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