Tuesday, July 17, 2012

This is Scoring Wine

The 100-point system of rating wine continues its relentless march towards global domination. Until recently, the only place you would see a wine with a score out of 100 was in a written wine review. Now the 100-point system is also set to replace the 20-point system traditionally used in Australian wine competitions.

Earlier this year the Sydney Royal Wine Show trialed the new method of judging in some of its classes; wines at the just-completed Royal Queensland Show were scored out of 100 rather than 20; and the Canberra International Riesling Challenge in October will also be moving to this new system.

It’s not just an Australian phenomenon, this obsession with big scores. Even that bastion of old-school wine appreciation, Decanter magazine in the UK, has this month ditched its old five star rating system in favour of points out of 100.

Sigh. Regular readers know that I am no fan of scoring wine. It makes as much sense to me as scoring a sunset. Yes, some sunsets are more beautiful than others. But two or three points more beautiful? Reducing such a subjective, multi-faceted sensory experience to such a precise number seems to be, well, missing the point.

But I am obviously in a dwindling minority. Doling out the points is clearly here to stay. So, adopting the can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em principle, from now on I will start scoring wine too. And I’m very excited about the new rating method I’ve devised: where most blokes only go up to 100, my scoring goes up to 110.

In a nod to nostalgia, I’m going to allocate a maximum of 20 points for quality - complexity and persistence of flavour, all the usual jazz. But I’m also going to award 10 possible points for funkiness: whereas most judges would give lower scores for a touch of volatile acidity or cloudiness or a whisper of brettanomyces (a ‘spoilage’ yeast), for example, I’ve realised that I actually like finding these agricultural characters in wine: I think they can make it more interesting and more delicious with food. So actually, no, bugger it: let’s make that 20 possible funky points. Boo-yah!

I’ll give up to 10 points for packaging. After all, who doesn’t love a cool label, a heavy imported bottle and a wax capsule? Another 10 possible points for obligatory greenness (sustainable, organic, carbon neutral - all the touchy-feely stuff). And 20 points for food-friendliness because it’s so important: I’m going to ask winemakers to recommend a specific dish for each wine sample they send me, which I will then have the kitchen staff in my tasting facility cook up and serve alongside the tasting glass. Ten bonus points will be awarded for any wines fermented in clay amphorae.

I’m also going to give up to ten points for value: the better the QPR (that’s “quality-to-price-ratio”, apparently: it comes with its own logarithm), the higher the score (I’ll be deducting points for wines that are obviously overpriced, opportunistic and ostentatious). And finally, I’m leaving another ten points to play with just depending on how I feel on the day.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Australian A Plus on 21 July 2012

14 comments:

  1. I can't wait for the adoption of the 1000 point system. I am looking forward to hearing arguments between people over whether a wine deserves 877 or 881.

    As someone who has judged at wine shows for 15 years or more, I can assume that you Max have done more scoring of wine than most mere mortals? i.e. you are as entrenched in the scoring of wine problem as just about anyone??

    I have always assumed that scoring wines is ridiculous but that there is a consumer demand for it, and so it's incumbent on at least some journalists to provide the service readers want.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous ... And you're right, I've judged at plenty of wine shows - and increasingly felt that there had to be a better way of assessing wine than doling out the scores. Which is why I've now given up judging at wine shows.

    Actually, that's not quite true: I'm in the process of putting this year's Organic Wine Show together. But we're re-thinking the whole thing. We're moving away from the 20-point system; changing it from a Wine Show to more of a Wine Fair; holding it over a number of days to allow more tasters more time to try and re-try and re-try the wines and discuss and debate and try again; and making good food available for tasters throughout the event ...

    And you're right, there is a consumer interest in points. But I still think a score - particularly out of 100 - is a pronouncement that says more about the taster and his or her critical powers than the wine being pronounced upon: James Suckling even makes this explicit when he says "I'm a 96 on that" rather than "this is a 96 point wine".

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  3. There is no such thing as a 96 point wine. There is no such thing as a beautiful wine. It is all in the eye of the beholder. That is not a debate over scores though and most definitely has nothing to do with whether anyone uses the 100 point system or not. That is a debate over the role/need for the critic, and the usefulness of his or her critical powers.

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  4. Ah, Anonymous (same Anonymous as before? Who knows?), you've gone all philosophical and I like that. I agree: objectively, in and of itself, the wine can be neither beautiful nor 96 points - both are qualities perceived/decided in the brain of the beholder/taster and are, therefore, entirely subjective.

    Surely, though, this has *everything* to do with whether anyone uses the 100 point system or not, and is also a very important consideration when contemplating the role and position of the critic. Scoring is one of the critic's most powerful tools for establishing power: as one reader put it after reading the original article last Saturday: "No one takes any notice of what you write unless you append an 'objective' figure". But as you and I both point out, a score is anything but objective. So in some senses, a scoring critic's power is based on the myth of objectivity.

    Andrew Jefford provides another view in his latest blog post - it's towards the end of a very lengthy piece, but it's worth reading the whole thing if you feel like a bit more vinous philosophy:

    http://www.andrewjefford.com/node/823

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  5. Hi Max, Good article. I did some statistical work a (long) while ago and it seems that, regardless of what points system you use, the results tend to be the same, ranking-wise. Don't forget and as far as I am aware, pointing wines was originally developed for California researchers in the '50s for clonal selection, to allow judges to QUANTIFY the differences between clones in small scale wine making. Frankly speaking,100 points smacks of an American basketball mentality, hanging off one point for greater glory. Looking over some wine show results lately the judges could do a lot better with class comments, they seem to have developed a sort of chauvinist sub dialect that exhibitors are meant to interpret e.g "Strong class" or "Two outstanding wines" Doh QED! How about a good tasting note on the best wine so we know WHY they thought it was so good, screw the points. Regards
    Brian Fletcher

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  6. G'day Brian

    Thanks for the contribution. I agree: the meat of the matter in a wine show is the discussion between judges - the to-and-fro and fisticuffs and sparring that occurs when different people with different palates come together after tasting the same wines and hang their individual experiences alongside everyone else's ... meaningful tasting notes that reflect this diversity of opinions are seriously useful - reducing that complex human interaction to a score is not.

    That's why, at the last three shows I've been involved with, we recorded and made available to exhibitors tasting notes for every single wine.

    Max

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  12. Max

    we live in a world where there is a lot of infomation about a lot of stuff including wine, in a busy world where most people do not have your knowledge of wine the 100 point system works.

    Since you stopped scoring wines I can not remember a single wine you recomended/wrote up being requested by our customers.

    I love the way you write, and what you write about, however talking to normal (not wine industry) people they love to read or see 96 points, then they read the artical, get excited, buy the wine....tell other people about the wine....

    I guess what I am trying to say is, Max if you were going to buy say washing mechine, and one of the ones you were selecting from was the top rated by Choice Magazine, you would have to admit most of us would lean towards that model.

    Cheers
    Ben Pike
    Been selling wine for over 20 years

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