100 Point Wines and My Worry I Might Have Gone Round the Bend

dsaDo you ever start to wonder if there might be something seriously wrong with your mental or emotional capacity due to the fact that so many people understand or agree with something that is instead entirely lost on you?

This is how I feel about the idea of rating or ranking something that is nearly entirely a subjective experience: Wine. Yet, recently I’ve read so many different explanations as to why the idea of rating wine on the 100 points scale is meaningless because a wine is something that is experienced so subjectively and can’t be assigned a specific and seemingly objective spot on an aesthetic continuum. Still, I can’t buy this argument.

This positions doesn’t appeal to me factually, emotionally, intellectually or philosophically. And yet among that sophisticated and well-educated core of wine drinkers and thinkers, I am absolutely in the minority on this.

Maybe the problem is that I’m self-centered. When I consider this question of the utility and legitimacy of a 100 point rating scale for wine, I’m thinking of how it appeals to me and how it informs me, rather than how it appeals to the masses or what it does to inform the masses about a particular wine. Call me simple, but I have a very good idea of what a critic means when he assigns a given wine 92 points, and the written review that generally accompanies that rating almost always confirms my understanding of the meaning of the number.

Part of this has to do with my view that the “score inflation” that many see as a contrived occurence, is to me really just a matter of there being a lot more better wines today, not a desire among critics to out-do the other or get their name in lights.

Among nearly every critic I know today, an 87 point wine is a very nice wine, very drinkable wine, even interesting. Meanwhile a 92 point wine is an exceptional wine that is far above average in quality. And a 97 point wine is simply special; a breed above the others. I don’t know any critics that would take issue with this assessment.

Additionally, I’ve never had any illusions that a critic assigning a number to a wine has anything in mind other than to communicate that the score represents their own, person, subjective evaluation of a wine, and does not in turn mean that “this wine is objectively better than that wine” on some sort of scientific scale of quality. I also have the bad habit of thinking that anyone believing the critic is proclaiming some sort of objective or scientific or numeric certainty about a wine’s quality just doesn’t understand how a critic approaches their task. For a critic to actually believe this is what they are doing they would have to live in some sort of imaginary or alternative world that is without precedent in this reality. (That said, the idea of a fictional world in which there exists scientifically defined standards of quality makes for an interesting premise for a Sci Fi story.)

I was most recently reminded of my outlier status on this issue of ratings and the 100 point scale and listening and watching the astute Jamie Goode give his rambling explanation as to why the 100 point rating system is “absurd”, “daft” and “silly”, yet why he’ll continue to use it in his reviews. Jamie, like so others, argues that the rating of a wine with a particular number represents some sort of definitive marking that becomes a “property” of the wine when in fact it is no such thing. But I think he’s unnecessarily bringing up the notion of objectivity. I simply don’t ever see any claim being made that a score represents an objective measure, but is almost always claimed to be merely shorthand for how the wine touch the critic, relative to other wines the critic has tasted.

In other words, Jamie is reading too much meaning into the attachment of a number to an experience. It can in fact be done but it doesn’t suggest anything scientific, objective or pre-determined. It’s just short hand.

Jamie, and he’s hardly the first, also touches on another criticism of the 100 point rating system that is, again, lost on me as an argument. And that is the claim that the 100 point rating scale implies far more precision on the part of the taster or critic than is humanly possible. “What’s the difference really,” they ask, “of 1 point. And can you reproduce that kind of precision if you taste the same wine again….Well of course you can’t,” they say.

I don’t get this argument. It flies right over me because I see the assigning of a point score as representative of an impression the wine left, not a precise point on an X-Y axis that is suggested by the criticism of the 100 point scale. In other words, I know that the critic knows that a wine they give 96 points to could easily be given 94 or 95 or 97 points and the wine would still fall into the same category for the critic. That it was a 95 point wine rather than a 94 point wine for the critic is just a matter of the way the wine smacked the critic in the head at that moment. The precision is understood to be and is in fact, not as precise as the number suggests.

