IT ISN’T POLITE TO POINT!
You must have seen that funny piece that came through the transom (via three different senders; the thing was everywhere) about “The 101-point scale.” It was indeed clever. And maybe that’s the end of it.
Or? Does it signify that the hoary 100-point thing is an object of snark and derision by younger wine lovers? Pretty to think so, but the facts say otherwise. The thing is a plague, and one that seems ineradicable, and even if you approach it like “Ha ha boomer; we’re way too far advanced for this argy-bargy,” it clings to wine-reviewing like a tick. That’s because it’s popular with readers, and that in turn is because it makes things simple – too simple. I suspect it’s also fun for the reviewers themselves, handing out “scores” purporting to be precise.
I’ve been fussing about points for twenty-plus years, and published a chapter detailing my dismay in my first book Reading Between The Wines. I took issue with the quantification of evanescent pleasure implied by point systems, which threatened to suck a lot of the beauty from the wine experience. Yet obviously this is their effect, but not their intent. Reviewers don’t traffic in beauty as a priority; they are consumer guides who have learned that the affect of precision viz. points (on a 100-point scale, no less) are categorical to marketing themselves. Thus we wade neck-deep in a sort of Consumer Reports mentality with regard to wine, a “consumer product” after all – so say the folks using the scoring system – but no one has persuaded me that wine is equivalent to washing machines or leaf blowers or toaster ovens.
Yet anyone who tastes a lot of wine, for any reason, will be tempted to rank and evaluate and organize impressions, and will be drawn ineluctably to a system that abbreviates the results into a quick accessible shorthand. I do it myself, at home, though no one sees it and no one should see it. For professional writings I am drawn to an intuitive and imprecise scale based loosely on the Michelin star system. I use plusses rather than stars, as I wish to be less metaphorical and more direct. One plus means pause and pay attention; this wine is exceptionally noteworthy. Two plusses means to stop what you’re doing entirely because this is important wine, and three plusses suggest that a great and transcendent moment awaits you. Because it is studiedly vague, I don’t have to think about it. And that is important because if I’m thinking about how many plusses (or points or whatever) I’m going to “award” the wine then it’s all about me and my imperial Judgments, while the poor wine sits forlorn and squandered.
My opposition to point systems increases to the degree they claim the nth degree of precision. I believe it creates mischief, I doubt whether it’s actually possible (no matter how easy its practitioners make it appear), and ultimately I think it misleads the reader.
Even a system as deliberately imprecise as mine can occlude ones concept of tasting and evaluating, and that is because I know of few (if any) scoring systems that allow for equivalencies. I’ll explore this idea in detail down below, but what prompted it was a Grüner Veltliner from Walter Glatzer that struck me as a remarkable achievement, yet when I looked at the two plusses I wrote down, I had to ask myself whether this wine was really just as good as other wines for which I might also write two plusses; wines from Gobelsburg or Nigl or Alzinger (among others), and I elided the point somewhat truculently, as I might swear at the rock that made me trip on the path. A scoring scale seems to diminish the human element, yet the human element created the desire to evaluate such experiences systematically. Can this Gordian knot be untied? Let’s look at first principles:
A point-score system is a gradation of ostensible quality levels calibrated more or less carefully and with a best-score-possible at its pinnacle. That best possible score is a singular superlative, whether it’s 20 out of 20 or 100 out of 100; it is a way of saying “Better than this is not attainable.” I have referred to this as a “perfect” score, and I’m not alone in so doing.
David Schildknecht has, famously, squared the circle – brilliantly in my view – by crafting a definition of “perfection” that allows the absolute and the subjective to intersect. Let me paraphrase it: his notion of perfection is “Better then which cannot at this moment be imagined.” Yet for all its intellectual virtuosity, it too could be seen as an elision of the absolute logic a scoring system demands. The scoring system is a rigid tool, and we don’t get to change the name of the tool according to our convenience. A hammer does not become a wrench by my calling it a wrench. If we have a scale, especially one as specific as the 100-point scale (and it doesn’t work to muddy the waters by pointing out that nothing scores below 60 and that it’s really a 20-point scale with half-points; it purports to offer 100 points and that each point reflects 1% of potential quality with 100 as the summit, an affect of precision I find tendentious) then we have two things to defend. Or try to!
