Drinking by numbers

Just as surely as wine and food go together, so do tasting notes and scores. Yet, as clearly as I see the unintentional damage that tasting notes inflict, I am a little more ambivalent about the issue of scoring wines. Let me put that another way: Wine scores can interfere with consumers developing their own standards and preferences. They are too easy to misunderstand and misinterpret. But I completely understand why so many consumers are wed to them, especially when picking a bottle online.


Just as surely as wine and food go together, so do tasting notes and scores. Yet, as clearly as I see the unintentional damage that tasting notes inflict, I am a little more ambivalent about the issue of scoring wines. Let me put that another way: Wine scores can interfere with consumers developing their own standards and preferences. They are too easy to misunderstand and misinterpret. But I completely understand why so many consumers are wed to them.

Naturally, consumers facing this situation want to put themselves into the hands of an expert. Ideally, that expert should be their local wine merchant. No resource is more important or potentially more influential than a good wine merchant. By definition, good merchants should offer a wide ranging selection. Just as important, they need to take the time to speak with and understand their customers, so they can direct them to bottles that meet their sometimes inchoate desires.  But good merchants and great wine shops are not found in every neighborhood. Consumers have to be highly motivated to seek them out.

Enter the consumer advocates—people like Robert M. Parker Jr., who actually patterned himself on Ralph Nader—as well as an assortment of traditional wine publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, and Vivino and their app. While all of these publications differ in terms of taste, attitude, and point of view, most of them use the 100-point scale.

British publications, like The World of Fine Wine, seem to view the American 100-point scale as typically exaggerated and over-the-top. After all, their scoring scale only goes up to 20 in the case of The World of Fine Wine and Jancis Robinson. Even so, it’s the same idea, fixing a grade to a wine that will allow consumers to judge it in comparison to other bottles. Novice wine buyers are not likely to read these publications, unless they aspire to become something more, but that doesn’t matter. The stores bring these publications right onto the sales floor in the form of shelf talkers, those little marketing aids that generally include a critic’s score. Using shelf talkers as a guide, even the most flustered consumer can pick out a bottle rated highly by at least one critic. Is it any wonder scores are so influential, or that many winemakers have little conscience when it comes to weighing their personal tastes against doing whatever it takes to get a high score?

So what’s the problem with scores? Some wine writers argue that assigning scores to bottles of wine is offensive, as it would be to score works of art in a museum, say giving Mona Lisa a 98 and Guernica a 94. While that may suggest an excellent project for an enterprising art historian, it is absurd to think of wines as masterpieces not to be sullied by commercial considerations. Great winemakers must have passion, courage, and a profound sense of vision and understanding, along with certain technical skills, but wine for the most part is not a work of the imagination. It is an agricultural product. And its especially concerning when buying wine online.

Growers and winemakers are more like stewards who understand the potential of a particular piece of earth. Through farming and production they are able to realize that potential, which is sometimes mistaken for self-expression. Occasionally, parallels can be seen between a winemaker’s personality and the wine itself, but that is not the same as a work of art created from scratch. No, scores for wine are not offensive. They simply don’t offer enough information to be useful and therefore are too often misleading. For one thing, scores suffer from the same disadvantage as tasting notes: They are generally the products of mass tastings that give a quick experience of a wine at a single, solitary moment in its evolution, amid many other wines. A wine that a critic scores highly in these artificial conditions may not be the best wine to drink at home on a Monday night or at a dinner party a couple of years later. While scores offer an easy shorthand for consumers, they unfortunately require that every wine be judged on the same seemingly objective scale, regardless of the subjective nature of taste and context. A 90 always beats an 89, right? Let’s not even think of comparing a 95 with an 85. With such a clear disparity between bottles, why would anybody want to drink an 85? Such clarity, unfortunately, comes at the price of completely ignoring the single most important consideration to the enjoyment of wine: context. Quite simply, nothing matters more to how we perceive wine than the context in which it is consumed. Context can make a modest wine memorable. It can also render a profound wine irrelevant. Some examples? The proverbial little red wine, so delicious consumed in the archetypal Tuscan hillside village with your sweetheart as you drown in the loving pools of each other’s eyes. Alas, it never tastes the same back home in New Jersey, with the kids running around and an important report to deliver at work the next day.

Meanwhile, the big California cabernet that you enjoyed so much with your work buddies at a steakhouse, ties tucked between the buttons of your shirt, doesn’t offer nearly the same triumphant lift when its flavors are canceled out by a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Considering context requires asking crucial questions. Where will you be drinking this wine? With whom will you be drinking it? What will you eat? What’s the weather, the mood? The more experience you have in choosing wines, the more instinctive this becomes, like knowing what clothes to wear to a particular sort of event, or when to begin slowing down your car when you approach a red light. If you are not used to dealing with these questions, or don’t have the background knowledge to apply to choosing a wine, it’s easy to fall back on scores. But scores ignore context, and that’s not good. Even worse, many wine critics almost reflexively offer higher scores to the sorts of wines they consider to be of higher status.



