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Making The Grade

2011 February 17
by Mike

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine,” Fran Lebowitz once said. Just a guess, but I suspect she’s no fan of wine tasting notes. Lots of people seem to be down on them these days. The frustration is understandable: too many tasting notes amount to nothing more than a mindless effluence of words, with adjectives and metaphors that are as outlandish as they are abundant (caramel-coated autumn leaves, anyone?) Whenever I encounter a particularly egregious example, I am reminded of a scathing letter that the British novelist Roald Dahl sent to Decanter magazine, in which he lambasted as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” that were often used to describe wines. Dahl went on to say of wine critics, “I wonder…if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”

Wine is difficult to describe, or at least to describe well, and this is undoubtedly one reason why numerical ratings have proven to be so popular. But I still believe that wine writers should make an effort to convey with words what wines taste like. A rating is simply a verdict; it tells you nothing about a wine’s flavors and texture, and those details matter. I think that wine reviews should be written in a spirit of modesty, recognizing that taste is personal and that wines evolve in the bottle and in the glass. The language should be vivid but never florid, and the note should strive to answer one basic question: Is the wine good or bad, and what makes it so? That’s easier prescribed than done; for me, tasting notes are an endless struggle, and I suspect that will always be the case. But I think they do have some merit and are worth the effort.

Numerical ratings are tougher to defend. The 100-point scale is a farce. It gives a pseudo-objective gloss to what is an almost wholly subjective exercise. I think that unless a critic can, tasting blind, reproduce the same results over and over, he or she has no business assigning a specific score to a wine—and I’m reasonably certain no one can do that. Wines show sufficient variability from bottle to bottle, and the human palate is sufficiently fickle, that that kind of precision and consistency is just not possible. Some years ago, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, in an otherwise adulatory profile of Robert Parker, tried to test the famed critic’s consistency by having him blind taste and score a group of wines twice over consecutive days.  Parker, who popularized the 100-point scale, wouldn’t do it, telling Shaw, “I’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain.” In an interview with a Florida newspaper in 2007, Parker made another candid remark that should have been the death knell of the 100-point scale. “I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine, “he said, “is really the emotion of the moment.” If you need any further proof that the 100-point approach is a sham, another critic, James Suckling, recently posted a video that very persuasively (if unintentionally) made that case.

That said, I don’t agree with people who contend that all ratings scales are irredeemably flawed, or who believe that comparative evaluations are somehow antithetical to the culture of wine. Since the beginning of wine, people have been making comparative assessments: I like Wine X more than I like Wine Y. The 1855 rankings in Bordeaux and the classification system in Burgundy are rooted in such judgments. It is human nature to compare and contrast, and frankly, it is part of the pleasure of wine. Although I don’t rate wines in my Slate column, I use letter grades in my personal notes, and I intend to use them here. Letter grades correlate with a range of scores, which is a level of specificity that I am comfortable with. I think it is possible to repeatedly score the same wine within a 4-5 point range, and I am confident I have the requisite consistency to use letter grades to good effect  (though obviously you will be the judges of that). Mine is a somewhat compressed scale, in that any wine below B- simply gets a C. I don’t see much purpose in handing out Ds and Fs; a wine that doesn’t deserve even a B- is not a wine that I want to drink, and I’m sure that’s true for you, too.

Do you rate the wines you taste? What form do you think wine ratings should take? What do you think of tasting notes, and what can be done to improve them? Feedback welcome!

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 29, 2015

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  2. February 24, 2011

    Bill,

    Thanks for posting those links. It is a hot topic at the moment, and I think it is great that there is so much discussion about it.

    Mike

  3. February 24, 2011

    Steve,

    Thanks very much for the comments, and for the kind words; greatly appreciated. It’s particularly gratifying to hear that the 47 Cheval piece gave a bit of vicarious pleasure–that was my hope, and it’s one reason why I think there is some value to tasting notes.

    I haven’t read Gladwell’s piece yet, but that issue of The New Yorker is sitting here on my desk, and I will try to get to it this weekend. As you say, scores do have an appealing simplicity, and I think they have succeeded in part because describing wines with words is so difficult. A score does deliver a clear-cut, decisive verdict in a way that words often fail to do. Regarding tasting notes, I agree with you: I think the middle ground is the place to be. Obviously, a lot of tasting notes go completely overboard in terms of detail and specificity. But I don’t find the British approach a la Broadbent and Coates to be especially satisfying, either. One side gives you too much information, the other side not enough. But tasting notes are a perennial struggle, and all the conversation these days about tasting notes speaks to that frustration.

    Thanks, again, for the note, and for paying me a visit here.