This raises the question of whether or not there is a scale that better allows for this kind of imprecise precision. I think there probably is such a scale (perhaps a 20 or 50 point scale, but I don’t think these alternative scales are so much more effective in communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind that it’s necessary we call for the abandonment of the 100 point system.

The ambiguity of faux precision in wine ratings isn’t the worst thing in the world any more than a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen in the history of the game is a bad thing.

On the other hand, there indeed could be something seriously wrong with my mental and emotional state that prevents me from appreciating the nuisance and uselessness that is the 100 point rating scale for wine. That’s possible. However, I think I simply understand it a little differently that puts emphasis on the honesty of the critic and usefulness of numbers to represent a scale of relativity.

Posted In: Rating Wine

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46 Responses

  1. Dwight Furrow - March 24, 2014

    Tom,

    I agree with your assessment of the 100-point rating system. It is not an objective assessment of a wine and certainly doesn’t capture the uniqueness or originality of a wine. All it does is locate the comparison class, the league in which a wine plays. An 87 point wine, as you point out, is drinkable and enjoyable. It can be powerful, elegant and complex but only compared to other wines in the 85-89 point range. A 93 point wine is playing in a different league. To say it is powerful, elegant, and complex means something different–it is being compared to a different group of wines. It is an ordinal rather than a cardinal ranking,

    We could find some other way of describing the comparison class but I doubt it would be as instantly recognizable and accessible to a consumer as the 100 point system that we are used to from school.

    The problem is some people think that quantification=objectivity, as if wine criticism were akin to measuring temperature on a thermometer. But obviously it is nothing like that. If people focus only on the number and not on the distinctive quality of a wine, they are missing much of the experience. But that is not the fault of a critic who doesn’t think the number is anything more than a rough indicator or rank. The description and the ranking work together. One doesn’t replace the other.

  2. Clark Smith - March 24, 2014

    Tom, I agree with you and will go you one further. When a category is well-defined, such as most European appellations are, numeric scoring makes perfect sense. It is only when it is applied to a very diverse group that its utility starts to break down. It would certainly be daft and silly to apply it to a mix of Chinon and St. Emillion simply because they are Cab Francs. In the U.S., the diversity of Chardonnay (say Napa vs Santa Cruz Mountains) or Viognier (Monticello vs Snake River vs Sonoma Valley) or Merlot (Long Island vs. Yakima vs. Lake County) is so rangy that a linear score is meaningless, capturing only the critic’s whim of the moment, and not any true opinion.

  3. Tom Wark - March 24, 2014

    “In the U.S., the diversity of Chardonnay (say Napa vs Santa Cruz Mountains) or Viognier (Monticello vs Snake River vs Sonoma Valley) or Merlot (Long Island vs. Yakima vs. Lake County) is so rangy that a linear score is meaningless, capturing only the critic’s whim of the moment, and not any true opinion.”

    Clark, thanks. I’m not sure I agree with you here. I think that while much range exists in CA chardonnay, I think the similarity that derives from the nature of the variety makes the various Chards more similar than dissimilar. Plus, you could argue that the 100 point scale is largely hedonic, making the similarity of style one finds across chardonnays just a bonus for what the scale (or any other rating system) is meant to do.

  4. Gregg Burke - March 24, 2014

    Minds can not be changed if you believe that the 100 point system is valid. I am in the camp that is a flawed system and that consumers have already to move away from it. I own a wine shop and I have never used scores. I have spent the better part of my adult life working in restaurants or in the wholesale or retail end of the wine business. As a retailer I have to retain the trust of my customers. I can not afford to give away my authority. I have made this argument before right here on your blog. In have witnessed people begin to give up the points in favor of my guidance or their own palate. There has been a lot of talk about how milennials do not care about scores. I have witnessed it. The 100 point system will not go away, but it relevance will diminish to a point eventually where it won’t matter any longer. There will always be those who are stuck and will not let it go. They will passionately defend its validity and how it is the best way to evaluate wine. These are the same people who own a betamax. I am just saying.

  5. Tom Warkcommunications - March 24, 2014

    Greg, I’m not sure there is a system that can be called perfect or without flaws. My point is that the main criticisms oa the 100 point rating system are lost on me or make very little sense or are misapplied. A retail shop that doesn’t use scores strikes me as just great. Though I’m not share how a retailer recommendation is much different that a critic,s recommendation.

