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David J. Duman

David J. Duman

Posted: February 15, 2011 05:22 PM

(An earlier version of this article was originally published at The Satellite Show. You can read the original version and read the response from Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews, as well as my reply, here.)

I've been perplexed in the last several months by online screeds titled "In Defense of the 100 Point Rating Scale" or some variation thereof. My perplexity wasn't that I disagreed with the articles' reasoning or conclusion (although I usually did), it's that I didn't realize wine writers still believed in the 100-point scale as something worth defending--as something beyond an arbitrary tool used by an influential part of the print-based wine media.

I'm not going to delve into the finer points of absurdity in rating anything subjective on something as purportedly specific as the 100 point scale and that it's a flawed process-- those arguments have already been laid out by other writers. But that's a waste of time--you can argue process back and forth into infinity based on whether or not you agree, simply, with the process.

I will instead argue it substantively on the merits of its concept. I argue that the process is substantively meaningless rather than inherently flawed because, in application, the use of it provides no net benefit to any party other than he who awards the score and he who receives a "good or great" score, which is commonly held to be a score of 90 points or more. Such a system, while not inherently tautological, is always a step away from becoming a self-fulfilling loop.

For those unfamiliar with its origins, here's a brief genesis of the 100-point scale for rating wine. Prior to the late 1970s, most English-language wine criticism came out of the United Kingdom and was written in a florid, cerebral style. Typically wines were critiqued using descriptors and nothing more. If a writer did use a scale, it was a 20-point system not dissimilar to A-F letter grades in school. But wine criticism was the province of a relatively tiny group of geeks and premium wine sold largely on its reputation.

To put it in the context of comic books, the critics were the R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar fans, while the majority of buyers bought Superman and Spiderman based on the reputation of the franchise, not necessarily the inherent quality of specific issues. But just as underground comics surged into the mainstream in the 1990s, the audience for fine wine grew, especially as California wine production grew in esteem and, in the late 1970s, American wine enthusiasts began publishing their own tasting notes utilizing a 100-point rating scale. This movement was led primarily by Robert M. Parker, Jr. in Maryland and Wine Spectator, originally in California, now in New York City.

While the scale has always been meaningless, it did have significant worth in its early days. First, the world of fine wine--that is, not "jug" wine--was inherently knowable then. Widespread quality domestic wine production was in its infancy and there were a fraction of the number of producers there are now. Quality imported wine was limited largely to the well-known regions of France and Italy. Did drinkers in San Francisco and Manhattan have access to more eclectic wines from small importers? Sure--Kermit Lynch was starting out at this time, for instance. And there were importers who dealt with goods intended for ethnic markets, so savvy buyers could track down unusual wines from Spain, Portugal, Germany and beyond if they knew how to access those expatriate communities. But, in a very general sense, fine wine in the late 1970s was California, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Northern Italy. A critic, and especially a small team of critics, could taste through much of what was available in the same way that a literate Englishman with enough leisure time in the 17th century could read nearly every printed book. Did this give their scoring system any more meaning? No. But at least it had the worth to the consumer of representing the opinions of tasters who had experienced a significant portion of fine wine available in America.

The second and much more simple reason these ratings had more worth then was that the writers were not beholden to advertisers. Parker got his start with a newsletter that was funded entirely by subscriptions and produced it part time until it was established enough where he could quit his law career. Wine Spectator was largely a regional San Diego-area magazine that took mostly local advertisements. Wine Spectator is now an advertising behemoth, often referred to as "Wine Speculator" by independent-minded wine enthusiasts and, although Parker's Wine Advocate remains independently-funded, the size of the machine he's created behind it requires unwavering adherence to the validity of the system he pioneered. He needs to assure his subscribers that, despite the proliferation of alternative sources for wine recommendations, there is still a point in paying a professional critic, Parker specifically, for his ratings. Parker went so far as to delete critical (but non-spam) comments from his web forums before finally putting all of his web content behind a pay wall, ensuring that interlopers would not be able to cause a fuss without at least paying up.

Why then do we no longer need Parker, Wine Spectator and the other old-guard American wine journalists' 100-point scale? Because its limited worth is now gone and the process behind it is so transparently--however unintentionally--corrupt as to be laughable.

So it's clear why the 100-point system is beneficial to those who award the points: it builds the shell of legitimacy necessary to continue to garner subscribers and advertisers. And it's clear why the system benefits those wineries whose wines receive good scores: it drives sales of those wines, particularly high-end sales, to a small but lucrative demographic.

Despite the proliferation of diverse wines available in the market, the 100-point media continues to generally focus on the same wines they always have. The only other regions that have really wrestled their way into esteem are Spain and, at least in the mid-2000s, Australia. And those regions' elevation to 95+ point rarity interestingly coincided with a move driven not by wine makers but by importers and negociants to produce wines in the bigger, more intense style favored by these critics. It's not a style that's inherently better, but it is a style that deliberately apes Napa, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Tuscany--the wines that Parker and company were weaned on.

When other regions are mentioned, it's often either through cursory reviews buried in the back of the magazine or it will be in a feature devoted to, say, wine of the entire former Eastern Bloc when the tiniest sub-appelations of Napa or Bordeaux are given the same treatment. It's a disparity that suggests that, to these critics, these regions are oddities--a sort of paternalistic pat on the head with assertions of "good effort" and "hang in there, you'll get this wine thing yet." It's condescending at best when you consider that many of these regions have been making wine--quality wine--for as long or longer than France or Italy. They have their own traditions and practices, climates and terroirs, as well as varying levels of availability in the Anglo-American sphere. They're not inherently better or worse, just intrinsically different.

