Making The Grade
“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!