Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Guest Blog: Eight Reasons To Kill the 100-Point System

Imagine there are no wine scores.

To borrow from John Lennon: It’s easy if you try. Imagine no 95-point Bordeaux. Imagine no 92-point Cabernet, no 94-point Syrah. Imagine a wine market that encourages people to educate and develop their own palates rather than depend on a 100-point shortcut. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but imagine people thinking…even tasting… for themselves.

The 100-point scoring system, which is usually credited to famous (or infamous, your choice) wine critic Robert Parker, is used by Parker at his Wine Advocate newsletter as well as by the Wine Spectator, among other publications, to rank wines by quality irregardless of cost. In a market as complex and confusing as wine -- and confusing, frankly, even to experienced wine consumers -- any tool that helps sort out the choices is welcome indeed. As a result, the scoring system has become enormously influential. But lately, industry observers including Paul Gregutt and Tom Wark have begun to doubt the system’s value. Me too.

Here are eight reasons why I’d like to kill it:

1) It’s Not Really a 100-Point System. Parker and the Spectator automatically give any wine, including the stuff Grandpa stews in the basement, 50 points just for being made. But as Gregutt points out, that’s not even the half of it: it’s really a 10-point system. Very, very few wines rate at or better than 95 points, the Spectator’s threshold for “classic” wines. At the same time, few wines rate 85 or below, which may be still what the magazine calls a “good” wine but for all intents and purposes is the point of no return for wine shoppers. Yet within this narrow 10-point span, fortunes and reputations are made and lost quicker than in the stock market.

2) The Arbitrary Benchmark. Can anyone truly distinguish an 89-point wine from a 90-point wine? Yet in the market, 90 has become the crucial benchmark, the equivalent of .300 in a baseball batting average. Above it you’re golden, below it you’re merely plain.

3) The Entrance of Evil. Such is the power of 90 that a wine consultancy in California for wineries, Enologix, will guarantee, for a price (a winemaker friend told me it can be as high as $100,000), that your wine will earn 90 points or better if you follow Enologix’s advice. In effect, Enologix tells you how to make a wine that panders to the taste buds of Mr. Parker and those who let him do their thinking for them. That disrespects the intelligence of wine consumers. It pegs the definition of “quality” to an arbitrary number that has no relation to a full wine experience. It’s evil.

4) The Value Equation. Shoppers calculate value with every purchase. So which is the better value: the $15 88-pointer from South Africa or the $30 90-point wine from the Napa Valley? How about the $20 89-point wine from Walla Walla? A value calculation for wine should be based on cost measured beside quality and context, which is to say beside winemaking, vineyards, regions, style, taste, and the occasion. Dividing cost by score is like calculating the value of a ballgame just by hits, runs and outs.

5) Rating Versus Marketing. The wine industry itself has shamelessly used wine scores for a purpose -- marketing -- for which they weren’t originally intended. Wine ads in the connoisseur magazines trumpet 90 scores and better; no one brags about an 86. That’s why few wine shoppers bother with wines scoring 85 or below no matter how inexpensive they may be. The industry tells us they’re no good.

6) Food’s Left Out. The 100-point system can’t measure how a particular wine will pair with a particular food. And that, of course, is the whole point to drinking wine -- or, at least, ought to be the whole point in a wine-world gone wine-right. Fact: An 87-point wine matched with the right food in the right social situation will give you a much more transcendent and memorable experience than a 92-point wine paired badly with food or shared with the wrong company.

7) Male Versus Female. Any system that rates or measures power -- and in the wine industry, high scores equal power -- is a male system, created by men to measure and compare, well, whatever it is men must compare. Yet survey after survey shows that more than half of wine shoppers are women. I once asked a female sommelier at a fine restaurant if she looked at wine scores. No, she said, never. How, then, does she choose wines for her list? By tasting them and learning about the winery and vineyards, she told me. By learning about the region the wine was made in and by building a relationship with the winemaker, by gaining an understanding of what they were trying to accomplish with their wine. Oh, and by testing the wines with the foods her chef prepared. She’s not the only woman to tell me the same thing. Fact: Women choose wine according to context; men rate wine according to a set of power scores.