  6. Gregg Burke - March 25, 2014

    Tom,
    Both the defense of and the criticism of the 100 point system are an exercise in futility. Those on either side will not understand or see validity in the others argument. The fact is the power of mainstream critics is waning at this moment. The 100 point system as with all forms of criticism has flaws, and those flaws are usually human. Wine is subjective and no one person is right. I have yet to meet a true authority on wine. And yes I have met MS’s and MW’s. Their knowledge base is impressive, but wine is far to dynamic of a topic to assert absolute authority. The other human flaw is ego. So many self appointed authorities are egomaniacs, and I am 99 points on that one. The main difference between a critics recommendations and that of a retailer is that if we are wrong, we hear about it or worse we lose a costumer. Retailers have to be more precise than critics because it effects our pockets. Cheers

  7. Thomas Pellechia - March 25, 2014

    Tom:

    I refuse to get into another argument about the 100-point system, but will point out (pun,\ alert) that you not only misunderstand the arguments against it, you completely misunderstood Clark’s point. He gave examples of varietal wines from various appellations outside and inside California, yet you responded thinking only of California. You need to get out more ;)

    As for this comment of yours: “…I’m not share (sic) how a retailer recommendation is much different that a critic,s 9sic) recommendation.”

    Let me help you: the retailer is thinking about what the customer might appreciate; the critic is self-absorbed.
    I’ll clear this one up for you

  8. Charlie Olken - March 25, 2014

    Thank you, Mr. Wark, for your passionate defense of the 100-point system. Well, not exactly passionate, but correct in most every detail.

    Greg Burke is right that some people will never understand, including him, and he is smart, runs a great store, etc. Of course, if I were smart and ran a great store, I would not use critics scores either. I would do, as he does, and so many others do, and make the relationship between me and the customer. That is what a wine merchant does when one can.

    But, that is not always true, as big places like K & L, a brilliantly run set of stores, or even BevMo, which purports to offer its own views.

    There will always be room for independent opinions, and whether those opinions are ultimately stated in points of 100 or points of 20, or “Bad, Fair, Good, Better, Best”, it is in the nature of evaluation that some level of differentiation will ultimately be used.

    I too disagree with my good friend and tasting buddy, Clark Smith, in that the point of finite ratings is not to equate Chinon with Right Bank Bordeaux or to equate a ripe CA Chard, and, by the way, there are plenty of bright, tight Chardonnays in CA, with Chablis or Chards from Chile. The purpose of finite rankings, by any system, is to establish how much the critic liked a wine.

    Most critics, and most tasters, by the way, are perfectly capable of establishing how much they like a certain wine. They do not necessarily have to use a numerical shorthand, but very few critics with influence in the market have ever maintained their standings without some form of hierarchical system of evaluation.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - March 25, 2014

    Charlies said: “The purpose of finite rankings, by any system, is to establish how much the critic liked a wine.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. Has little to do with the actual wine, and all to do with the critic’s reception of it. The numbers assigned are personal–they bear neither resemblance to objectivity nor to how the wine’s are received by others. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with the number is not the critic’s concern.

    Smart retailers take another tact: they get to know the customer’s preferences and then recommend based on that information. Really smart retailers learn quickly that it is not about them.

  10. Charlie Olken - March 25, 2014

    Mr. P–

    I am afraid that you have read far too much into my comments. Any reviewers words, no matter how expressed, have everything to do with the wine. If they are not objective, then there is not a word of evaluation about wine that can possibly be anything but froth.

    That is patent nonsense. You may or may not agree with my reviews, but you will find them to be an accurate portrayal of what I and the folks who taste with me found in the wine. No one’s reviews, except possibly a few charlatans, could possibly taste wine critically and not talking about the wine.

    There are some reasonably repeatable standards in this business–like intensity, varietal focus in its various guises (see Clark Smith on this), acid balance, tannin level and balance for type and for the given wine. We may disagree on how much tannin is acceptable in Petite Sirah, but a good wine review will certainly describe the impact of the tannins and allow the reader to say yay or nay.

