Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Do Wine Scores on the 100 Point Scale Really Mean Anything?

I find myself falling into this trap all the time. I talk about a wine that I ’m really excited about and will reference a score that someone gave a wine when telling people about it. I even did this in some of my early blog posts. I might talk about the Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2004 and reference the fact that one publication gave it 97 points! See – I just did it again.

I’m here today to say that I don’t want to talk about scores anymore. More importantly I’d like someone to explain to me how the 100 point scoring system really works and what the scores mean. As an avid reader of a few wine publications and many wine websites and blogs, I’m finding that scores on the 100 point scale are becoming more and more meaningless to me. What we should be doing as wine consumers, drinkers, and collectors is paying more attention to the review itself instead of just a score.

Why do I have such a problem with the 100 point scoring system you might ask? Well there are a few reasons. Let’s start with the fact the idea of it being a 100 point scale is flawed. A 100 point scale inherently implies that 100 should be the best score, and that 0 or 1 should be the worst score. In reality, most reviewers give any bottle they can remove the cork or screw cap from 75 points right off the bat. In this instant, the 100 point scale has gone to what really is a 25 point scale. Giving a wine a 10 out of 25 sounds quite a bit different than giving it a 85 out of 100 doesn’t it? The truth is that reviewers using the 100 point system are grading on a serious curve. Just as important as this, is that the different publications using the 100 point scale don’t necessarily use it in the same way. 90 points from one reviewer is not necessarily the same as 90 points form another, and sometimes those two reviewers work for the same publication!

The second major issue I have with wine scoring is that scoring itself is a somewhat clinical and scientific process. Although there is quite a bit of science in the winemaking process, I would argue that winemaking is very much an art. I’m no art collector, but I don’t think any art reviewers would look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night and say, “I’ll rate that one a 98.” Instead they might talk about the beauty of the painting, the colors used, the unique brushstrokes, the feelings they get when they look at it, or the memories invoked.

To me, a bottle of wine is very much like this. Yes there needs to be some proper farming and techniques used in the vineyard and the winery, but beyond that a bottle of wine can be so much more. The winemaker’s style and choices might bring out flavors, body, acidity, tannins, and other elements that different drinkers might have very different feelings about. Certain bottles might also conjure up memories or feelings about the vineyard or winery itself, the place you first discovered it, or the person you shared it with. In my mind, to boil all this down to a score is a little bit cold and clinical.

What we as consumers really need to know about a wine is some of the more objective things. What aromas are present? What are the flavors and where and when do they hit you on your palate? Is there acidity and how much? What is the body like? Does the wine have tannins and what are those tannins like? What is the finish like? Did the reviewer feel that all of these elements worked well together? If you can get this information from a review and if you know and understand what you like, then you really don’t need a score on the 100 point scale for a wine. At best the score is only relevant to wines with very similar profiles reviewed by the same reviewer. For example if a particular wine drinker likes fruit forward, full bodied Australian Shiraz with some spice to it, then the same reviewer’s scores of two different wines that meet that profile might have some meaning; however, if you look at the score of one of those wines and compare it to a White Burgundy, a Rioja, or even a Syrah from the Northern Rhone, the scores are very often meaningless.

For those who think I have taken this too far, I should qualify that I am not completely against rating wines. It is simply people’s and to some extent the industry’s reliance on the score instead of the rest of the review that has me concerned. In my experience I get much more from the review than I do from the score. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. The problem with a 100 point scale is that A) it is too large, but we are conditioned to understand 100 as excellent, and B)when you get into the upper scales, the increments become more and more subjective. In the call center industry, we often try to calibrate the "excellence" of a call. Even with a 10 point scale, how does one differentiate a 7 from an 8 call? These are niggling points. 5 points, from a human POV, is about as much as we can handle from a subjective point of view, but some might argue that it is not wide enough to allow for subtle variances. You can go to .5 rankings, but perhaps no further. We only use 10% of our brains, and most people cannot tell the subtle audio differences between vinyl and CD. Are our tastebuds the same? Maybe. Scores, and the tastes of the scorers, are subjective. I like this red. I like this red more. I this red A LOT. Perhaps that is a better gauge!?