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Quiz Time

2012 January 5
by Mike

The latest issue of The Wine Advocate, published just before Christmas, is generating a lot of chatter because it includes Antonio Galloni’s first Napa Valley reviews—1061 reviews, to be exact. Galloni’s scores were pretty effusive—so much so that some observers think he may have single-handedly recalibrated the scales, so to speak. As W. Blake Gray put it, 94 points seems to be the new 90. Indeed, with so many Napa wines receiving scores in the mid- and upper-90s (according to Gray, 123 wines were awarded 95 points or above by Galloni) anything below that really does look like chopped liver now. Whether Galloni’s scores accurately reflect the quality of the wines being made in Napa these days or are the result of grade inflation is a matter of debate. But I have a different question: Do people still care all that much about professional wine ratings?

No, you are not about to read another broadside against the 100-point scale or wine ratings in general. I think ratings are an inevitable aspect of wine appreciation, and I certainly haven’t been able to resist the urge to keep score; I use letter grades instead of numbers, but it still amounts to scorekeeping. I happen to believe that the 100-point system is uniquely flawed, but I understand its appeal—it offers a succinct, unambiguous verdict. And when you read a typical professional tasting note, you see very quickly why numerical ratings got to be so popular. Take, for instance, these two reviews, which I recently came across in a wine publication that shall remain nameless. Both wines were rated on a 100-point scale. Try to guess which one earned a higher rating and the score that each wine received:

Wine 1: “The _____is  a captivating wine graced with exquisite finesse, depth, and grace. Seemingly endless layers of dark red fruit, tar, spices, flowers and tobacco are woven together beautifully in this stunning, deeply expressive _____. A radiant, supple finish rounds things out in style. Today the ___ comes across as quite open and accessible given the richness of its fruit.”

Wine 2: “The ____emerges from the glass with dark plums, black cherries, licorice, graphite and spices. The wine possesses striking textural depth and richness, with dazzling purity and exceptional overall balance. Today the spiciness of the oak comes through just a bit, but that should not be an issue by the time the wine is ready to drink. A final burst of fruit informs the explosive finish.”

Judging by all the superlatives (captivating, exquisite, stunning, dazzling, exceptional, radiant), the critic clearly liked both wines a lot. Apart from the one caveat concerning the second wine, the two tasting notes strike me as basically indistinguishable—the same degree of enthusiasm, the same banal verbiage. I am curious to hear what you think—so curious, in fact, that I am going to hold off on finishing this post in order to give you a chance to offer your guesses. Again, which of these wines received a higher score, and how many points was each wine awarded? I’ll be back tomorrow with the answers and to continue my point about points.

35 Responses leave one →
  1. January 7, 2012

    Becky, Happy New Year to you, and thanks for a great suggestion. You could also use movie reviews–“I laughed, I cried….” I think either way, book blurbs or movie reviews, would yield more informative commentary than many professional tasting notes do.

    Wilfred, you make a great point–CellarTracker has clearly had an effect here, something I noted in my follow-up post yesterday. If you find a group of “amateurs” whose opinions you trust, it diminishes the need to pay $99 a year for “expert” advice. And as you say, CT gives you much more current information. I would also say that it gives you more useful information, in that people are tasting these wines under normal circumstances–i.e., at the table, with food. The same cannot be said of the major critics.

    SUAMW, that’s an interesting suggestion, but I think most critics are wary of anything that smacks of a truly “scientific” approach, because it might reveal personal blind spots that they have–weaknesses in their olfactory abilities, etc. I can think of at least one critic who has made some extravagant claims about his tasting abilities, and I suspect he might be disinclined to do anything that might call into question those claims.

  2. January 6, 2012

    “The key is to find a reviewer whose palate you can calibrate from” – you mean: “whose preferences you will adapt as as your own”? or perhaps: “the critic whom you will allow to dictate your preferences”? Because that is really what the scores and TNs are in most cases.
    They are generally uninformed and uneducated observations followed by some arbitrary number that ultimately reflects how much this uninformed and generally uninsightful individual, who through Forrest Gump-like circumstance came to speak from a platform of some influence, enjoyed a sip from a 750 ml bottle at one point in time.

    How is that a consumer service?