    There are a few retailers in this country who hand-select a limited number of wines and then hand-sell those wines, but they are the distinct minority. I am all for those kinds of outlets, but they are also very limited in scope and tend to want to sell things that no one has heard of because that is their shtick. OK, but the world does not live by those kinds of stores alone.

    I do appreciate that you and I have somewhat similar reactions to generic wine reviews that rely on points. But even there, if I know the reviewer, Alder Yarrow is a good case in point although he does not so often review lots fo wines by number alone. Yet, I would trust Alder for general guidance.

    I trust no one but my own palate as to what I like–and that has to be the same for everyone, including those folks who read my rag. If they find that we are recommending wines that they do not like, they will go elsewhere. So far, in forty years, they have not.

  11. doug wilder - March 25, 2014

    As a former retail wine buyer, I learned the importance of being a reliable, credible and consistent opinion for customers when no other information was available on wines just entering the market. I did that by writing tasting notes and giving the wine a score (starting in the mid ’90s). Even though I now publish a wine review magazine, I still encourage my subscribers use the experience of other resources, including a trusted retailer, or sommelier to help them discover new wines.

    Regarding Gregg’s comment: “The main difference between a critics recommendations and that of a retailer is that if we are wrong, we hear about it or worse we lose a costumer. Retailers have to be more precise than critics because it effects our pockets”

    Since I have done both, I see little if any difference. Critics hear from subscribers, or lose them, as the case may be if their evaluations vary from that of the reader to the point where the reader no longer finds value in the opinion. Further, for someone arguing against a numerical scale (which has a 2-3 point repeatability margin for most critics), I am curious what retailers use that is more “precise”.

    • Gregg Burke - March 25, 2014

      Having been in retail and having dealt with consumers who regularly say they like “dry” wines when what they like is fruity and sweet you know that listening and asking clarifying questions leads to greater precision in selecting a wine for someone. I sell a lot of wines that I do not personally like because it represent a style and they are good quality for their price, and most importantly they fit the person buying it. Criticism is opinion. Hopefully a well informed opinion but never the less an opinion. The 100 point system should be used by tasting panels only. Individual tasters there are too many variables to be accurate. “which has a 2-3 point repeatability margin for most critics” where do you get this? Are the tastings done blind? If so than that would be impressive and I would like to see the proof and if not, well it is a non-point.

  12. Kyle Schlachter - March 25, 2014

    Doug, I think Gregg’s idea is backwards. Retailers are actually being less precise, and I think that is a good thing. A good retailer will describe a wine and offer comparable wines to a customer in the hope that will sell a customer on a particular bottle. That imprecision allows a leeway for differences in taste. Shops that organize product into style or weight (Bold, light, fruity, elegant, or whatever) are much more common than by points (95+, 90-94, 85-89…).

  13. Missing the Points–Over and Over Again. | Tim Vandergrift - March 25, 2014

    […] Tom’s apologia is well-written, as usual. What he comes down to is this: the scale is shorthand, the imprecision is understood, and critics use it as an honest way of conveying important information in a soft field (subjective quality can’t be precisely qualified) and consumers who have the same mindset as Tom will find the scores useful, as they are well-intended. […]

  14. Thoams Pellechia - March 25, 2014

    Charlie:

    If you feel free to my opinion nonsense, why don’t I drop the gloves and call yours the same?

    The following is nonsense:

    “There are some reasonably repeatable standards in this business–like intensity, varietal focus in its various guises (see Clark Smith on this), acid balance, tannin level and balance for type and for the given wine.”

    Can you point me to those codified standards that guide every wine–and every critic?

  15. Bruce Gutlove - March 25, 2014

    Re: this… ” the claim that the 100 point rating scale implies far more precision on the part of the taster or critic than is humanly possible.”

    This is very true, and I would disagree with Tom’s assertion that “the precision is understood to be and is in fact, not as precise as the number suggests”. I have every confidence that most people who pay attention to scores do NOT understand the lack of precision involved in the point system. These people would obviously assume that a 97 point wine was found to be of higher quality than a 93 point wine of the same genre when, in fact, reality dictates that the reader cannot tell which wine was found to be the better wine.

