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How did you sleep last night?

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?

23 Responses to “How did you sleep last night?”

  1. Hi Chris – you make a good point. I tend to write my own notes in CellarTracker but don’t add scores as the notes are more for my personal record. I do however not whether or not I liked the wine and sometimes how much (e.g. really liked it, okay, poor etc) which I guess is a scale of some sort. I think some people probably like to score wines to reassure themselves they are drinking “good” wine. For me the description of the smells and taste of a wine are far more valuable than any score.

  2. Thanks James. There’s no doubt that we should come to a conclusion whether or not we like a wine when we taste/drink it, and that demands some sort of quality comment, along the lines of “very good”, “excellent”, “rubbish” or similar. It would be strange if that wasn’t happening. I’m just struck how widespread the practise of scoring wine has become as an expression of this part of the taster’s opinion.

    It then becomes an intrinsic quality of the wine – “this is a 92-point Riesling” rather than “I really enjoyed that Riesling with the tuna last night” which sounds rather less infantile.

    I wonder if some do it to reassure themselves about their own palate? They score a wine 91 perhaps, and then look on Cellar Tracker and see everyone else did the same, and this gives their palate validity? I don’t know if this is true, obviously, just theorising.

  3. Chris, interesting post. I actually use the MRC’s muscle strength grading to rate wines. I find this way, I can attach something to the wine to help me remember how I think it compares to peers (repeat buys, etc) but still remain wonderfully qualitative.

    0/5 = paralyzed by fault
    1/5 = just a flicker of interest
    2/5 = works to some degree, but no real strength (can’t stand up against gravity, after all)
    3/5 = good enough, but just don’t push it
    4/5 = stands up to resistance
    5/5 = fully meets my vinous dreams


  4. Chris,

    As I have said many times here I don’t use scores to purchase wines and I don’t rate them when I drink them.

    Even with Cellar Tracker, I don’t look at the points, but read the reviews and my use of CT is usually confined to determining if a particular wine is worth opening now, perhaps still to young, or waiting longer before pulling the cork.


  5. Marc, thanks, that suggests a whole new meaning to wine tasting descriptors such as “sinewy”! As you indicate though, ultimately it is qualitative, and it’s an assistant to recall when it comes to buying.

    Gary, do you think you are in the minority or majority? Clearly the online world – whether it’s Cellar Tracker or eBob or Purple Pages – is populated by a skewed, self-selected population who tend to use points, and in this respect you’re an exception ( I suggest). But what about all the thousands of people who don’t engage in online discussion and debate; and they out there, happily enjoying their wine without a though as to grading it, just as Theise would like them to?

  6. Hi Chris,
    I think scoring wines is ok as long as you use them as a broad guide, not as the be all and end all. My tastes certainly differ from yours, so my perception of an identical wine will almost certainly be different.
    If you were to score a wine 10/20 I would almost certainly avoid it, it saves me money. However once scores go 15+, it becomes much more subjective.
    Since I’ve certainly never had a wine that was scored 1/20 or 20/20 or a Robert Parker 100 then the top score is pretty much irrelevant to me.
    I, as a previous post has already described, tend to “score” wines with descriptions.

  7. Personally I don’t use scores, for a number of reasons including doubts about consistency, preferring to be more descriptive and never finding them particularly useful.

    Agree that critics are forced into using them & that shops recognise that scores (or positive newspaper/magazines articles) sell wines. I also recognise that critics are in an arms race on score escalations, as higher scores are more likely to be referenced & that promotes the critic’s business.

    Happy that some individuals use scores as useful reference point when considering buying more of the same wine.

    The sad thing is that ordinary folk buy into this score escalation that can give a dull wine 88/100 or 17/20. Perhaps a more appropriate scale for wine enthusiasts would be the scale Broadbent uses (and likewise Toby & Richard @ fine wine diary). 0-5 stars with very rare instances of 6 stars. 1 star can be a reasonable outcome for a simple wine, whilst 3 stars might reflect something altogether more interesting. It always seems a more linear scale, making use of all points along it… i.e. not artifically inflated.



  8. Hi Richard.

    Thanks for that comment; your point that different tastes mean different interpretations of the same wine is an important one, which I was going to explore in more detail in the future. Because of this, as you say, scores are very subjective. I think too many people see them as precise and put far too much weight on them.

  9. Hi Ian

    Good ponts. I think the stars work because they don’t have that suggestion of perfection, in the way that 99/100 or 99+/100 does. As scores escalate towards 100, so does the excitement of the points-chasers, and so do the prices. You just don’t get that level of response from four or five stars.

    Points escalation is a real problem that really exists, partly the temptation to score recent releases that are really impressive higher and – as you rightly say – higher points are quoted more, and are therefore good for business. No wonder the 100-point scale is now really only a eleven point scale. from 89 (nothing lower matters) to 100.

    These are all “points-problems” but it’s the concept of scoring wine as a hobby that I’m wondering about. You’re another that doesn’t use scores; are there more people out there that agree with Theise than he realises?

  10. Chris,

    I think the majority of people who enjoy wine do not bother at all with reviewing and posting their interpretations on the Internet. I am sure that some of them peruse the web just to see what’s “out there”, but they are wise enough to not engage in the debate. I stopped posting almost altogether except for your blog, since it was readily apparent that those posting on many websites are of a particular mind set and do not welcome differing opinions.

    I mean a post about some terrific wine/ food pairings almost universally ignored as if the wines were consumed in a total vacuum. And if they are what does that say!


  11. The wine forums of the world are funny places Gary. There’s an element of gang mentality to one or two of them.

  12. I read Thiese’s book last month and what an enjoyable read it was too. Reading it makes one re-evaluate why we drink wine in the first place and its certainly not for chasing points. His passion for the sense of place in a where a wine is made and who makes it comes through strongly.