That is, established critics like Parker or Wine Spectator generally give much higher scores to bottles in the genres they consider great, like Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, than they do in genres they consider merely good or easygoing, like Beaujolais, Chinon, or Rioja crianza. Ultimately, scores tend to tell you more about the tastes and preferences of the scorer than they do about the wines. Paradoxically, the lower-scoring genres may be far better choices for many occasions. For one thing, many of the wines that receive higher scores offer the least amount of pleasure in the short term because they are too young. A young Napa cabernet from a great vintage may receive a higher score than another Napa cabernet from a vintage deemed mediocre. But that higher-scoring bottle may need quite a few years of aging before it becomes more enjoyable than the lower-scoring bottle. Similarly, while I believe that many people are too fussy in their anxiety about finding perfect matches between foods and wines, you still have to give at least modest consideration to what you are eating when selecting a bottle. And selecting wines by score doesn’t take food into account at all. Even within a single genre of wines, scores tend to reward ambition over simplicity. So a wine that strives for greatness, or shows the trappings of greatness, will often score higher than a wine that aims to be immediately enjoyable. It’s often the case in any up-and-coming region, for example, that winemakers can gain higher scores by adhering to certain formulas. Take a wine that’s become highly popular in the United States, Argentine malbec.

The wines I’ve found most enjoyable and versatile are the most casual and inexpensive.

Why? They are the least pretentious. When made in an easygoing style, malbec offers juicy, dark, plummy pleasures and can be good with a wide range of equally easygoing meals. But more and more often these wines are tarted up by ambitious producers who want higher scores, along with the higher prices and status that go along with them. They might cut yields to make denser, more concentrated wines. They will invest in small barrels of new French oak, which polishes the wine to a fine sheen while conferring the vanilla and chocolate flavors that make the wine taste generic rather than distinctive. The effort to turn good malbec into great malbec renders them unfit for the easygoing table. But guess what? They do indeed score higher, and they end up costing more. A consumer seeking a wine for dinner tonight who is buying strictly by the score may well end up selecting the inferior bottle, even if it does have a higher score.

The same scenario has played out across the wine-producing world, whether with the aglianicos of Campania, the mencías of Bierzo, or the pinot noirs of Oregon. Simply put, a wine with a higher rating is not always the better choice—not nearly! It is one of the crucial lessons of experience. Recognizing this fact is a sign that independent thinking is taking hold. Even more important, many consumers eventually come to understand that wine ratings have major limitations. They begin to search for other sources of knowledge. That’s about the time when you develop the motivation to abandon the supermarket in favor of a wine shop with knowledgeable merchants who can guide your selection. That’s why they will ask you questions, like what you are eating, what kind of wines you’ve liked in the past, and so on. They are asking you to provide the context that will help them make informed recommendations. Of course, not every merchant really cares about your needs. Instead of making their own considered recommendations, these merchants will recite the scores to you.

My advice: Look for another shop. Critics themselves are well aware of the limitations of ratings. Most urge their readers never to divorce their ratings from their written evaluations of those same wines. Their point would be well taken if their evaluations supplied useful information about the wine—its general style and nature, for example, and what sorts of foods or occasions might be suitable. Instead, the critical information they offer is in the form of tasting notes, and we’ve already seen where they lead. Some critical sources do understand the need for context, yet just as with tasting notes, they err on the side of overspecificity, like friends who cannot contain themselves from offering too much information. Perhaps wine writers find speaking in generalities unsatisfying, as if their creative acumen can only be displayed by piling on irritating details. For example, I generally love Wine & Spirits magazine—its articles are excellent, provocative, and highly readable—but its policy of offering absurdly specific food suggestions in its tasting notes would be maddening if it weren’t so comical. In a recent note on a 2007 pinot grigio from Swanson, a California producer, the critic asserts that the wine is “for grilled unagi,” as if this bottle could only go with a meal of grilled freshwater eels —crazy! Meanwhile, in the same column, the critic writes that the next vintage of the same wine, the 2008 Swanson pinot grigio, is “a match for barely seared albacore with green zebra tomato salsa.” What if you want to prepare the albacore dish but you only have the 2007 pinot grigio? Out of luck? Or will readers know to extrapolate from these instructions that the wines will most likely go with hearty seafood dishes, eel, tuna, or whatever? Why not just say that? Or is the green zebra tomato salsa actually a crucial component? More likely, when consumers are told to “match its bone-dry intensity with grilled quail wrapped in pancetta,” they will want to punch a wall or reach for the aspirin bottle. Just as with tasting notes, overly specific instructions for matching wines and foods are mystifying and intimidating for novices and useless for experienced wine drinkers. They should be avoided.

The wine industry itself has a tormented relationship with scores.

Most winemakers know how artificial the whole process is, yet they feel compelled to go along with it, especially when the benefits from a high score are so tangible and commercially rewarding. In a global marketplace, too, scores have the advantage of selling internationally. A 95 from Parker requires no translation in Hong Kong, where descriptions like “explosively rich with gobs of crushed blackberries and raspberries” may fall flat. Strangely, other numerical scales are not nearly so transposable. Americans who try to mentally translate the British 20-point scale into the 100-point system find it as frustrating as converting Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit—there is no easy correspondence. The easygoing wine that the British critic praises earns a 16. Multiply by 5 and you get 80, well beneath a score that will appeal to Americans. Perhaps because of its added flexibility, the 100-point scale has achieved worldwide hegemony. It has taken hold in Italy and Spain, and even some in Britain are now using it, too. In the end, though, scores are a poor substitute for wisdom, a conclusion that, alas, offers two potentially unsatisfying alternatives. On the one hand, you can continue to trust in scores, knowing you may miss out on many highly satisfying wines that are not the type that earn high scores. On the other, you can begin the quest for understanding, which consists simply of thought and judgment applied to experience. This is a highly pleasurable pursuit, I must say, but one that demands some time and effort, to say nothing of money. obligation.

But if the motivation is curiosity, joy, and pleasure, then the possibilities for fulfillment are unlimited.

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