Proponents of the 100-pt system for often claim that the main advantage of the system is that it provides consumers with a clear, concise and relative measure of a wine's intrinsic quality. The problem with that statement is that a wine's intrinsic quality is completely subjective. Every person is born with a unique palate and a distinct set of experiences from which to conjure aroma and flavor comparisons from memory (how else does one know what an "intense sensation of ... gunflint" tastes like? Those experiences also make relative scoring inherently flawed. Do you enjoy green tobacco or do you find it off-putting? Acidity, oh don't start a debate about acidity amongst wine writers! Sure, one person's opinion is easily defensible, but when two (or more) prominent wine publications diverge dramatically on their assessment of a wine (more often than you would expect), the result for consumers could be more confusing than helpful.
Yesterday, the Wine Spectator updated its database with almost 30 new wines from Colorado. One review I was particularly interested in was about a wine made by a Colorado winery from Napa (the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA to be more precise) merlot grapes. Sutcliffe Vineyards proudly displayed its 90-pt rating from Wine Enthusiast for this wine at June's Colorado Urban Winefest for this wine. Quite impressive for a Colorado winery to receive a 90-pt score from a major wine publication (no CO winery has yet earn >90 points from Wine Spectator, but there have been >90 points from the likes of Tasting Panel Magazine and Beverage Tasting Institute). I tasted the wine and have my own opinion about it, but I curiously wanted to see what another highly influential publication said about it. Below are the two reviews, scores and the names of the reviewers.
Great value for the price, showing Napa dryness, balance and complexity.
From the coolish southern part of Napa Valley, it offers black cherry,
dark chocolate, sweet licorice and toasty oak flavors, accented by crisp
acidity. The grapes are from a single vineyard. 90 points from Steve Heimoff (Wine Enthusiast)
Lean and herbal, with notes of tart cherry and mineral. Drink now. 81 points from Tim Fish (Wine Spectator)
Wow. If I had not tasted the wine myself, taken together these reviews would leave confused. Is the wine outstanding or is it border-line flawed (79 points is the point where flawed wines score below, but 81 points should still be "a solid, well-made wine")? Is it a great value or not worth my money? People in the wine industry will say that the best way to figure out how you will like a wine is to align your palate with a critic. Well, most consumers have no idea who these critics are or how their palates compare to their own. Only a small contingent of wine consumers take wine seriously enough to calibrate their preferences to critics'. And even then the alignment is highly tenuous. It is also quite likely that consumers will only see the score and the name of the publication on a shelf talker. In fact, this is exactly how Sutcliffe displayed the rating at their tent during the festival. So what's a consumer to do?
Well, obviously Sutcliffe and any retailer that is trying to sell the wine will not use the Wine Spectator review. But people that prefer Wine Spectator reviews to those from Wine Enthusiast won't see that someone else thought the wine was pretty good (or they'll think Steve Heimoff is full of shit). I recommend that people give every wine a chance to stand on its own merits. Sure, someone else's opinion can provide some insight, but just because one person doesn't like a wine doesn't me you won't either. I've had 81-pt wines I've quite enjoyed and 100-pt wines I can't stand. Don't let the 100-pt system confuse you. Don't judge a wine before you have tasted it.
Oh, as for what I thought of the Sutcliffe Oak Knoll Merlot (not that my opinion matters any)? I am definitely side more towards Heimoff's description, but I encourage you to try it for yourself.