90 point versus an 89 point wine…. Or even a 96 point wine versus an 88 point wine…. If there’s some place on the free portion of your website that explains your scoring methodology, please direct me to it.

      Look, I thirst–literally–for a monthly wine magazine I can eagerly read because I find it compelling and informative and right now there isn’t one. Am I more informed than most? Yes. But I know enough to know that I have a helluva lot to learn and want to learn, but I find little in magazines that isn’t a rehash of what I already know. I know it’s always been journalism’s modus operandi to write for the middle 50%, but I’d encourage you to write for the most informed 25% and lift the rest of the readers with you.

      But enough soap box. You’re right. You’ve got plenty of readers and advertisers for now.

  7. Mike Dunne says:

    Thomas Matthews says critics at Wine Spectator reach their rating conclusions “unbiased by knowledge of the producer or the price.” This is contrary to a perception widely held in the wine community, that while Wine Spectator critics taste wines blind, they subsequently can adjust their scores when they learn the identity of the producer and the price of the wine. If I understand his comment correctly, this practice doesn’t occur at Wine Spectator. Can he assure us that the magazine’s final scores are based solely on blind tastings, without any knowledge whatever of the producer or the price?

  8. misteredwine says:

    The points (double entendre) are well-taken and digested as I too believe, that the 100-point scale is as outdated as a slide rule. In fact, so much I spent my own money and started winematch.com to give people a more objective view of a subjective product. Tired of paying $20 for something I liked and $50 for something not-so-much, based on 100-point system recommendations. The consumer needs the data and tools to make the decision, and low scores to wines is a disgrace to the trade that supports your livelihood. A single number is not a tool. It’s like having a hammer in a tool box and calling it a tool set – it’s not, it’s a hammer!

    And 88, why that’s an Oldsmobile – anyone knows that. Look, $40k for a single page in a single issue – yeah, you sell ad space. Doesn’t do anything for those wineries that don’t have that kind of coin lying around (hey, who took that $40k off of my desk?) And why has a winery of significance like Riverbench in Santa Maria escaped having true visibility? http://www.winematch.com/eNewsletter/27/2010_09_01.html . Know that not a single penny came from Riverbench to Winematch.com here either!

    You cannot even commit whether a wine will be tasted (that commitment thing), which I think is a disservice to the ultimate clientele without whom your existence would be quashed – the winery.

    Clients are clearly defined by those that provide revenue to you. Consumer magazine and on-line subscriptions and big-pocket corporate wineries that can afford your expensive advertising are your clients. That leaves out thousands of small-to-medium sized wineries…

    Serve the winery well with no bad speak (low scores), help the consumer find a wine they like. I think that is what it is about.

  9. artists_palate says:

    David

    An excellent piece. Unfortunately the reality is that human nature/psychology is such that categorization is favoured (whether it be art, hi-fi equipment, music, restaurant reviews or film) since it makes the decision process less onerous -something to do with cognitive dissodance (I never did listen at uni)

    Outside fo our spheres of excellence try to see everything in the objective would possibly lead to madness – my wife is always berating me for the hours spent deciding on a wine in a restaurant. Conversely she was a former chef and manages to ‘cost’ and ‘deconstruct’ every dish.

    One point of conjecture however, Robert Parker Jr did not invent the 100-point system, a misconception often touted. The first recorded use was by Australian wine writer, judge and wine merchant Dan Murphy in ‘A Guide to Wine Tasting’ (Sun Books) published in 1977.

    Today 34 years later, though Dan Murphy has gone to the land of endless 1945 La Tache (hopefully he isn’t being force-fed critter wine at the other end), the 100 point system is still adopted by the Dan Murphy’s Wine Panel. Details can be found at http://www.danmurphys.com.au/guides/fine-wine-buyers-guide-edition7-content

    • David D. says:

      Did not mean to suggest that rating on a 100 point scale was invented by Parker, merely that the movement that caused it to become the popular benchmark for wine criticism was led by Parker & Spectator.

      The human mind does like to categorize, but that doesn’t mean that supposed discourse-leaders should facilitate the practice.

