Thursday, January 12, 2012
On the 100-point scale, uncertainty and types of consumer
One of the objections of scale haters is that a rating is treated as an immutable truth by some of the audience, while this is not the true experience of wine.
Wine tasting has so many variables. Some wines are better with food. Wines have bottle variation. I just tasted with Georges DuBoeuf, who is not the first person to tell me some wines taste better in different weather conditions. A wine I consider a 92 one day might not even be a 90 next week, but a rating is fixed and permanent.
I give consumers more credit than many scale haters; I think many people know that a 92 means "a 92 according to one person's palate." Besides, if you can't give people that much credit -- if you think consumers are that stupid -- then I don't see why you'd want to take the grades away. But I digress.
The question, then, is whether a 92 is always a 92, even to one palate. My argument is that regardless of the fact that the answer is "no," most consumers desperately want that answer to be "yes."
Wine Spectator knows this; check out its imperious notes on how its wines are carefully rated and sometimes rerated to be checked for accuracy, as if one person's ratings can truly be described as accurate.
The thing is, those of us who care enough about wine to debate the 100-point scale are one type of consumer by definition: People who care deeply about wine. That makes us a very small minority.
Most consumers with any brains at all know that ratings of anything are just one person's opinion. Ratings don't make or break Hollywood movies or music downloads.
But wine is a very different product. While "Audition" is going to be the same every time you see it -- kiri kiri kiri! -- your '09 Joe's Winery Cabernet might be very different from your '08. Heck, your '09 might be different from the last batch, an issue few critics want to address.
However, at a certain point, a buyer has to make a decision -- and quickly, if a waiter is hovering over you. You can't spend an hour online looking up differing opinions of every movie you rent.
So you have two wines, a 92 and a 93. Is the second one better? I hope that for the critic who rated it, it was, at least when it was evaluated. But is it better for the consumer?
Nobody knows. And that's a very unsatisfying answer.
Now step back and tell me that on a different day, that critic might have given that 93-point wine a 90, so the 92-pointer might actually be better.
Me and you, wine lovers, we'll have a conversation about the nature of wine, food pairings, etc.
Our rich friend, the guy who buys all the 95-pointers but doesn't devote hours each day to thinking about wine, is going to look at his watch and say, "Order something."
The United States, inventor and popularizer of the 100-point scale, is not a country that embraces change and uncertainty on a mass basis. We're slow adopters of technology; we're much slower than Europe to enact social change. We don't quickly shift trends in music. We like variety, we like progress, and we like the possibility of a little change, but not too fast.
When 100-point-scale haters talk about how they want people to think about wine, it's generally how they think (and to a large extent, how I think). We want people to embrace uncertainty -- and we want everyone in the country to spend hours thinking and talking about wine.
Good luck with that.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 7:30 AM