I haven’t been in a wine shop since late last year. But back in the day when it was permissible to be inside a room with other people, I recall overhearing a conversation between a customer and the shop’s owner (who knows his wines) that went something like this:
Customer: But does this wine have a score?
Shop owner: I’m not sure. I would have to look it up?
Customer: How do I know it’s good if it doesn’t have a score?
Shop owner: I tasted it just last week. I think it’s impressive, especially for the price.
Customer: I’m not going to buy it if hasn’t been scored. Could you look it up please?
This customer was under the mistaken assumption that this shop owner is less able to evaluate a wine than some distracted, over-worked critic who tastes too many wines, spends too little time with the wines he reviews, and has an interest in not offending the producers whose wines he is evaluating. Good wine shop buyers don’t depend on scores to separate the worthy from the unworthy. They devote a lot of attention to the wines they stock and try to find wines that match their customer’s preferences.
Scores do not tell us much about a wine. A wine is an aesthetic object and our engagement with a wine depends on circumstances, what we’ve been tasting, our moods, flights of imagination, preferences, and individual biological factors. It’s a dynamic relationship, not an encounter with a fixed object. A score can’t capture any of those dynamic dimensions. An 86 point wine can be richly satisfying in some circumstances and a 98 point wine dismaying and disappointing. A 98 point wine that tastes like all the other 98 point wines you’ve tasted might be less satisfying than the 88 point wine that is thrillingly different.
On the other hand, scores are useful as a summary of what critics say about a wine. It’s always interesting to see how one’s own evaluation of a wine lines up with that of professional critics. Scores help position a wine in relationship to other wines and are a useful communicative device when you need a quick, accessible way of indicating quality.
I use scores in my reviews because they are an unambiguous indicator of how much I like a wine compared to other wines I’ve reviewed. They allow me to use more nuance and take verbal risks when describing the wine. I don’t have to worry about being misunderstood because I know the score will still convey my overall judgment of the wine.
But it’s absurd to think they represent some objective judgment about the inherent quality of a wine. It is surely absurd that a point or two differential between two wines will cause massive price differentials in the secondary wine market.
Scores are here to stay because they are convenient; and we do love our conveniences. They are useful playthings, one mode of comparison among many others. They are dangerously misleading when taken too seriously.