For my entire career as a wine reviewer, I’ve argued the issue of scores and the rationales behind them with a seemingly endless parade of jugheads whose reasoning starts with something like, “Well, of course, there is no way a great Pinot Blanc can ever be given the same score as a great Cabernet.” This is pert near always murmured with a sad little smile and a half-shrug, the body language version of “We intelligentsia share this common tenet of wine and it’s our duty to explain it to the Great Unwashed.”
And I, as one of said intelligentsia, am expected to return a wistful smile and my own fine Irish shrug.
Except I don’t and that’s when the fireworks get lit off.
OF COURSE THERE IS a way to give the same score to a great Pinot Blanc and a great Cabernet. If you don’t assign your snot-filled assumptions to the universe of wine and presume the inherent superiority of some grapes, some regions, some styles, versus the “others”, there certainly IS such a thing as a 100 point Cava, the best Pinotage, that transcendent Petit Milo, etc., etc. And comparing across all those genres – weighing the Juve y Camps on the same scale as a Bryant Family Cab or a Sassacaia – is the very definition of Apples & Oranges.
Each style of wine is its own continuum. Each grape is its own category. You can absolutely compare and evaluate one Amarone versus another, this Beaujolais and the next Morgon, his Cava and her Cremant, just as you’re standing on solid rock when you set up a blind tasting of Syrahs Of Many Lands and ask your tasters to rank ’em by preference. You can niggle wines unto grim death, such as drawing distinctions between a Washington Malbec and an Argentinian or a Cahors, and become adrift in that minutiae but all you’re doing is imposing your own assumptions, preferences, and youthful indoctrination.
I had a Washington winemaker taste an $8 Miguel Torres Chilean Merlot, in my old shop in Woodinville, and then taste her own – which did NOT come off well versus the Torres – and smugly say, “Oh, it’s good but of course they’re not the same product.” Well, KAREN, yes they are. They are on my shop shelf and they both say “Merlot” on the bottle. And since I never lied to my customers, when asked which was the better wine, I handed them the Torres and said, “Here, save yourself $32.”
My line of demarcation is grape versus grape. This does involve some ambiguity, as in grouping a Chianti with a California Sangiovese but at least that comparison has some basis, as Sangio is the dominant grape in all Chianti. And then there are stylistic choices: Does a warm/hot and fast-fermented California Zin equate perfectly, seamlessly to a cool, slow-fermented Puglian Primitivo, labeled as “Zinfandel”, even if the grapes are genetically identical? No, but the task of educating every single consumer on those stylistic differences is just pedantry unless they ask for that info. If they just read labels and compare prices, they might well choose that $19 Cantine Menhir “Quota 31” Puglian Primitivo over the $28 Hartford Family Zin. And they’ll get damned a nice wine, too. So, within the spectrum of “Zinfandel”, do I assign 94 points to that Sonoma Zin and 89 to the Puglian, just because Zin is identified mainly with California?
HELL to the NO, yo.
None of this would matter if we, as Americans, were not such score whores and lemmings. We assume that an 89 point wine cannot be as good as a 94 point wine and the economic ramifications of that presumption are MASSIVE; the sort of fatheaded ‘tude that can put smaller wineries out of business. I’ve taken swings at this MANY times, always grinding my teeth as I did it because I know I have ZERO ability to wean people off the WineAdvocate/Spectator teat. But what I write and what every other writer who’s taken up this subject has to say about it SHOULD, MUST be said. Keep swingin’, my friends. It’s a good fight, even if we all have one fist tied behind us.
A very adept colleague of mine, writing under the name “The Wine Curmudgeon”, wound up on my Facebook timeline, just this morning, sounding off under a headline that read:
“Wine scores rant: Top-notch cava gets 86 points, about the same as a crummy supermarket wine“…subhead, “Wine scores show their failings once again in Cellar Tracker’s 86 point rating for spectacular Juvé y Camps cava.”
His very cogent argument wrapped up with this…
“First, does the reviewer like cava? One of the most difficult things I have to do as a critic is to review wines and wine styles that I don’t like, such as California merlot or Argentine malbec. That’s why so few show up as wines of the week. But at least I know my shortcomings, and try to allow for them.