    It’s not that meaningful and informative and useful TNs and reviews are impossible. It is that those with the most prominent platforms 1) don’t believe they are, and 2) don’t try to achieve that.

    So, they call oaky Chards with tons of furaneol ‘fruity’…….

  3. Robin C permalink
    January 6, 2012

    I would give #1 a 92 and #2 a 96 based on the”striking textural depth”. I don’t know what it means, but I’d like to try it.

  4. Chris Wallace permalink
    January 6, 2012

    I picked up more enthusiasm in tasting note #1, so my guess the reviewer preferred that wine. As to score, that is a relative thing. I think a reviewer can wax as enthuiastically about a $20 Cotes du Rhone that garners 88 points as he does about a $200 Napa Cab that scores in the upper 90’s.

    I happen to think both tasting notes and scores provide a valuable service to the wine consumer. The key is to find a reviewer whose palate you can calibrate from. If you can do that, you will gain an avantage in your wine shopping and end up with more of the wine that you really want. And as Mike said, the 100 point scale certainly gives you an unambiguous assessment from one reviewer. Of course the subjective art of wine appreciation does not lend itself to objective ratings such as numerical scores. Wine is unique in being rated numerically, something I don’t see in food, music, art etc. A sensory experience such as tasting wine is almost ineffable and any attempt to codify something so intangible and so personal is likely to end up as it has: causing much fractious debate. (Are the reviews of the 1989 Haut Brion the one possible exception?)

    Crapping on the wine cognoscente seems to be a popular pastime here, and piling on has never held much appeal for me, so let me take the other side for a moment. I will buy a wine based upon a good review from a critic whose palate I can calibrate to my own. I will pass on a wine that receives a poor review. I am influenced by wine critics and their reviews. And I really don’t see anything wrong with that. I am grateful for their publications as they helped me to find my own palate as I experimented and built up experience in wine tasting. I don’t think that makes me unsophisitcated nor does that make me a mindless zombie with no opinion of his own. I just think that I am open to the opinions of others, particularly those who have established themselves. I am not terribly by vexxed by score creep and the apparent rising tide floating all vinous boats. Again, that is because I calibrate their judgements to my own experience. So if “94 is the new 90”, so be it. They are just scores, just numbers, and we have to iterpret them to have meaning which will be different for each individual.

    Increasingly I am finding that I look to wine critics for vintage reviews. I have been drinking wine for long enough now that I have found certain producers that I like, and I now tend to buy their wines in good vintages without much regard to what the critics say.

    Finally, there are lots of exciting new wineries coming on to the scene and producing very good wines. I only hear of these new wineries from wine reviewers and that has encouraged me to try some and so far, with favorable results. So to answer the question posed at the end of your first paragraph, I, for one, do care about professional wine ratings.

  5. January 6, 2012

    I love games like this. We used to play it on the old Parker board, and Squires thought it was not so much fun. It clearly shows that either the tasting note is BS or the score is BS, or both.

    In this instance, clearly #2 is the more expensive, and most likely higher rated wine.

    In this matter, blind tasting would have changed the scores on these.

    Wine #1 94 points
    Wine #2 96 points

  6. stoat permalink
    January 6, 2012

    “Take a book, fiction or non-fiction, and read the blurbs that appear on the back cover, or on the first few pages….”

    meh, the new robert stone only got an 86… i’m not gonna bother with it.

  7. January 6, 2012


    Ah, but the “low-hanging fruit” are close to the ground where they get more radiant heat and reflected radiation….

    It may be easy pickin’, but ya gotta start at the ground level…

    That is to say: if wine writers/critics/evaluators would 1) take some REAL training in sensory evaluation (led by someone like Alexandre Schmitt) and 2) focus on describing the sensory attributes of the wine, then A) they will be forced to develop ways of reliably and consistently describing the wines rather than searching for poetic terms, allusions, allegories, metaphors and literary devices to say how a wine smells and tastes, B) we won’t get headaches trying to decipher those TNs, C) people will respond better to TNs (and wine culture in general), and D) (as an extension of #2) we will have a better idea of what score each of the wines in question received.

