The Truth About Wine Scores

Apparently, the big issue among wine enthusiasts in the blogosphere this year will be the value of wine scores. Here are a number of important wine blogs that took up the issue this week. (Here, here, here, and here). I have been participating in most of these discussions. It has been quite interesting so I thought I would summarize what I think, after ruminating on it this week.

Many wine critics assign a numerical value to wines when they evaluate them. The most popular is the 100 pt. scale developed by Robert Parker in the 1980’s but many critics use alternative scales. In any case, they are used to rank wines according to the quality of the tasting experience and provide consumers with a handy assessment tool when trying to decide what to buy.

But they are controversial and many wine lovers dislike them rather intensely. Their objections include the following. Wine scores: don’t take into account the different contexts in which wine is enjoyed; imply a level of objectivity that wine criticism cannot achieve’; encourage wine makers to chase higher scores leading to one-dimensional wines; and generally fail to capture the subtleties and nuances of a wine that cannot be reduced to a simple numerical score. The latter objection includes the claim that scores encourage a simplistic appreciation of wine that discourages experimentation and broadening one’s palate.

There is a measure of truth in these complaints. But I must say I don’t get too worked up about the issue. Wine ratings have their place, especially for consumers who lack the knowledge to make accurate judgments about what is in the bottle. For me, wine scores provide a quick method of looking through a list and spotting standout wines that I might not have known about. From a practical point of view they serve a function as long as one doesn’t think of them as providing a comprehensive evaluation. When evaluating a wine as a work of art, of course, they are entirely inappropriate.

When I evaluate wines I don’t use scores because I have not yet figured out a ranking system that captures the judgments I make. And from a philosophical point of view, I think they are problematic. My fundamental objection is this.

It is unproblematic to rank wines according to one’s preferences. But the most plausible kind of ranking would be an ordinal ranking-one wine is better than another but worse than a third, etc., without stating how much better or how much worse. But the numerical ranking system implies, not just an ordinal ranking but a cardinal ranking. That is to say, the difference between a wine scored 94 and a wine scored 95 is the same as the difference between a wine scored 90 and one scored 89, namely 1 point. This suggests that there is some quantifiable quality that is being measured rather precisely. Plausibly, the quality being measured is “overall satisfaction” or “overall pleasure”, or something along those lines.

There are deep problems in claiming that pleasure can be quantified, but lets put those aside for the moment and suppose that it can. Matters get more complicated if that pleasure being measured is a function of the quality of the wine.

What qualities figure in the judgement? Well, things like balance, structure, concentration, typicity (of varietal or terroir), uniqueness, personality, and the like. But if “overall satisfaction” is a quantifiable notion and a function of these qualities, then these qualities must be quantifiable as well. Perhaps there is a way of quantifying such qualities, but it is not obvious how one does so. Perhaps wine critics have a way of quantifying them, but if they do it isn’t apparent.

The general problem is a deep one. There are many qualitative distinctions we make, not just in wine but in life, that cannot be easily quantified . Not everything we care about can be assigned a numerical value without losing something essential in the evaluation. Think about how difficult it is to assign numerical value to a life, clean air, good friends, etc. I suspect that wine is like that.

If I begin to use wine scores you will know I have found a solution to this problem.

And I should get very rich.

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