Over the past couple of days I have been reading a few blogs that are dealing with a topic that often becomes, like so many political issues dominating the headlines, heated and after awhile, tired and pointless. The galvanizing issue is a simple one – the importance and validity of wine writer’s scores for popular wines. As many of you know, the backbone of publications like Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine and Spirits and The Wine Advocate is the scoring system that its paid critics use to recommend wines to the public. What is often overlooked by collectors, retailers and the average wine drinker is the writer’s informative and educational prose describing vintage and place, but that’s neither here nor there. Most people read these magazines and pay a premium to access their websites in order to chase down both high scoring cherries and value bottles alike. Hell, I subscribe to almost all of these sites in order to pass scores onto retailers and customers in order to help sell wine for my employer – who is a growing distributor in the New York metropolitan market. However, these scores come from the pens of writers that are universally accepted as honest appraisers of what they think is in the glass. Whether you agree or not with their palate is another story, but they judge their wines blindly and without compromise.
Though they help me with my paycheck, I have some very strong views on scores – most of which are pretty negative. I have written before and I do believe that one of the positives of scores is that they lead the novice wine drinker to pretty good juice. However, it’s the source of these scores that matter. If Bruce Sanderson gives a German Riesling a 93 or James Laube gives a California Pinot Noir 97, chances are, despite what wine snobs (like me and most of you) think of the winemaking and vineyard management practices involved or marketing attached to the wine, the consumer is more than likely getting a solid bottle of wine that at least resembles a fair amount of typicity.
However, where scores get murky is when you read a blog or walk into a retailer and read the complete and utter bullshit they spew out online and on the shelf. What I am talking about is not the enthusiasm that most wine bloggers have for a bottle of wine or a retailer who is jazzed about a new wine that recently arrived off of the truck. What chaps me is when the unqualified – in the inexperienced sense – and corrupt – those who stack barely drinkable wine solely because they get a price which is a fraction of what the consumer ends up ponying up – throw a score on the shelf to grab your eye and wallet. There are two important ramifications of these hollow scores. First, the consumer is guaranteed to never get a hold of a bottle of wine that can educate them and allow them to grow as wine lovers if they purchase wines from a shifty merchant or buy based on what an uninformed blogger has to say about the wine. Second, wines made by independent producers who work tirelessly to preserve a sense of place in the bottle have a more difficult time entering the market and onto your dinner table. Clearly this last point might be a conflict of interest for me as many of the producers I represent have tiny production and require a bit of salesmanship to get them into the consumers hands.
But that is the point. Scores sell wine, but if bloggers, merchants, honest salespeople and sommeliers do their job correctly and stop attaching numbers, stars, smiley faces, grades and bottle icons to their opinions of wine and put more effort into why a particular wine from a specific place is important and delicious, perhaps more wine drinkers would put down the branded swill that is flooding the marketplace and more interesting wines would set off light bulbs in consumer’s minds as to how fun wine can be. A criticism of this approach, and one that I have a hard time rebutting, is that most consumers don’t want to read about the wine – they simply want someone who they think is more qualified to give them a short and concise nudge as to why they should pick up a particular bottle. That might be true, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Writers and retailers could rely less on numbers and take the time to write about and purchase interesting wines while taking a more personal approach in explaining why these wines stand out from the rest.
What exactly do scores represent? On a professional level at the sources I mentioned above, scores are a bit formulaic – they represent positive (or lack of) qualities in aromatics, flavor, balance, finish and other sensory qualities in a wine. For those whose life (and income) is not based on writing and scoring wines, I am willing to bet that judging these qualities can be a less refined and less accurate exercise. As for the writing involved, the checking of facts and perspective on the wines reviewed is normally not as spot-on as a columnist who has been drinking and writing about wine for decades. In these cases, scores don’t mean much at all. They are not less subjective than a professional critic’s impression, but their subjectivity is based on a much narrower frame of reference. However, they are plastered just about everywhere a consumer can find them.
I read over 100 blogs each day and most of them are well-written by consumers-turned-inspirers. They are honest attempts to help others understand what makes wine great. However, many of us are wading in a sometimes overwhelming tide of bullshit that makes it near impossible to convince wine drinkers that they should step away from the $9 bottle of Shiraz and pick up an $11 bottle of Syrah from the Languedoc. Perhaps if the unqualified and corrupt would pick up a book and read up on the regions they write about before they write or weren’t so enamored with receiving sample bottles from wineries looking to merely blanket the wine press and Twitterverse, scores would have more meaning and carry more weight. Until then, most of them floating around the blogosphere and retail environment are nothing more than numbers that represent dollar signs, not what’s actually in the bottle.