Friday, August 30, 2013

Is the 100-pt system more confusing than helpful?

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.


  1. I disagree. Most consumers are looking for something red or white, without overt flaws and having a generally wine-y flavor....hence the popularity of 2 Buck Chuck, Yellow Tail and the oceans of <$10 plonk on the market. To this large group of consumers, scores are immaterial (except maybe the occasional splurge where the 90pt shelf talker has some sway) and "critic-palate alignment" non-existent. The readers of WE/WS and your blog are highly likely to not be in this category. We are the one who are willing to research wines, buy from artisanal producers, spend more than $15-20 per bottle, etc ...I suspect that Sutcliffe is trying to sell their product to us. Unfortunately, my wine budget is not unlimited and I will pour out bottles that I purchase that I do not like...so when I purchase a bottle of wine without tasting it first, it is helpful to have an unbiased 3rd party opinion. Personally, thru trial and error and palate alignment, I find the WS to be the most consistent with my palate....which is why I frequently make "sight unseen" purchase decisions on their recomendations (like I did with Infinite Monkey Theorem based upon WS reviews...the wines were excellent BTW). I get the most from my dollars spent and my sewer gets the least intoxicated! Do not get me wrong, if I tasted the merlot in question and liked it, then I would buy it regardless of the WS review (and it would be a mark against TF). But, on the other hand, I would not seek it out. To me, this is the real benefit to the 100pt system and professional reviews

  2. "We are the one who are willing to research wines, buy from artisanal producers, spend more than $15-20 per bottle, etc"

    But people like us are also more likely to buy based on our own palates and not points. I will also admit that scores are used by many people at all consumer levels. Whether they are actually beneficial is debatable and a case by case basis!

  3. of course, my own palate comes first. But, I do not have the opportunity to taste 1000's of wines from around the world so helpful hints from someone I trust comes in handy. Hence my use of the WS reviews