Wanna Score?

13 Nov

Thought that I’d insert a perfect scoring video as a benchmark. And, before anyone in the wine world shouts, “Not another article dissing wine scores. Arrgh!” Let me say that it isn’t, exactly. Although, I was reluctant to hit “Publish” for fear of yawns. I hate yawns.

A friend referred me to an article in The Economist a month or so back. The article discusses the upward trending of grades in elite schools. I won’t get into the analysis and you can read the piece for yourself here. But it got me thinking. First, why is Brown at the top? I choose to believe it’s the fact that my son is dramatically affecting the mean upward. And then, well, I got on with other things and forgot about it. Until I received this month’s Wine Enthusiast and flipped through the pages with a quick glance at the wine reviews. It made me think about that Economist article. Because this edition of The Wine Enthusiast like most other wine mags reviews upwards of all the wine in the world each month. It’s quite overwhelming and a feat of palate acrobatics, I bet. I don’t envy having to score that many wines through only a swirl, sniff, sip, spit, and next. These guys are good, I guess. The reason I remembered The Economist article though is that the scores for wines just seem increasingly high across the board. If there is a trend, it’s upwards, I’m thinking.

I love math. I don’t mention it in my “About Me” section like TDC – and you know who you are, Jeff. But, suffice it to say, I believe that mathematics is the foundation of all understanding. Don’t argue with me. Many people have tried and they never win. However, despite this love, I am not going to analyze all the scores in a wine magazine providing charts and conclusions. I don’t need to in order to make my point. All you need to do is take a look for yourselves. In these publications, almost all scores are between 88 and 95 and that’s with hundreds of wines discussed. OK, just one little statistical conclusion – that’s thousands of wines scoring 88 to 100 every year. Or to use the categories below, thousands of wines ‘very good’ to ‘extraordinary’ each and every year. There are few if any scores lower than 88.  The Wine Enthusiast doesn’t even discuss 70’s. No 70’s? Hell, the 70’s were the pinnacle of my academic achievement; the fact of which should not negatively influence the mathematics argument above. So, what’s going on?

A few things. I’m a bit baffled so feel free to comment below that it’s none of the things that I’m about to mention:

  • Due to improved wine technology and broader knowledge, wine is simply being better made and there are but a few examples of wines that wouldn’t earn a score above 80? and/or
  • Wines that aren’t any good aren’t making it into the magazine? and/or
  • Wine makers are working to make what reviewers like? and/or
  • They just seem high because there isn’t a big spread within the scoring scheme? and/or
  • Cynical Take? Reviewers are trapped in a commercial (advertising) or Incestuous (wine buddies) bind? If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything?

Here are the scoring systems for two of the bigger publications – the venerable Wine Advocate and the Wine Enthusiast.

The Wine Enthusiast

Category Scores Description
Classic 98 – 100 The pinnacle of quality
Superb 94 – 97 A great achievement
Excellent 90 – 93 Highly recommended
Very Good 87 – 89 Often good value, well recommended
Good 83 – 86 Suitable for everyday consumption, often good value
Acceptable 80 – 82 Can be employed in casual, less critical circumstances

Wines scoring below 80 are not reviewed in this magazine. Former work colleagues might recognize the Acceptable category as summing up my work history?

Now for a look at Mr. Parker’s system. This system is based on a 50 point scale. The descriptions here are a bit more instructive.

Category Scores Description
Extraordinary 96 – 100 An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety
Outstanding 90 – 95 An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific
Barely Above Average to Very Good 80 – 89 A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavour as well as character with no noticeable
Average 70 – 79 An average wine with little distinction except that it is soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine
Below Average 60 – 69 A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavour, or possibly dirty aromas or flavours
Unacceptable 50 – 59 A wine deemed to be unacceptable

Confession: I used to take magazines with me to the store or go on line and see if high scoring wines were available before I went on a buying spree. I admit it. I was a score and label slut. I don’t do much of that anymore. I know you won’t believe this (my mother didn’t) but I buy magazines for the articles. Reading stories about wineries, sommeliers, restaurants, travel, winemakers, regions instead of gazing lustily at photoshopped 93’s.

In the Economist article, exceptional students and employers complained that, since all students receive A’s, there’s little to distinguish the ‘true’ A student from every other student. As a wine drinker, I feel a bit like an employer. Taking out my personal style preferences, how do I tell the truly good 90 point wines from the good 90 point ones. Or, am I to believe that they are all equally ‘outstanding’. I’m beginning to just shrug and say, “90? Meh.” I get why scores are used. Among other things, it helps people understand the relative merits of a wine in a hopefully trustworthy professional’s opinion. It helps a weary consumer make a purchase. I read all sorts of people that use scores and I get it. It’s not scores that I don’t want. I just want a true spread – less crush at the top – more distinction and recognition of truly ‘fine’ wines. I vote for a true 100 point scoring system or a 1 to 10 paradigm. And, save the 90’s and 9’s for the really, truly, exceptionally special, special wines. The Economist article could have been talking about wine scores in the wine press trending up instead of picking on Ivy League schools, seems to me. Wine review sections in magazines remind me of those report cards designed to safely encourage children but say nothing. “Little Billy hovers between hopeless and exceptional. He is easily distracted by specious arguments. And, he is darn cute.”

In my case, on these pages, I don’t provide scores or relative grades. It could be laziness or that I can’t think of a scheme that I could employ without contradicting myself down the road. Wait, I’ve had a second to think about it and it is definitely the former.

Or, I could be wrong, imagining the whole thing. I’m open to that possibility. I am after all distracted by specious arguments. Thoughts?

3 Responses to “Wanna Score?”

  1. Ken November 13, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    Well Mr. Bill, I would agree with you in that a scoring system is very subjective. I don’t prefer Pinot Grigio. Does that mean that should I see a 90 on a PG (doesn’t exist in my opinion) that it is good to outstanding. Not to me. And not to be hypocritical about wine but I used to say the same thing about Chardonnay until I had the Toasted Oak recently. So it is possible I will find one to recommend. (Not that I know anything about scoring mind you). At the same time there are two Calif. blended reds on sale at the Mother Ship this period. Dreaming Tree and Menage a Trois. I would recommend them both to a customer who is looking for value and smoothness/flavour, because I really like them. The next person in line might give them average because they are just relatively inexpensive.

    I enjoy your blog because you talk about taste and food, not score. Keep up the good work!

    Cheers! Ken

  2. Tracy Lee Karner November 16, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    I’ve never been a fan of “scores” or grades, but I’m definitely in the minority. People want a quick way to categorize and, um, perhaps stereotype?

    But when assessments are reduced to number or letters, so much is lacking. It’s like that stupid movie with Bo Derek (10).

    It’s what happens when everything is seen in terms of rank and competition. Personally, I ignore the scores and make up my own mind.

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