By Jason Feulner, Finger Lakes Correspondent
The question in the title is not flippant: the ever-frustrating 89-point score is a non-starter in terms of soliciting national interest in a given wine. If Wine Spectator graciously grants a 90-point rating, the wine flies off the shelf. An 89, despite its proximity to 90, results in mediocre interest at best.
The problem is even more vexing for wines from lesser-known regions. An 89 for a well-known California producer will not deter loyal consumers en masse, but the same score for a New York, Michigan or Virginia winery means that the millions of wine drinkers who have yet to even try a wine from one of these regions will, yet again, pass on the opportunity.
But what is an 89-point wine? Can it be that much worse than a 90-point one? Since wine tasting and scoring is an art, not a science, is it possible that an 89-point wine is no less worthy of attention than a wine that scores one measly point higher?
What if, as has been pointed out by me, Lenn, and others, there exists the possibility that editorial bias restricts some major publications from giving 90+ scores to certain regions without the cache of Napa, Bordeaux or Rioja? The number of Finger Lakes rieslings, for instance, that pile up against the 89-point ceiling in a single tasting round is noteworthy.
To explore these general concerns about the 89 phenomenon, the 89 Project blog takes a look at various 89-point wines from around the world, trying to etch away at our psychological predisposition to embrace 90 but reject 89 as something altogether inferior. David Honig, the 89 Project's founder, puts the emphasis in sports terms: "They are a receiver's foot near the sideline in the last minute of a championship game. They deserve instant replay if, for no other reason, just coming close."
Any 89 score is of course just one opinion. Project 89's site is filled with wines that may have been under-evaluated because, as Honig puts it, they are from "Loire, instead of Burgundy, or Santa Rita instead of Napa." The possibility also exists that some wines are given a charity 89 simply due to reputation, and perhaps deserve far lower scores.
As those of us observing the New York wine industry both celebrate and shake our heads at the multitude of 89s coming our way, it is important to consider that we should do our best to promote our 89 wines (and maybe those 88s as well). These just might be our gems, victims of a 100-point scale that is more of an editorial hatchet than a real judgment tool.
In honor of the 89 Project, Lenn and I are working on developing a growing list of 88-89 New York wines that takes into account both the perspective that no consumer should be a slave to the 100-point scale and that the market reality dictates that we continue to pay attention to these scores anyway.
Many wine enthusiasts, including myself, believe that the 100-point scale takes some of the fun out of evaluating and judging wine. We may be right, but at the end of the day wineries need to sell their stuff, and for millions of American wine drinkers a 90 or a 91 is what is needed to inspire experimentation. If framed positively an 89 score is better than no score at all, and there must be a market for those who see value in being just a little bit cynical toward the whole system.