Friday, January 11, 2013

A different 100-pt system compromise...

Image from http://www.arvi.ch/
Amongst the few of us who write about wine, the 100-pt system is a contentious topic. There are many reasons that people like me don't like it; it projects a false sense of precision, it implies a false notion of objectivity, it removes context from a highly contextual product, and of course there is the issue of score inflation. Oh, sure there are many other problems, but those were the ones I could easily think of off the top of my head.

With the release of the Wine Advocate issue #204 a few weeks ago, the problem of score inflation has come to a head. Mike Steinberger wrote a great piece about it on his WineDiarist blog and Antonio Galloni even chimed in on a heated discussion over on the WineBerserkers forum. To summarize the latest “scandal,” Galloni handed out 95-100 point scores to almost a quarter of the 2010 Napa Valley wines he reviewed. Robert Parker added 17 100-point scores from the Rhône Valley from the 2009-2011 vintages. Just in the past year, Parker has given 100-pt scores to more than 50 wines from Bordeaux, Napa and the Rhône! Perfection (and near perfection) aren’t that hard to come by anymore. Apparently it isn’t obvious to Galloni and Parker that giving too many high scores is going to make high scores meaningless. Like the boy who cried wolf, this duo is quickly turning into the critics who cried classic!
A few weeks before the avalanche of high scores were released for blogosphere fodder, Evan Dawson proposed a way to deescalate the war on the 100-pt system over on Palate Press. He suggested that scores not be used on wines older than 25-yrs old. It is an interesting suggestion, and one I agree with, but it does not go far enough. As you can easily see, his proposal does nothing to end the proliferation of high scores on new releases. Sadly, I don’t know if anything can be done about that.

In addition to the score inflation, the reliance on scores by the general consumer (via retailers) is a blight on the industry. I will admit that I often skim reviews and look just at the numerical rating. After all, the number is usually the first thing that stands out. On store shelves, the rating is often the only description given about a wine. I always liked math, but numbers don’t have much flavor. Even on the forums of WineBerserkers, posters often add a bold rating at the end of their tasting note that easily catches one’s eye. And as much as I like CellarTracker, the numerical score is its raison d’être. Sadly, but as a matter of fact, scores aren’t going away (though their importance may be in decline).

I would like to propose another compromise to ease (not end) the war on the 100-pt system. Rather than use the score as a crutch, let’s try to make it into a walking boot.

Instead of centering a review around a score, my proposal would go a long way to making the prose more important. I suggest that scores not be emphasized with a bold font at the end or beginning of any review. If critics were to put the score inconspicuously within the written review, people would have to read the actual review. Going a step further, perhaps ending the use of Arabic numerals for scores and relying on Roman letters would further limit the reliance on scores. For example, I am going to rewrite Galloni’s review for the 2010 Kapscándy Roberta’s Reserve without the numeric rating at the end:

"Whereas the 2009 is round and seamless the 2010 Roberta’s Reserve is a huge, vertical wine endowed with stunning depth and richness. Violets, tar, graphite and sweet spices jump from the glass in this powerful, structured wine. Brisk saline notes give the finish its sense of energy and tension. This is a dazzling effort easily worth ninety-eight points and possibly more. The 2010 is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Anticipated maturity: 2020-2040." (WA #204)

No information is lost with this slight change. Likewise, the designation of a ninety eight-point wine would not cease to exist, but consumers would be required to obtain more information about a wine (i.e. read the tasting note) than only having the knowledge that a wine was given a 98+ rating. The score takes a backseat to the descriptive prose. Purchase decisions should be made with flavors, textures, balance and aging potential in mind and not just simple arithmetic. Wines could still be sorted by score in a searchable database, so critics’ most favorable wines could easily be identified by interested consumers, but an Arabic number should not be attached (or detached) from a wine’s comprehensive review (or as comprehensive a paragraph describing the few minutes spent with a wine can be).

My proposal would end simply skimming tasting notes just looking for bolded numbers or publishing a large 98 on a shelf talker. Granted, retailers and wineries would have to go a long with this approach (I’m not going to be holding my breath) for it to be a success. Interested consumers would actually have to do a bit of work to understand if they might actually like how a wine tastes. And if this seems like too much work, you can always buy a bottle of wine like a majority of wine consumers do: how the label looks...


  1. I appreciate the intent here; I just have no faith in the trade to follow through. For example, in your Galloni review, you could have it published exactly as you describe, but nothing stops a store from creating their own shelf talker with the score. That would require a tad more effort from them, but unfortunately, they'd do it.

  2. Evan, you are completely correct. *IF* retailers/wineries didn't detach the rating, this could be a move in the right diection. But like I said, I'm not going to hold my breath...

  3. I actually do not post any scores in my shop at all. I will use some tasting notes from others, will never use a score. Most wine reps who come in will tell me what the score on the wine was when we first meet. I've actually told all my reps that if they mention a score that they will have to come back next week. 99% of my clients feel that scores or ratings are a joke and mean nothing. I for one am with them 100%

  4. Santo - I am with you in thinking scores have become a joke and mean nothing. That being said, I realize that scores aren't going away over night. Retailers are the ones most abusing scores by just putting numbers on shelftalkers. If critics still want to use scores (and many do), they can still convey that information to consumers with my method, but it will take some work for retailers (and others) to abuse the scores. Right now, the score is the major component of the tasting note. I think anything we can do to decrease scores' importance is a good thing, and I think this method is a step in that direction.