The Meaning of Wine Scores

bottles on a shelfWine statistics guru David Morrison wades into the issue of wine scores. Despite their alleged usefulness as a marketing tool, he finds them fundamentally misleading because they falsely imply the score serves some precise mathematical purpose.

My point here is that if quality scores are adjectives then they should not be treated as numbers, because the only purpose of numbers is their mathematical properties, not their linguistic ones….
For my purpose here, the pertinent issue is the idea that the the numbers express more than merely rank order. We expect that a score of 90 is better than a score of 89 — their rank order should mean something. But we do not know how much better a 90 wine is than an 89, nor do we know what criteria were used to decide on this difference. So, the quantitative difference has no explicit meaning.

I agree with David that scores are often interpreted as having some mathematical meaning as well as the precision that mathematics enables. I also agree that wine scores could not possibly have a mathematical meaning or express precision since there are no precise criteria for assigning scores.

But I disagree that the score is useless.

For me a wine score is a measure of something. When tasting under optimum conditions, how much aesthetic enjoyment did I get from this wine compared to other wines I’ve tasted under similar conditions? A wine score is a measure of aesthetic response. By “aesthetic response” I don’t mean only sensory pleasure. A wine could be difficult but interesting or distinctive. Such a wine to me is enjoyable up to a point so I would consider that in assigning a score. But the score is referring to something fundamentally subjective—my mental state when tasting the wine relative to past experience. Does such a score reflect only my personal preferences? Not necessarily. When I assess a wine I consider what drinkers who prefer this style would think about it. I assess whether it has the characteristics we expect from a wine of this type? Aesthetic response is not reducible to mere preference.

Thus I disagree with David’s view that a rank order is not sufficiently informative to make wine scoring worthwhile. A wine that receives 90 points is marginally more enjoyable than one that scores 89. It is significantly better than a wine scored at 85. “Marginally” and “significantly” are not mathematically precise terms but their meaning is well understood. The fact that numerical rankings are intuitively clear is a point in their favor. It seems to me they are easily understood which makes them a good marketing tool.

If this is the meaning of a wine score, why would anyone be interested? If a knowledgeable, experienced, honest critic enjoys a wine enough to score it more highly than comparable wines, that is worth knowing. There is of course no guarantee that the reader will enjoy it as well. People differ in their preferences. But that information is still worth knowing because it means the wine is appealing to at least one sophisticated taster. That in itself is a good reason to try the wine.

I don’t know the degree to which the well-known wine critics at major publications would agree with this view. But I don’t know what else a wine score could mean.

3 comments

  1. I agree with your way of interpreting wine scores. I’d add one other consideration, which I’m sure you’ve mentioned in the past: the specific critic. If you find a wine critic whose aesthetic judgement jives with yours, her scoring of a wine, taken within the context of her catalogue of reviews, will be more meaningful than comparing scores across critics.

    The manager at one of our local wine stores is Ryan. He tastes all the new wines that come in and tags the ones he perceives as best value with “Ryan’s Pick.” I will drive across town to his shop because I have come to trust his aesthetic judgement.

    Dwight, while I don’t have access to most of the wines you write about, I have found your review of wines with which I am familiar to align with my aesthetic experience (I was particularly delighted with your review of a few Canadian wines last year). Your scoring has meaning for me.

    Greg

  2. Hi Greg,
    Yes. If you’re looking for wines you will enjoy it’s important to find a critic whose tastes align with yours. But if you’re looking to find something different or expand your aesthetic sense, finding a critic you disagree with can be instructive.
    I’m glad you’re enjoying the reviews. I hope to get back to Canada this year.

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