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The Nonsense of Scores

It might seem a little hackneyed to talk about wine scores but I’ve certainly been thinking about the validity of scoring this week, in part stimulated by this website, Score Revolution. Although to be fair on me I’ve long had concerns about scores, how they are used by critics and by consumers, and the effect they have had on the world of wine.

The Score Revolution site proposes an anti-score manifesto; as the manifesto goes, “if wine is, as we believe, a subjective, subtle, and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable“. That’s an anti-point message; I think some people have interpreted it as an anti-critic manifesto, but that isn’t the case, as the manifesto continues “To discuss a wine’s tannins, acid, balance, structure, fruit, etc, is essential. To share our thoughts and experiences with other humans is arguably one of the most important parts of drinking wine. To introduce a score to this process is condescending, overly simplistic, and often largely inaccurate.” The aim seems to be to shift the emphasis away from scores, and to develop greater respect for the wine and what it is trying to say.

There are certainly many ridiculous facets to the process of scoring wine. Some which particularly bother me include:

(A) A score is taken by many as an intrinsic, inherent quality of the wine, as embodied by the phrase “that’s a 98-point wine”. Wrong. Scores actually rate to an interaction, not the wine itself, and other people may have very different opinions. I know of MWs and critics working for important international journals who subscribe to this ‘intrinsic’ view, who gain solace from tasting in groups and rating the wine the same as their peers, as if a different opinion somehow meant there was something wrong with their palate, or more likely the other taster’s palate. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and a good reason why I continue on using my little 20-point scale, rather than switching to 100 points as many have done. I could go on about this perhaps flawed thought process of mine at length, but will save expanding on this particular point for another day.

(B) Scores are increasingly clumsy. Because critics tend to score higher and higher, for various reasons (including genuinely ‘better’ wines, whatever ‘better’ might mean to that critic, but also the need for hyperbole to ‘sell’ their opinions and scores over those of other critics) there is an increasingly narrow range of scores available. The 100-point scale only runs from 89 to 100. This ‘grade inflation’ towards a self-imposed ceiling of 100 points means that today, rather than aiding communication, the 100-point system actually inhibits sensible reporting.

(C) Scores are increasingly inadequate. As wine quality improves, the chance of a bottle of top-class Bordeaux or Burgundy disappointing simply because of bad winemaking (whether it be poor fruit selection, too high a yield, dirty infected barrels or whatever) is less likely than ever. Looking at Bordeaux as an example, vintage variation is more narrow and even in poor years such as 2007 the chateaux work hard to make a decent (if ultimately over-priced) wine. What is more important today in determining whether you enjoy a wine or not is style; that is greatly varied and certainly merits description, which a numerical report can’t do. Some indication of structure, how the wine feels in the mouth, is far more important to me than (a) any description of flavour and (b) any score. In other words, the old adage that you have to read the tasting note and not just look at the score is more true today than ever before. It also helps if you understand your own preferences. Understanding those of the critic in question also helps, but if they write a decent descriptive note then the reader can at least understand the style of the wine; I’ve long tried to do that (and I know I go on about the flavours as well, but that’s as much for my benefit as anyone else’s!).

Having said that, I do find scores beneficial for me personally. My own scores that is, not anyone else’s! That is because descriptive notes such as mine sometimes look like an uncertain judgement; you can read them, and find yourself asking at the end “yes, but did you actually like it?”. Years later, returning to the note, I might ask myself the same question. Scores remind me (and could inform you too) of whether that is the case. What I don’t mean them to be is a persistent judgement on the wine into the future, or seen as some inherent characteristic of the wine, nor are they meant to describe the wine’s style. They do indicate in an admittedly blunt manner what I felt about the quality of the wine though, alongside my notes which describe the style. Seen like that, with an appropriately relaxed eye, they seem less evil to me. Having said that though, I come down on the side of the anti-score manifesto. We certainly need more emphasis on the wine, its origin, what it says of the terroir and what experiences it might offer us, and we should focus less on some inadequate attempt to provide a numerical representation of all that.

14 Responses to “The Nonsense of Scores”

  1. I agree Chris. I’ve become quite desensitized to scores these days. I tend to buy from known good producers that I know make quality wine and when walking into a shop for a bottle where I want something new, I’ll talk with the shop proprietor and taste before buying when possible. The actual words that come with the scores are far more important to me. I’d like to see some standardization for the descriptions. Tell me about the nose, the fruit, the acidity, the finish. Was it balanced, does it accurately reflect the vintage, varietal and terroir?

