My latest and greatest appearance in this role was last weekend at Taste Washington, where I was the only sap the organizers could dig up who would sit in front of a room and defend the 100-point scale for wine ratings.
|It's true: I don't have the cash|
* With the notable exception of Allen Shoup, perhaps the most important man in Washington wine history, who supported me. Thanks, Allen!
I crushed their arguments like bugs.
I really enjoyed typing that. No, what actually happened is that I agreed with about 90% of the complaints people have -- about wine criticism. I just don't think you can blame a rating scale for those complaints. Not that any number of self-appointed Internet censors who hate the First Amendment* haven't tried.
* As I told Steve Heimoff this week, there's nothing I hate more than Guy No. 1 telling me that I can't give Guy No. 2 information that he wants.
I'm going to list some of the complaints I remember, and my rejoinders. Forgive me if I don't get to them all, as I was too busy parrying to take notes.
* White wines don't do as well in ratings as red wines
That's a critic's personal choice; there's no inherent reason this must be so. Wine Spectator might believe that only oaky Sauvignon Blancs are worthy of scores higher than 91 points, but another critic or organization (and I'm one) can say a crisp, balanced, delicious Sauvignon Blanc without oak is totally capable of scoring as high as any wine.
I have only gone to 100 points once, and that was for a white wine; I went to 99 last month, and that was for a white wine.
* There's no real difference between a 91 and a 92
For the critic who rated them there is, but any honest critic will tell you personal tastes differ. So I agree with this. But so what? If you only buy wines rated above 92, whose fault is that?
I think every major critic operating today recognizes that there IS a tremendous difference between an 89 and a 90, and expends more thought on that line than any other.
* The 100-point scale is really a 15-point scale, because nobody gives ratings under 85 anymore
True, but so what?
Point one: This actually reflects an evolution in quality. The bottom end of wine quality -- foul, contaminated, undrinkable wines -- has mostly disappeared.
Point two: Like the major ratings organizations, if I taste a wine and think it's not at least an 85, I'll be kind to the producer -- and protective of my own future sample shipments -- and not issue a rating at all. Would it make people feel better to see a winemaker's hard work get slapped with Cs and Ds?
* The 100-point scale favors "international style" wines: big reds that could be from anywhere
No, it does not. Robert Parker, James Laube and a few other critics favor those wines. Stephen Tanzer doesn't, and he uses the 100-point scale. My friend Michael Apstein, whose palate is entirely different from mine, rates wines on the 100-point scale (probably against his will) for Wine Review Online (as do I). I guarantee you he'll never give a generic Cab-Syrah red blend that tastes like cherry and vanilla 95 points. Don't mistake the medium for the message.
* The 100-point scale doesn't recognize terroir
Again, that's up to the critic. But let's be honest -- terroir is not by itself a positive. Should the very best wine from North Dakota get 100 points by definition? Do you really want to experience the terroir of Fresno?
* The 100-point scale pretends to be objective
Wine Spectator is guilty of this; they go through all sorts of contortions to make their one-man ratings seem scientific. But they're not, they're one man's opinion in a format that everyone can instantly understand, and with the exception already mentioned, nobody I'm aware of claims ratings aren't subjective.
Look at the easily mockable James Suckling videos. The guy says, "I'm 92 on that." Not: "That's a 92." Big difference, and give him credit for getting it right -- and for saying succinctly on his own blog that "wine tasting is subjective." He wouldn't be James Suckling if he didn't add, "some opinions are more valuable than others," but he's also right about that, as anyone who has ever tried to find restaurants using Yelp must recognize.
(Oh God, now I'm defending James Suckling. Plus I think the government is wasting a lot of money to railroad Barry Bonds for political reasons. I really can make a career of this Seminar Bad Guy thing if I can get ahold of Muammar Gaddafi's PR budget.)
* The 100-point scale rates wines without food, but wine is supposed to go with food
Is it? Many Americans drink wine by itself, either as a cocktail or to show off their 98-pointers. Is that illegal?
Wine and food pairings are entirely different from wine ratings. Take Muscadet: very few would I drink by themselves, but I love them with oysters. But should a wine that you wouldn't drink by itself get 90 points?
There's an entire publishing industry devoted to wine and food pairings. That's one reason food magazines exist. Buy them. The magazine industry needs you.
* The 100-point scale misleads consumers
I treat adults like adults; I trust they can handle an opinion. Does Consumer Reports mislead consumers when it rates deodorants? Does Roger Ebert, who hates horror movies, mislead consumers?
I also introduced my own primary objection to the 100-point scale: that it doesn't reflect the experience of wine as well as the 5-star scale. A 91 and 92 really are almost the same to me, and you may like the 91 better; it's more representative to give them both 4 stars. But does it hurt anyone to force me to choose my personal favorite? I don't think so. And some people want to know that.
Moreover, what most 100-point-scale haters refuse to acknowledge is that magazines are not nonprofits, at least not on purpose. Robert Parker developed a competitive advantage by rating wines on the scale. If consumers didn't like it, he would still be a practicing lawyer. I switched to the scale after doing research on it for a story because I determined that it was best for me. If trying to make a living is evil, I'm not the only person Running with the Devil (can't get that song out of my head now.)
* The 100-point scale hurts wineries
The 100-point scale hurts SOME wineries; ones that don't do well on it. Wineries that regularly get 98 points aren't complaining.
I'm sorry for the others. Sometimes it's unfair. All of us could name a winery, or many, that we think should get better ratings.
One thing I can do is actually give some of those wineries better ratings. Or I could write a blog post complaining that freedom of speech and capitalism are hurting the business of the wineries I love. I prefer the former.
Yep, just loving this Seminar Bad Guy thing. Can't decide which I want to do next: Espouse the pro-death-penalty position at the California Democratic Convention, or go to a Tea Party rally with copies of President Obama's birth certificate. Maybe both? If you want a Seminar Bad Guy, drop me a line. Visa and Mastercard accepted.