A Wine Rating is an Adjective, Not a Calculation
There has of late been good writing and thinking about writing and thinking about wine. At Meg Maker’s Terroir Review I recently read Fredric Koeppel’s “How To Write About Wine; Or, Why Bother To Write About Wine At All”. In the thoughtful article, Frederic concludes that:
“What matters, then, isn’t the theoretical skill and experience that would allow a taster to identify from a glass of wine a particular slope in the Sonoma Coast region or a hillside in Brunello di Montalcino or a commune in Burgundy….What matters is the knowledge that those places exist, that farmers and winemakers take those places and their histories seriously as expressions of the earth and their grapes and their intentions in the winery.”
Every now and then consumers of wine prose get these kinds of thoughtful meditations on wine writing and they are useful and even inspiring. What we get a lot, however, are articles and ruminations on the nature of wine ratings, a cousin of wine writing. The most recent rumination from a good wine mind came from David Morrison of the Wine Gourd blog.
David knows data, mathematics, numbers…and wine.
David uses his recent post, “The poor mathematics of wine-quality scores” to drive home his point that “wine-quality scores will only be at their best as a means of communication if they follow the logic of mathematics. Sadly, they rarely do.”
More importantly, David believes:
“the best we can expect from each commentator is that their wine scores can be compared among themselves so that we can work out which wines they liked and which ones they didn’t. However, the scores cannot be compared between commentators at all.”
But of course, scores among different commentators can be compared. All you have to do is note that two commentators give a 100 point score to the same wine. From this we can conclude the not-so-precise, but the perfectly understandable message that both commentators “really, really, really liked the wine”.
What really needs to be understood about wine ratings is that they are not calculations meant to communicate a precise description of a wine. They are adjectives. And they are almost always attached to written descriptions of the wine.
David takes issue with the implication that the use of numbers in a wine review equals the kind of precision that we know mathematics provides, but in fact, there is little or no precision in wine scores because they do not (cannot?) represent the kind of logic inherent in mathematics.
The thing is, I’m not aware of any wine reviewer using ratings who claim that the number they attach to their written review is the result of a strict equation or a form of mathematical logic. It is, rather, a way for them to express their appreciation of a wine relative to other wines. If a reader of the review becomes upset that they find it difficult to work out the precise calculation that led to a specific number being associated with a review, the best we can do is advise them they are making a category error.
“I’m not aware of any wine reviewer using ratings who claim that the number they attach to their written review is the result of a strict equation or a form of mathematical logic. …”
Let me quote Robert Parker from his 1989 interview with Wine Times magazine (later rebranded as Wine Enthusiast magazine), who ostensibly does add up the numbers.
WINE TIMES: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?
PARKER: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. . . .
. . . The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.
I thought one of the jokes of the 20-point systems is that everyone uses half points, so it’s really a 40-point system — which no one will acknowledge — and mine is a 50-point system, and in most cases a 40-point system.
WINE TIMES: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?
PARKER: It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [ balance of ] 10 points are . . . simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.
WINE TIMES: You mean when you are in the cellars of Burgundy, you look at a wine and say this is a 4 for color, a 14 for bouquet, and so on [ ? ]
PARKER: Yes, most of the times. What happens is that I’ve done so many wines by now that I know virtually right away that it’s, say, upper 80s, and you sort of start working backwards. . . .
Hmm…I really like Robert Parker’s last comment. As a rather regular judge, marking in 20 point-systems (with or without 0,5 points), 100 point-systems (Parker-style with really 51 points, where 49 is a faulty wine) and even 10-point systems. I’m a bit of a philistine. When judging, even for international competitions, I think in terms of medals: for a Bronze, I’d drink a glass or two in a pub; for a Silver, I’d share a bottle with my husband over dinner; for Gold, I’d keep the whole bottle for myself! Then how good is the wine in its medal group? And I plump for a mark. When I’m whizzing around a trade tasting I’m back to a ‘Tick-system’: 1/2/3 ticks and sometimes a plus on the end, so realistically a 5* system, although there is the occasional (rare) wine which gets 3-ticks and a plus. 2004 Y’quem, tasted when it was a mere child, is one of my few that actually reached 20/20. The odd Barolo gets full marks, too, but not very many, even of those. A 1991 Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie, cellared by us, was drinking beautifully at New Year 2017 and got full marks, although had to be shared with 3 others. A bit harsh, I know I am…and actually not very mathematical, for a mathematician!
I think that you may be somewhat confusing the messenger with the message. I don’t at all disagree with most of what you say in this post. Indeed, the point of my original post is that wine ratings are clearly not mathematics, although many people claim them as such. The basic motivation for the post was to ask the question as to why, given that the numbers are not mathematics, we are using mathematical language in our attempt to communicate. To me, this is like using English words without creating English sentences! So, if a wine rating is an adjective, then don’t use a number, because this is a very poor substitute for an adjective.