    If critics cannot reliably and consistently taste down to the level of 100-point or 50-point differentiations of quality then they really have no business reporting their findings to that level.
    This is analogous to the very basic concept of significant figures in scientific endeavors: you should not report results that imply a precision greater than that which the testing methodology can realistically support.

    One of several problems inherent to the 100 point scale as it is currently practiced and used.

    Regards,

    • Tom Wark - March 25, 2014

      “This is analogous to the very basic concept of significant figures in scientific endeavors: you should not report results that imply a precision greater than that which the testing methodology can realistically support.”

      Bruce,
      The wine is not being “tested” or measured. The Wine is being evaluated. This is an important difference considering your application of a scientific principle.

      • Bruce Gutlove - March 25, 2014

        True, but….
        Putting aside the fact that many users of the 100-pt scale do not understand your point, the same basic principle remains: if the one doing the evaluation is incapable of judging the wine to that level of detail, then reporting the results in this way is nothing short of a willful dissemination of mis-information.
        Better to report the results as “93 points (+/- 4 points)”, or use a scale of sufficient granularity.

        • Dwight Furrow - March 25, 2014

          The points do not measure a substance. It is an ordinal ranking. A 93 point wine is incrementally better than a 92 and substantially better than an 87. To say that a team is in first place is not to identify how many wins they have. Only that they have more wins than their competition.

          • Bruce Gutlove - March 25, 2014

            The point scores are not ordinal, they are cardinal.
            From the scores one can (possibly) generate a ranking, but they are not in and of themselves rankings. If the numbers were ordinal then there would be an infinite number of degrees of quality difference between 88 and 89. And one would not be able to (seemingly) definitively state that 89 is “barely above average to very good” while 90 is “outstanding”.

          • Dwight Furrow - March 25, 2014

            So I can’t definitively state that the Red Sox are in first place because there is an infinite number of “win gradations” between first and second place. I’ll try to remember that this season.

          • Bruce Gutlove - March 25, 2014

            >>”So I can’t definitively state that the Red Sox are in first place because there is an infinite number of “win gradations” between first and second place. I’ll try to remember that this season.”

            I have no idea what this means.
            If the Red Sox are in 1st, then they are in 1st. But that just tells you their position relative to other teams. It does not tell you how much better they are doing than others.

            Look at what you’ve previously written:
            “A 93 point wine is incrementally better than a 92 and substantially better than an 87. ”
            This does not hold true if the numbers are ordinal. If the numbers here are ordinal, then there could be a far, far larger difference in quality betwen 92 and 93 than there is between 92 and 87.

          • Dwight Furrow - March 25, 2014

            That is an interesting point. Since the number system represents equidistant increments, we assume the underlying property being ranked has the same symmetry. With wine, that probably is not the case. I suspect that at the top of the scale, small differences in quality matter more than at the bottom. The difference between a 100 pt wine and a 99 point will be barely discernible. But I don’t see how that shows the rankings are not ordinal. The ordinal rankings will just be an imprecise and variable ranking of an underlying property. But I think anyone who has thought about this would agree it’s just a rough approximation.

          • Bruce Gutlove - March 25, 2014

            Dwight:

            I agree it is just a rough approximation, no matter how you look at it.
            Unfortunately, I’ve seen enough internet discussions about the subject to understand that many don’t get that point.

            If point scores are ordinal, though, then there could be a huge difference in quality between a “92″ and a “93″, but an almost negligible difference in quality between that “92″ and a “67″.
            Does that make any sense in the context by which point scores are commonly used and discussed?

          • Dwight Furrow - March 25, 2014

            “If point scores are ordinal, though, then there could be a huge difference in quality between a “92″ and a “93″, but an almost negligible difference in quality between that “92″ and a “67″”

            There could be but why would a critic conceptualize it that way? Any system will depend on the critic using it responsibly. In my experience, the symmetry of the 100 point scale will tend to pull judgments toward roughly equal intervals even though they are only approximations.