8) The Real Issue. Wine scores are a short-hand cover-up for the fact that many, if not most, wine consumers find wine descriptions baffling and useless. “A strong undercurrent of rich loganberry layered with dark chocolate and hints of blue-stone minerals” -- this means what, exactly? For all practical purposes it’s nonsense, and it tells you absolutely nothing about what food to pair this “strong undercurrent of rich loganberry” with. With very, very few exceptions, wine writing has not achieved the graceful combination of art and meaning that the best food writing has, or the best music writing, or the best art criticism. Fact: Wine scores have gained outsized importance by default. Wine shoppers have nothing, really, to help them make a wine decision except a number. That’s not their fault, and it’s not really the industry’s fault. It’s our fault -- the writers.

What we need to provide wine consumers and ourselves is more better wine experiences. We can do that with words rather than numbers -- it may not be easy, but it’s worth trying. And that is how the world will better live as one, as Mr. Lennon might’ve said if he and Yoko had bedded down for peace inside the Wine Spectator’s offices.

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Steve Bjerklie reports for The Economist and many other publications about wine, food, politics and cultural and historical subjects. Last year he wrote about Walla Walla's now-famous French winemakers for The Economist as well as for Mid-Columbian Magazine.

6 comments:

Sonadora said...

Really good article, I enjoyed reading it! I agree about the points being pretty useless, and you've inspired me to write about an experience we had this past summer with "point worshipers."

Steve said...

Thank you for your kind comment, Sonadora, and I'd love to hear your point-worshiper story!

Wine scores have become a real scourge, I think. Long ago they may have served a purpose, but now they're an obstacle to tasting and thinking. When you see that number, you almost can't help but taste for it rather than taste and judge for yourself.

Catie said...

In my almost seven years behind the tasting room bar, I have encountered many customers, who asked, "What wines received 90+?" Without tasting, the majority would purchase the high-rated wine. It left me with a couple impressions, either they were insecure with their own wine knowledge and sensory evaluations or simply wanted to impress their friends because they had a basement full 95+ rated wine.

So what does that really say about the craftsmanship of the wine? For many winemakers this is their craft - their art. With every crush the winemaker has a one time opportunity to create a work of living art with what nature gave them that year.

Sure, the winemaker wants to sell their art so they can continue to create. However, if we ask an artist of any medium who is true to their craft, in their realm of fans, who do they really create for - the fan/collector who values the style and expression of their craft or a number that a critic placed on it?

Leio said...

Great post! I think it is a sad state of affairs when a lot of people care more about obtaining wines that are 90+, instead of seeking out wines with unique flavor profiles that may increase their perception of what wine can be.

Another downside that I see to the "point system", is that it creates an obsession with owning the highest rated wines you can afford. The wine industry worldwide is consistently producing unprecedented amounts of high quality wine. I can usually find what would be considered 85-89 point wines for less than 10$. I'd much rather buy two bottles of different and unique wines at this price point that one "90 pointer."

Finally, I have one quibble with your article. Your assertion that women buy wine according to context whereas men don't. Sure, I know guys that are obsessed with only buying "muscular" reds and scoff at anything else, but I also know plenty of men who enjoy a wide range of wine and pay particular attention to the wine they choose to drink on a particular evening so that it pairs well with their dinner. In fact, I probably know more men who pay attention to this than women! Your statement just doesn't ring true to me.

Anywho, very interesting article!

Melinda said...

I agree! There is something insidious about linking your appreciation of wine to your marks in grade school...

Catie, I was hoping to see you at the Taste Washington Tokyo event the other day. It was lots of fun, my first chance to taste so many wonderful WA wines, but it would've been more fun with you. How about coming out in 2009? We could paint the town a vinous shade of red.

Catie said...

Hey Melinda,
I wish I could have been there, but somebody had to stay home and blog. Perhaps another time we can paint the town a beautiful color of Bordeaux, Rhone or Burgundy red.

Cheers!