Back in the days when as a young teenager in Puerto Rico, I was subjected to the immutable social rules associated with the proper etiquette surrounding cotillions. Virtually every 15 years old girl, as the cultural traditions mandated, had a “coming out party”. This was the only time it was acceptable for a girl to ask a boy to a dance. Being that this was at about the time when the movie “10” with Bo Derek had come out (and I know that many of you wore those tight little braids) my grandmother would, divested from all reality, insist that all those girls doing the inviting were “10’s”; whether they had only one eye on their foreheads or else. Oh, and there were many invitations…not because I was all that, but because it got out that I had the grandma who would strictly forbid me to decline regardless of the aspiring debutante’s cyclops status!
This was my first introduction to a points system.
The current prevalent wine point system is evidenced by the ubiquitous tags and other references that seem to contribute to the labeling of nearly every bottle of wine in the market. Where did it come from? While there have been older score systems, like the 20-points rating created in 1959 at UC Davis’ prestigious viticulture and enology department, by far the most popular quotidian ones are based on a 100-points scale. The wine critic who propelled this system into the current wine zeitgeist was Robert Parker. An attorney by trade for 10 years in Baltimore before becoming a full-time wine writer, he founded the bi-monthly Wine Advocate newsletter in 1978. Mr. Parker became the “it” critic after successfully predicting the quality of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. The relevance of his points system cannot be overstated as, to this day, it can make or break a wine brand. There is a clear hierarchy of prices when wines score 90 and above. If you ever receive the chimerical 100 points, you can demand stratospheric prices as your wine enters the pantheon of unicorn wines. His system is deciphered as follows: Extraordinary (96-100), Outstanding (90-95), Barely above average to very good (80-89), Average (70-79), Below Average (60-69), and Unacceptable (50-59). Wine Spectator and others also use a 100-points system with a similar scale and comparable descriptors such as “classic” and “mediocre”.
Tastings are usually done by magazine editors who have assigned “beats” (i.e. regions, styles, etc.). Tastings can be done from barrel (unfinished wine) or bottle. Although they are mostly done blinded to producer and price, some things such as the varietal and vintage are unmasked in order to procure a certain level of consistency and quality in the process.
Even though I am not one to dwell too much on the actual scores (not too keen on the “hey, you’ve got to try this 94 points beauty!”), I acknowledge that there is some value in the process. For one, this is a quick and effective way for a critic to convey an opinion in describing those wines that CAN be compared. For example, while a 92-points Bordeaux blend from Rutherford and Oakville in Napa can be comparable, they will be a different wine from similarly scored Bordeaux blends from Australia. Moreover, they are likely to significantly differ in cost. Instead, I am more inclined to pay attention to the descriptions behind the score but tend to scoff at the overly poetic and extravagant narratives. I mean, what the heck is a “sultry”, “sexy”, and “tight energy” wine? All I know is that while a feather is “sexy”, the whole chicken ain’t right. I’m simple like that.
The point system can also be particularly useful if you were to find a critic who has a similar palate to yours. If you absolutely detest the “taste” of Sherry, a critic who may rate one 98-points is not your palate brethren. In other words, you can have wines that are very well made but that you do not enjoy. Personally, while I am not in lockstep with Parker’s penchant for big and brooding wines, I find a certain affinity with some of the Wine Spectator Italian editors. Just the other night we had a fantastic Chilean blend (Cab and Carmenere) that we loved but it scored a “measly” 88 points.
Bear in mind that when these critics taste, they are considering a certain summation of how that specific wine is supposed to taste and the quality of the product. Therefore, scores do not necessarily measure “deliciousness”. It is similar to when in a dog show the schnauzer being judged is compared to the breed archetype and not to the bulldog down the line.
I find it both fun and useful to rate the wines I drink. For one, it allows me to remember the ones worth buying again and recommending to friends with similar taste. It is a simple, if not sophomoric, 5 points scale that I find reproducible and laden with a common language I can share with my wine buddies: 5 = Wow! Delicious and memorable. A special wine that blew me away. 4 = Good, solid, and interesting wine with complexity. 3= It’s OK. Simple and without much to say. 2 = Drinkable but only if I must. 1 = Undrinkable. Nasty stuff. I think that one can easily drink “4’s” between $15-$30.
In conclusion, although the jarring memories of an unknown dad coming to my house to pick me up on my frayed tuxedo on the way to a disco, the Donna Summers inflected pubescent abattoirs of the times, have forged the way I look at ANY point system, I think that wine scores are valuable if properly understood and applied….like the Paco Rabanne my grandmother insisted I dowsed into my handkerchief in case I had to “give it to a lady to wipe her tears”.
What the hell, grandma…” Love to Love You Baby” was just a song.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.