  10. artists_palate says:

    Your comments on Australia are not unfounded, certainly when based on those wines favoured by local US wine critics. But in this age of global information, there is no reason why the US consumer (or consumer from anywhere) cannot now access any number of local Australian (or NZ) wine critic online resources all of which are written in English (albeit the Queen’s English). Arguably our leading critics have a much greater understanding of regional styles and benchmark wines by way of proximity to the local market and ability to benchmark regional styles – in addition, Australian winemakers and media are well travelled and have significant exposure and passion for international wine styles (read Allan Meadows comments on Australia’s passion for Burgundy) allowing them to benchmark local against international wine standards. Modern Australian Chardonnay (yet to be discovered by the US market, the UK market is just cottoning on), is now arguably the most convincing (and certainly best value) outside of Burgundy (Chablis still grossly underated).

    For those interested in discovering the pinnacles of Australian wine quality (and wine beyond SA Shiraz) should sign-up for any of the following: James Halliday http://www.winecompanion.com.au , http://www.winefront.com.au , http://www.winewise.com.au or subscribe to http://www.gourmettraveller.com.au/wine_and_drink.htm (one of the world’s most awarded wine publications), or see the wines Qantas serves (earning them Best First and Business Class airline wine list in the world 2001 Cellars in the Sky awards) wwww.qantas.com.au/infodetail/flying/inTheAir/wineGuide/inflightWineGuide.pdf

  11. Nice article. I have also noticed this trend, and am myself at the polar philosophical opposite of scores, since I like to explore the subjective aspect of wine rather than viewing it as an obstacle to overcome like most wine reviews. What we drink says a little bit more about us, and that’s what wine is all about: sharing not judging! It’s a cultural product, not just another consumer good!

    Reading through a shopping list of aromas and rehashed descriptors punctuated by a palate-biased number tends to get boring and I skipped these sections back when I used to subscribe to WS (which I believe does an otherwise good job at educational wine writing). With the evolution of web 2.0 and specialty wine shops, I agree that people are going to start moving away from points and look for more “local” suggestions, whether its their more knowledgeable friends or a trusted shop owner.

    I think that the only field in which WS or Parker will still play a role is on the speculative market of Bordeaux primeurs for example, which most people do not have access to taste (but watch out, bloggers are coming in strong) and which require some sort of “benchmark” for pricing. But then again.. most people in mature markets are moving away from these wines as well.

  12. Non Believer is Scores says:

    Great post and it is wonderful to see Thomas reply.

    Consumers confuse this very relative number with something scientific and something lasting. Would Thomas allow his tasters to taste blind and allow an outside party to determine their reliability. Assuming they are very good at what they do, what would the variance be – 1 point, 5 points? I would guess at least 5 points. Even if it was just one point, what happens to the 89 that could have been a 90.

  13. misteredwine says:

    As far as Non Believer is Scores – The unfortunate thing is 5 points is the difference between ‘love it’ and don’t buy it! I see 89 and 90 as a number that has no worth and no skin in the game. It’s like being engaged for 25 years!

    It’s confusing to the consumer as well as an 86 (B+) in school grades is ok, but not so in wines. as you’ve been ’86′ed”!

  14. Thomas Matthews says:

    David,

    Judging from your wine “reviews,” your tastes are consistent, though perhaps a bit narrow-minded, favoring “a lower alcohol, lower oaked style…” that is all the rage these days among bien-pensant traditionalists and terroirists. And you seem to think that every Wine Spectator reviewer favors the opposite style, “immediate, ripe, oaky, front-loaded wines .” But let’s not put wine in either straight-jacket.

    In my opinion, there are some regions, and vintages, and grapes that find their highest expression in “lower alcohol, lower oaked” styles. I think you’d find that Bruce Sanderson’s reviews of wines from Germany, Burgundy and now Piedmont embrace that perspective. Other regions are more diverse in their potentials, and Harvey Steiman’s articles on Australia have lately been imploring people to explore the wide range of grapes and styles made across that large country, with its varied soils and climates. In his upcoming tasting report on the table wines of Portugal, Kim Marcus celebrates Portuguese whites, whether made in the zesty style of Aveleda Alvarinho, or the riper Daos of Alvaro Castro.

