By Jon McDaniel
One of the most controversial topics in the wine world today deals with “To Score or Not to Score”. Now this may bring some of you back to that nervous drive up to Make Out Point, but to those of us in the wine business, the topic of rating wine is becoming more divisive than ever.
So why not throw my two cents into a serious and contentious topic and add a bit of frivolity to the deal. So, in what will be my most notorious blog to date, I will open up the flood gates and tell you why giving points to a wine and all of that garble-di-goop are pretty much a big sham.
The most common form of wine rating, adopted by wine writers around the world, is the 100-point rating system. This system was devised by an attorney from Baltimore, Maryland…Robert M. Parker Jr. Parker wanted to create an unbiased newsletter, The Wine Advocate, that would express to people his thoughts on wines in the marketplace. From that simple goal came a multi-billion dollar industry of wine publications that use this system to quantify the excellence or mediocrity of fermented grape juice.
Today, Robert Parker is considered one of the most respected authorities on wine and has received pretty much every award from every wine-producing country on the planet. He is considered one of the most accomplished individuals in the wine world since Jesus turned water into wine. Wineries across the globe buy into his mystical powers so much that many have changed their style of winemaking to please Parker’s palate (purposeful alliteration #1). Wine consultants such as Michel Rolland will even guarantee a 90-point rating if hired by a winery.
What is great about this system is that it puts things in numbers that we as a society can understand. If a wine gets 95 points; that means it is 95% awesome! If something gets a score of 78, that is like getting a C+ on a test – the equivalent of cramming the night before on lots of coffee and No-Doze (which so many wines taste like nowadays). It is easy to understand and as a society we like easy. That is why we have become obsessed with this system. It just makes sense. We use this system in the retail world to market wines without having to do a lot of work ourselves. If a wine gets a great score, retailers will market that score just to sell the wine. It has become so ridiculous that one massive wine retailer has their own in-house wine critic that scores wines for them. I am sure you will not be surprised how many of their own private brands get 90+ points.
The Point System
Big. Flaming. Pile. Of. Poo. Since Parker’s 100-point system came about in the late 1970’s, magazines such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, etc. etc. have all used this wine rating system to create and idolize experts in a field that is one of the most subjective on the planet – what is good wine. What most of these magazines do not tell you is that this 100-point system is really only a 50-point system. Huh?!? Yes, in fact the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator only rate wines 50-100 points. Much like points you get on your SATs for spelling your name right or that candy machine at the arcade that you can play until you win a prize, a winery is awarded 50 points just for not bottling Dr. Pepper or creating something poisonous. Congrats!
To take this one step further, Wine Enthusiast Magazine (which probably would give a 92-rating to Ocean Spray) starts out every wine at 80 points. 80! Can you imagine showing up to a class for a big test and just for waking up that morning and possibly putting on some Old Spice, you get a B?!?
This is just one of the many reasons why this rating system is bupkis. What consumers really fail to understand is that wine is one of those things where everyone is right, because it is completely subjective. Much like how the film Winter’s Bone, possibly the worst movie I have ever seen, got great critical acclaim and reviews. Those critics were right, but so was I, because it was my $17.50 to go see that crime against cinema. Wine writers are just people, some of them with far too much time on their hands, that like to be heard about a particular topic and get paid for it because they write with a lot of big words and get to drink wine for free!
Now I am a friend to many wine critics, writers and professionals that get paid to share their opinion about wine. Being in the wine industry is possibly the greatest business in the world to be in because wine is supposed to be fun. The problem also with the wine business is that there are a lot of nerds. LOTS OF NERDS. Nerds that dedicate their lives to being an expert in a topic that there is no way anyone can know everything. What this has created is a mutated group of individuals that look down on the common folk for not knowing the intricacies of Vouvray and that the best wine with lobster thurmidor is a 1979 Batard-Montrachet (that’s a French Chardonnay by the way, an old one). Consumers are afraid of wine professionals. Even our title is frightening, “sommelier”. So consumers had no choice than to rush into the open, inked arms of critics like Steve Heimoff or be caressed by the Magnum PI moustache of James Laube or be seduced by the flowing peppery locks of James Suckling (who was fired from his post at Wine Spectator for telling wineries how to get better scores from him, just FYI)
Wine Critics are not at fault for getting paid to score wines. We as consumers are to blame for trusting them instead of ourselves. The only true way to understand wine and what you like is by drinking, tasting, and appreciating what your palate appreciates; not the palate of a writer that gives high scores to super-ripe, over-extracted wines. Or to the writer that loves wines that taste like a barnyard. Or to the writer that only gives 95+ points to winemakers that vote a certain way. All of these writers have opinions and are paid for their opinions. What you should understand is that they are nothing more than opinions. You know what they say about opinions and everyone having one, right?
Wine writers and critics use a lot of fancy vocabulary and descriptors when talking about wine, which is absolutely acceptable. However, what if you don’t know what a gooseberry tastes like or have never smelled a cigar box – does that mean you cannot enjoy the wine? Of course not – all that it means is that whatever that person tastes is based upon their personal experience. So when you taste wine, use your own descriptors. Make up new words if you want. I am famous for using “Mammalian” when describing wines. Why? Because it is fun and it makes sense to me. I once saw a wine that received 94 points and “tastes like my grandma’s apple pie”. Odds are that you don’t know that wine writer’s grandma and even possibly if you did, you may think that her apple pie is the worst dessert on the face of the planet. You are both right! Isn’t wine fun?