Second, does the reviewer expect a Spanish sparkling wine to taste like Champagne, even though it’s not supposed to? This happens all the time, and even with the most professional critics. I was talking about cava with a sharp, smart wine writer who I like and respect at a competition several years ago. “Don’t much care for cava,” he told me. “It doesn’t taste like Champagne.”
Our esteemed Curmudgeon didn’t say if he took a pig bladder and belabored the yutz who said this about the head and neck, screaming, “They’re different grapes, you asshole!“, which is what I certainly would have done but I like to imagine that he, a cranky man after my own heart, was at least thinking it. Champagne is either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, in 99.7% of all wines produced in the region. Officially, the appellation law in Champagne permits three grape varieties: Arbane, Petit Meslier and ‘Pinot’ (a family that includes Noir, Meunier, Blanc, Gris and Chardonnay) but good luck finding one that contains anything but Chard and Pinot Noir. The Juve Y Camps Grand Reserva is 55% Xarel·lo, 35% Macabeo, and 10% Parellada. It “doesn’t taste like Champagne” because they have nothing in common but bubbles!
I’ve had that Juve Y Camps Cava many times, reviewed it, bought it, recommended it to maybe a hundred friends and family. It is the total opposite of a “crummy supermarket wine”. Where I and your pal The Curmudgeon diverge is in what we think about Cellar Tracker’s – and every other crowd-sourced site’s – ratings is that I do NOT stand back and just say “Well, I respect their opinions.” I don’t. Not in any sort of blanket sense. Just as with the BeerAdvocate’s ratings, packed with a glaring and clumsily obvious bias toward big Stouts and anything labeled “IPA”, I have a small mountain of evidence, based on decades of market research, to prove that both personal bias and the collective desire to be one of the In Crowd influences those amateur raters as much as what they drink. Search the beer rating sites for Pale Ales, ESBs, Brown Ales, or any style not currently hot and the assumption of superiority of the latest anointed styles becomes clear.
Group-think its very real and even those who would otherwise reject the whole notion sometimes fall into it. I rated a Stout from Ninkasi at 95 Points, several years ago, and didn’t even do it in BeerAdvocate. It was in The Pour Fool, the old edition in the Seattle P-I. In the BeerAdvocate forums, one of the regulars addressed a message to me, saying, “What are you doing giving that 95? Look it up. We’ve already said what we think of that beer!“, missing two points at the same time: it is not my job to conform to the BA group-think and no two people will have the same opinion about anything, anyway…unless they’re more concerned about what their pals think than what their palate is telling them.
Your Curmudgeon states in the piece that he doesn’t assign numbers for precisely this reason. I do, ONLY because I tried not to and hundreds of readers messaged me and said, “Put ’em back!”
People like numbers. They like the shorthand aspect of walking into a store, whippin’ out their favorite wine app, and just letting the scores do their thinking…
See the problem?
So, just to be clear – again – the scores you read in The Pour Fool are based on wines as compared to other wines of their type. The best, near-perfect Lambrusco would receive 100 points. (And, FYI, I have one….ONE.) It ONLY means that it is the best of the Lambruscos, not that I think it is necessarily the equal of the 100 point Syrah in the next post…and also not to imply that I think it is not. Those orders of preference are for YOU to decide, for yourself and NOBODY else.
There are a mega-ton, an ocean, a universe of painfully stoopid, simmering, ongoing arguments that are involved in having gained a certain degree of wine erudition. Even if, as I fervently hope, you choose not to participate in these debates – because 99% of ’em will never be decided – you will read and hear them, occasionally find yourself in the middle of one, and have to bite your tongue nearly off to avoid being dragged bodily into insanity. I am about to tell you the one and ONLY secret to tasting and evaluating wine and this applies, whatever your level of acumen may be…
Taste lots of wines, avoid what doesn’t please your senses, and buy those which do.
That’s IT. It actually IS that simple and if you allow your pal who is “into wine” to indoctrinate you with anything else beyond that, you’re inviting irritation and frustration and a life time of suffering fools far too frequently.