Start with the whole notion of perfection. Has any wine writer, ever, gone back and said “I gave Chateau-X 100 points but a month later I liked Chateau-Y even more, so I’m giving Chateau-Y the 100 points and docking a point from Chateau-X, which is now worth 99 points?” Not that I can recall! Along those lines, let me ask you this; in a moment where you’re about to reward a wine with a score in the high-90s – maybe even 99 points – can you identify, then or later, what exactly was the cause of that wine falling short of “perfection?” Because if you can’t then the whole thing is a sleight of hand offering a bogus precision, and if you can then you are actually placing numerical values on attributes. Which is fine, but those values do not wiggle. “94” is different from “93;” it is exactly 1% better, neither more nor less, and you’d better be able to tell me why.
Scoring systems evaluate wine on absolute scales, but in my own writing, I prefer not to use absolute scales. The word “absolute” could be seen as tendentious, but I fail to see how one can use numbers and then insist they are relative. Or if you do, it entails a bit of wrenching of the gears of logic. While I do believe in hierarchies I do not believe in affecting a precision I find spurious. Which brings me to that Glatzer wine. I felt it to be the best white wine he had ever made, and in the context of both his winery and the (perhaps) modest capability of the Carnuntum region to make outstanding Grüner Veltliner, I found the wine to be remarkably delicious, smartly crafted and with many attributes I felt were objectively fascinating. So: two plusses.
But what about those other Grüner Veltliners such as Alzinger’s Steinertal, Schloss Gobelsburg’s Lamm, Bründlmayer’s Alte Reben, among others of greater pedigree? (And it’s not just a question of pedigree. Those other wines are actually better by most reasonable judgment; they are more complex, more refined, more many-faceted.) I needed to untie this logical knot, and the only possible way to do so was to insist on equivalency, whereby the nature of Glatzer’s achievement was not equal to but comparable to the qualities of wines to which I’d perhaps give the same “score.” What I don’t know is whether a system of absolute values is fluid enough to permit correlations and comparables. But if it is, then it calls the entire concept of “points” into question.
I’ll approach this thorny bush from another angle.
Imagine a wine reviewer working his way through Burgundy. He has visited growers in Beaujolais and found a Morgon with which he was seriously impressed, assigning it a score of 93. Fast-forward a week or so, and our diligent (and fortunate) reviewer is tasting at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Reaching the Echezeaux, he assigns a score of 93. I wonder how many of his readers would infer that the Morgon and the Echezaeux are identical in quality? It is certainly implied – more than implied, I’d say – by the identical scores. But I’d like to think (hope?) that readers are more perceptive and fluid in their understanding. They see the scores representing some form of equivalency. Perhaps they’re a step ahead of the reviewer, and understand that the upward limit for Beaujolais scores isactually 93, or damn near, so that in effect Beaujolais is graded on a different scale - as other appellations might also be - e.g., Muscadet to name but one – and that this scale implies that pinnacles differ according to the wines in play. After all, Everest is one thing and Mont Blanc another; the latter may be the highest summit in the Alps, but 15,000 feet isn’t the same as 29,000 feet.
I’ll glance once more at the whole “muddle” of the 100-point scale – and this is where the muddle lies, I argue – because the number of options and level of detail it insists upon creates a specious impression of exactitude. The reviewer supposes he is using the system, but I’ll argue that the system is actually using the reviewer. And I’ll go a step further, and argue that many of us are starting to understand that the use of this scale is not a question of focusing or honing precise judgments over the hapless wines to which it’s subjected. Not even close! The 100-point scale is a matter of marketing, front and center, full-stop.
There’s an oblique approach to the point conundrum we don’t think about often enough. What’s to be done about (ostensibly) “small” wines that we tasters and judges happen to adore? Magazines such as VINARIA have coined the terms Trinkspaß and/or Spaßfaktor (i.e., joy-in-drinking, or fun-factor) to draw attention to those kinds of wines, for which, it is implied, the usually prevailing scales do not pertain. My question is what happens when everyone discovers that the lid on the Pandora’s Box is open, even just barely? If there’s a category or type of wine for which “points” are not relevant, then what? Drooling emojis for the wines we adore and “points” for all the others?
Look, I fully understand that the 100-point scale is here to stay (like chronic Lyme disease, I would add), and that the most I can do is to issue plaintive reminders now and again, that the system is logically bogus and aesthetically bankrupt, that it exists to sell wine review journals, period, and that it enslaves its practitioners by forcing them into untenable conceptual postures. Other than that, it’s hunky dory.
(NOTE: parts of this piece first appeared, in different form, in WORLD OF FINE WINE, who have permitted its use here.)