I’ve been thinking about writing up my thoughts on this issue for some time, but I had always thought it was just too simple an issue; something that might be summed up in a few sentences, but perhaps I was wrong.
The issue of course is wine ratings, we hate them and we love them, but are they really worth anything? It would be sad to realize that something so many people become emotionally invested in is actually not worth the effort, but to a large extent that is what I believe.
Before going any further, let me just say that I use the 100 point scale, or about 30 points of it, when I rate wines and I find that it is a useful way to gauge how much I like one wine versus another wine of similar type. I don’t believe it is some absolute scale, and have always felt that its accuracy was something better than plus or minus 5 points. That is, my 90 point wine could be your 85 point wine or your 95 point wine. Now, considering that most people use about 20 points of the 100 point scale, scoring wines between 80 and 100 points, that also means that they are not of much worth, and that my friends is entirely true.
In the abstract they are generally worthless. You can have two 90 point wines that are qualitatively equivalent, but so completely different as to make their equivalency useless. And you can also have two tasters, each with a different palate, assign points scores that are so divergent that you really have to ask who has lost their mind. Might it be us, those of us who use point scores to begin with? Maybe we have lost a bit of our minds.
Wine Critic image via Shutterstock
Now why would I say that, besides believing it, of course. Well, for starters, it’s because the scoring of wine has undergone a huge compression over the past two decades or so. The argument goes that wines are just getting better, so it’s no surprise that scores continue to rise. But even if wines are getting better, there are levels of quality that these scores should reflect. Perhaps there is another reason, perhaps it has to do with the business of wine criticism (and make no mistake about it -- it is a business.)
Robert Parker, the world’s preeminent wine critic recently sold a controlling stake in his company, The Wine Advocate, causing endless lamentation on internet wine boards, and speculation bordering on anticipation that this spells the end for both the Wine Advocate and the hegemony of the 100 point score for wine. Nothing could be further from the truth. You see, wine reviews are a type of currency, used by retailers to buy consumers. The higher the value, the more efficiently it works. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has one type of value, that of name recognition, but as always there are many people nipping at the leader’s knees.
There is a second type of value: the point scores themselves. While The Wine Advocate has that name recognition, higher scores tend to sell more wines, and retailers recognize that. Retailers promote high scores and the critics that award them, giving aspiring wine writers a platform enabling them to gain some of that name recognition. The higher the score, the bigger the platform. Don’t believe me? In that case, check out these examples. As you can see, retailers almost always feature the highest known score for a particular wine when promoting its sale. It’s not only standard operating procedure, it’s also good business for the retailer. What about for the critic?
While being listed at the top is good for the critic, it could be argued that being listed amongst these recognized names would be good for any brand, but how much better is it to be listed before these well-known names? A point, maybe two?
I am saying that grade inflation is endemic to the wine industry. I think there’s no knowing exactly why, but being number one is a very powerful motivator, even subconsciously. You really have to ask yourself, after tasting all these high scoring wines, just what some of these critics were thinking.
That would lead me to critique the critics, which is easy. They seem to have an unnatural tendency to believe their own bullshit, think that rating wine is somehow closer to calculus than alchemy, often lack humility, and trust that they are the final arbiter of what a wine may, and may not be. If they never smelled rosemary in a malbec then it simply can not exist. Certain aspects of wine, such as tannins and acidity are empirically knowable, and they are perfectly tuned instruments that will tell you how acidic or tannic a wine is. Forget the outside influences that challenge mere mortals, wine reviewing is objective, they’ll tell you. I will laugh in their faces of course but that won’t stop them, won’t even slow them down because they too are in on the scam.
Wine ratings have become a scam my friends. People have spent the better part of three decades training their palates to align with those of the major critics. People go out and buy a 95 point and when they can’t find those 95 points they start making excuses. The wine’s too young, it hasn’t been allowed to breath enough, my palate’s not as good as the critic’s.
Bullshit. 95 points doesn’t mean 95 points, that’s the only broadly applicable answer.
And 95 points no longer means 95 points, not that it did for long, because wine reviews are subjective and personal, and scores are vomited in order to sell stuff. Issues of magazines, subscriptions, events, and yes wine as well. The entire industry is complicit; retailers and producers who excessively promote the scores, consumers who rely on the scores, reviewers who dole out the scores. We would need only one part of this puzzle to drop out for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down, but it’s not going to happen. We are humans, and that ladies and gentlemen makes us lazy.
It’s laziness that drives all of this. We want to know how good a wine is by reading a number. We want to sell more wines without having to taste them or even talk with the consumers, we want to sell more subscriptions but don’t necessarily have the resources or desire to put in the effort. Higher scores are the answer!
Yes, this is the several hundredth time this issue has been discussed, and it will be far from the last. The bottom line is that the importance assigned to point scores is out of whack with the utility they actually provide, maddening the situation. Well, that and the fact that simply assigning high scores, as opposed to accurately describing a wine’s attributes, seems to be the definition of being a successful wine critic these days.
It’s all a crazy system we’ve put in place, and we now have to live with it. It’s driving prices up on many wines, providing an easy shorthand for people with more money than wine knowledge. That is probably the worst of this scam’s effects, but in this case it’s not really a scam -- the highest scores are still reserved for the best wines in almost all cases, highest now being 96 and above while just a decade ago those wines might have been awarded 91 to 95 points. You see, it’s always a good idea to keep something in reserve. If in fact the wines are getting higher scores because they are getting better, is something imminent going to happen that will arrest that process? I think not, so the logical conclusion is that we are coming perilously close to running out of points. Our very own debt ceiling-style crisis, and I am afraid of the grand bargain we’ll devise to extricate ourselves for this pile.
I’m not sure how to end this rant, because honestly that is what it has become, though I like to think of it more as a rousing warning shot. Nothing is going to change en masse. People have to have faith in their own palates to a degree, but we all can’t taste everything we want to buy, so the lazy reliance on shorthand is in fact something of a necessity. People, smart people at that, believe that the proliferation of wine writers in this modern age will somehow have a tempering effect on the prevalence of the 100 point scale. Something tells me that that the greater the competition, the greater the effort to differentiate oneself. Everyone wants to come out on top, and we’ve seen where that path takes us.