    As for Spain, my region, it’s true that I have given positive reviews to El Nido, and other ripe, concentrated, oaky reds. I think that the best of them are beautiful wines with distinctive character and great aging potential; I’m thinking of Emilio Moro, Mauro and Muga, among many others. But I have also given high scores to the elegant, traditional wines (red, white and rose) from Lopez y Heredia, the lithe, vivacious Mencias from Bierzo, and the minerally, unoaked whites from Galicia.

    I’m not convinced there’s a “new wine paradigm.” Wine lovers are curious by nature, and they want to explore new tastes and learn about new wines. Wine Spectator attempts to help them with instruction and inspiration. Some may feel more secure following our recommendations closely, while others may simply use them as springboards. We are not trying to impose any particular style of wine on anyone. With three million readers, that would be an impossible task.

    Why do so many people read Wine Spectator? I believe it is because they find us both authoritative and credible. We are authoritative because of our long experience, fueled by passion. We are credible because we hold ourselves to high standards of methodology and ethics.

    Here is material explaining our tasting methodology:
    http://www.winespectator.com/display/show/id/about-our-tastings

    Here is our Code of Ethics:
    http://www.winespectator.com/display/show/id/Ethics-statement

    To Mike Dunne, I can indeed assure you that “the magazine’s final scores are based solely on blind tastings, without any knowledge whatever of the producer or the price.” The only way a score can be changed is by being retasted from a new bottle, always in separate, blind tastings.

    David, when I was 28, I had fallen in love with wine while working the vendange at a small family property in Bordeaux. After vagabonding around France and Spain, I was working as a bartender and wine buyer in Manhattan, reading and tasting as much as I could. I knew I was at the beginning of a life-long voyage. It’s been every bit as exciting and rewarding as I imagined. I hope you will find the same satisfaction along the way.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  15. David D. says:

    Thomas-

    Thanks for writing and continuing the conversation. It’s important that thoughtful dialogue continue. I admit that I find little to disagree with you on here, with one or two exceptions, naturally…. :)

    I must take issue with your “all the rage these days” comment. These are wines that have been growing in appeal because of their increased availability over the last decade and have been thoughtfully consumed and appreciated well before Mr. Parker uttered the phrase “anti-flavor elite.” This isn’t a new style of wine–Luis Pato didn’t retroactively change the 1980 Baga I tasted last summer to conform to new wine geek tastes–he’s made wine the way he alone has thought best for his entire career, and his wine has been successful his entire 30+ year career. Has there been more press on these types of wines in the last year or two? Sure. And the “natural wine” movement is just another bubble that’s going to burst and correct itself back onto the path of logic and reason. If you’re at all curious about something I wrote somewhat on that topic, you can find it here.

    That has not been the case, I would argue, with certain other regions–for instance on visits with my parents over the holidays we drank through some of their cellar wines, mostly Napa and Sonoma Cabs from 1998-2002 or so–and I found these wines to all be well-balanced with good fruit, not overripe, and very well-structured for food. A very different beast than the mid-priced California Cabs I’ve had in the second half of the last decade, swimming in oak chips and other cheap ways to mimic the effects of new oak aging without the accompanying cost: practices that many of us believe occurred so as to ape the wines–at least the domestic ones–that WS and Parker were swooning over.

    Just as I’m of course guilty of painting all the WS Editors with a broad brush, so too I think are you of lumping all of your critics into a group that only wants hand-picked pre-Phylloxera Romorantin biodynamically farmed by silent monks and aged in beeswax-lined amphorae. That’s simply not the case. For instance, I only directly mentioned alcohol in the particular context of Napa Cabernet where I think the push for ripeness has damaged a more pure expression of the grape–one that exists more around 13.5% ABV. What I was remarking on rather was a preference for “front-loaded” wines. Wines that show a lot of fruit and density on the nose and forepalate at the expense of acid, tannin, mineral and earth. In short, wines that show very well and richly upon smelling, tasting, and the consumption of 1-2 ounces but that fall short and become monotonous when consumption increases to a glass or more.

