Scores, wine and the latest backlash
Scores have once again become a big deal in the wine world. Over the last month or so, a well-known independent winery has started a drive to end scores, there has been an on-line debate about the efficacy of scores, and anti-score sentiment has popped up in the oddest places.
This is intriguing for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s usually only cranks like the Wine Curmudgeon who take on the scoring system, since it’s about as tilting at windmills as the wine business gets. For another, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what has been happening. Why is this going on now?
A few thoughts about why scores are again under scrutiny after the jump:
The Wine Curmudgeon’s antipathy to scores is well known, and I have never used them. Nevertheless, most of the wine world uses a 100-point scoring system, where the higher the score means the better the wine. At best, wine scores are sloppy, a poor substitute for discussing the wine, and at their worst, scores are dishonest. It’s very rare for a $100 wine to get an 88, $10 wines do not get 95s, and even the most horrible wines rarely score worse than 80, the cutoff between good and average. And none of this takes into account that scores are subjective and don’t reflect that everyone’s palate and preferences are different.
So I’m not unhappy to see the recent assault on scores:
• Christophe Hedges of Washington state’s Hedges Family Estate is behind Score Revolution, which includes an on-line petition to end the use of scores. It has attracted a lot of attention, and even I signed the petition.
• Palate Press, the on-line wine magazine, ran a debate between the anti-score W.R. Tish and Blake Gray, one of the few score supporters who is rational about the subject. (Too many of them, faced with score criticism, run into their bedroom, slam the door, and hold their breath until they get their way.)
• In his keynote address at last month’s Wine Bloggers Conference, Eric Asimov of the New York Times included a pointed reference to bloggers who run long lists of tasting notes and scores, saying that every day, wines are diminished by scoring.
All of which is good news. How many wine drinkers, whether experienced or novice, have not tasted a wine they might like because they were scared away by a score? I’d like to think that all of this attention means scores are losing favor, another of the changes going on in the wine business caused by the recession and the continuing influx of younger wine drinkers. How many of the most popular wine brands in the country get good scores? Mostly none.
It’s also significant that this attack on scores takes place as regional wine gains in popularity. If scores are useless in general, then they’re especially useless in assessing regional wine. Scores assume that all wine is made according to Wine Magazine-like standards, and regional wine is not made that way. That means, no matter how good the regional wine, it will always get a mediocre score since it doesn’t fit the template.
That sentiment, however, may be premature. The score establishment, led by Robert Parker, is well entrenched, and they aren’t shy about insisting that they know best. Retailers, too many of whom are addicted to scores because they think it makes their lives easier, may be the biggest obstacle to change. If we can get scores out of wine shops, liquor stores and supermarkets, then we have a chance.
Until then, we’ll keep tilting at windmills.