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On Published Wine Reviews

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Published Wine Reviews

Wine Rating Scales

The history of wine ratings is morbidly fascinating. In the days of yore, wine was “rated” in a purely descriptive manner: there were no such things as “scores”. Reviewers could, and did, gush on in arbitrary and often confounding paeans of praise. Moreover, it was widely felt that many reviewers were essentially in the pocket of the wine-making industry, accepting not merely free sample bottles, but often lavish meals or even all-expenses-paid trips abroad to the wineries (plus those lavish meals). Many were themselves overtly involved in making or selling wine.

In 1959, Dr. Maynard A. Amerine, Professor of Enology at the University of California, Davis (an institution famous for its wine expertise) essayed a more exact approach to wine rating, based on a 20-point schema. The idea was to create a standardized scale for evaluations, so that this reviewer’s perceptions could be compared with that reviewer’s perceptions on a meaningful basis. That scale, and modest variations of it, are still in use today by tasters both talented amateur and top professional. (Here is a link to a brief exposition on that scale and the meanings of the results it produces.)

In modern times, many came to feel that the 20-point scale had two limitations: it was too narrow a scale, not allowing finer distinctions than 5% at a time; and it was too anchored in older times, when wines were more commonly found with really serious defects. For example, it awards 1 point—fully 5% of every wine’s score—for “clarity”, though you would be exceedingly hard put to it today to find a wine anywhere in the civilized world that is cloudy or hazy. In consequence, a move developed toward 100-point scales.

(Some reviewers just use a 5-point scale, awarding “stars”, and “half-stars”, to wines as a very rough, quick indicator of approximate value or interest as that reviewer sees it. The argument for this approach is that the other scales artificially try to make finer distinctions than are realistic, as if an 88-point wine and an 89-point wine are perceptibly different, which not everyone agrees is so.)

What many people do not realize is that most “100-point” scales do not, in fact, have a 100-point range. The most famous, that of Robert Parker, developed around 1975, is actually a 50 - 100 scale. It was supposedly intended to mimic school grading systems, with their “A-B-C-D-F” scales, except with a decimal gradation for each “grading”. But it is, in the real world, narrower yet: nowadays virtually no wine receives a score below 80, further squeezing the scale down to 20 “real-world” points—essentially no real improvement over the older U.C. Davis scale.

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The Problems of Modern Wine Ratings

Robert Parker was famously the first wine critic to hit the big time, largely because he used such a finely graded scale to rank wines he reported on. He was also among the very first to clearly establish a separation between those who review wine and those who sell wine, so that consumers could feel they were receiving unbiased advice. Parker founded a publication, the Wine Advocate, that remains today arguably the most influential of review publications, and he (along with a staff now) is doubtless still the most important reviewer. It is a commonplace—and a truth— that Parker’s opinion alone can largely make (or break) any given wine.

(As the years wear on, that seems less and less true: many important critics are now as or more widely respected and heeded, Jancis Robinson—now described by some as the world’s most respected wine critic—being one. Wine writers are beginning to refer to “the bad old days” of the late 80s, the 90s, and even the early 2000s, when hugeness in a wine sometimes seemed the sole criterion for critical adulation.)

The problem that many saw with that was this: the entire wine-drinking world was being forced to conform to the tastes of one man. No one doubts Parker’s (or any leading critic’s) honest dispassion, or even their tasting skills. But ability to discern is not the same as preference in style. The chiefest problem is sheer quantity.