    Are those wines generally higher alcohol? Sure, because it is ripeness in general that produces those initial flavors and aromas and ripeness and alcohol typically go hand-in-hand–I’m not telling you anything new. But there can be well-balanced, well made wine that crosses that 15% threshold and there is unbalanced “hot” tasting wine at 13.5%. There are wines that make good use of new oak to balance tannins and add depths of flavor and their are wines where the oak overwhelms the fruit and becomes an end unto itself. I’m not in the camp that refuses anything over 14%. It’s not an either/or zero-sum game. Just because I don’t like Spanish wines so ripe and oaky as to find them syrupy doesn’t mean I don’t like 14.8% alcohol new-oak aged wines from Priorat or Alentejo or even 16% California Zinfandel. Nor, of course, does it mean that you only like those big, oak-laden Jumillas. However, if you’re scoring an El Nido at 95 points and a Lopez de Herredia at 90 points, doesn’t that mean you think the El Nido is a better wine? If that’s not the case, know that that is the impression that is left.

    (And for what it’s worth, I recognize my tastes–as all drinkers tastes–are particular and that is one of many reasons that when I do write about a particular wine, I describe it–I don’t rate it.)

    I’ll be interested in reading Kim Marcus’ notes on Portugal.

    Those links you provided explain how you taste your wine, not how you score your wine. I don’t take any issue with your tasting protocols, although I no longer think you need to just taste “widely available” wines, as the proliferation of well-stocked web wine stores means that just because a wine is only distributed in a handful of states doesn’t mean it’s not available to the intrigued consumer in other states.

    So the question about scoring, specifically, remains. You claimed transparency, I still claim murkiness.

    You have many great, experienced critics producing thoughtful notes and analyses and the elimination of scores would let that thoughtfulness be appreciated more.

    The wine journey’s been a good one…. seven plus years and counting. Here’s to seventy more–for you as well. Cheers.

    • Thomas Matthews says:

      David,

      I’d like to point out that the highest score I’ve ever given El Nido is 94 points, while the highest score I’ve ever given a wine by Lopez y Heredia is 95 points. So perhaps you would be closer to the truth to say I prefer the latter!

      But I’m pleased to know that you agree wine is not a “zero-sum game.” It’s all about what is in the particular bottle, and, of course, the situation in which that bottle is consumed. It’s that irreducible particularity that gives wine much of its distinctive value.

      Thomas Matthews
      Executive editor
      Wine Spectator

  16. artists_palate says:

    100 point wine reviews, wine spectator, wine advocate, a sea of wine publications, wine shows, wine blogs – We are so lucky to live in an age with such a wealth of information. As wine lovers we should all be encouraging those beginning the journey to read, taste and converse as much as possible – wine is about dialogue.

  17. Numbers, Numbers says:

    It is interesting, reading this thread, that Wine Spectator is unwilling to test its own reviewers. Not sure how one would exactly test but it doesn’t seem like something difficult to do.

    • Thomas Matthews says:

      Numbers, numbers: What gives you that impression? We are constantly testing ourselves, both internally and externally. Every single tasting begins with a benchmark and contains ringers within them. Amongst ourselves, we taste wines together and discuss them. We go to trade tastings, and compare notes with vintners, salespeople and other writers. And we routinely compare our scores with those of other critics.

  18. Jim Drevescraft says:

    I am delighted to see someone taking up the issue of the absolutely bogus 100 point scale with some of its most fervid advocates. David, good luck to you. I am someone who spent nearly forty years in the wine trade from retail to import to winemaking who has never felt that objectifying a subjective experience was desirable, or even possible. I beat my head bloody, as did a number of former colleagues who all have felt better since they left the Parkerized world of wine behind (except for drinking it), trying to encourage people to develop their own knowledge and palates. In short, don’t let Parker or Mathews or anyone tell you what to like—least of all by trying to pretend there is a verifiable difference between 85 points, 87 points, or any points at all. The dumbing down of the business, and the resultant remaking of the landscape of wine to make wines that will get good Parker/Spectator points, but taste like they all came from the same vat, is disgusting. I append a short editorial I had in the local paper in 2009. Again, best of luck tilting with these arrogant pricks.