    Thiese’s annual set of catalogues (available on-line) for Germany, Austria and Champagne are on my ‘must-read’ list every year.


  13. I stopped scoring wines on my blog in order to stand out, I admit, but I’ve found it forces me to sharpen my wit in order to convey the wine and the mood it struck. Oddly enough, I only score wines in social circumstances, when wine geek friends ask me how I’d score a wine, were I so inclined, just to see where we mutually stand. So my use of score is more or less the Bizzaro version, ie I don’t use scores professionally, insofar as I can call my writing professional – only socially.

  14. Thanks Chaim, that’s interesting. It looks like in your case scores are used, by your friends, to facilitate debate. Have you ever refused to score when they ask you?

  15. Chris,

    Gang mentality not limited to wine blogs,seems to be a theme across topics. I stopped posting on the Naim Audio forum for the same reasons.

  16. Great thread.

    Two minutes on Cellartracker provides ample evidence that scores convey little or nothing about a wine without an understanding of the writer and her abilities and preferences. Most wines have widely differing scores awarded and so a given individual’s scores are not reliable.

  17. Thanks Colman. I think Cellar Tracker is a fantastic tool, otherwise I wouldn’t have allowed my notes to be integrated into the site, but I agree that you do need to filter the opinion somewhat. There are some on the site who describe wines very well, and some who don’t. And on scores for any individual wine, they can either vary widely, or they are (sticking my tongue in my cheek for a moment) all 91. 🙂

  18. Like others I read as many tasting notes as I can to determine drinking windows or suitability for drinking
    but do not consider scores at all which are merely one persons subjective thought solely as a result of their taste buds which will vary from mine. I simply cannot understand the hangup with Parker & Co and their scoring systems; it seems to me to be rather pathetic that people would only drink on the basis of points which would rule out many equally enjoyable wines. Perhaps they should also seek critics opinions on what to wear that day or when to change the car! Critics should also be challenged to provide meaningful data including that about drinking windows and cellaring as they should be gathering this info from the winemaker and letting the information speak for itself. Parker is probably the only one who does this. Scores are for trainspotters and snobs, as an enthusiastic amateur, there is much more fun and joy to be gained by just opening a bottle of an evening or with friends and seeing the results of much hard work and endeavour.

  19. Hi Chris,

    Interesting blog, as always. When we taste trade samples for our shop (1.200 references, give or take a few), we NEVER score the wines.
    The only things we look at:
    – does the wine live up to its label?
    – does it smell/taste good?
    – would we want to buy it for personal use?
    – does it add anything to what we already sell?
    – is the price right?
    Those are five criteria that work very well for us in a professional environment, no scoring needed.
    Kindest regards,

  20. Thanks Alan and Ralph.

    Alan, I agree with your sentiment overall, although I’m not sure about the usefulness of drinking windows. These seem to me to be hugely subjective, even more so than points. Parker has incredibly early drinking windows, often starting 5 or 6 years after the vintage, whereas I find wines only really start to sing 12-15 years after the vintage. I think there are more palate differences here than is readily appreciated.

    Ralph, do you use critics’ scores in your shop?

  21. Chris,

    While very subjective, I do find the drinking windows helpful, especially as I can enter them into my cellar software as a tracking device for easy scanning down a list of wines. I use them as generalizations and not absolute and I am certain that as one becomes more familiar with the age ability of certain wines or types, such as Bordeaux, they become less meaningful.

    I agree with you with respect to Parker and Bordeaux, I think his early numbers are way too early for drinking windows. For Bdx I usually wait about 8-10 years before opening the first bottle, assuming I have three or more in the cellar.


  22. I’m more open to the idea of drinking windows, though they really only have credibility for specialists in their field, e.g a James Halliday having tasted 30 vintages of an Aussie Shiraz and seen their development over thart period, should be able to give an informed view on recent vintages.

    Using a statistical analogy, I’d expect them to use a Bayesian approach, assuming the wine might typically peak between 10-15 years from vintage, but then using what they actually taste to adjust that (e.g. very structured but with good depth of fruit, so add another 5-10 years).

    At the opposite end of the scale are blind tastings, notably those done by Decanter, where the drinking windows are worse than useless. For me that proves that specific knowledge of that wine, assuming no major stylistic changes, is a major factor in being able to suggest sensible (and useful) drinking windows.

    I agree your point that we shouldn’t get hung up on drinking windows though and that they’re basically just a handy rule of thumb. In addition to the guesswork involved, our tastes vary and indeed sometimes I want a wine that is fresh and vibrant, sometimes something bridging the gap between youth and maturity, whilst on other occasions a dear old thing is just what’s needed.


  23. Thanks Ian.

    Drinking windows remain very personal though. I see on some forums drinkers declaring that they have just drunk up their last bottle when I have yet to open a single one of the six or dozen that I own, and sometimes wines are declared to be dead, drying out or going downhill when I have tasted several bottles and each time found a tannic backward wine in need of many more years. One man’s please is another man’s poison.

    Agree with your points on knowing the wine; I’m prepared to be sold on blind tasting as an assessment of quality, but for drinking windows…..I’m not so sure.

    I like the Bayesian thought; as I find most Bordeaux vintages beginning to drink well at about the same time, this is something I would favour. The drinking windows are far more likely to lengthen outwards (in a great vintage) than start early (in a weak vintage). Other than 2007 (and perhaps 1997, although I don’t have the same depth of tasting experience there), I’ve yet to see a recent Bordeaux vintage that was/will be drinking well before 10-12 years.