In December of 2000, in a long profile of Parker published in The Atlantic Monthly, Parker told the interviewer that he tastes 10,000 wines a year; that works out to about 27 wines a day each and every day of the year. But elsewhere, Parker has said that he tastes 40 to 200 wines a day (so either the 10,000 was way low, or he doesn’t taste every day of the year—if you plug through the numbers, they are farcical). To be clearer, the issue is the simple ability or inability of anyone, supertaster or not, to be able to discern meaningful subtleties in wines at that pace, owing to sensory fatigue. As one writer (C. S. Miller) has put it, “tasting so many wines in one sitting is really questionable and has actually been proven as pretty much impossible due to something called aroma reset. Apparently our palates have a 5-second reset after each wine tasted and that reset time doubles every couple of wines tasted. So after 30 or so you would need like 30 minutes for your palate to reset. I like to refer to it as the Staten Island dump phenomenon. Drive past the dump and whew, stay there a couple of hours and you don’t notice it anymore.” If we assume Parker’s typical work day of actual tasting time is, say, six hours and the quota is, say, 120 wines that day (both reasonable assumptions), that’s another wine every three minutes, hour after hour. Absurd.

So what is the inevitable consequence of all that? Obviously, it is that the wines that will stand out, and thus receive the higher ratings, are going to be the boldest ones: the ones with high alcohol, with heavy, dominant fruit and other flavors, with largeness. Wines with delicacy and subtlety will simply get lost in the sensory depletion. It’s like a largely deaf music reviewer trying to rate compositions on a minute’s exposure—delicate string quartets are going to lose, and Mahlerian symphonies are going to win. Remember, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with either the music of Mahler or the gigantic sort of wine; but there is something severely wrong when 12½% alcohol wines with delicate but sensual qualities simply cannot get a fair hearing in the court.

This is not a cranky view that we alone espouse. Alice Feiring, who both blogs and writes about wine for Time magazine and has contributed to many other notable publications, is a leader in the “anti-Parker” movement. The subtitle of her book The Battle for Wine and Love is “How I Saved the World from Parkerization”. Whether Ms. Feiring gets all the credit may be quite debatable, but there is a very definite opposition movement.

Mind, it isn’t just that more subtle, “small” wines get lost. There is also the open question of how meaningful the actual ratings can be. This passage from the Wikipedia article on Parker is of note:

A lengthy profile of Parker entitled “The Million Dollar Nose” ran in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2000. Among other claims, Parker told the author that he tastes 10,000 wines a year and “remembers every wine he has tasted over the past thirty-two years and, within a few points, every score he has given as well.” Yet, in a public blind tasting of fifteen top wines from Bordeaux 2005—which he has called “the greatest vintage of my lifetime”—Parker could not correctly identify any of the wines, confusing left bank wines for right several times.

Indeed, tasters’ (and especially published critics’) abilities is a matter that is usually taken as a given, but it it? A Jonah Lehrer article titled “Does All Wine Taste the Same?” in The New Yorker is pretty much required reading for anyone who wants some insight into critics’ abilities to do the things they purport to do. It is owing to occasional cold-blooded examinations of reality like that article that we firmly believe that most reviews are verbal cotton candy: big and fluffy, but squeeze them a bit and what’s left is a rather small ball of ick.

If you want to entertain yourself with some more scathingly critical, but thoroughly evidence-based, critiques of the plausibility of serious wine tasting, check the many results of this Google search on the matter. Or, if you’re in a hurry, just follow this link to a statistical evaluation of the judges’ ratings.

Moreover, as we noted above, the “100-point” scale is nothing like—and even the actual 50-point range is a fake. The reality is that virtually no modern wine ever gets a rating below 80. That means that in effect we are back to the 20-point scale that Parker’s system was supposed to supplant. Moreover, with the huge attention paid to “ratings” by many unsure wine purchasers, almost no wine scoring under 90 points (especially if it is not quite inexpensive) has much of a chance at big sales; even wines garnering high-80s scores struggle somewhat.

We do not mean to seem to be picking on Parker. He is the large target on the horizon, but there are plenty of others who purport to rate innumerable wines on a “100-point” scale. The idea of precise numeric scales was doubtless a quite useful one three decades ago, when wine writing was elliptical and of dubious honesty. Today, wine is big business in America and the world, and consumers are generally a deal more schooled in the subject. Honest and intelligent reviewers with blogs abound (as do, to be sure, hopeless amateurs who seem actually pleased and even perversely proud that they have never before even heard of, say, Albariño or Assyrtiko).