  2. I think point scores are very relevant and for high-end premium wines they’re essential. It’s not a recent phenomenon: In Bordeaux they started giving scores to wines (Chateaux) in 1855! Consider the score as the wine’s ‘grade’. Other agricultural producers do it (think Wagyu beef, Tuna sashimi). Wine is not dissimilar. Of course it would be biased if the winery/Chateaux gave their own score to their wine. And that’s where you, RP and WS come in. You are doing us a service! There’s no way i could go through every vintage of every Barossan Red and I wouldn’t want to. I’m not interested in drinking lousy wines (who is?). I want to drink good quality wine all the time. The wine scores are an excellent guide. And that’s all they are. I don’t hang on to Parker’s every word; I compare his scores to Wine Spectator, and if they are incongruous I’ll look at Tanzer’s so I can average them out (keeping in mind that the latter scores very conservatively). Chris your scores were very helpful this summer when I was purchasing my 2010 En Primeurs, but that’s another story/controversy. I agree with what you said about Parker’s 100 point scale: it’s actually a 12 point scale (89-100). But one can use any scale to grade agricultural produce: A to Z; 1 to 5 Stars; coloured grade (green to gold). I don’t quite understand Italy’s way of grading quality though. I’ve had some awful DOCGs and unreal good IGTs.

    Looking at the ‘Score Revolution’ site you have to ask yourself why these people are doing this? What’s their motivation? You can sense the animosity weaved into every line of that ‘manifesto’. Hey, didn’t that Norwegian extremist sociopath also have a ‘manifesto’? And ‘Revolution’ sounds like they’re preparing for ‘war’. The site is basic, backward and bordering on childish. Wouldn’t their time be better spent writing petitions to end human trafficking or shark fining? And that laughable logo at the top looks more like speed limit sign on a country road. Have these people never tried a 100pt wine? Is this about envy? If the score bothers them so much, just ignore it. In this age, knowledge and information equals power. The wine’s score/grade is vital information. More so for myself and other people living here in Singapore where the price of wine is more than triple that of Europe. A 17/20 wine here costs about the same as a pair of designer jeans! You see, I’ve just communicated a wine score to you and you will know approximately what type of quality wine I’m talking about.

    Wine scores are about information, communication and giving the discerning consumer an informed choice.

  3. Hi Charles. Yes, for the Loire in particular, I pay no attention to scores. It helps that I taste many of the wines in their youth of course, so I have my own early-formed opinions to go on, but that isn’t possible for all wines (e.g. Philippe Foreau, the Foucaults). There I buy because I have confidence on the estate.

  4. Hi Dr Alex. I’m not really sure they have a uniform agenda, although some people within the anti-score group certainly do. I think what unifies them is a distaste for scoring wine and also, although not explicitly stated, those features of wine which are associated with scores, which *might* (I don’t want to suggest I have inside knowledge here) include Parker, 100-point fruit bombs, grade inflation, points-chasers, wine/vintage hyperbole, criticism of the Ant-Flavour Wine Elite, rising prices and changed styles by winemakers to garner more points). I don’t think likening them to a mass murderer is appropriate, btw.

  5. Revolutions invariably lead to bloodshed & loss of life, my friend. Anyway, let’s see if they can get 500 signatures by Christmas

  6. I think that numerical scores are useful in only a very limited scope. To say that a wine is 92 pts. really doesn’t tell you much about the wine. The tasting notes of the reviewer are really much more descriptive and thus much more useful than any number he/she might give out. What style is the wine? Is it a fruit bomb? Is it a complex wine that yields a sense of place? Is it for early consumption or could it age and thus improve over time? Mr. Parker and to a certain extent even Mr. Tanzer claim they like balanced, true to their type wines yet still give the highest scores to wines that are biggest in size and fruit. As someone who spends time in a retail operation, I think people buy by the numbers way too much and thus miss out on lots of really good juice. But, we are a numbers world now aren’t we?

  7. Chris,

    The sad fact is that for many, even more “astute” buyers that scores have come to symbolize the intrinsic value of the wine. One need not look any further than the Bdx en primeur campaigns of 2005-10 and wine pricing to see the effect.

    Wine critics have certainly contributed to this phenomenon, but ultimately is it their fault how the buying public views and utilizes their scores?

