Good Readers Drink Better Wines

Several years back, I was invited to be a panelist at the World Vinifera Conference in Seattle on the subject of rating wines.  Essentially we debated the value and appropriateness of the 100-point scale, and no doubt I was expected to defend the system, since I'd used it for years in my bimonthly wine-reviewing publication International Wine Cellar.

Instead, I said I'd be the last to defend converting a wine to a number and that I employed the 100-point scale simply for competitive reasons--that is, because other wine-reviewing publications used it.  And I made it clear that I'd be perfectly happy to let my detailed tasting notes speak for themselves, without numbers, if other critics agreed to do the same. 

Which is unlikely to happen in this particular lifetime.

As we know, all adult life is a continuation of high school.  American consumers have a long history of being graded on a 100-point scale.  They get it.  They're less comfortable with the 20-point scale employed by important French wine critics, which is itself based on the grading system used in French high schools and universities.  And forget about those four- or five-star systems, with pluses and minuses, used by some English critics.  How does two stars-plus translate to the 100-point scale?  When I was a budding wino, I read all the English wine criticism I could get my hands on, and invariably I found myself wondering, "yeah, but what do they really think about the quality of that wine?"

So I suspect that many consumers prefer the unambiguous "precision" of a score, even if they agree with me that a distinctive wine, like any work of art, can't be reduced to a number. I can tell you that I take scoring wines seriously and sometimes find myself agonizing over whether, say, to rate a wine 89 or 90 points (an 89 on my scale represents an excellent wine and 90 one that is borderline-outstanding).  But my scores represent a shorthand assessment of a wine's quality and are meant to be used in conjunction with my descriptive tasting notes and your own predilections.

I rate wines within the context of their broadly defined categories (e.g., cabernet-based wines, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc).  In addition, my own wine-tasting history of more than 30 years tells me that certain grape varieties grown in certain favored places are capable of producing wines that flirt with perfection, while others simply do not have the concentration, complexity, character and structure to rate scores higher, say, than the low 90s, or possibly even lower than that. Obviously, wines from so-called noble grapes like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay can theoretically reach 100 points.  But I don't feel the same way about dolcetto, or melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet), or verdejo, much as I enjoy drinking them on a regular basis.  A dolcetto I rated 92 or 93 points would be dolcetto at the top of its game, and it may be a far better wine for drinking tonight with a particular dish than a way more expensive 96-point red Burgundy that's in an awkward stage of its evolution in bottle.

So read the notes.  Literate consumers buy better bottles.

Incidentally, this month's baker's dozen of worthy wines includes the first contribution from the IWC's Italian wine expert Ian D'Agata.