I feel silly again bringing up the topic of the futility of publicly rating wine on a 100-point scale, its innate uselessness, and its role as a net-detriment to wine and wine appreciation, but after SF Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne, whom I count among the best wine journalists currently active, positioned himself in defense of the system, I was compelled to briefly re-address the arguments.
It seems that Bonne’s defense relies upon the same three misconceptions that are used by most in their defense of the 100 point rating system.
The first misconception that many defenders of the system have toward those of us who dislike it is that we categorically object to its use. I don’t care if Jon Bonne uses a 100 point system when rating and categorizing his wines. I don’t care if Pete Winebuyer uses a 100 point system when rating and categorizing his wines. The granularity afforded by such a system is useful for one person to judge wines against whatever criteria he or she views as important. That rating system inherently works, however, only for that one person and when those scores are given institutional authority it is problematic and damaging to the wine industry except for those select few wine makers and wineries who can routinely garner 90+ point scores from the cluster of premier publications.
The other misconception defenders of the 100 point system have lies in their unshakeable belief in the “wise consumer.” In defending the public use of a 100 point rating scale, they assert that a score is merely one of many criteria buyers use to guide their purchases. While it’s pretty to think so, that’s simply not true. For a particular category of retailer and particular class of consumer, major media scores of 88+ are the dominant driving factor in purchasing decisions. Why else then would a website called “90 Plus Wines” exist? Why do wine shops have racks and racks of wines with neatly taped on shelf talkers printed directly from Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate? For well-read critics like Bonne, point scores from different publications are useful tools in contextualizing a particular wine. But for many consumers it is a quick shorthand–a thought-terminating cliche. The drinker is consuming a score, not a wine. The consumer does not need to think about why they like the wine, they merely understand that they do like the wine (because honestly, outside of a few oppressively oaked Chardonnays, I’ve never drunk a 90+ point Wine Spectator wine that was unpleasant) and its quality has thankfully been confirmed by a small cadre of middle-aged white men. They consume validation so as to evade actual engagement with the product they consume.
The final misconception is in the false-equivalence of the 100 point rating system with, say, a four star system or a letter grade system. When the SF Chronicle converts its reviewers’ scores into “recommendations” they’re taking away the worthless granularity of individuals’ 100 point scores and replacing them with a much broader critical imprimatur within whatever category is being reviewed. Good value California wines. Portuguese red wines. Sauvignon Blanc. Burgundy. It’s a Siskel & Ebert Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down.
I personally love how the Chronicle recommends wines for the exact reason Bonne writes in his blog post: “…readers might discover that the scores for wines we recommend aren’t as earth-moving as expected. A recent panel of Chardonnays landed with most recommended wines in the high 80s, for instance.” The fact is, most wines that would receive a score above 75 by any critic–that is to say reasonably well made with no discernible flaws–would be appealing to the average drinker, so by grouping the best of the bunch into a “Chronicle Recommends” distinction, more drinkers are turned on to many wines that would be ignored if point scores were published. One point can make a huge difference when we’re talking an 89 versus a 90, a 94 versus a 95 or, of course, a 99 versus a 100. Not to forget the difference between a 79 and an 80. That difference in terms of quality is irrelevant, but the economic impact is enormous.
And even a four star system, although it begins to experience some of the same intrinsic flaws as a 100 point system, is better. The best of the bunch are all grouped together as four star wines, very good wines are three star wines, solid and unflawed wines are two star wines, one star wines are probably not worth drinking. If you’re a a waffler, you can always pop a half-star in between each rating if you want though I personally find half stars to be a sign of limp-dicked indecisiveness. But that, I’m sure, is just me.
What the 100 point rating scale does is reduce the wine discussion down to a number, barring that vocal learned minority who do use scores merely as reference. What each progressively less granular critiquing system does is increase dialogue and increase the wine drinker’s engagement with what the critic actually has to say to the point where in publications like the Chronicle and the New York Times, the writing is paramount and the ratings or recommendations are an afterthought.
Because if you’re a real writer, you don’t care about seeing your name tacked to a shelf talker with a few overwrought adjectives and a point score. You want people to read and engage with what you actually have to say.