  16. Charlie Olken - March 25, 2014

    It is experience that teaches us those more or less repeatable standards.

    How do you codify physical beauty in a person?

    How do you codify a great play by a second baseman?

    How do you codify the brilliance of Picasso in such a way that it can be separated from Juan Gris?

    These are human reactions, and not everyone is going to agree, but when I or Tanzer or Parker or Laube or Heimoff say a winery is very tannic, we are all coming from pretty much the same place and it is not necessary to measure the tannins in parts per million.

    Beyond that, wine is not a set of numbers. Some wines taste acidy when they are relatively low in acidity and high in pH and vice versa. You would agree, I believe, that the complexity of wine is such that numbers alone do not tell the story.

    So, if they do not, then how would you codify tannin impact? Or balance? Or varietal character? Those things can be described, and while tasters will differ on what is preferable, such as Chardonnay style or Riesling RS, most knowledgeable tasters would agree on the question of varietal character. Some prefer Chablis and some prefer fat and ripe Chards, but no one whole likes fat and ripe Chard would deny that Chablis has varietal character as modified by its place and by the style of winemaking that is typical of that place.

    Thus we are back to the same point. I contend that there are recognizable ranges of standards for many aspects of wine evaluation and that when I say a wine is tart, sour, lemony, I am probably talking about combinations of fruit depth, acidity, pH and RS just for starters. But, I have and you have tasted plenty of white wines with acidities in the .80 range and pHs in the less than 3.2 range and not judged the wine to be tart. And I do not need a coda to call the wine tart, sour and lemony and my readers do not need one to understand what I am talking about.

    And, Thomas, my comment about nonsense was limited to the comment that the numbers bear no resemblance to objectivity. Any ranking system used by any responsible, reputable critic will be based on findings, much of which is as objective as wine review can be. That it is not purely scientific but based on beauty in the eye of the beholder does not disqualify it for serious consideration–depending, of course, on the source.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - March 25, 2014

    Charlie:

    A long but unpersuasive argument, mainly because you confuse subjectivity with objectivity.

    Objective things are measurable; subjective things are not. You can standardize a measurable; you cannot standardize a perception (well, you can try, and then you call it experience).

    To your “how do you codify” questions: you can’t, for the same reason that you can’t rate a wine. This is the endless conundrum faced by all who render aesthetic opinions.

  18. Charlie Olken - March 25, 2014

    Mr. P.

    Yes, we agree that there is no codification, but there is reality. A share vision by a large group of people is reality, and when experience allows the critic to make informed, seasoned evaluations against perceived reality, that is objective–well, almost.

    But to say that one cannot rate a wine because the standards are perceptions, not scientific measurements belies the very senses that rule our lives.

    Is there no such thing as a noxious odor? Is there no such thing as a gorgeous sports car?

    You get the point. If we all agree, or most of us, then using that common base make our judgments more than purely subjective.

    At this point, we probably agree on some things but could continue the subjective/objective discussion forever. Let’s not. Last word yours if you want it.

  19. tom merle - March 25, 2014

    I agree with Tom’s acknowledgement that there is a three point spread in evaluating wine. A five star system with half stars allowed reflects this reality. Secondly, I believe, based on experience with my wine club, that there are some wines that appeal to a range of palates, so, as I have argured with Charlie, we can use limited crowdsourcing and not have to rely on one critic. This should appeal to the retailer and tends to replicate in a limited sense what is done in various competitions. The only difference being that it is the consumers making the call not the cognescenti who are seeking more complexity and other features that hold little interest to Regular People.

  20. Bob Henry - March 25, 2014

    On Robert Parker “splitting hairs” . . .

    “ . . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99. ”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002):

    “The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 109, dated 6-27-1997]

  21. Thomas Pellechia - March 26, 2014

    Charlie:

    You and your staff do a great job at identifying and explaining what it is that you like or dislike about a wine.

    Correct me of I am wrong, but I presume that nothing that you say about the wine is measured with an instrument. It all comes from your assessment based on experience (which, in my mind is fine as far as it goes; experience is not a standard in and of itself).