    For myself and my group of wine enthusiasts scores are meaningless. It is the wine itself which determines its value and therefore outside of inexpensive wines, we buy very little without tasting. While this lessens our ability to purchase certain wines, we have decided that’s ok. This also allows us to also determine if the wine itself justifies its price which in most cases these days is no as prices have escalated unreasonably not just with Bdx, but with many other wines as well.

    Thankfully due to better viticulteur practices there are always other wines ready to step up and replace old favorites. Often this requires moving outside of the traditional regions, but I am amazed at some of the quality of “lesser chateau”, and other outliers especially when you have really good raw material. Bdx 2009/2010 exemplify this. I have had some really terrific 2009 the most expensive of which was $20 and the number of wines to be had in the $10-20 range is outstanding.

    While I like balanced terroir driven wines, that does not imply dull and boring, I am fortunate to also equally enjoy and in many cases prefer those different reds and whites that much of the public will ignore.

    Since 2006 I have purchased only 2 cases of Bdx futures and prices will keep me away from the classed growths for many years to come. It’s unfortunate, but as I said there are always many other choices out there and no lack of high quality reasonably priced vin de garde.

    Besides didn’t Montus La Tyre beat the big boys and the standard bottling of Boucasse held up very nicely as well? The latter a standard bottling costs and still costs $20?


  8. I agree that points are silly, but as Chris says, we also need a way to remember if we liked a wine or not.

    That’s why I use a system of plus and minus (and ++ for those special moments) which reflect MY IMPRESSION. Naturally, this includes all the subjective elements (price, reputation, context, mood, expectation, temperature, etc.) and is therefore a realistic interpretation of my experience.. not the wine’s “quality”.

  9. Thanks for these replies. There is certainly an underlying theme which acknowledges the importance of the note, and the question of appreciating the style rather than just the score.

  10. For me, scores are a starting point and a guide only. If a wine is scored relatively lowly with a reasonable explanation as to why then I’ll avoid it.
    If its scored well and again with good reason then I might consider buying it if the price is right.
    Anybody who buys a wine of a high score for no better reason than either you or RP has scored it in a high percentile is too rich and a sheep with no imagination or personnal taste.

  11. There are of course many problems and biases with scores. However, what is the alternative if you want to get some input on wines worth trying? Just a description of the wine leaves you guessing if the writer likes it or not. If the writer adds a conclusion at the end, e.g. good or not good, that is in fact a grade (in a scale of two in this case). In addition, if you want to get an impression of many wines without having to read many pages of notes, a grading system guides you to the part that is likely more relevant. What is important, though, is to know that a grade might not be relevant to you. You might not only rely on Parker if you don’t like fruit.

  12. I agree that any comment on quality is in fact a grading. Even the poor/good/v.good/excellent/outstanding ratings I used on Winedoctor many. many years ago, before I scored wines, were a grading of sorts. But not all systems have the same effects; there are different pros and cons to them all. One less negative effect of a grading system such as this as it takes away the 99 to 100 point hyperbole. The more blunt the system (five stars for example) the less likely I think you are to get the points chasing and driving up of prices as a side effect.

  13. I like to give a score to a wine and share this score on Cellartracker and I hope that my score can help other people to decide if this wine is worth buying or not. Usually I don’t find it very difficult to give a score to a wine, usually there’s only a 2 point range in my mind to decide in between to give my final score. I really try to give my score on quality and not on personal flavor preferences. I also notice that my scores aren’t going higher with the years, I use the 90-mark as a sort of reference value and start from there on, I know what I want from a 90-wine and if I start from there on it goes pretty well to give a score. This score is in almost 90% of the time within 1 point of the mean score on Cellartracker. I really need scores (from as many sources as possible) to decide if a wine is interesting to buy or not.
    I find the 50-100 scale the easiest one to use, usually ranging from 83-92 for me, the highest I have given is a 96 score for Vina el Pison 1995, I find the range of scores you can have with this scoring system sufficiently wide

    but there is one thing that troubles me (I agree on that with you Chris) : I feel that the scores (in particular of RP) are going up, the number of perfect scoring wines in his 2009 en primeur scores were numerous and I fear he will be forced to use 101,102,… scores in the future, which will make a joke of his scoring system.

    So I like scores, but they must be given consistently, otherwise the idea of giving scores is nonsense

  14. Thanks Kris, that’s a good explanation of where you are with scores. I don’t think scores themselves are ‘evil’ – it is more the way they are interpreted and used by points-chasers and how points-escalation feeds the hype around new vintages.