What is so fascinating about people that score wine is that they also chime in on the “To Score or Not to Score” debate, basically justifying their job and their professional existence…not biased at all. So when reading these wine critics, remember that they are probably sitting in a dark basement somewhere with 75 Cabernets in front of them at the moment, trying to figure out which has the biggest eucalyptus flavor and will age until 2050. They will give the biggest score to the wine that stands out of the crowd, like the kid with the really loud shirt in the first grade class photo. Writers will give 99 points to a wine for little other reason than to get attention for their expertise. They are the equivalent of the thousands of middle-aged men that consider themselves experts in Jar Jar Binks memorabilia.
I will tell you that I consulted once for a winery in which our 2003 Cabernet got a 99-point rating from a well-respected publication. At the same time, another writer gave it a 74 and said it tasted like band-aids. Both were correct.
So Now What!
So since I just told you not to trust the 100-point system, what do you do? Create your own rating system of course! Make up a system that makes sense to you and can quantify in your own words, what you like about wine and what you want to buy. Allow me to show you my system of rating. Now remember, this is just my opinion and you may think it is horrible. I personally like my opinion, so we are both right J
My system has 4 components to it, that are signified by 4 symbols
– Would I drink it?
– Would I buy it?
– Would I bathe in it?
And the ultimate judge ….
-Would it nab a date with Scarlett Johansson
Ryan Zotovich is one of my favorite new winemakers here in the valley because of his ability to take a great vineyard and turn it into a great wine. Basically, he stays out of the way of the grape. Too often with Chardonnay, winemakers get happy feet and big heads and make the wine about them and their expression of Chardonnay. To me, Chardonnay is like chicken breast; it’s all about what you do with it. Ryan, along with consultant winemaker Steve Clifton (of Palmina, Brewer-Clifton fame) has made a Chardonnay that is not overly oaky or buttery. This vintage of Chardonnay has a lot of crisp apple and pear flavor that remind me of grandmother’s pie marathon making sessions when I was a kid (people liked it, I assure you).
Honestly, I don’t like most California Chardonnays because they are fat, butter monsters, so the fact that I would drink this is a miracle. I have been eating a lot of roasted veggies lately, so I would certainly buy this to pair with it. Would I bathe in it? Oh yes, the haunting aromas of cinnamon and kisses of grapefruit would be a refreshing dip indeed. Unfortunately Scarlett Johansson doesn’t drink Chardonnay, so I would blind taste her on this just to see what she thought. She would clearly be impressed by my ability to change her mind.
Alta Maria Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley – $24
About to open up a tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, Paul Wilkins and James Ontiveros have created a Pinot that is quite possibly the most versatile at this price point. Lush and smoky with an elegant Bing cherry flavor (that is a really good cherry by the way). A little bit less spice than most of the pinot noirs from Sta. Rita Hills, this is a classic example of a wine that is both great to start out your day and continue through a meal.
I have tasted hundreds if not thousands of Pinots over the years and in a very competitive field, I would certainly drink this. A very smooth, flowing taste reminds me a lot of great village Burgundy (that means yummy). At $24, it’s a steal; so buy this by the case (as I have) to see how it develops over time. After a long day of selling wine and walking around a restaurant, nothing sounds more lovely to me than soaking in a bear claw tub with lavender and rose petals with the Tahitian vanilla bean reed diffuser wafting scents of crème brulee, all while soaking in gallons of Pinot Noir!
After bathing, it would be time to prepare a delicious cedar-plank grilled salmon on polenta with an open bottle of Alta Maria waiting for a fantastic dinner with of course….Scarlett Johansson.
Cent’Anni Vineyard 2008 ‘Buoni Anni’ Sangiovese, Santa Ynez Valley – $36
If there was a wine that tried to imitate the glory of Tuscan wines, and perhaps did it better than most Italians, this is it. Sangiovese is the grape of Tuscany, but in the Santa Ynez area, Jamie and Julie Kellner have a small vineyard that is producing some of the finest Sangiovese grapes I have ever seen. From their front porch, you can see that this vineyard is definitely something special. Local wine Willy Wonka, Doug Margerum, turns these grapes into a phenomenal beverage. Oh, what a wine he wields. The 2008 vintage has just a dash of Cabernet and Merlot, but comes across as more super than Super Tuscans. In the nose, a plethora of violet and crushed raspberries lead to an ephemeral palate that is so supple with an amazing cacophony of flavors including those kirsch and framboise, but also crushed red pepper spice, cedar and a soupcon of cardamom (see how crazily detailed descriptions make me sound utterly ridiculous). In plain speak – this wine is incredible and would transform any dish from Olive Garden into the latest Mario Batali creation.
I would drink this wine in my house. I would drink it with a mouse. I have purchased some of this wine and cannot wait to see how it develops over time. You know that this wine is great because of a unique special award in my ratings system that I give out ever so seldom. I would bathe in this wine with….. You guessed it – Scarlett Johansson.
So you see folks, that wine is like anything that is created for enjoyment, it is 100% subjective to the consumer. You are the expert because you know yourself more than anyone. Utilize this newfound mastery and go out and taste as many wines as possible. Create your own system of rating that makes sense to you and only you. Write whatever you want about the wine, just don’t stop drinking and don’t think that just because you don’t like some over-rated Syrah from Paso Robles that something is wrong with you.
But please don’t stop buying those wine magazines; they really need their jobs.