Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Running with the Devil: Supporting the 100-point scale

I may have a new career: Seminar Bad Guy.

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
As a contrarian, I admit -- it was great. A whole roomful of people showed up essentially to disagree with me*, some of them vehemently. Christophe Hedges read a prepared statement and gave me some bumper stickers.

* 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.


31 comments:

Mike Dunne said...

With or without points, tell us more about why we shouldn't care about tasting the terroir of Fresno? I just read that at the recent Dallas competition Fasi Estate Vineyard of Fresno got one of only five gold medals awarded 2007 syrahs. Haven't tasted it, but look forward to seeing what it has to say of syrah, Fresno and Madera, the appellation. Why the snark about Fresno, or are you really angling for an invitation to the city as the designated seminar bad guy? By the way, I enjoyed the candor and comprehensiveness in your discussion of the 100-point scale.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: I've had some of the Fresno State wines. They're decent. But what I liked about them was 1) supporting students who are making a commercial product; 2) their competence; 3) their value. I didn't hold the glass aloft and say, "Ah, Fresno Dust."

Yeah, I guess I want that invitation.

Ernei Pink said...

Say ga'night to the bad guy.

You aint never gonna see another bad guy like this.

-Al Pacino in Scarfacce

tom barras said...

While you can rate whites at 99 or 100, most of the other critics don't. And that is because the last 5 or 6 points toward 100 are for longevity, age-ability, or ability to be enjoyed for many, many years.

Why don't they give 100 point for a "perfect" Rose', or a perfect Beaujolais? Kabinett?
They won't last and evolve for decades, but they give full pleasure shortly after bottling. Agree?

1WineDude said...

As I've been sayin' for some time now, it ain't the scores that are problematic, it's how they are used and abused. I also don't agree at all with the prevailing approach of "if I like it it must be better and therefore gets a higher score" - I routinely give good ratings to wines that I stylistically do not like but that I think are well-made and stylistically true to themselves, for example - to me, that should only come to play in refining the score/rating after the less-subjective aspects of tasting have set the initial "band" of where the wine hits in the score/rating system.

Also - baking up my recent travel companion Mike, don't go dissin' on Fresno just yet! ;-)

Christophe Hedges said...

The use of the number is what I was dismissing, not the opinion of critics. Critics and their opinions are excellent, we need them. I am only disputing the use of the number as a metaphor for quality. Stick to the writing, and don't cheapen it with a static symbol. It is that symbol that is overly simplistic and static. It does not evolve with a wine, or change context due to style because of place. Blake, I wish you the best in your efforts to defend this ridiculous system. I ask you, what is wrong with a review without a number?

ColoradoWinePress said...

"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"

While I know that wine and car criticism are not the same and I'm being a bit hyperbolic, what would you say to the Car and Driver or IIHS raters did the same thing? What if they didn't think a car was safe and decided not to publish those findings just so that Fiat keeps sending them cars?

You and other critics are doing a disservice to the consumers just to protect your own interests. I think if you decided to rate a wine, a critic must publish his/her findings.

Now, that is not to say that every wine you drink/taste must be scored, but if you decided to critique 10 wines and you find only 7 worthy of >85 pts, you should also release the scores of the 3 that aren't.

By the way, I agree with most of your argument. How the system is currently used is the problem, not the numbers on their own.

W. Blake Gray said...

Tom: I actually made exactly the same argument at the event. What is a 100-point rose? Perhaps we've already had it and don't realize it.

Joe: I can handle you and Mike, but if Dallas Braden gets after me I'm in trouble.

Christophe: A review without a number just isn't as useful to some consumers. Maybe not your customers, but some, and some of them are my readers.

CWP: When I taste a wine that is unsafe at any speed I will be sure to let everyone know.
Seriously, I think you can make a good argument for what you're saying if a first-growth Bordeaux is terrible. I don't see any reason to slap a C or a D on a $15 wine. I think one thing all of us will agree on is that people need to get over the idea that every wine they ever drink in their life will be thrilling. Sometimes they're just OK, and if you're not spending a fortune, that's OK.

Mike said...

I would have to agree with Mr. Hedges. The numbers are the problem. Literary criticism or art critics don't need a point system. Can you imagine that? "His prose was mediocre or it didn't rhyme. Trees aren't yellow they are green. I give it 75 points."

