Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Should a wine review be pointless?

The gap of more than two weeks before postings is explained by the photograph above: I was in Russia.

This small but striking church is the Church of Prince Dimitri on Blood in a city called Uglich, about two hours northwest of Moscow. Built in 1692, it commemorates the death of the young Prince Dimitri, the son and only heir of Czar Ivan the Terrible. His death, which ended a dynasty and led to the rise of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613, was said to have happened accidentally when the boy was playing with a knife. The more likely explanation is that he was assassinated.

The church, at the edge of a river, is among the sights that attract tourists to cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow.  These are not wine cruises, even if our ship served remarkably good Spanish wines at lunch and dinner and offered a vodka tasting (six anaesthetizing samples) one evening.

However, there was enough leisure to reflect on wine, notably on the spring newsletter from Le Vieux Pin winery which arrived on my Ipad during the cruise.

The winery offered a thought about rating wines which struck me as curious. I have reviewed the winery’s releases twice this year in this blog, generally scoring the impressive wines at 90 points or better. The newsletter reprinted some of the reviews, describing them as “flattering” while omitting my point scores.

Here is the reason:

“ … We debate frequently and passionately whether to include scores for our wines in our newsletter and website content,” Le Vieux Pin writes. “As you know, up until now we have included the scores that are awarded to our wines by critics. We firmly believe that reducing a wine to a single number is an affront to the depth, complexity, passion and soul of a wine. … We may in future include numerical scores in our reviews, but for this newsletter we are going to avoid the practice.”

I agree that reducing a wine to a number would be “an affront.” That is the reason why the number of every wine I review is preceded with text that describes the wine and puts it in context. The numerical rating just sums up a judgment on the quality of the wine. Most wine reviewers operate like that.

A more interesting debate might question the rating scales that are in use. Thanks to Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator, most reviewers have come to use the so-called 100 point scale to rate wines.

In my view, it is far less precise than the 20 point scale developed decades ago by the University of California and still used in some wine competitions. The scoring sheet breaks a wine into categories – a point or two for appearance, four or five points for aroma, and so on. It forces the critic to pay attention to key individual properties of a wine. The sum of these is the final score of the wine. An 18 point wine is generally the equivalent of a 90 point wine.

But tell me: would you buy a wine if the shelf talker said that John Schreiner had awarded it 18 points? Or three stars out of five, or six out of seven, or whatever other rating system exists. Not likely, because the North American consumer reacts almost exclusively to the 100 point scale.

Of course, the 100 point scale is a bit of a sham. You can pass a school exam with 50 or 51 points. Wine, on the other hand, needs to score at least 75 to pass, if not 80. I can’t recall seeing a review of a wine that scored only 80. I think we all would consider that such a score signifies a drinkable wine but nothing more.

So the 100 point scale really is just another 20 point scale, but one that does not separate individual properties of a wine. The scores reflect the benchmarks of quality that experienced reviewers recognize (most of the time).

In the past year, I have raised my scoring threshold to rate more wines 90 and above and fewer in the mid-80s. That compensates for the perceived shortcomings of the 100 point scale. Why not score a good wine 92 to 94, even higher, if I judge the quality to be there?

And when I “reduce” a wine to 95 points, be assured that the text will support my reason for that score.

Would I score a wine 100? Yes. Last year, I tasted an Austrian dessert wine that was so perfectly balanced, with such clean, elegant flavours, that I could not find any reason to deduct anything from a perfect score.

Whenever I open a wine to rate it, I start from an optimistic position. I have judged with people who approach every wine, looking for its faults. I approach every wine, looking for its qualities.

And when I find them, I will describe them and score them.



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