Friday, May 15, 2020

An actual conversation I had with a wine critic who judges on the 100-point-scale

I won't identify the wine critic in this conversation. I had this conversation a while ago; rediscovered it while cleaning out some old notebooks. I wrote it down but never had a place to put it in an article. So, here you go.

I'll call this professional 100-Point Critic "C100." To be clear, this person reviews wine (not sake) for a major publication, on the 100-point scale.

Here's the setting: We're blind-tasting sakes, not wines, so neither of us is rating them. We're just tasting, and talking after the reveal. C100 says they prefer more traditional styles of sake (yamahai or kimoto). I generally do too, but in this particular company's lineup, I most liked the sokujo (in which lactic acid is added rather than developed naturally.) I wasn't talking about preferring the sokujo method: I just liked this company's sokujo sake better than its kimoto. That's where we start.

Me: I like the sokujo best.

C100: They're different. You can't compare them. It depends on what you're eating or what the circumstances are. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Me: People do that. Oranges are more acidic.

C100: You can't. It's like comparing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Savennières. You can't. They're different. You can compare a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but you can't compare it to Savennières.

Me: But you can. And you do. Your publication exists to do that. That's what the 100-point scale does. You say this one's a 92, and that one's an 89.

C100: I can't have this discussion anymore.

And C100 stormed away from me.

And of course C100 won the argument, because C100 is still rating this one a 92, and that one an 89. But not comparing them. No, never, because YOU CAN'T.

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Amy Sherman said...

I went to a university that offered narrative evaluations rather than grades because I was tired of competing against other students instead of focusing on my own learning. We used to say "grades are for meat" but at least with meat, there are actual objective guidelines for what makes a cut of meat "Select, Choice or Prime." My problem is that I have no idea what wine scores mean other than a reviewer deducted points for something they didn't like. What that something was? The score doesn't tell me that.

Anonymous said...

I once went to a dinner where a person who publishes scores on the 100 point scale told me that he did not like Pinot Gris and that he would not ever give one above 90 points. I tried to argue that if it was the best Pinot Gris he had ever tasted, shouldn't it get above that. He said no way. It was very disheartening since I attempt to make a very, very good Gewurztraminer, but know to some judges, it will have to beat out Margaux, DRC, and cult Cali Cabs to ever get a score that will turn heads!

I understand that if I was to make the best Alaskan Grenache or Mojave Desert Pinot Noir ever, that does not mean I deserve 100 points. Shouldn't each grape have a chance to be judged on a spectrum of peers? Some reviewers say that the points from 90-95 are based on how a wine stands up to classic examples of style, and 95-100 has more to do with aging potential. I can slightly get behind that, but I am more of a 90 point wine is made without faults and contains great attributes of balance, texture and intensity. From 91-100 should be more about the pure hedonistic/sensual/excitement aspects, which would understandably vary from reviewer to reviewer. Readers would just need to find reviewers that match their tastes/beliefs/interests.

My two cents.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chris: It's a constant problem, the question of whether a 92-point Sauvignon Blanc is 92 compared to the universe of all Sauvignon Blancs, or the universe of all wines. Every organization I know uses the latter, which means -- I said this on Robert Joseph's videocast today -- that a crisp, refreshing, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc will never get a big score, even though IMHO that is Sauvignon Blanc's highest and best use. Instead, oak it up, maybe do some lees stirring, so that as you say, maybe it improves with aging, and THAT wine gets a big score. But that's not the way the overwhelming majority of us want to enjoy Sauvignon Blanc.

This takes the discussion somewhere complicated, but I don't like the upper reaches of the scale only being available for wines of a certain style.

The funny thing about C100 is that, in a certain way, C100 is right: sometimes you want NZ SB, and sometimes you want Savennières. But I am way understating the snootiness of the lecture I got. People do compare, and that's C100's job.

Paul Franson said...

100 point scales are intended for insecure wine drinkers, lazy wine salesmen and wine critics who know that people love ordered listings. ("The 10 best toilet papers!") That makes those ratings irrelevant for anyone who knows what they like.

Unknown said...