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: Wine isn't art, it's a commercial product. I don't think it matters where each Van Gogh lands on the 100 point scale because I can see them for myself without buying them, plus I can't buy them.

I'm not sure why book critics don't use points; it probably would make the enterprise seem unsanitary, as if they were recommending products. However, when you go to a site where you can buy books, like Amazon, you see a star-rating system.

W. Blake Gray said...

Addendum: I just realized why book critics don't use points, and most don't use ratings.

How long does it take to compare and review 100 wines? How about 100 CDs? Now how about 100 books?

There aren't enough hours in the day for anyone to proclaim themselves the Robert Parker of books. I can give you MY ratings of almost any group of commercial products, but book reviews are almost always done by a group of freelancers who won't have a consistent "palate."

ColoradoWinePress said...

To some people $15 is a fortune on wine and they might want to know if the wine is worthy of their money. Let the people know if the wine is crappy, average, or high-quality so they can make their decision with the most information possible. I realize that this type of person is probably not reading your blog or any wine publication, but the retailer that is offering the wine for sale probably is. Also, what about the beer drinker that is going out on a limb and buying a $6 bottle of wine to try. If they don't know that the bottle they pick up is only worthy of a WBG 67-pt rating they might be turned off of wine forever. If you or Joe or Steve knock a wineries wine, they may not send you more bottles but they may try to up their quality. Which do you think does the consumer more good?

I do nominate you for president of the IIWS!

W. Blake Gray said...

CWP: I'll bite. The International Instrumented Watershed Symposium?

There are so many wines in the world that I like, that I don't have the time to write about, that I don't want to spend it on wines that I don't. But I don't discourage anyone else from doing so for the reasons you suggest.

ColoradoWinePress said...

I understand your point, but if you are using your valuable time to taste wines that you end up not liking, isn't it worth taking a little bit more to express those opinions to aid consumers that actually might care what you have to say versus other critics? Does writing, "this wine is over tannic and has no fruit. I do not recommend that you spend money on it. 69 points" really take that much time?

IIWS: Insurance Institute for Wine Safety (wines that are unsafe to drink at any speed). An independent scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the loss of consumer money on crappy wines in our nation's liquor system.

W. Blake Gray said...

Here's some total candor: Writing the review doesn't take that much time. Dealing with the email or phone call from the winery and their PR person, who inevitably want me to retaste something I hated, takes time.

Now I have a suggestion for you. The publishing industry is competitive, cutthroat, capitalism. Why don't you be the repository of negative reviews? I'm totally serious. If it's a niche nobody is filling ... think about it.

Tommaso said...

Blake,

The problem with the 100 point scale is that is doesn't tell me whether I will like the wine. In fact, by itself, it doesn't tell me anything.

Will I like a wine that is rated 95 points better than one that is rated 90? The 100 point scale implies that I should. A short description of what the wine tastes like is much more valuable to me.

Tommaso

Christophe Hedges said...

Blake,

Your bleeding. I can help. You can join the rebellion. The Empire will hunt you down, but we will protect you. Let us save the consumers together. Join me my son, and we can make history. Let your mind be freed from the the shackles of popular culture.

Wine is Art.

Aaron said...

Tommaso,
I've never seen Blake, Parker, Suckling, or any other respectable journalist give just a score without a description of the wine and what aspects made it appealing (or not). You're right, a list of wines with just scores would not be helpful, but that's not what the debate here is about.

Christophe,
Has it ever occurred to you that some consumers may not want to be 'saved'. Some people want a score, and some writers will give it to them. I think it's a little pedantic and paternal to tell consumers what kind of journalism they really want.

Sato,MItsu said...

Ahter all,what is problem might be a fact that thereis no one to define what 100point wine is.
A wine matured for over a century,
A wine expected to mature over a century,
A wine doubted to mature over a century,
A wine obiously to consume imediately,
Should they be measured by single scale

W. Blake Gray said...

Sato-san: It's a good question, and one of the largest about any rating scale used for wine. Should a Sauvignon Blanc be measured against all Sauvignon Blancs, or against all wines?

Spectator and Parker believe the latter; that's why crisp, refreshing wines don't get the big numbers, because everything is compared to the hypothetical 100 of a great first-growth Bordeaux that will age for decades.

What some consumers misunderstand is that, when using this universe-of-wines scale, a wine that is "better" in a grading context may not be better with your poached cod.