    Pointless points makes a wine fan whine
    By Jim Drevescraft
    Posted: 11/29/2009 01:00:00 AM MST

    Full disclosure: I worked in the wine business thirty-eight years, and acknowledge that I helped exacerbate the problem. Nonetheless, I have repented, and think it is time consumers free themselves from bondage to rating systems trying to objectify a subjective experience and from swallowing (pun intended) florid prose about a wine’s taste provided by people seeking to sell it, or enhance their self-image as experts.
    I entered the trade at the dawn of the American wine boom, when citizens of a largely shot-and-a-beer country began discovering the fascinations of wine. In those heady days, we all learned together, tasting new types, sharing opinions, and developing preferences. Unlike today (with some exceptions), it was possible to buy a really lousy bottle that could dissolve porcelain in a sink. Today, while one may not like a wine for reasons of personal taste, there are large numbers of wines that are quite palatable — in fact, way too many, or so it seems. Wine has been “discovered,” winemaking has taken exponential leaps forward (and backward), shipping is improved, and there is a lot of good wine out there.
    In fact, there is so much that a person can feel intimidated trying to make a decent selection.
    This has created two things that are turning wine from a traditional beverage enjoyed over the millennia into just another commodity: point rating systems and ludicrous descriptions demonstrating a sort of adjectival diarrhea.
    Robert Parker’s 100-point rating scale, and its subsequent adoption by others, is the more odious of the two. Simply put, it places a subjective taste experience on a scale of numerical, objective quality, assuming everyone tastes things the same, that there are no variables of time, place, what the taster had for lunch, how the drive was to the tasting, etc. Even Parker, whose ego is legendary, has admitted his own point ratings vary (although his, of course, vary only slightly).
    Robert Hodgson, a professor of statistics turned winemaker, did a series of analyses of judging leading to his conclusion that every wine entered had a 9 percent chance of winning a gold medal in one tasting while being panned in another, which is the same as betting on flipping a coin five times and betting heads. He showed a wine had as much possibility of winning a gold medal by sheer chance.
    Judges or reviewers are human and cannot be expected to be accurate all of the time, and further have their own preferences. I once slipped a colleague a glass of jug wine, told him it was a fine French Burgundy, and received glowing descriptions of a wine he was not actually tasting. People have been served room temperature white wines and thought they were red. The beat goes on.
    The point is, if anyone tells you they can rate a wine on a numerical scale, and there is a difference between one rated, say, 85 versus 87 points, they are liars. In addition, they are asserting the fallacy that what happens in one person’s, or a panel’s mouths is the same for everyone else. Sadly, these point scores are avidly used to try and sell wine by wineries, suppliers and retailers. It is like letting someone tell you what to have for lunch.
    Richard Quandt, an economics professor at Princeton, applied the same reasoning to an analysis of wine descriptors in the Journal of Wine Economics. He produced a chart of adjectives commonly used by wine pundits and demonstrated no one can show they mean anything. For example, what is “earthy minerality?” Does anyone actually taste dirt? What type of minerals? Is “new leather” different from “new saddle leather?”
    Certainly, people are free to describe what they taste to others. It is equally true that two people may use completely contradictory adjectives about the same wine, and a third taster may differ again. A 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology held that even trained tasters cannot distinguish more than three or four flavors, so when you read that a wine has “vibrantly fresh mineral-laden, grassy, herbal, apricot aromas followed by green yet bushy flavors with overtones of quince, pear, apple, pumpkin pie spice and brooding citrus-peel acids,” all of your alarms should be blaring.
    As Quandt concludes, “I think the wine trade is intrinsically B.S.-prone and therefore attracts B.S. artists.”
    In my time in wine, I tried to emphasize the wine itself, not myself as an expert, and that people should do some reading, a good bit of experimentation, and decide what they like. With the proliferation of labels, increasing corporate control over the wine trade, and the desperation of the more fine wine-oriented part of the trade to seem to be offering an intrinsically superior experience, we are faced with the industry shooting itself in the foot by relying on absurd numerical systems and references to the authority of a few pundits (whose palates are only their own), and dressing wine descriptions in prose that would make Shakespeare wince.
    Wine is ill served, as are consumers, making the old Roman saying caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) very relevant indeed.

  19. Pingback: Syrah In My Pinot « rowensalemy

  20. Pingback: We will look at how overall microbial communities correlate with quality traits in the wine, and whether you can predict quality from the microbes present | Gangster of Food

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