  8. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Becky, Happy New Year to you also, and great to see you here. This is where I am living out my posting career in exile. Actually, I am still allowed to post on the Squires board, but Squires deletes anything that he deems in the least argumentative with Parker and/or his sycophants and apologists. The brand of Buddhism practiced over there prefers only one hand NOT Klapping!

  9. Becky Wasserman Hone permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Take a book, fiction or non-fiction, and read the blurbs that appear on the back cover, or on the first few pages….

    ‘Domaine X vinifies in a way that seems absolutely right. Interesting, honest, and worth drinking’.

    ‘XX is a terrific winemaker……a viticultural poet. If life were fair, X would be as celebrated as
    (insert your top estate here).’

    Scores not obligatory but perhaps a new way of rating? Spurrier once suggested wimples…

    Happy New Year!

  10. Wilfred permalink
    January 5, 2012

    You asked whether people still care about professional wine critics and my response is “not nearly as much as they used to.” Speaking for myself (and my knowledge of some friends), the first thing I do when I want an outside opinion on a wine is look up what people are saying in CellarTracker. First, I can get a community consensus, but to me–more importantly–I get a sense of where the wine is “now” compared to say a year or two ago in its evolution. Recently, I looked up the 2005 Pichon Lalande, and saw that many were saying it is in a closed phase right now, which was very helpful. I wouldn’t have likely gotten that from a professional critic because their notes are locked in time.

  11. Matt K permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I agree with Mike and Ryan (and others) with the “by the time the wine is ready to drink” is a giveaway that this is a wine to age, and one they’re pretty excited about.

    Wine 1: 92 – Good wine to drink now, but the word “Today” strikes me as it’s not meant to age – enjoy now – i.e., not as complex as wine 2.

    Wine 2: 99 – They’re excited, and if it’s meant to age 5-10 years, there’s lots of aging variations that could be used to excuse the score if it doesn’t measure up then (if people remember the original score anyways)… :-)

  12. January 5, 2012


    Great idea. I’ll bite and go with:

    Wine #1: 94
    Wine #2: 97 (every armchair Freud knows the one with the “explosive finish” is the taster’s choice)

    Contest aside, you’ve a) demonstrated how snooze-worthy and useless most TNs are and b) given me great material for a Valentine’s Day card for my wife. “Darling, you are a captivating wife graced with exquisite finesse, depth, and grace. Seemingly endless layers of love are woven together beautifully in this stunning, deeply expressive woman….” If Parker or Suckling are looking for a second career, they should give Hallmark a call. :)


    Bill Moore

  13. Chuck Hayward permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I love the part where the review for wine #1 says “wine graced with…. grace.” Obviously lighter and more elegant!! “Richness” and “Explosive”–sounds like the full monty. So for me, I can get a sense of what the wine is about from the comments.

    But that’s not what this post is about. So…..

    Wine # 1 95
    Wine # 2 95

    Must say I was tainted by the suggestion that the reviews are from AG so that’s why I went for the tie….

  14. Glen Simister permalink
    January 5, 2012

    No doubt am I wrong, but based solely on the words and descriptions:

    Wine #1: 94

    Wine #2: 92

  15. Kent Benson permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I don’t care to venture a guess. However, being the analyst that I am, I conducted an experiment. I searched for the phrase, “graced with exquisite finesse.” On the first page alone there were five distinct instances of Galloni using this phrase in a tasting note. The associated scores ranged from 90 to 95, with all but 93 represented.

    I also searched the phrase, “textural depth and richness” with the first page consisting of three separate instances of Galloni using the phrase, two of which were for 90 point wines and the third I could not determine.

    What did I learn? When one reviews thousands of wines, repitition is inevitable. The same phrase does not lead to the same score. And, the internet is a scary, powerful thing.

  16. January 5, 2012

    OK, I venture a guess, but I’m still 100 points on that.

    Wine 2 receives a higher score because it is a more “ageworthy” example of ______.

    Wine 1: 93

    Wine 2:98

  17. January 5, 2012

    Keep the guesses coming! Maybe I’ll up the stakes by offering the winner–if we have one–the pick of any bottle from Bill Klapp’s cellar :)

    Matt, so you feel that these particular tasting notes provide you all the information you need? Based on these notes, would you choose one wine over the other?

