In recent months there has been a concerted and even somewhat organized effort to petition critics, retailers, and wine buyers to stop using wine scores. The argument essentially is that scores demean good wine because people that use them don’t read the actual tasting notes, which is allegedly where the ‘real’ information lies. In other words you should rely on tasting notes and not scores. Of course I have a number of issues with this position.
Like for every season, I recently received my spring 2012 catalog from Sherry-Lehmann in New York and this retailer, by the way, is truly one of the several best and trusted wine merchants in the country. In the catalog are printed comments from major critics (Parker, Wine Spectator, Tanzer, Suckling, Meadows) but presumably in an effort to not ruffle feathers of the opponents of wine scores, they do not publish scores but only excerpts from critic’s tasting notes. I can respect their position and find my own scores. Here are two examples of their excerpts from this catalog, both from the ubiquitous Wine Advocate (Robert Parker and friends):
“Plenty of sweet fruitcake, blackcurrant, kirsch, forest floor and earthy characteristics”
Pretty specific tasting note, yes? But honestly, how many times have you actually tasted more than one or two of those elements described above in the one wine, any wine?
Next: “a Mediterranean sea-breeze-like character that is difficult to articulate”
Wow, a third grader could have written that, assuming she knew what the word ‘articulate’ means. Anyone could write that a wine is difficult to articulate, and mean it. But is this really helpful? Does a reader really get a sense of what this wine is or what its quality is? Or only what the tasting profile is according to Mr. Parker et al? Such tasting notes go on, and on and on, not just here but everywhere with prose so mind-bendingly whacky that it simply seems like a game of thrones anymore.
One of the biggest problems with tasting notes today is that rather than use mundane, repetitive notes (let’s face it, wine can only vary so much) critics are running out of adjectives so often it just seems that they’re making stuff up on the fly with as many obscure descriptors as they can pull out of their, um . . . hats. There are a huge number of seriously convoluted, completely risible tasting notes that have not a thing to do with the wine or wine borne flavors but rather, a competitive attempt to sound more intelligent and cultured than other critics writing about the same wine. It’s a contest of sorts but the looser is always you and I, the reader.
Are tasting notes helpful to us? Does it really matter if my nose takes in aromas of pain grillé (toasted bread) if the quality of the wine doesn’t meet my expectation? Except for sharing descriptions with other people that are sitting at a table with me drinking the same wine at that moment, I generally could care less about what someone else tastes or what aromas are observed because I’m probably not going to taste or describe it the same way anyone else would.
It’s not that I lack descriptors or imagination but I guess I have never tasted stewed black cherry and only blue Fruit Loops with a hint of East Hoboken mint and brown shoe polish, all finishing with layers of charred and boiled mystery meat poured over lava rocks crushed in a blender. It seems to me like tasting notes have become this extreme and obtuse. There are far too many variables for published tasting notes to be considered trustworthy information, not the least of which, most fine wine continually evolves and can be at a different stage of development by the time you or I drink it. In other words there is a complete disconnect between a critic that is trying to out-write his colleagues and what you and I actually taste or observe. More than anything tasting notes to me are personal (but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share them) because no one else will experience the same wine (or food, or music, or fill in the blank) exactly the way you do. It’s how we’re wired.
What matters to me: does this wine exact the quality that I expected? Does it measure up to my standards compared to the critic that assessed its quality? I can determine what it tastes like for myself, which may be similar or may be very different from a critic’s taste. But the number is where the value is for me. In fact it’s certainly possible to have similar taste and aroma profiles (read: tasting notes) for a wine that’s 82 points and another wine that’s 94 points, obviously because there are so many common elements found in wine. However, any number gives me instant qualitative data and granted, it still comes back to the person that issued the score, but professional critics are truly in a great position to compare quality. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cool guy in New Hampshire critiquing wine or an internationallyrecognized critic. To me, there is value in the score as long as I understandhow a particular critic scores wine and I can assimilate that critic’s scoreswith my own experience. I don’t deny that there’s room for improvement in the100 point scoring system but it’s still the best we have.
It’s easy, popular, and possibly even fun to play ‘punch-the-critic’ but ask yourself how many wines you taste in a year? 50? 100? 365? These men and women with renown (along with the uncelebrated) taste thousands of wines each year and have for decades, and you and I can’t even get close to those numbers. I can tell you from experience that when you have a wall of wine to taste through for days, weeks, or months at a time, even the least experienced palate will eventually be able to pick out the best wines. Critics have a very difficult job and then get bashed for it.
But like it or not, I don’t see them going by the wayside, regardless of attempts to overthrow the kingdoms that move markets. They may change and become much more electronic-media savvy but there will always be a place for someone to educate and provide a source of reliable information. Sites like CellarTracker certainly have their place and can sometimes provide useable information but that’s assuming you can find people whose palates and experience you trust, out of 200,000 + bona fide wine critic wannabes. Although the internet gives some modicum of power to the people, and I’m all for it, often such socially-driven websites have extremes of love/hate that when averaged, it all ultimately falls or ascends to the middle. To me this is not useful information, whether it’s about hotels, restaurants, wine, music, or whatever.
Wine collectors use scores, investors use them, retailers love them because scores sell wine, wineries that receive good scores love them, and it seems the faction that whines the most about scores are estates that don’t produce very good wine, as estimated by people that tastes thousands of wines critically each year. I don’t see this scoring system ending anytime soon and in terms of reliable and useful information, scores really have measured up to its potential.
Photo: cover of the Sherry-Lehmann Spring Catalog