Saturday, April 25, 2009

Changing the rules for scoring wines

Why should all wines score between 80 and 100 points? Is there really that little difference?

The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Europe's leading wine competition, challenges that assumption this year with its judging system.

In my first year as a judge, I have decided to follow the system as it's intended, After one day, my scores ranged from 55 to 98, which is probably an accurate statistical representation of the difference between a bad Chilean Merlot and a good top-tier vintage Champagne – two categories I actually tasted.

But most of the judges I talked to are not following the Concours system as it's intended. Instead, they're giving each wine a score in the range they're accustomed to -- generally, 80 to 100 – and then messing with the system to make the score fit.

The results will be interesting. On the whole, my scores are turning out far lower than my colleagues', even though in discussing the wines, my opinions are about as generous as theirs.

However, I'm counting on the statistical bureau the Concours is working with, which is supposed to adjust each individual taster's scores based on our general tendencies. In other words, if my 78 is akin to every other judge's 85, which would be enough for a silver medal, the wine would get my vote for a silver.

If that's confusing, I blame jet lag – it's 9 hours later here and the bloody Hilton hotel charges 17 Euros for Internet access (I blame Paris Hilton's profligacy for this greed) – so I'm sipping a cafe con leche at a nearby Novotel hotel that has free wifi in the lounge.

I'm also wondering if the Concours will invite me back to be a judge because competitions exist to award medals, and if I were the only judge here, there wouldn't be many. Fortunately, that's not the case. It's a thrill to taste in a giant convention hall in Valencia, Spain with about 100 of the leading tasters of Europe. I ate breakfast with the leading wine critic in Argentina. It's a great atmosphere here, very international. And I really like the idea of what they're trying to accomplish with this scoring system.

Here's the deal: Each wine is judged in 10 different categories – but we have only 5 choices within each of those categories. In other words, for each category, like Aromatic Intensity, we have to put an X in one of 5 boxes (Very good, good, average, bad, very bad).

However, all categories are not created equal, nor are the points awarded in a linear fashion.

Aromatic Quality is important: A top score is worth 16 points, middle 12 points, and a very bad wine still gets 8 points. Persistence is not as important; scores range from 8 points down to 4.

The upshot is that the lowest possible score is 40, but only if a wine is visually flawed. We were encouraged to give each wine the top visual score unless it actually has flaws like being cloudy, and I'm OK with that, so realistically the lowest possible score is 52. I came close to going that low on a few wines today that I really hated.

Has Wine Spectator ever given a 58? Has Parker? And yet, doesn't that really represent the experience of wine?

If Lanson Gold Label Brut Champagne 1998 is a 98, and I think I'm in ecstasy just smelling it, isn't it fair to say that a red wine from Crete that smells and tastes nasty should score in the 50s, not the 70s as most contemporary publications would put it?

My problem with following the scale is that our group of five tasters (I'm the only non-European) got very lucky because we drew the Tete de Cuvee Champagnes, and I gave several of them scores around 95. They deserved the scores – these are great wines – but that might mean my other scores will not be adjusted upward. Therefore, the high 70s I doled out to Sicilian reds and Argentinian whites that didn't thrill me could mean those wines won't get any medals at all – not even the “thanks for entering” silver that most wine competitions hand out to unflawed but unexciting wines.

Truth be told, I like that idea too. If all competitions had rigorous standards, gold medals would be really meaningful.

Nonetheless I feel sorry for the producers whose wines ended up in my category. I'm not trying to change the world or anything. I'm just trying, uncharacteristically, to follow the rules. And hoping that doing so doesn't make me persona non grata next year.


Goma SF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goma@sf said...

I am glad that you are enjoying working in Spain. (If it was not Oishii wine to judge, then, it was kanashii.)
I'm with you. If every wine gets above 80, then score doesn’t mean anything. As a consumer, it is nice to see high point means something, but not only the number for marketing.

Jack Everitt said...

Why is a wine flawed if it is cloudy? Frank Cornelissen's wines are cloudy. But not flawed.

p.s. Could you add anonyomous like 98% of other wine blogs? I don't want to choose Google or OpenID. Thanks!

Lisa said...

Sounds like fun, and I'm glad you found free wi-fi + cafe con leche -- an unbeatable combo.

So, re. "a few wines today (that) I really hated": What is something that makes you hate a wine?

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for your comments.

Jack: Wish you were here, man. Re cloudy: Kermit Lynch would probably be angry at that rule too. That said, most consumers don't want cloudy wines. Out of 150 wines tasted, I think I only marked down three for visual defects, and I didn't love those wines anyway. But it's a fair point.
I don't like anonymous comments; I don't want my blog to turn into The Chronicle's comment section. I like debate, but not flaming. If that restricts the number of comments I get, I can live with that.

Lisa: Good question. I'm actually pretty simple -- if a wine smells and tastes unpleasant, I hate it. I have a fairly high tolerance for "animal" smells -- barnyardy. But I hate chemical smells and tastes. That said, I generally use the Supreme Court Pornography definition for hating wines -- I know it when I hate it, it's a visceral thing. But now that you ask, I'm going to pay more attention to wines I hate and try to answer that question more clearly in a subsequent post.

Lisa said...

I hate chemical, too.

I was delighted to find my little health food store now has a chemical-free, non-sulfite wine section.

W. Blake Gray said...

I would NOT shop in that section. Sulfites are a natural component in wine and absolutely essential for maintaining its freshness. Perhaps that's a post for another day.

Lisa said...

Ah -- thank you! For some reason, I had the idea that is what imparted a chemical taste and what gave me a headache after certain whites (wines).

I can usually drink reds with no payback, headache-wise. (I am a person who never gets headaches, otherwise.)