Yet another complication for the poor consumer is that ratings vary by region. Reviewers in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) tend to score all wines some points higher than is normal in the U.S., while not a few European ones are a couple or three points lower on average. Knowing who is rating the wine is as important as the points number itself. And, as suggested above, even in the U.S., some reviewers are known for higher-than-average point awards (James Suckling comes to mind).

(Also, not a few amateur reviewers seem unacquainted with various wine faults that are, regrettably, scarcely rare; such reviewers not infrequently pan widely praised wines with descriptions that make it highly likely that they had encountered a faulty bottle that they interpreted, and wrote up, as a poor wine. They have other, um, quirks too; we loved a review of a modest Montepulciano that warned readers “pales in comparison to more full-bodied wines such as Amarone”—well we should hope so, inasmuch as he was reviewing a wine costing $5 a bottle.)

Insightful descriptions of wines that do not at all depend on numeric scales abound, and in many ways are better than the terse, almost cryptic few lines that accompany a number that is supposed to really be all you need to know. Numeric ratings are not meaningless—when we know them for wines, we show them—but they require careful and informed interpretation.

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A Few Words on Wine Raters

Probably the “Big Three” in published wine ratings have been, roughly in this order, Parker’s Wine Advocate (and its online spinoff eRobertParker), the Wine Spectator, and Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar. Following a little way back is the Wine Enthusiast, followed by several distinctly lesser lights.

Now, there has been a major shakeup in the world of wine criticism. The short of it is that Antonio Galloni—who was till a few years ago the heir apparent at Wine Advocate to the aging Mr. Parker, but who fell out with Parker when Parker sold the enterprise to some investors in Singapore—the current proprietor of Vinous (which he founded after leaving Parker, and which has not made much progress in establishing itself as a power)—has bought out Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar. For the long of it, we strenuously recommend a reading of W. Blake Gray’s article “The Changing Face of Wine Criticism”, which explores in much more detail what happened and, more important, what may ensue.

One thing that clearly emerges from the article is the (well-known) reality that (as we suggested above) the major rating houses have very different standards. As one brief passage puts it, “Galloni might not give as many 100-point scores as his former master, but he does pass out 96s like Halloween candy. From Tanzer, an 88 is still a wine he likes, not a veiled admonition, and a 93 is something he adores.” We here have always felt Tanzer’s ratings the most useful and reliable; it remains to be seen what will happen now, with Galloni owning the firm but Tanzer remaining as “editor-in-chief” (and several other writers besides Tanzer also presumably remaining on).

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Consumer Wine Raters

While the wine search engine Wine Searcher shows some consumer ratings for each wine, there are only numbers, no descriptives. That is still helpful, but for a lot more, one can turn to the remarkable site CellarTracker. It is a place (free access) where you can read the opinions of serious, and usually knowledgeable, wine consumers on almost any wine in the world, each separated by vintage year. This is a really, really helpful resource folr getting behind the sheer numbers, and also for seeing how real wine drinkers rate wines (which is often rather different—sometimes rather higher, sometimes rather lower—than the paid pro reviewers do.

That is the site’s main use, but it also has numerous articles on and about wine, all good reading. And you can not just look up a particular wine, yoy can browse the listed wines by any of several criteria (the site front page covers all this). You can see a little of the site’s history at the link in this sentence.

We said the site is fully accessible at no cost. That is true, but you can sign up to receive “premium” features, most notably the ability to yourself post reviews (but including a few other things, too). The fee is not actually mandatory: their business model is what is sometimes called “freemium”. They do suggest some contribution levels, based on the number of bottles in your online “cellar”. It’s all explained in detail on their “Voluntary Payment” page.

We heartily recommend the site (and provide links to it for all wines we suggest here). We add just this one crucial note: when you look up a wine on CellarTracker, you really must read the user comments, not just look at the numbers. Quite often reviewers who leave quite nice descriptions leave weirdly low rating numbers: one must suppose they feel that 85 is a really high grade…

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