|I love representing the Stars and Stripes abroad.|
* The Concours uses statistical analysis to try to track and respond to individual tasters' quirks. It's worthy of its own post.
The biggest this year, for me, was the narrow range of scoring. Everybody knows that American wine ratings have become compressed into an 85-to-100 point scale -- and American wine ratings are now the world standard, like it or not. The Concours system shows the foolishness of that, while encouraging some Parker haters into using an even more compressed range.
I also got to thinking about the standards we apply to ratings, and how easy it would be for a powerful critic like Parker's assumed successor Antonio Galloni to change the game of wine by changing the categories he respects. I'm going to address these topics in a separate post later this week.
|Click on the photo for a closeup to see the categories.|
I may write transgressively, but in games I'm a rule follower, and I enjoy checking the boxes where I believe the wine belongs. This leads to lower scores than I might give the wine at home, because I'm reluctant to give the highest possible score in most categories (visual categories are the exception). A wine with the second-highest score in the smell and taste categories, and perfect scores in sight, would get an 89, and that would be a wine I would enjoy drinking: good in every way.
Fittingly, an 89 score, if shared by the other judges, would earn the wine a gold medal. Isn't that accurate? Some years ago Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, told me he enjoyed drinking 89 point wines with dinner. You won't find a man more knowledgeable and thoughtful on the difference between 89 and 90 point wines that is so crucial to their marketing.
|I really liked some 85 point wines.|
Now, a provincial person might say, "That's why the 100 point scale doesn't work." You'd be wrong.
The Concours brings together judges from around the globe; 50 countries I believe. The lingua franca is French, which many of us don't speak. You can meet the leading wine critics from South Africa, Poland, Brazil, Chile, etc. My panel had a retail buyer from France, a winemaker from Luxembourg, a wine critic from Belgium and a bulk wine buyer from Spain, and the way we relate to wine was very different. (The winemaker would praise boring, unflawed wines and hated even a whiff of brett; the bulk wine buyer was very generous to wines the rest of us dismissed.)
How do these citizens of Babel discuss the merits of a wine? In shorthand, by saying, "It's an 87 for me." All of us. Most of these people don't use the 100-point scale in writing about wine, but for quick communication, the point rating is universal. I don't really know what a French guy means by un bon vin (apparently that means "meh"), but I know what he means by 84.
Moreover, of all the judges I spoke with -- and I spoke with dozens -- I'm the only one who fills in the boxes and doesn't worry about how the points add up. All the others, many of them Parker haters, decide that the wine is an 88 for them and then figure out how to make the boxes add up to that.
I didn't even keep track of all the ratings I gave. I was cautioned twice by the head of my jury on our first group of wines -- Muscadets-Sèvre et Maine -- that my ratings were too high, something you don't expect to hear at a competition. (At some competitions, directors walk through the room saying, "Think gold." Competitions make money from wine entry fees, and more golds this year should mean more entries next year.)
I don't care what he said: I like Muscadet, and I wasn't giving them scores in the 90s anyway (I checked). A little later that same day he told me my ratings on some red wines that I hated were very low; he didn't say "too low," but he said, "That is your style." Then I noticed that other judges on my panel, who were keeping track, were scoring EVERY wine between 81 and 89 points; an even narrower range than Wine Spectator. I think this is a natural consequence of thinking holistically about a rating, instead of about its components.
My highest rating out of 150 wines was probably 92, and I blame the wines themselves for the fact that I wasn't more generous, as the Muscadets turned out to be the best category we got (we had some awful flights, including erratic white wines from Crete and Carmeneres from Chile, which taught me that "smells like Brussels sprouts" doesn't translate into Spanish or French) But my lowest score for a non-flawed wine was probably about 69; that would be a wine that had no visual flaws, was average in three categories and below-average on the rest.
When was the last time you saw anybody rate a wine a 69? And yet, isn't that reflective of the wine experience? It's not a complete failure, but it's deficient. You could drink it if you had to for some reason, but you wouldn't enjoy it.
It made me want to come home and rate wines in a wider range that reflects the way we really perceive them. An adequate wine, drinkable but dull, should be a 75, not an 85.
Yet rating scales exist as a form of communication, and as long as a 75 means "Oh my God did you see what they rated that wine? The winery must not have paid for advertising in the magazine," I can't really use it.
But maybe we should reclaim the 70s and 80s for wine ratings. To do so, we have to acknowledge that high-80s wines are really good, really likable wines. B students, if you will. And that we don't need an A every single time we open a bottle. And that even a C is not a disaster (though I wouldn't order one if I knew a B was available.)
How we start this, I'm not sure. Maybe it begins with consumers telling their local shop that they're perfectly happy with 85 point wines. And maybe THAT begins with consumers accepting the concept for themselves.
Could you eat a great lunch every single day? A 3-course meal, with fancy flatware and impeccable service? I couldn't; after a few days I'd crave a shawarma sandwich or carnitas tacos or a banh mi. Wine is the same. Sometimes goodness is more appealing than greatness.
Feel free to rate this post in the comments on the expanded 100-point scale. And come back later this week for a discussion of what the Concours' categories are, and what maybe they should be.