Wine Scores are Not the Problem

wine evaluation 3Polemics against wine scores are a perennial crowd pleaser sort of like your favorite supermarket Chardonnay that gets nods of approval from any crowd you serve it to. But I’m still waiting to find an argument that is persuasive largely because wine scores tend to be an all purpose whipping boy for some problem or deficiency that is only tangentially related to the actual practice of scoring.  The recent article by Ian Cauble in The Robb Report is no exception but it’s worth going through the argument to see where it misses the mark.

The argument is as follows:

(1) An elegant, classically proportioned Cabernet gets a middling score from an influential critic.

(2) The middling score reflected the fact that the critic prefers riper, more powerful wines.

(3) The middling score will cause the classic wine to be overlooked by consumers because the critic has clout.

(4) Winemakers chase scores by making over-ripe wines that critics like thus misleading consumers about what they should be drinking.

(5) Therefore, classically proportioned wines are endangered by the practice of scoring wine.

Therefore we should stop scoring wines.

What is wrong with this argument? Well, first of all, an argument that essentially asserts that “we should stop scoring wines because a wine I like received a low score” is a bit like saying “if I can’t win I’ll take my ball and go home”. But let’s look beyond the narcissism for the sake of the argument.

The more general problem is that there is nothing inherent in the practice of giving scores that demands that ripeness  be valued over elegance. The problem (if it is a problem) is the critic’s taste in wine not the fact he/she gave it a score. If critics prefer more elegant wines (as for instance Jancis Robinson does) then they can give the more elegant wines a higher score.

Secondly, it’s worth mentioning that lots of people like ripe, powerful wines. It is a very popular wine style. The argument assumes that consumers like these wines only because critics tell them they should. But where is the evidence for this? It is not only less informed, casual consumers that like them. After all serious connoisseurs are among the customers of Napa cult wines. We might lament the taste preferences of the general public (I do) but that is not the fault of the score.

Thirdly, in the absence of a score, the critic would have had to rely solely on a verbal description to communicate his/her assessment. Would this low scoring wine have received a better assessment if it were entirely verbal. Not if the critic is honest and accurate. Why does “thin, tart and lacks expression” put the wine in a better light than the number? The score does obviate the need for a consumer to read and interpret a complex verbal description. Perhaps there is an implicit claim here that consumers would be better informed if they had to read the tasting note rather than rely on a score. That is undoubtedly true but I still don’t see how that would put the elegant Cabernet in a better light. Furthermore, I doubt that in the absence of a score, consumers would be more inclined to read and interpret the tasting note. As a professor I can tell you, reading and interpreting are neither enjoyable nor easy for most people.

Although it isn’t explicitly stated, perhaps the argument assumes that riper, more powerful wines tend to stand out in a tasting flight more readily than less powerful, more elegant wines. I hear this claim quite often. Its truth is hard to assess but it isn’t obviously true. If most wines in a flight were ripe and powerful, the spare elegant wine might stand out.  Furthermore, assuming professional critics care about their accuracy, I would think they would consciously guard against this bias by giving elegant wines more attention and consideration.

Nothing in this argument clearly points to the practice of scoring wines as the problem. One might argue the problem is the herd mentality of powerful critics beholden to a wine style that is beginning to lose its luster. Or perhaps the problem is winemakers who lack integrity and try to make a popular wine rather than the wine they want to make. Eliminating scores won’t solve either problem.

Wine scores are not going away. Both consumers and people in the trade find them to be useful. Of course they don’t begin to capture the virtues of a wine. But no one claims they do. Even Robert Parker insists that people should read the tasting note if they want to understand the quality of a wine. The score is just a convenient reference point for contextualizing the quality level of a wine.

The real problem is that wine scores are widely misunderstood. They are not measures of intrinsic quality. They are not the sum total of precisely calculated categories of quality. The only thing they could possibly measure is a subjective preference on the part of the critic at the time the wine was tasted compared to other wines in the critic’s experience. That is important information but it isn’t the word of God.

One comment

  1. I read the article, two or three times to make sure i understood Ian’s position. You framed it quite well. Critics, like Sommeliers have preferences about what they like. Saying that we (as critics) all give the highest scores to heavily-oaked massive wines is like saying that all Sommeliers fill their list with obscure varieties from producers that only import three six-packs to the US, and “we have them all.” A little more research before such broad strokes would have added helpful nuance to his argument. I happen to love red wines from the Chalk Hill region, btw.

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