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January 04, 2007

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Personally, point or grading systems don't really help me when reading a review of a wine. I prefer to find out what the person found in that bottle and what made it a good or a great value or even a bad value. 4 and a half stars or barrels or whatnot doesn't seem to mean anything to me either, unless there is a label associated with it. Such as 5 stars is the perfect bottle of wine and you must go get it now or you will burn in wine hell forever for missing it. And even then, you could just say that rather than rating the wine. Not much help, but I've been contemplating the same thing lately and have decided ratings just don't work very well for me.

When I first got into wine about 10 years ago, I heavily relied on the WS and RP 100 point rating systems as a basis for choosing new wines to sample. As a beginner, it was very helpful to know if a wine that I liked or didn't like was considered a 70 pointer or a 90 pointer. After years of fine tuning my own tastes, I do not utilize the 100 point scores to pick my wines as often. I'll give more weight to tasting notes and my own personal experiences with different regions, varietals, or producers. However, the 100 pt scales still have value to me in 2 respects.
1) Identifying wines to avoid. These days I'm much more focused on remembering the 60 and 70 point stinkers that a favorite producer of mine may have released in an off / bad year.
2) Identifying brand new producers and/or regions to try. There are so many wine regions in the world where I have minimal-to-no knowledge of the wines or producers (Germany for example), yet from time to time I like to branch out and sample regions and varietals I'm not familiar with. In this respect, a 100 pt rating will lend me some guidance when picking a wine I've never tried before... just as it did when I was a beginner to wine as a whole. If my first ever impression of a Gewurtz from Germany was awful, it would be nice to differentiate if the wine was considered good (and therefore simply wasn't a style I liked) or if the wine was flat out bad / tainted (and therefore deserved further sampling on my part of different wines or producers to establish my own preferences).
I guess what I'm saying is: the 100 point scores have always had a place for me in my wine experiences, just in different ways now that I've developed my own preferences from experience.

I think scores can be useful if they are placed at the end of a review, not the beginning, and they leave some general interpretation to the individual tastes of all wine drinkers. For more information, inlcuding relative price and value, style, etc., the reader would have to rely on the entire review. If we are talking about one wine region in particular, I think 100 point scores are a little redundant because every wine is being affected by the same conditions and thus don't need as broad a comparison.

This is a scoring system I dreamed up if I ever had to use one (which I doubt I ever will). For instance, a scoring system that used Highly Recommended, Recommended, Satisfactory, and Not Recommended would cover many of the bases without being too restrictive:

Highly Recommended: only 10-20% of the reviews would receive this in a normal vintage. These are the real gems that should be picked off the store shelf first.

Recommended: this would be the majority of the wines in a good year. They are solid efforts, worth trying, but will probably not differentiate themselves in any given year or be remembered as truly great in the years to come. These are the wines to experiment with to see if one really suites an individual's tastes.

Satisfactory: this is a buffer for the wines which are not awful, but are not at all distinct or necessarily good. This rating is a nice "out" for a reviewer who wishes to stress that this wine didn't impress him, but that perhaps it's too bold to call it complete crap.

Not Recommended: the obvious junkers, either spoiled by bad winemaking, the worst harvest weather ever, rot, or enough residual sugar to make a five-year-old want something a little less sweet.

Hey Lenn - your point that it is hard to discern and describe the difference between a 90 and a 91 point wine is the key here, in my opinion. Forget wine for a minute and remember when you were in school. When a teacher or professor gave you a rubric that explained what you needed to produce in order to achieve an A, 95, Excellent, B, 85, or Good...you knew what the grade meant because you knew what you needed to do to achieve it. If you use a rating system, whether it is 0-20, 50-100, or 1 to 5 barrels, the most important way to make it useful is to provide a detailed rubric that describes what merits each grade. Very difficult, probably impossible to do in a 100 point system (too many "levels" to define), but also tough in a 5 point system (levels are too broad and the grader often feels the need to add "pluses or minuses"). This coming from a guy who hasn't figured this out either - I don't grade wines either!

I dig Jason's ratings guide (see above). The problem with most point systems for me is they don't take into account the value of a "best buy". I would would feel comfortable giving the "highly recommended" stamp to an $8 bottle that may only get a high 80's score on the 100 point system. And if Lenn put a "highly recommened" rating on a wine, I'd be sure to find it and give it a whirl... that is unless it's one of those damn mailing list wines.

These days I think people are looking for a little bit more than just a number system. actually I think it is up to us as wine bloggers to ween the public off the number systems and start to talk about the wines in more depth. And we are already doing that very well. We should give them as much info as possible without overwhelming them. Then maybe at the end of the review or tasting notes put a score. A score that reflects what has just been talked about to solidify the suggestion. I like the idea you have proposed with a 1-5 barrells or whatever with half scores in between. It is a simple and solid confirmation. Great subject!

EVWG

I don't care in the least about rating systems, but I admit that some version of Jason's system makes sense. Neophytes are probably the appropriate target for scoring messages; yeah, for them it makes sense.

However...

Your question has me remembering back when the English wine writers, especially the inimitable Hugh Johnson, would use the 20 point system to rate vintages but never individual wines. The vintage guide was a good, general rule of thumb, but you had to know your onions, as Hugh actually wrote in his first Wine Atlas, when it came to an individual producer. In other words, it's not an exact science, you have to be patient, you have to know when you have a bad bottle from a good producer, and you need to keep it all in context -- time, place, food, mood, etc.

What was your original question? Oh, right -- Do we really need these faux-objective scoring systems anyway? No.

As you were, Lenn, old chap.

I'm happy that some people are digging my version of a scoring system. While no system is perfect, I've always tried to think of how to categorize recommendations without getting too restrictive.

And, yes, I think quality and value cannot be separated. Let's say you find an 88 wine (using the 100 point scale we are all familiar with). There are numerous wines in the high 80s--most of these solid, good wines, that are worth trying. On the scale I proposed, that wine would probably end up in the Recommended category.

Let's say, however, that this wine is selling for $10 and it is widely available. Heck, that should propel the wine up into the Highly Recommended category! The review would emphasize its quality compared to its cost. A reader should be informed that buying an 88 at $10 should be just as much a priority as buying a 94 at $60. There's simply no way to justify NOT trying an amazing value under the right circumstances.

Jason, your last point is right on the money. I feel that we need some sort of algorithm that factors in sensory score, price AND availability. Because I get real tired of reading about some exquisite 94 of a $65 wine that was produced in 200 cases. I mean, let's get real here -- and let's not reinforce old perceptions that wine is for in-the-know snobs.

Put the points, stars, and barrels away, and no one will get hurt....:) When I read a review of anything, I want to know WHY the reviewer liked it or didn't, what was good and what wasn't, what it went with, how they felt. A well written journey thru the wine is much more valuable than an arbitrary score.

A recent review over on wineoutlook.com really knocked my socks off. Initial impressions suggested a food pairing, which was prepared and enjoyed with further impressions of the wine. By the end you had a complete sense of how the wine was experienced, reinforced by contrasting with the food. (Full disclosure: the review was for a wine I make, but that's not the point.)

Think about Maya's speech in Sideways: good wine is a transcendent experience. Yet we try to collapse it into a linear point system. Just try to put another popular transcendent experience on a 100 point scale and see how far you get: "I'm sorry honey, that was just an 85 tonight..."

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