    Mike

  4. February 24, 2011

    Sebastien,

    That is a good quote, though I’m not sure I would go as far as Jackson does. As I said, I think there is some value in trying to describe how wines smell and taste. It is, as you said, a struggle, but I believe it’s worth doing and, yes, it is part of the fun. It is a way of sharing the experience of wine, and sharing the experience is a big part of what makes wine such a pleasurable hobby.

    Mike

  5. February 24, 2011

    Excellent points, Bill. I think there is wisdom in crowds, and with CT, you clearly have a lot of very knowledgeable wine enthusiasts. I wrote a piece a few years ago for The World of Fine Wine about the future of wine criticism, and I discussed at length the significance of CT. Here’s the link:

    http://www.cellartracker.com/SteinbergerWineWriting.pdf

  6. Bill permalink
    February 24, 2011

    Mike,

    You seem to have hit upon a hot topic. Here are two recent articles on the subject, which I found to be really incisive and thought-provoking as well:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2285723/

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/dining/23pour.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepage

  7. Bill permalink
    February 18, 2011

    I agree with all that’s been said here, particularly with respect to not placing much stock in the individual scores of wine critics. However, I think there is one context in which I’ve found point-ratings to be a useful: Cellartracker (CT). By that I mean that the CT scores can often indicate anomalies that might belie what you’d assume about a particular vintage or producer or that contradict the scores and reviews of professional critics. There’s a real value in that.

    This observation obviously doesn’t apply to all CT scores: if two users give a bottle of Sutter Home White Zin 96 and 94 points for a 95 pt.-average, then that’s not a valuable data point. However, if 40 CT users assign a relatively low score to a wine that’s been touted by critics, or even better, they assign a high score to a wine that’s been critically disregarded, then I’m going to stand up and take notice. These kinds of disparities between the aggregate score of a large group of amateurs and those of a handful of critics can also often point the way to great wine values, as its the critics who tend to drive the prices.

    In short, every wine consumer is bombarded by a whole host of different indicators of a wine’s quality and value: prices, scores, tasting notes, vintage report cards, top 100 lists, articles, recommendations from friends, etc. Sifting through all this noise is tough, so as a result, I’ve found myself turning to Cellartracker as kind of a final gut check when choosing to purchase a wine. Turning to the “wisdom of the crowds” on CT may not be the first step in selecting a wine, but it’s very often the last, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Bill

  8. February 17, 2011

    Here’s a quote I find particularly helpful:
    “Regrettably, the use of wine descriptive terms can become perceived as an essential component of wine appreciation. Once tasters have developed sufficient experience with wine, the description of wine in terms of fruit, flowers, vegetable, and so on … becomes unnecessary and counterproductive. In addition, it can degenerate into an exercise in self-fantasy. Quixotic terms may be invented to describe fleeting, imagined perceptions. It is generally more meaningful to characterize wines by their production style, varietal origin, and aging process.” -from Wine Science by Ron S. Jackson
    When rating wines I try to put it in terms of would I recommend this wine or not, and in rarer cases, would I rave about a wine. Beyond that, I struggle with finding appropriate words to describe my experience, but thats the fun part.

  9. February 17, 2011

    One of the most practical ways of rating wines is simply answering the question “will I buy this wine again?” I know a few people who use this binary scale – yes, no – without even a “maybe”, which seems a little too absolute especially when you need a fallback position (ie. faced with the selection in a bullet-proof liquor store in Bed Stuy). Personally, I like the 5 star scale and try not to spend much time thinking about it – 4 ½ stars or 4? – no! 4 or 5! Move on! Your letter grades sound good as well.

    There’s an excellent article on the fallacies of rating colleges and universities by Malcolm Gladwell in last week’s New Yorker, which could be applied to wine as well. It’s amazing how numerical ratings have come to have such a stamp of authority, especially when it’s the opinion of just one person. I like The World of Fine Wine tastings format, where they print the scores and notes of three highly skilled tasters tasting the same wines. It’s interesting to see how different that they can be.

    Obviously, scores are easier both for reviewer and reader. Notes are another thing. If an excellent writer like you struggles with them, what about the rest of us? I know that many people make fun of “fruits and flowers” descriptions but I have yet to see a better way. Jonathan Nossiter in his book “Liquid Memory” makes a case for the restrained style of Michael Broadbent over the fruits and flowers rhapsodies of Robert Parker. The problem is that while Parker’s notes often sound overwrought (and ripe for parody), they are still specific and descriptive. The Broadbent example favored by Nossiter – “Firm flesh, stylish. Gentle fragrance. Good flavour and grip.” – sounds as if it could be for pretty much any wine. There’s definitely a middle way, which sounds like a yawn but doesn’t have to be.
    Your article on the ’47 Cheval Blanc was easily the best wine description I’ve ever read. The possibility of me tasting that wine is practically nil but given your description, I feel that I almost did.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your notes, not only because you’re an excellent and entertaining writer, but because you take a stand. You the man!

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