Friday, March 2, 2007

Why Score Wines?

There are many arguments against scoring wines and publishing scores. The most often repeated are that scores:
  • are never truly objective
  • cannot be accurate in the sense that the same wine will always score the same with the same taster
  • cannot reflect differences between styles
  • cannot be faithfully calibrated between different palates.

These are not strong enough reasons for my taste. Speaking for my friends and I, we're intelligent folks and we know how to make intelligent use of scores.

Scores are a commercial necessity and they've warped the way wines are marketed. Different flavors of this argument are plentiful so I won't go into them in depth because it'd bore me to repeat them but basically it all boils down to this: the marketing system is geared into pushing only high scoring wines or wines who scored well within a relatively low price range. In the event that someone is trying sell you a "food" wine, odds are theyr'e just doing it to obscure the fact that it didn't score high.

So this is yet another argument against scores: they're a marketing ploy and how many of those wind up being consistently beneficial to the consumer?

But since I've brought up this issue, I can obviously see past Establishment's petty tricks so like the other arguments, it doesn't really add up to a definitive reason not to score.

Here's the real reason not to score: some things are not meant to be reduced to numbers.

It's romantic, I know, but why reduce everything to numbers? It's simple enough not to need elaborating. Holy Moley, Shakespeare did just fine without scores, right?

So why do I do it? Why do I score wines when I write my own amateur notes? What could I possibly be getting out of it?

There's one thing to be said for scores. Scores are an easy shorthand for saying "wine x is better than wine y, which is better than z". And let's just pretend we all agree that it's important or beneficial or enlightening to do that, alright? I've been a music fan for waaaay longer than I've been into wine. I make comparisons like that above by force of habit. I enjoy it. I need a few days with a new album to decide where it fits into my ever expanding expanding ruler and why. Granted, it will travel up and down that ruler but I can always 'spot' its rank and if you're into music in the same way as I am, we would have a good time discussing why it belongs right there between, I dunno, Purple Rain and Highway To Hell. You may not understand why I'd want to do that but the point is it gives me pleasure and I don't need scores to do it.

But I just can't make those kind of comparisons easily with wine which is for me the only reason to score wines in the first place, because otherwise I don't see how recognizing that your claret is a 92-pointer is going to make drinking it any more enjoyable. I need scores for the comparison right now because I have not built up the large databse in my head of wines that I've tasted like I have with music and I'm still learning to understand the styles and sub-styles of the myriad appellations of the world of wine. Which rather begs the question: if I haven't built up this database, why fret over comparisons? Shouldn't I wait until I gain more maturity in wine? If at all, that is.

At the end of the day, all it is, scoring, is a crutch. Not necessarily for you or you or you, just for me, right now. It would certainly be very liberating for me not to score wines. I too often find myself in tastings worrying whether my scores are not too high or too low compared to my friends' scores or whether I'm not scoring the wines in the early part of the tasting too high and vice versa. It should really be all the proof I need that there's something wrong with scoring wines. That, and sheer number of notes where the score is fuzzy range (ie, 87-89) because I couldn't even nail the score to begin with. I used to think tacking a score at the end of the note would help me remember how good the wine was but I'm starting to realize that if the note can't tell me that, either the note or the wine just weren't memorable enough.

For Tomer Broude, a person I've met offline only three times but who has enriched my understanding of wine immensly over the last four years.

2 comments:

Lewis said...

I don't have a problem with scoring; I have problems with the 100 point scale. Real wine pros don't use a 100 point scale, but rather a 20 point scale which was defined initially I think by German academics or by INAO people, and later redefined (twice I think) by Maynard Amerine, a Davis professor of yore. My own 20 point scale is a re-modification of Amerine's in that I increased the number of points I allot to aroma (from 2 to 4) and decreased color/clarity, "ascence" (or VA, a less common problem nowadays thatn in Amerine's time) and maybe another factor, and added a new category that I call balance as a single 2 point term, which ends up being a fudge factor, to allow my subjective appreciation of the wine to be quantified.

The usefulness of scores for me is primarily two fold. First it helps me rank among a group of similar qualtity and character wines more easily - though like I say I added a fudge factor which I can use to raise the score of a wine I simply like more over another which seems perhaps technically better when "broken down". More importantly perhaps scores enable me to categorize the entire group I may be tasting and comparing with another group i tasted some time ago, in a relatively objective way.

As an example, i'd cite 2 Syrah/Shiraz tastings I participated in during the past year or so. The first was a group of Israeli wines with one Aussie, all from the 2003 vintage (maybe the Aussie was an 04. The wines were solid commercial wines, priced from roughly $10-25 (USD)on the israeli retail shelf. The scores ranged from maybe 12-15.5 points (I use half point differentials on occasion.) Almost 1 year later i tasted a group of 6 Syrah/Shiraz wines, 5 Israeli and 1 Californian, all from the 2004 vintage, at retail prices from about 12-35$(USD). The wines received scores from 16.5 to 18.5 points.

The scoring quantified 2 important points: 1) that the 04 Israeli wines, albeit more expensive on average, were far better than the 03's overall and 2) the 12$ Israeli 04 wine was a bargain among the wines of BOTH tastings - and a simple ranking of wines wouldn't have shown that at all, although by memory I would have suspected it. The 04 12$ Israeli wine was better than any of the '03s, including at least one that cost 2x the price. And it was at least "within the ball park" of quality of several Israeli wines and the California one that cost considerably more.

Without scoring, that comparison between the 2 tastings would have been far more difficult.

2GrandCru said...

I've got a lot to say but it's rather late. I do want to clarify one thing: my post was not meant to 'attack' (quote marks intentional, however you want to read them) scores in egenral, certainly not their professional use, but rather reflect my own questions and doubts as to their validty and use for me as a hobbyist. Not as a consumer/shopper making use of other people's notes but rather how the score might reflect my own personal experience of the wines in question. Scores are fine if I want to compare wines within a peer group but they make less and less sense as time goes by when I try to somehow normalize them across peer groups. Certainly, they tell me less these days about the wines I drink and the effort required to fit a wine to a score (should be the other way around but I have to be honest, these days I'm fitting the wine to the score) seems to be a less than useful utilization of my time.

Be honest, as a drinker (and not a winemaker, retail salesman or whatever), how many times do you find yourself trying to explain away the difference between the technical score and the enjoyment score?

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.