Vol.3 No.6 – What’s in a rating?

Dear readers, thought you might enjoy this…sort of, like a root canal! Here is a link to the latest article from The Wine Gourd which mathematically analyzes many facets of wine. Also, in it the link to the prior article that started this is interesting.

To recap, TB still prefers the UC Davis system, why? Because it rates the quality of the wine in various degrees to come up with an overall quality rating. I have used it with novices and it works even with them. The problem with the others is subjectivity.
Under the Davis system, there are just two subjective points, under Parker:
• Color and appearance have 5 points.
• The aroma and bouquet receive up to 15 points.
• The passage of mouth and aftertaste receive up to 20 points.
• Finally, the overall quality level and the potential for future evolution and improvement receive up to 10 points.
I have been in tastings with other 100 point systems that can have 20-25 subjective points. That is the problem: we aren’t judging wine quality, we are letting the taster tell us what he/she likes and frankly, who cares? I certainly don’t since I differ greatly in what Parker looks for in a wine and have been disappointed at times when I buy (used to) based on his or anyone’s ratings.
I would be interested in your opinions and will end with a study that was done showing point escalation or ’rounding up’ to 90 which this article illustrates, although not stated, to me.
For my 50th birthday, we had a party on the Napa Wine Train. Waiting to board I saw this in a gift shop:
Man in tasting room: This wine is awful…worst I have ever tasted!
Pourer: Really? Parker gave it a 90.
Man: I’ll take two cases!
Just as Sideways tarnished Merlot, and embellished Pinot’s (the joke being that Mile’s favorite wine was Cheval Blanc which is predominantly Merlot), ratings are leaving a lot of good wines sitting on retailers shelves.
While I applaud Parker for creating a system that has improved quality of wine (in his early publications there were many wines with mid-80’s scores and until the ’82 Bordeaux, I can’t recall any wine with a rating of 99 or higher), and Michel Rolland’s efforts (although I fear all wines would taste alike if everyone made them to his standards), it is time for the consumer to take control and have the confidence to drink and pour for guests, wines they feel are high quality. The same goes for vintages: there are winners and losers in each one and terroir does make a difference.
That’s how I see it.
P.S. tasting note: last week I opened a bottle of wine, a Rioja I bought a couple of years back, Marques de Riscal Reserva 2007. It was marvelous, particularly for a $20-25 wine. The current release is 2011, I believe. It was full of luscious fruit flavors yet stood up well to a grilled steak. We drank half the bottle that night and using a trick I learned from Carles Pastrana at Clos de l’Obac, a fine Priorat wine, I merely recorked it and left it out, finishing it the next night…and guess what? It was even better, more developed and more intense. No signs of oxidation. A beautiful wine. For those of you not familiar with this wine, it is in the central part of La Rioja, was the first to export the wine, and has a beautiful hotel with it designed by Frank Gehry who designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Quite a sight in the middle of nowhere!

Vol 2 No 21…what’s in a rating?

Readers here know that TB has little or no use for ratings or wine snobs. Here’s why:

  1. a rating is simply someone else’s opinion of a wine…it doesn’t mean either you or your friends will like it and that means you may be throwing money away or at least spending way more than you need to. The cost is exacerbated by the ratings themselves with the goal to get at least a 90! Can anyone explain the difference to TB of an 89 versus a 90 point wine…because I couldn’t give you a clue.
  2. Prior to the late 1970’s ratings were not used except in professional tastings, and the primary one was the UC Davis 20-point system. Then came attorney, Robert Parker who decided there was too much compression in the ratings so he developed the 100 point system that he posited was easier to understand since it is the way the grading system in school works. That was fine when there was just ONE rater using it. Now there are at least a dozen and possibly double that number or more. Some of them are not independent or are compensated in one way or another for the rating. The stupidity is as one wine shop owner quipped: I can sell all the 90-point wines I have but can’t get them, but can’t sell the 89-point wines I have in stock.
  3. Looking inside the 100-point system you find the following: 50 of those points are a ‘given’. Plonk rates a 50! So why confuse things with that many extra points. Then there are categories for color, clarity, nose, and more with – get this…25 points that can be added to the score. Wow…so one judge might give it a 75 and another 100??? I am exaggerating the differences but you get the point (sic).
  4. One well-known early wine writer, Gerald Boyd, I believe, once wrote why would you buy a wine just because I like it IF you don’t know what I look for in a wine. Fair question, because many accept a rating without questioning and I can tell you I have had many 90 point or higher wines that, not only did I not find astounding, but guests at dinners failed to comment on. Nowadays, at $90 or more a bottle, that is throwing money ‘down the drain.’
  5. What prompted this post? After all, TB has discussed ratings before, including the 10-point system devised by another blogger who boasts of never paying more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Hence, he ‘deducts’ points for prices above $10 and adds points for cheaper ones. So let’s say two wines both end up with ‘7.5’. Which would you prefer? Dunno, but I do know that looking for value and a complex wine are not mutually inclusive.  It is a totally irrelevant system. It is like saying a Ford is as good as a BMW, adjusted for price…really? To whom? To someone you wouldn’t listen to! It began with an article called A Mathematical Approach to the Judgment of Paris, by David Morrison in (The Academic Wino) blog.
  6. Morrison begins with the scores of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. “Its scores (out of 20) were: 10, 13, 14, 14, 14, 14, 14, 15, 15, 16, and 16.5. This means that the wine was judged to vary from Passable (10) to Very Good (16). More to the point, only three of the judges ranked it as their best wine of the day, whereas no less than five of them ranked the Château Montrose wine as their best, although it ranked second based on its average score.” If memory serves, the 11 judges tasted twice, the second time reversing the order, which no doubt led to the wide range of scores. This has been proven in the past and note that even for an experienced taster, the lingering taste of the prior wine can affect the score. Also, note that the point of the tasting was never to prove which area produced the best wine but that California wines could stand up to French wines. Trying to be fair, the tried to pick a vintage which would allow both wines to have matured, difficult since American wines due to higher alcohol (and perhaps more time in tannic French oak?). So they settled on what made them as equal as possible, at that time. Every year since , the  tasting has been replicated with  varying results proving that BOTH countries produce  great wines that mature at different times. Jancis Robinson wrote a great book, Vintage Wine Charts, which you can usually find for a couple of bucks on line. Incredible value. She has dozens of wines in it that she has tasted every year and shows them graphically so you can see where they plateau, sometimes dip for a couple of years, then eventually peak – some in five years or less, some in 30 or more. That is the test of a great wine. A good way to replicate this is with a case of a good wine. Have one bottle, or two a year, about six months apart and see when it tastes the best. When it has ‘peaked’, drink up!

In conclusion, there is only one wine critic that matters: you! If you don’t like it, you aren’t going to care if Parker, The Wine Enthusiast, or any other critic says…on the other hand, if you wish to be a wine snob, that is your prerogative too. But you are wasting your money. If you like Two Buck Chuck (which TB happens to find repulsive), so be it…or any number of cheap wines…including ‘pop’ wines. But try to take one night a week and try something new…that is a good goal. I would say that for most people you should be able to get a high quality wine for $30 or less…and anything over $50 is likely due to the rating – unless you have tried it and found it absolutely thrilling.

That’s my opinion…go get your own! Just enjoy your wine, whatever it may be!