Sunday, August 13, 2006

Wine Ratings: Drunk on Numbers?

In “Wine Ratings Might Not Pass the Sobriety Test,” Gary Rivlin of The New York Times examines the 100-point rating systems that have become pervasive in the wine business. Some highlights:

A rating system that draws a distinction between a cabernet scoring 90 and one receiving an 89 implies a precision of the senses that even many wine critics agree that human beings do not possess. Ratings are quick judgments that a single individual renders early in the life of a bottle of wine that, once expressed numerically, magically transform the nebulous and subjective into the authoritative and objective.

When pressed, critics allow that numerical ratings mean little if they are unaccompanied by corresponding tasting notes (“hints of blackberry,” “a good nose”). Yet in the hands of the marketers who have transformed wine into a multibillion-dollar industry, The Number is often all that counts. It is one of the wheels that keep the glamorous, lucrative machinery of the wine business turning, but it has become so overused and ubiquitous that it may well be meaningless — other than as an index of how a once mystical, high-end product for the elite has become embroidered with the same marketing high jinks as other products peddled to the masses.

Although four- or five-star rating systems for wine existed before, Robert Parker originated the modern 100-point system in 1978. Since then, it has inspired many imitators, to the point where a single wine may be rated by a dozen different 100-point systems.

Cork dorks say that even today, the only scores that count are those of the first two publications to embrace the 100-point score: Mr. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Mr. Shanken’s Wine Spectator. That has not stopped retailers from cherry-picking high scores no matter who comes up with them. uses no less than seven sources when fishing for members of the 90+ club, including The Wine News, the Connoisseurs Guide and the International Wine Cellar. And in a pinch, is not above turning to an eighth source.

When promoting Capcanes 2001 Costers del Gravet, a Spanish wine, for instance, quoted a well-regarded publication, International Wine Cellar, written by Stephen Tanzer, in its review. But the source of the 91 that earned the 2001 Costers a place on its 90+ list was itself. (The company did not return a call seeking comment.)

Not only are these systems open to overt manipulation, but even the most respected and systemic raters communicate their biases, if inadvertently:

Mr. Parker and the critics from Wine Spectator tend to save their highest ratings for robust-tasting, more intense wines....“That’s another way numbers are misguiding people,” said Mr. Tisherman, the former Wine Enthusiast editor who now calls himself a “recovering critic” and helps clients sponsor wine-tasting parties. “A 96 is better than an 86, but not if you want a light-bodied wine, and Americans tend to prefer light-bodied wines. Yet those are also the wines least likely to get a good score.”

Although I’ve provided several tastings from the article, I’d recommend you quaff the whole thing. It has precision, balance, concentration, power and finesse, with plush layers of currant, mocha, berry, mineral and spice—oh wait, that last part is not about the article; it’s from the description of Wine Spectator’s 2005 wine of the year, Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2002.

Did I mention it scored a 96?

[Update, 11/17/2009: The Wall Street Journal covers the results of controlled experiments to determine the (in)consistency of wine judging. One analysis of the same wines’ results across multiple wine competitions showed near-random outcomes.]

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