Is there truly a recognizable difference between 89 and 92? Depends on the taster and his/her daily chemistry. Today's 92 could be tomorrow's 89? It's all about how the wine interacts with your personal body chemistry. As a former vineyard and winery owner, I would often tell a customer: "You and I can be tasting the same wine. You can love it and I can hate it, and we're both right, for our own personal body chemistry interaction". You either like or you don't. Plain and simple. Enough said. Thanks.

David Ramey said...

C100 has a point: most folks wouldn't be comparing a Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere with a Chenin Blanc from Savennieres.

Big Dog Vineyards said...

This relates to your Wine Searcher article calling for ingredients to be added to the label.
If you're going to include a lists of ingredients, then it needs to be accurate.

Take the Ridge Vineyards label shown in the picture below. It says:
"Hand harvested sustainably grown grapes, indigenous yeasts; naturally occuring malolactic bacteria, calcium carbonate, minimum effective SO2." What's wrong with that?

Indigenous yeasts die at 5-8% alcohol and then must be finished with cultured yeast.
So there's both indigenous and cultured yeast, but the list is conveniently truncated. There is is naturally occuring ML bacteria, but depending upon pH and alcohol, it usually requires a specific addition of MLB to finish the process.
Ridge also substitutes "SO2" for "sulfites" which sounds more friendly but the TTB requires the use of "sulfites" on the label so this alternate reference serves to confuse.
As the author points out, there is a label game being played for many foods and beverages. Is it better to include ingredients if that list is misleading?

The FDA certifies certain ingredients as "safe for use" in wine. Shall we trust that or shall we confuse the consumer with information that is poorly understood by the public?
Gluten free? Why would it be remotely appropriate to include a wheat byproduct as not being in grape wine? That's dishonest! Its illegal to put any type of grain produce in grape wine.

One last thought, since the author seems to be micro-health conscious but not concerned with the big picture consider this:
Wine contains 12-16% ethanol. That substance has been shown to be carcinogenic, cause heart problems, be highly addictive in some people, impair judgement, dull motor skills and driving, and harmful in pregnancy.
With that elephant in the room why would you even be concerned with parts per million or parts per billion of an ingredient that the FDA already says is safe?

W. Blake Gray said...

Big Dog: I read a lot of excuses and accusations. But you don't actually tell me what's in your wine.

So, let me ask: What's in your wine?

Bob Henry said...

C100 stated you can compare a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but you can't compare it to Savennières. They're different.

In a little publicized and now long overlooked 1989 interview of Robert Parker by Wine Times magazine (later bought and rebranded as Wine Enthusiast magazine), this subject came up.

With Blake's indulgence, let me quote from my transcript of the interview:

"WINE TIMES: You are arguing price versus quality. Take a $30 bottle [of] wine. To get an 87 [point score] does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

"PARKER: No. It's one man's opinion, but I think that 87-point [1987 vintage Preston] Chenin Blanc [from California] can go right on the table next to a Leflaive white Burgundy rated 87 [points]. They will give you different sets of flavors, but are every bit as good as each other. That's the way the system was meant to work."

With Parker, wines are not scored within their grape variety category ("apples to apples").

Rather, he has a 100-point absolute standard against which all wines are scored.

And the proof of this viewpoint can be found in another excerpt from the same interview:

"WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren't white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

"PARKER: Because of that 10-point cushion [Parker awards to certain grape variety categories of wines that potentially improve with time in the bottle]. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It's a sign of the [100 point] system that a great 1985 Morgon [cru Beaujolais] is not going to get 100 points because it's not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.

"WINE TIMES: In your system, what would be the highest rated Beaujolais?

"PARKER: 90. That would be a perfect Beaujolais, and I've never given one. I have given a lot of 87s and 88s."

Swedish university research biologist David Morrison Ph.D. has discussed at length the widely differing wine scoring systems in his weekly The Wine Gourd wine blog.

Two examples:

"How many 100-point wine-quality scales are there?"


"Why comparing wine-quality scores might make no sense"


Anonymous said...

So isn't this just another example of why the point system is a lie/fallacy/illusion/front/curtain of Oz? I know it sells wine (for some wineries) but what is the point of holding up a system that is built on unfair and inadequate comparisons if all it does is sell wines that someone choses to prefer over others, based on no quality based evidence but only opinion?
Just a winemakers two cents. Maybe I don't get enough high scores I suppose.