Monday, August 14, 2006

The Hundred Point Rating System: Has It Run Its Course?

The New York Times recently published a long article, the gist of which is that the 100 point rating system many publications use to score wines is much more useful to wine marketers than it is to wine consumers: Wine marketers trumpet the scores, which (according to the article) really don't mean much without an associated tasting note, while significant segments of the wine consuming public establish a cut-off score below which they simply won't buy the wine.

What are needed, the NY Times concludes, are much broader ranges, say a 3 or 4 star system.

I agree with the NY Times's conclusion, and in fact have always used a 4-star system, with:

  • No Stars for wines that are either faulty or simply not good -- what would be below 70 on a 100-point scale.
  • 1 Star is for wines that range from correctly made but unexciting to good in a simple, direct key, roughly 70-79 points on a hundred point scale. And what are simple and direct? Wines that are good, but that don't distract from the food or the occasion, and drink quite well. In many cases these are wines that you may find yourself wanting a second bottle of because the first goes quite fast.
  • 2 Stars are wines that are good to very good -- 80-89 points on a hundred point scale -- and range from easy-to-drink wines that go down quite nicely to wines that are more complex, and demand much more attention, but are not outstanding. Included in these more complex but not outstanding wines are good but overly young wines, for example high end wines along the lines of Brunello or Barolo tasted at a vintage presentation, when they have just been released and still need time to reach maturity.
  • 3 Stars are excellent wines, and when I give a wine three stars I also give it a point score of 90 or above. As a general rule I rarely give three stars to a wine that is not fully mature, and as a result I tend not to give wines at vintage presentations 3 stars. Why? Because even though the direction they are headed in may be evident, they're not there yet. Better to give them the score they deserve now rather than something inflated, and say in the tasting note that the wine will be much better a few years hence.

And this brings us to the tasting notes that the NY Times says should accompany a raw point score; the folks at the NY Times say they should consist of something along the lines of ("hints of blackberry," "a good nose"). I think they should go a lot further, because what exactly is a good nose? Well balanced, probably, but there are many different good noses, ranging from vibrantly youthful through mature and ethereal, and the same holds true for flavors, tannins, and so on.

Also, what should one serve the wine with? I once met a guy who had come into serious money, and told me he drank Biondi Santi's Brunello every night. Probably trying to impress me, but my first thought was that it would go horribly with fried chicken.

A wine note should, in addition to describing the wine and saying whether it's still climbing, is mature, or is on its way down, also give a serving suggestion, because most wines are meant to be drunk with food, and little is more disappointing than a wildly mistaken paring that sets good food and fine wine at loggerheads, bringing out the worst in each.

Winding down,
there is another reason I'm against using the 100 point scale to judge a wine: It implies that there's a degree of precision that really doesn't exist in wine tasting. There is a very significant difference between, say, a 78-point and an 89-point wine, but how important is the difference between 89 and 90 points in the tasting room? The 89 point wine may have been the last of a flight of very good wines, while the 90 point wine may have followed a flight of poor wines. Or, the 90 point wine might have been poured early, and the 89 point wine 50 wines later, when one is much more ready to find (or excuse, depending upon one's temperament) faults in the wines.

Don't think this is possible? A friend of mine who is a sommelier and master distiller participated at a study held by the University of Florence, in which wine professionals -- journalists, enologists, winemakers, and sommeliers -- were given blind flights of wine morning and afternoon for a week. Some of the flights included the same wine more than once, and sometimes they were given identical flights morning and afternoon.

The results were eye-opening -- the participants scored the wines differently in the morning and afternoon sessions, and also scored the same wine separated by other wines in a flight differently, sometimes better and sometimes worse, depending upon how good the separating wines were.

Does this mean that wine journalism is a sham? I don't think so or I wouldn't be here, but I do think that it means a point score with a cursory note is really not enough. The wines deserve more, and so do wine consumers, and the best way to do this is to rate wines in broad categories, rather than give them precise scores.

The New York Timse's Article (requires registration and will be free only for a limited time)

No comments: