Back in the mid-1980s, a starving writer found himself at a gala dinner, seated across from a wealthy merchant. The merchant was talking 1982 Bordeaux, a vintage that had added significantly to his wealth. The writer had little to say about the vintage, having found a number of the wines overwrought or, at least, overweight, so he turned the conversation to dogs.
The writer’s dog just had six puppies, he told the merchant, whose eyes lit up. “We need a puppy,” he replied. Several weeks later, the merchant ended up in the writer’s kitchen, surrounded by jumping, black Labrador retrievers.
“How much are they?” the merchant asked.
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“Five,” the writer replied.
“Which is the biggest?” Did the merchant ask that as well? The writer was too busy wondering why he didn’t take the $5,000 …
Of the six puppies, the merchant took Bull, weighing in at 15 pounds, and named him after the most expensive Bordeaux at the time. The rest of the puppies proceeded to sell by weight, leaving me, the writer, with a leggy, 10-pound runt with a white spot on his chest.
Spot grew into a tall, handsome and slightly goofy adult, in the way that aristocrats can be slightly goofy. His bigger brother grew into a stocky, square-headed British lab, one who chased cars and eventually lost. Spot, in fact, lived to be 16, and never lost his sense of humor.
Meanwhile, I kept busy as the editor of a wine magazine, assembling panels to taste wines. Our team stubbornly continued to rate them on a four-star scale, even though it was clear that the 100-point scale that critic Robert Parker promoted was more powerful for selling wine (and magazines). The concept of a hedonic scoring system—by which Parker had rated the lush, rich, fruit-forward 1982 Bordeaux—seemed to diminish the diverse pleasures of wine. For me, and for many wine drinkers I know, hedonism is one aspect of wine, but not the only one.
It was pattern recognition that excited us as much as deliciousness in wine, and that’s challenging to rate. Over the course of a decade, using stars, the 20-point scale devised by UC Davis, and the 100-point scale for various tastings, I saw that all forms of scoring wine included their own level of absurdity. But it did occur to several of us on the magazine team that the 100-point scale could be redefined; its precision, though suspect when attached to a single wine, could be useful in assessing the relative performance of producers over time.
So we set out to use points to measure our excitement: As a drinker with an educated prejudice based on knowledge of the vintage, region, and variety of the wine in the glass, how excited am I to tell a wine buyer about this wine?
It’s undeniable that wine ratings based purely on pleasure have brought a lot of new drinkers to wine. But they raise the question, whose pleasure is it, anyway? I get very little pleasure out of drinking 100-point puddles of black cherry jam.
And if wine is only about appetite, a hedonic scale leads the market into strange alternate realities, in which wines are tuned up with acid and oak chips, manufactured like junk food to hit all our pleasure centers.
The latest measure of a wine’s market torque comes from apps like Vivino and Delectable, services that agglomerate the reactions of thousands of drinkers to a particular wine. The idea is, if a lot of people find a wine delicious, aren’t the odds good that you will, too?
Well, yes and no. If your pleasure is triggered by lush textures and sweet flavors, then sure. But if you take pleasure in the pattern recognition of a Rioja as distinct from a Bordeaux, or a Rioja Alta wine as distinct from a Rioja Alavesa wine, then no, the voices of the people who can parse those distinctions likely will be drowned out by all those who are focused on what is delicious to them.
When Parker first used the 100-point scale, it was as disruptive as the new wine apps—gutting the notion that a label marked grand cru or premier cru was a reliable reason to pay more for a wine. As an advocate for pleasure, Parker pointed out the bad apples in the French hierarchy, of which there were plenty, and his scale gave market access to garagistes who had no pedigree to offer, but were certainly delicious (consider Le Pin).
Disruptions often lead to unintended consequences. So today we find ourselves in an expanding wine market with few tools to help buyers learn the distinctions that still add value to wine. A lot of people talk about terroir, but few people know what it means, and fewer still have found a way to communicate what it means. Scores, whether from a single critic or a computer algorithm, may have helped to rip that meaning out of wine, but it is not the scores that are to blame for that outcome. Scores are just an information tool, and they are only as good as the information invested in them.
Joshua Greene is the editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he leads a team of six critics to vet more than 15,000 wines a year, all through panel tastings without reference to brand or price. He is currently working on a book on the wines of Portugal.