Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews commented on the post:
After decades of experience tasting and evaluating wines, we feel confident in our ability to use the 100-point scale in a way that's consistent, reliable and useful for readers.I applauded Matthews' comment for its humility, something wine ratings organizations show too little of. And I still do.
We have much less experience with sake, and felt that broader categories would be more appropriate to express our opinions on their quality. However, I could easily see a critic with deeper experience in sake using the 100-point scale, and perhaps if we taste extensively enough, one day we will too.
Having had a week to think about it, though, I wish Spectator had been its usual self and said, "This one's a 92, this one's an 87." Here's why.
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When I wrote about sake for the San Francisco Chronicle, the most common question would be, "Where can I get a good bottle of sake for $10 or $15?" The answer is, you can't. I could name one or two sakes at the margins, but quality sake is more expensive to produce than wine and really needs to be shipped under temperature control. You can find good sakes starting at about $25, but it's slim pickings before that.
Even for wine lovers, $25 is a lot to risk for a product that's completely foreign. I'm used to it now, but people who don't blink at spending $75 for wine in a restaurant have never considered spending $25 in an Asian grocery store for a bottle of sake.
Why do people pursue expensive wines?
Sometimes it's the reputation of the winery, which predated the advent of 100-point-scale ratings. Japan has centuries-old breweries, but that hasn't boosted the sake market here.
But often, let's face it, consumers are excited by high ratings. A 95-point rating may be a random anointment by a guy with more dead tastebuds than living, but it's still a 95-point rating. It sells wine.
I'm a wine lover. I don't care if any individual winery sells wine. Nor do I worry about the health of the wine industry, which is booming worldwide. So if the 100-point scale disappeared tomorrow (not gonna happen, but bear with me), I wouldn't care, and in fact as I'm more of a feature writer that would be good for me.
I'm also a sake lover, and here my positions are entirely different. I worry about the health of the sake industry. Sake sales rose in Japan last year for the first time in three decades because of emotional support for the industry after the tsunami and nuclear disaster. But that's a tiny blip in a longterm trend. The quality of sake gets ever better, but breweries have been closing. The export market for quality sake is tiny, but if we drank more sake, we could help save a world heritage beverage.
|It's not a marketing word: Great sake is truly handmade|
Put it this way: the very best sake in the US -- the best I've ever had, and I've tried most of them -- is maybe an 80-pointer. Whereas Japan has 95 pointers all over the place.
I like putting it that way. This is why Robert Parker adopted the 100-point scale in the first place. It quickly gives you comparative information. Yes, both of these wines taste like cherries and leather, but this one is a 95 and that one's an 88. This one's better. When Americans knew little about wine, the 100-point scale was a tremendous help.
Americans on the whole know nothing about sake. Heck, Matthews admitted that even Wine Spectator knows nothing about sake. I can tell people about Japanese tradition and elegance and umami and all that, but when I say this one's 93 and that one's an 80, you get it. Everyone gets it. You can quote the Big Lebowski and say, yeah, well, that's just like, your opinion man. But you get it.
And moreover, people who don't give deep thought to the subjective nature of wine ratings will see it and they'll immediately understand why some sakes are worth $50 a bottle. And maybe they'll try one.
Do I expect Wine Spectator to pick the best 95-point sakes? Probably not. I learned this year of the importance of umami in sake, which you can't experience by smelling. Wine critics are all aroma-dependent; it's the only way to deal with tasting so much wine. Spectator would probably do what it does with wine: go gaga over the extremely aromatic sakes, and the boozier sakes, and underrate some of the elegant, balanced ones.
But that's OK. Really. Japan needs more winners, for the health of the industry. And the field of unrecognized great Japanese sakes is currently so large that Spectator couldn't help but find dozens.
In the 1980s, the 100-point scale was a great thing for wine. It punished wineries for bad hygiene and rewarded wineries for taking production seriously. Anybody nostalgic for wines made before the 100-point scale is denying the reality of what the vast majority of wine tasted like then. The 100-point scale made lazy wineries shape up.
More to the point I'm making, the 100-point scale also excited Americans to buy more wine and pay more for it.
The quality of Japanese sake is already there; the industry doesn't need the constructive criticism of a point scale. But US drinkers are timid and parsimonious when it comes to sake, and they need something to excite them. If that something is a 98-point rating, I'm all for it.