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.