    Why then, would you eel the need to pull a number out of thin air and tag it alongside the assessment?

    The only logical conclusion that I can come to is that with the number you are trying to get across the message that the assessment has a finality and validity to it that can be measured. But you and I know have just agreed that is not true, so why the number?.

    • Tom Wark - March 26, 2014

      “The only logical conclusion that I can come to is that with the number you are trying to get across the message that the assessment has a finality and validity to it that can be measured.”

      How about this, Thomas: It is logical for me to assume that by placing a number alongside the written review, Charlie is communicating to the reader how the wine ranks in overall quality relative to other similar wines? Is that a logical conclusion to draw? If not, where does my logic fail?

      • Thomas Pellechia - March 26, 2014

        I forgot to respond to this, Tom:

        “It is logical for me to assume that by placing a number alongside the written review, Charlie is communicating to the reader how the wine ranks in overall quality relative to other similar wines? Is that a logical conclusion to draw? If not, where does my logic fail?”

        In order for Charlie to do what you claim he is doing, wouldn’t that mean that all the similar wines would have to have been or be ranked numerically for a comparison? If so, that would mean having to keep score, which I suppose is fine for some, but that could become an awfully onerous task, what with all the relatively “similar” wines out there that you may have or may not have tasted.

        That’s where your logic fails, if you are going by the numbers.

  22. Tom Wark - March 26, 2014

    “That’s it in a nutshell. Has little to do with the actual wine, and all to do with the critic’s reception of it. The numbers assigned are personal–they bear neither resemblance to objectivity nor to how the wine’s are received by others. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with the number is not the critic’s concern.”

    I’m trying to recall any piece of criticism of an artistic production, item, etc that is not an description of the critic’s appreciation. I think we can stop arguing that a wine review or a book review or a restaurant review is anything other than the critic’s personal response.

    But I think it’s also necessary to stop talking about wine reviews as though any symbol they may possess (points, stars, puffs, etc) happen in a vacuum. They are part of the review that includes written words. Those written words often explain the texture, aroma and taste of the wine. That’s very good. What I rarely see people claiming is that this written review has little to do with the actual wine. No one says that because it clearly does and among the critics I read and trust, the written review is most often an accurate assessment of the wine. The number, then, is an addendum. A way of putting the wine in context of similar wines in the mind of the critic and for the benefit of the reader. It is subjective. But, if you know and trust that critic, then the number becomes very useful.

  23. Jamie Goode - March 26, 2014

    Good article. But ‘rambling’? That’s a bit harsh old chap!!

  24. Tom Wark - March 26, 2014

    Jamie:

    It’s entirely possible that my own mind was rambling as I watched your video post. Videos are hard to do. I tried for a while and found I nearly needed to memorize my monologue in order to be coherent. So, given that….I retract the rambling comment.

  25. Thomas Pellechia - March 26, 2014

    Tom:

    This is where you lose me:

    “The number, then, is an addendum. A way of putting the wine in context of similar wines in the mind of the critic and for the benefit of the reader. It is subjective.”

    Numbers are measures, so to assign a number you really ought to have a meaningful scale–if there is no meaningful measure, then I still don’t know what the number is for.

    As I think Bruce said above, the number is there to make the consumer think it means more than it does, that it is actually a measurable scale, when in fact it is pulled out of the critic’s, er, subjective belief system….

    You also say that you rarely see claims that a written review has little to do with the actual wine. I don’t know what you read, but if that’s true, maybe it’s because the written review truly reflects what the critic experienced, and you cannot argue with someone else’s perception; well, you can, but there isn’t much point to the argument.

    I wish you guys would get off the false equivalent between art critics and wine critics. I can’t remember ever reading an art critic that ended the review by assigning the artwork a number taken from an imaginary scale. What many critics of the arts do is go beyond merely passing along their subjective opinions by spelling out in technical terms why they appreciate or don’t appreciate that particular expression of that particular art–and they don’t often judge one expression of art as a comparison to another expression of art, but when they do, they do it within a context of a particular genre, like maybe a peer group.

  26. Tom Wark - March 26, 2014

    “Numbers are measures, so to assign a number you really ought to have a meaningful scale–if there is no meaningful measure, then I still don’t know what the number is for.”

