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.