As I hinted in my recent introduction to my latest set of notes concerning 2009 Bordeaux, I’ve been reading Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Vines. I don’t seem to read as many wine-related books as I used to, a symptom of how busy I am with Winedoctor I suspect, but that’s something I’ve been working to rectify recently. It’s important to read and hear what others have to say, as it can challenge and stimulate the mind. And it can be very pleasurable too – I enjoyed Theise’s book immensely – and with that in mind I know I should pen a short review for Winedoctor. Soon, I promise.
One of Theise’s arguments concerns the use of points or scores when rating wines, and the peculiar way this has filtered through from wine critics to wine consumers. I have to confess I had just taken this activity for granted, as ‘normal’ behaviour, and yet if you stop and think about it for a moment, the whole practise suddenly looks really weird.
Scoring wine appears, for the wine trade, to be a necessary evil. It’s necessary for the critic, as this is how they convey their ranking of a wine, superb or otherwise. Whether it is Decanter’s five stars, or the 100-point system favoured by Parker and Wine Spectator (and many others – I sense that some feel the 100-point system gives them credibility), or the 20-point system favoured by the British and European press (Jancis Robinson, the now-retired Clive Coates, World of Fine Wine, La Revue du Vin de France) just about all critics use some sort of method of rating or ranking wine. Even the likes of Hugh Johnson has his buy a glass/buy a bottle/buy the vineyard system. It’s a way of conveying which wine you thought ‘best’, which were in the middle, which were ‘worst’.
Scoring for the trade also appears to be part-and-parcel of the job. Theise appears to detest scores, and makes an impassioned (and very convincing – after a page or two of his argument I was ready to rip up scores forever) plea against their use. Nevertheless, he also admits to using them himself, but only within the context of his wine catalogue (he is a wine importer as well as gifted writer, by the way). They’re necessary to sell wine, it seems. But when drinking at home, it is pretty clear that he does not use them.
But what about the wine consumer? It’s not necessary to score a wine when you drink it at home. Sure, you might have used the critic’s score to settle on which wine to purchase, but once you have it on your table, shouldn’t you just enjoy it? Part of the pleasure is delving into the wine, sensing its nuances, understanding its context within the world of wine (by which I mean its origins, I guess), seeing its beauty. I’m all for that. Part of the pleasure is also enjoying the wine within its current context, not within the larger world of wine, but within that environment, with that meal, on that holiday, on your balcony as you savour a beautiful sunset. I’m all for that as well. And part of the pleasure may be some discussion or debate, with your drinking partner or dinner companion if you have one, or perhaps online on a blog or forum. That’s also something I would support. But why the score? What’s the (sorry about this pun) point?
So many aspects of culture are reviewed and recommended (or trashed!) by critics; films spring immediately to mind, but also restaurants, theatre productions be they drama, stand-up comedy, ballet, opera or otherwise, books, new music releases, and so on. And yet in so many respects debate among consumers about these cultural genres remains free of points and scores. Earlier this week I watched Scottish National Opera perform The Barber of Seville; I went because I am an opera fan (not a knowledgeable one) and not because I read a review, but I’m sure the production has been written up, picked over, reviewed and quite possibly awarded a rating of some sort by some expert somewhere. But I didn’t leave the theatre saying to my two companions “wow – I’m 96 points on that opera – how about you?“. Wouldn’t that sound rather infantile?
In case you think my argument is hackneyed (the old “how many points for that Botticelli?” argument) then let me be clear that this isn’t the message/question I’m trying to get across. I accept, as Theise seems to do, that points are a necessary evil and that critics and the trade will continue to use them despite their many flaws. So I’m not trying to argue away scores on the basis of “wine is art and you can’t score art”, because that’s been done too many times before. The question I’m asking is this: why do so many wine-interested consumers feel that wine appreciation must involve assigning a score? If you’re not a critic, or a wine merchant, what is the purpose in scoring wine? Do you feel it gives your opinion some sort of validity, or does it facilitate debate, perhaps? And if you do score wine, do you also score other aspects of your life?
And coming back to the title of my post….did you have a 90+ point sleep last night?