    Thomas, the placement of a number does not necessarily mean a mathematical calculation has been done, despite the fact that this is usually what it means, any more than the placement of a “puff” or three stars necessarily means a mathematical calculation has been done. In these cases, the number and puff and thumb is a contextual tool, not an accounting tool.

    You Wrote:
    “I wish you guys would get off the false equivalent between art critics and wine critics. I can’t remember ever reading an art critic that ended the review by assigning the artwork a number taken from an imaginary scale.”

    I can’t recall this either. However, maybe this is because art critics are far less innovative than wine critics. : )

    The similarity is that both the art critic and the wine critic are evaluating a creation that is one of a kind and an expression of something. Though a broad similarity, it’s important to note that neither are comparing something by a measurement. So, I’d argue, we have a category similarity between art and wine.

    That said, the primarily difference between the art critic and wine critic and probably the reason that a rating scale is much more useful for the wine critic, is that the wine will be ingested. Additionally, it’s much more likely to be purchased than a piece of art. And it’s far more likely to be affordable than art. I think these differences are important. I just haven’t noodled out how these important difference relate to why art is not rated and wine is. But I will.

  27. Tom Wark - March 26, 2014

    “In order for Charlie to do what you claim he is doing, wouldn’t that mean that all the similar wines would have to have been or be ranked numerically for a comparison?”

    Just all the similar wines that Charlie has tasted and reviewed.

    • Thomas Pellechia - March 26, 2014

      Knowing Charlie, I suspect that still would make some list for you to keep up with. ;)

      Oh, thanks for this: “Thomas, the placement of a number does not necessarily mean a mathematical calculation has been done, despite the fact that this is usually what it means…” which I already know and which makes me contend that the reason the number is used is to dupe consumers into thinking that a calculation actually has been done, because that’s what people expect the number to represent. If people believed that it was just made up or just a feeling based on past experience, they might not flock to the retail shop seeking the latest 95.

      And don’t trouble yourself to figure out why art isn’t rated and wine is. The answer is all too sad. ;)

      • Charlie Olken - March 26, 2014

        Wine is much more similar to wine than art is to art, but I would agree that I like some pieces more than I like others. And if pushed, I would admit that I could apply a number to my personal preferences. Picasso’s Guernica would be my 100-point piece of art work and I could, if pushed, put numbers to my personal apprecation of certain genres of modern painting.

        But not only is art not ingested, but each piece is a one-off, not one of a thousand or ten thousand or 100,000 or one million. And, wine is also a purchasable commodity whereas original art is not for most of us. Finally, aside from a few uber-rich collectors, no one is purchasing art by the dozen or three dozen or whatever.

        I hate to say it, because someone will inevitably misconstrue my meaning, but wine is a commodity, and the competition in the market place where millions of people are gathered consists of thousands and thousands of versions of that commodity. And it is a commodity that changes every year.

        Thus, there is an enormous demand for helpful evaluations that enable many of those millions of consumers to find what they want without having to taste thousands of wines. That situation alone is why wine reviews exist, and notational shorthand, whether puffs, stars, thumbs, letter grades, 20 points or 200 are just that. They are notational shorthand that attempt, for lack of a better system of communication, to suggest an expression of level of appreciation.

  28. Thomas Pellechia - March 27, 2014

    Charlie:

    We reached full agreement on this: wine is indeed a commodity–always has been. In fact, storing wine in inventory is in part responsible for ancient cuneiform development, but that’s a long story.

    On the matter of helpful evaluations: I have no problem with that, as long as everyone understands the who, what, and why. I don’t think consumers generally understands much of that, but one about our can’t be disputed: the desire for ranking and rating–everything.

  29. Thomas Pellechia - March 27, 2014

    Let’s try that last sentence again. I swear correcting on this blog is a sure way to introduce more errors.

    I don’t think consumers generally understand much of that, but one thing about our culture that can’t be disputed: the desire for ranking and rating–everything.

  30. Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic | STEVE HEIMOFF| WINE BLOG - March 27, 2014

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