“Would the comparative relationship between good/better/best in any way be diminished if we stripped the numbers OFF of these point spread categories?”
(There is a preceding comment awaiting “moderation.” And a typo — now corrected — in that comment.)
Thanks for commenting.
I’m not aware of many reviewers who claim the rating that accompanies their written review is a calculation. However, it does work well as a shorthand response to the question: “Where does this wine’s quality stand relative to other wines?”
Bob…What I’d argue is this:
If you get rid of the numbers in the 100 point scale and just went with “Classic”, “Great”, etc., it would deprive the reviewer of the means for being specific as to which wine they preferred.
The reviewer could go one step beyond assigning the wine to a quality classification stratum — be it “great” or “outstanding” or “very good.”
That next step is “force ranking” the wines from first preference to last preference.
I have organized over 100 sit-down single blind winetasting luncheons in Los Angeles. Each with a narrowLY defined “theme”: a specific grape variety and vintage and appellation/AVA.
I never asked the participants (winery owners, winemakers, wine merchants, restaurateurs, wine writers and wine collectors) for their alpha (letter grade “A” through “F”) or numeric (5 stars vs. 20 points vs. 100 points) rating.
I asked them to rank order their preferences.
There was no House of Babble in trying to compare ratings.
(“Spoiler alert”: David Morrison is mulling over the notion of researching and writing a blog on the merits/demerits of “force ranking” wines.
Borrowing a phrase from a certain unnamed wine critic: “I’m 100 points on that!”
Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge!)
(Comments awaiting “moderation” are still lagging behind. Once again — typo free. Hope the URLs aren’t a “hiccup.”)
PART 1 of 3:
Quoting from “Wine Spectator’s 100-Point Scale”
“Wine Spectator tasters review wines on the following 100-point scale:
“95-100 Classic: a great wine
“90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
“85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
“80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
“75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
“50-74 Not recommended”
Would the comparative relationship between good/better/best in any way be diminished if we stripped the numbers off of these point spread categories?
A “great” wine is still a great wine. Self-evidently more admired and preferred over an “outstanding” wine. Over a “very good” wine.
And a “not recommended” wine is still disdained.
Those descriptive words — “great” vs. “outstanding” vs. “very good” — carry more weight than numbers bereft of any mathematical meaning.
Studies have consistently demonstrated that wine judges cannot habitually replicate their scores. [See bibliography below.]
So what’s the difference between a 99 point wine and a 98 point wine?
As Parker has observed in The Wine Advocate (circa 2002):
“. . . 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.”
I fail to see the “precision” implied by these one point differences . . .
PART 2 of 3
From The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
(November 20, 2009, Page W6):
“A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion”
Essay by Leonard Mlodinow
PART 3 of 3
From the Guardian Online
(June 22, 2013):
“Wine-tasting: it’s junk science”
By David Derbyshire
Quoting from Wine Spectator “Letters” section (March 15, 1994, page unknown):
In Wine Spectator, wines are always rated on a scale of 100. I assume you assign values to certain properties [components] of the wines (aftertaste, tannins for reds, acidity for whites, etc), and combined [summed] they form a total score of 100. An article in Wine Spectator describing your tasting and scoring procedure would be helpful to all of us.
Thierry Marc Carriou
Editor’s note: In brief, our editors do not assign specific values to certain properties [components] of a wine when we score it. We grade it for overall quality as a professor grades an essay test. We look, smell and taste for many different attributes and flaws, then we assign a score based on how much we like the wine overall.
Here’s how Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator answers for the reader your question:
“Where does this wine’s quality stand relative to other wines?”
Quoting from The San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section Letters-to-the-Editor
(June 22, 2007, page unknown):
“Keeping Score on Ratings”
Editor — Re [article titled] “Are Ratings Pointless?” (June 15, 2007):
Well, gee, all this fuss (yet again) about the 100-point scale. So it doesn’t tell everything you need to know about a wine. Do four stars? Twenty points? No, you have to read the critic’s words.
Does it reward subtle wines? That’s up to the critic using the scale. Do subtle wines that lack drama ever get four-star ratings from the [San Francisco] Chronicle’s team? No, they get two or 2½ stars, which pretty much corresponds to a 100-point score in the 80s.
The main reason I like to use the 100-point scale is that it lets me communicate more to my readers. They can tell that I liked a 90-point wine just a little better than an 89-point wine, but a 94-point wine a lot more than one rated 86. Doesn’t that say more than giving both the 90-and 94-point wines three stars and both the 89- and 86-point wines 2½ stars?
Editor at Large, Wine Spectator