  18. Frank permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Wine 2 – more detail: 96
    Wine 1 – 90

  19. January 5, 2012

    I’m 100 points on that.

  20. matt p permalink
    January 5, 2012

    With the descriptors of the wines, the score is quite meaningless to me. All the attributes that one needs to determine the qualities of the wine are listed clearly.

    the structure, nose, fruit, non-fruit, palate, finish….it’s all there. What could a score possibly give to make this a more useful note? Clearly these are two well made wines.

  21. Jack Bulkin permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I believe that balance is essential for a great wine. 97 Montelena Estate is great due to the amazing balance of the wine. Nothing sticks out or overloads the senses.
    Wine two has “exceptional overall balance” so a wine I would likely rate above 95-97.
    Wine one does not express great balance but notable components. I would guess a 90-92 for that wine but what do I know about AG’s scoring????

  22. Ryan Flinn permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Since they both sound like what one typically reads for high scoring wines, I’d bet they’re both over 92, although the second one is likely rated higher. The give away? This little nugget: “by the time the wine is ready to drink.” — ie — it’s a wine meant to age, not something expected to be perfect now, and therefore the oak is excused for what is expected to be future greatness based on past performance. The first one might also get dinged for being “open and accessible,” code words that mean “for the masses”

    Unless of course these are wines still in barrel, which blows up my argument completely.

  23. January 5, 2012

    Wine #1 – 96
    Wine #2 – 91

  24. Michael permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Hard to say which received higher so I vote Tie! I agree point system is so arbitrary as ridiculous – especially all those Bordeauxs that get 95 something but are not ready to drink for 5-7 years. As a wine enthusiast, I just want to know what to expect: on the nose, flavors, fruit pronounced?, what’s on the back end and how tannic

  25. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I am beginning to worry that #1 could be Cabernet Franc. Tobacco no graphite; no molten lava; shortfall re tour de force. After replay- I’m down to 91+? on that.

  26. Mike E. permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Going a different direction with my guess. Wine #1 is ready to drink now, which is probably a negative. Wine #1’s rating also has the “given the richness of fruit,” which I read as being a snobby way of saying, this is delicious, but I don’t want to give it a high rating. Wine #2, however, is clearly still quite young, because of the “when it’s ready to drink” language. That language also seems to be a justification for a rating higher than its current flavor supports.

    Wine #1 = 91
    Wine #2 = 96

  27. January 5, 2012

    Dan, Alder, and Tim, thanks for weighing in. Interesting stuff, just as I’d hoped :)

    SUAMW, you are harvesting some low-hanging fruit. Needless to say, I agree with you: if you pause to think about these words and phrases, your head can start to ache.

  28. January 5, 2012

    “Seemingly endless layers of dark red fruit, tar, spices, flowers and tobacco are woven together beautifully in this stunning, deeply expressive” – This is a description of a very young wine? Was it opened a week in advance? (Or if a Barolo, three months in advance?)

    I’m long done with TNs – no two people or top wine critics describe the same wine similarly – why, why bother to read them?

  29. January 5, 2012

    I would like to know what is meant by “layers” of flavors? How/when/where is this perceived? Does this mean the wine has all this going on at once? Does it mean these emerge and evolve over the course of a bottle? Over the course of one pour or two days?

    How is a wine “structurally deep”? And when is a wine not structurally deep?

    How does fruit (or any other sensory characteristic, for that matter) “inform” a finish? And is that “explosive” finish short, medium or long?

    It is tasting notes like these that focus on almost Whitmanian prose that turn people off. Describe the aroma, flavor and texture as well as their intensity/dominance in the composition and then give a sense of the duration of the finish.

  30. Tim permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Wine One – finesse, grace, supple? Probably an 81.
    Wine Two – purports to be balanced, which would kill it, but as described sounds imbalanced so I’ll say 97.

  31. January 5, 2012

    “Stunning” and “depth” always signal high ratings in my experience. I say first wine received 97 points, second one 93. I’m arguing the opposite of Dan.

  32. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I’ll bite.
    From a median of 95, wine #2 receives an extra point for “graphite”, plus one more for “explosive”. Wine #1 has a one point deduction for “grace” Therefore:
    Wine 1 – 94 points
    Wine 2- 97 points

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