By marginalizing much of the wine world, these critics do their audience a disservice. Judging a wine from Croatia against a wine from Paso Robles is unfair to Croatia. Does the critic deliberately judge the Plavac directly against a Zinfandel? Probably not. But critics who have generally favored ripe, concentrated wines will have a biased palate and also will not have the frame of reference to properly contextualize these less familiar wines. By ignoring or under-reporting on many global wine regions, they are cutting off their audience from experiencing more wine. The readers of Parker and Wine Spectator are wine buyers who will largely make decisions based upon these publications' imprimatur. Some will make their wine drinking decisions solely on such. Presuming that the service of media is to inform so as to advance informed discourse, providing incomplete information and confusing wines they like with wines they should recommend, these publications are doing their audience a disservice, regardless of whether the audience views it as such.

It's also doing a disservice to "wine" by shutting off a small but important group of wine enthusiasts--those who make their decisions based on the scores of these critics and magazines--from the complete scope of global wine. Buyers won't stop buying wine if all of a sudden scores disappear, they'll just be more engaged in their wine tasting and more engaged with the proprietors of whatever shops they frequent.

(This evidence of under-representation is based upon my own search of Wine Spectator's website when it was free last November. I searched for wines from several small, well-regarded boutique California-based import portfolios and found fewer than 25% of those wines reviewed, with current vintages reviewed even fewer.)

Parker's Wine Advocate asserts in every issue: "...wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full time wine professionals recognize." Which is a wonderfully false but well-worded ass-covering statement. Wine, food, sex, music, art and other products whose sole or primary purpose is to deliver stimulation and pleasure are so wildly different from other consumer products. Can a car be judged on its visceral appeal? Sure. But it can also be judged on its metrics: price, fuel economy, 0-60 speed, braking distance, crash safety. And these are more or less objective metrics that can be judged across cars in a category and, for the average car buyer, achievement in the specific metrics a buyer is looking for is most important. Raw visceral appeal sells cars to teenagers, middle-aged men, and may help a buyer finally differentiate a front runner among functionally similar vehicles. Most consumer products either work or don't work and practical functionality forms the basis of consumer reviews. Visceral critiques, while often interesting and sometimes helpful, form only a small component of the finished product.

Conversely, while pleasure-stimulating activities like wine, food, music, art and--yes--sex can be evaluated to some degree on marginally objective criteria like form, function and response, the most significant part of any critique will be nothing more than a personal response drawn from the breadth of knowledge and personal preferences of the critic. If your tastes align with a critic, then he will often produce good recommendations, if they don't then maybe he won't. Of course, wine critics do have the benefit of evaluating fine wine which, to all but the most particular, will usually succeed in delivering some degree of pleasure.

(Chocolate is still chocolate and, short of it causing physical pain, sex is still sex, after all.)

To me, evaluating these types of products and activities is essentially a binary proposition. After considering the product and all accompanying metrics--price, availability, significant formal flaws, context for drinking the wine--would I recommend it or not? Thumbs up or thumbs down? I admire Roger Ebert as a film critic because he's quite good at contextualizing the films he reviews and quite cogent in articulating how well a film succeeds or fails against the expectations the film sets for itself. A heavy drama is judged differently than an action film, a political satire differently than light comedy. I have drunk Napa Cabs for $50 and Champagnes for $80 that have been worth every penny. I've also drunk imports from Trader Joe's for $5.99 that were giant wastes of money and literal headaches.

I don't care if you drink wines that are scored well in major wine publications. If you like the wine, you like the wine. I do think you will be, generally speaking, spending too much money for a product that is in many cases merely adequate or even inferior when judged against similar wines at lower prices. But if that critical imprimatur gives you pleasure--then go ahead, drink away. A good guide's a good guide. I don't look to proscribe.

I think it's telling that some of the more forward-thinking publications are eschewing scores and ratings entirely. The San Francisco Chronicle no longer attaches ratings to its wine reviews (the only major newspaper to do so, as far as I know) and The New York Times utilizes a basic four star system. Many independent writers don't issue ratings at all. These publications and writers are held in more esteem by most in the new generation of wine professionals than Parker or Wine Spectator.

So it's unfortunate that these critics who were so influential and so important in shaping the beginning of America's rise as a wine-educated nation are ignoring the very generation that now consumes the most wine per capita. They're assuring their own continued spiral into irrelevance.

The second-most important step that Parker, Wine Spectator, et al can do is stop issuing 100-point ratings and take a more active role in exploring all the of the world's wine regions on their own merits. That's because the most important thing they can do is spend more time in the wine bars and shops of Brooklyn or San Francisco's Mission District or Eastside Los Angeles and see what the wine-savvy 20 and 30-somethings are drinking and enjoying on a large scale. It's not cheap wine, it's wine from a broad range of prices from all over the world and all over the United States. It's weird small production wines being sold by the pallet out of storefronts in Silver Lake and Berkeley that haven't touched the lips of anyone at the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate. It's wine bars in Echo Park and SoMa serving hundreds of glasses a month of delicious unpronounceable Hungarian reds. It's a wine bar in the East Village devoting an entire summer to Riesling.

To improve American wine discourse at all levels, it's time to finally bury the long-dead 100-point rating system. For the 100-point rating system is dead and of pity for wine hath it died.

 

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