Candidly, it's a question I still struggle with, even though I try to weight my own ratings against "power" and more toward deliciousness, complexity and drinkability. I don't think I've ever given a rose 95 points. But on a hot day, I love drinking rose. And I don't want one that's super complex and ageable -- I want one that's crisp and light and balanced. So when I find a rose that answers that description, should it get 95-100 points? I prize complexity, but since I don't need it in roses, I struggle with that.

Just because a task is difficult, though, doesn't mean one shouldn't do it.

Christophe: I do enjoy your wines, and some time I'm going to spirit a few of them away and give them point scores. Hah!

ColoradoWinePress said...

Your point about the responses to publishing a poor review is duly noted. However, when it comes to your suggestion, you and I both know that being a repository of negative reviews is a "sustainable" business plan. Nevertheless, when I have wines to review I am not afraid to publish negative opinions. As of right now, I don't have to worry about wineries not sending more bottles as 99% of wines I review are purchased.

My, and many others', gripe about the system is that in its current iteration all points do is vaguely distinguish very good wines from excellent wines and outstanding wines. A majority of the wine market (average, below average and unacceptable wines) is left out of this game.

While you hesitantly use the system, why don't you use it as it was originally meant to be used and not how it is currently being abused?

Anonymous said...

Blake,

Why even give ratings then? There are so many variables in wines, as you mentioned, that it almost seems to be a disservice to everyone involved to attach a number to a wine.

I suppose what makes it difficult now is that your average consumer expects a rating. But if even those critics that dislike the rating system continue to use it, the cycle continues.

W. Blake Gray said...

CWP: I think I answered that already.

Anon: I rate wines because many consumers like ratings. Just because the system isn't perfect is no reason to stop using it. Outside of whatever wine is in Jay Miller's glass, few things are perfect.

Nate N said...

Mr. Gray, you know fair and well that the numerical quantification of wine is a crutch for critics. A blind man is more likely to have the plot of a silent film revealed to him through sign language, than a wine drinker is likely to gain a greater understanding of regional character of a subjectively experienced beverage by simply glancing through scores. Full disclosure: I am a sales rep for a distributor, a certified sommelier, former retailer, and I spent the day working with Cristophe Hedges on Thursday.

W. Blake Gray said...

Nate: Not everyone wants to gain greater understanding of regional character. We don't force people to study Japanese ramen styles to eat a bowl of noodles (make mine shoyu wakame ramen, oneigai shimasu).

Christophe Hedges said...

To All People:

Never give people what they want, give them what they need. I say this as an idealist. My life is short.


Ch-

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

tom barras said...

WB Gris,

I think your posting and the attendant commentary from readers merits a 95+ . . . .

Charlie Olken said...

Without some form of rating system, descriptions of wine would form a giant muddle in which it would be impossible to discern any rational sense of order.

To combat that, commentators would then resort to value loaded words like good, better, best, superior, superb, outstanding, excellent and the middle muddle would consist of average, okay, useful, acceptable, common, passable, run-of-the mill and no great shakes.

But then there would be those wines that would necessary need to be described as "slightly better than run-of-the-mill" because that is the commentator's view of the situation.

And, what you inevitably get is a hierarchy of language which is nothing more or less than a rating system.

These are not Picassos we are reviewing--works of art that stand on their own, but competitive products. The consumer, who is the recipient of these comments, is ill served, indeed is not served at all, by commentaries that do not guide them both to wines that fit their preferences and to the most interesting wines they can buy at the price points within their budgets.

Blake, you have been very kind to those who have raised all kinds of irrelevant arguments about the 100-point system. The evils of bad wine writing are not the fault of the system. Tasting notes were not invented by Robert Parker or even Robert Lawrence Balzer.

If people want better wine writing, they should say so. All of us would welcome that discussion, but blaming rating systems for bad winewriting is like blaming the typewriter for the existence of bad novels.

McWong said...

I don't know which was more fun -- your excellent argument in this post, or Charley Olken's equally excellent followup comment! Brilliant!

I give wines letter scores - A+, A, A- etc only to reduce the number of options for myself, as I am not as sophisticated in palate as youse guys. But, as you point out, Mr Olken, it's still a ranking system.

McWong said...

P.S. California's central valley makes some tasty Chenin Blancs, by the way.... (Fresno). I'm serious!