Monday, September 9, 2013

John Madden the wine critic...

Football season is finally upon us. For many of you (including me), yesterday was spent parked in front of the TV with a beer in hand. The entire state of Colorado is bursting with anticipation for a Super Bowl run after Peyton Manning and the Broncos thrashed the defending champions on Thursday. However, I grew up in Wisconsin so naturally I'm a Green Bay Packers fan. In fact, ever since 1998 I have actively rooted against the Broncos. If the Broncos aren't going to finish 0-16 this year, I'd like nothing more than to see the Packers beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl in New York. I'd be in a better mood today had the Packers beaten the 49ers, but thinking about a Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Broncos keeps me smiling.

You may be wondering what football has to do with wine. Bear with me as I get there. Along with the beginning of the NFL season, perhaps the most popular sports video game, Madden 25, was released recently. In the game, every single player is given a numerical rating - from 1 to 100. Sound familiar to wine yet? Thinking about how and why human beings are given such subjective ratings got me thinking about how the video game is like the wine review game. Is Calvin Johnson equivalent to a bottle of 2009 Château Latour (WS 99)? Is Anquan Boldin like a bottle of 2007 Canyon Wind Cellars IV (WS 88)? Which bottle of red blend or which receiver would you rather have had yesterday?

Now, giving a wine a numerical rating is akin to rating the sunrise every morning. Rating NFL players might be just as equally as asinine as is evident in my example above. A CNN article explored how the video game ratings are assigned. While it was a bit more informative than James Suckling's explanation from Tuscany, it still left a lot unsaid. The author clearly and articulately stated that football is a game of intangibles. Funny thing that wine is a product of intangibles, too! Sure, you can directly measure pH, TA, alcohol and a whole host of other technical attributes. Those would be akin to the 40-yard-dash times, bench press reps, height and weight of NFL players. Just as with NFL players (i.e., height-challenged Russell Wilson), sometimes a wine provide qualities that the raw data don't support.

Another interesting article on the Madden 25 ratings investigated the worst player in the NFL. Denver Broncos' Aaron Brewer was rated as a 39. Have you ever seen a score that low for a wine (from any source other than John Gilman)? Wine Spectator's wine ratings database showed 20 wines rated the lowest possible 50 points (amongst that illustrious group were a 1920 Château Latour and an 1865 Château Lafite-Rothschild). Almost all of the 20 wines were pre-1990. The only wine receiving a 50 from a vintage starting with a 2 was the Cantina del Taburno 2000 Greco Taburno. James Suckling's review stated, "Repulsive. Totally flawed." Is this wine equivalent to one of the worst wines in the world?

The CNN article stated something quite interesting, and new, to how EA Sports assigns ratings. That advent of online updates has allowed developers to change player stats based on their real-life performance throughout the season. The example given was how Alfred Morris' ratings were adjusted from an initial rating of 65 to 89 by the end of the NFL season. This way of rating is more like the method used by CellarTracker users and less like Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate. Sure every year Madden ratings change just like new wine releases get new scores. But a new vintage is more akin to rookies coming in the league than player revisions. Wine scores, for the most part, stick with a wine forever. Just as NFL players change throughout a game, the season and their careers, so too does wine. Yes, Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate do retrospective tastings where they re-evaluate wines previously rated. But real people taste, drink and assess wine more than twice a decade. Can you imagine gamers' outrage if Tom Brady were rated in a video game prior to his rookie season and then again ten years into his career?

Of course it is all the intangibles that make critiquing wine so subjective. That's why I think giving wines precise numerical ratings is so silly. How a specific bottle of wine tastes on a specific day has as much to do with the taster and the setting as how the performance of specific players is determined by his teammates' and opponents' performances. Sure, Calvin Johnson may be one of the most dominating wide receivers ever, but his 37 receiving yards yesterday were not how a 99-pt player should perform.

I'll leave you with one final thought to ponder. Why are there no 100-pt players in Madden 25?


  1. Kyle,

    Fascinating stuff. One thing. A review from the Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate is a review of the wine at a specific moment in time. This is akin to ranking a play for a specific season. Both work.

  2. Tom, thanks for chiming in! Yes, a professional rating is akin to rating the route running of a wide receiver on a single play. So why do you think there are no 100-pt players but 100-pt wines are relatively common?