What We are Drinking- Thoughts on Wine Ratings

I have many hobbies. Maybe too many. One is drinking. I am referring to the drinking of alcoholic beverages in part, but not exclusively. I drink coffee and tea and think about drinking these beverages in just about the same way I think about the more intoxicating ones. All of the drinks, regardless of proof, are central to human history and capable of connecting us with times and places distant from our present experience. They are all delicious, or at least they all have the potential to be. They all have sects of devotees that can spend endless amounts of time, money and energy obsessing over them. They are joined by the fact that they are worthy of serious consideration and they can reward that consideration with revelation. And that makes them excellent hobby-fodder.

From time to time, I am going to write about various beverages. I suspect I will devote most of these entries to wine, but whiskey will get its time to sign along with other spirits and coffee and tea might make an occasional appearance. I hope it is fun and I hope you, brilliant readers, enjoy it and maybe even find it useful.

First, however, something like a disclaimer.

I am not a sommelier. I profess no great training in the art of wine or winemaking. I once made beer. I went…ok. I am just a guy who thinks about what he is drinking and enjoys when other people do the same. There are so many people out there who write about wine and other drinks so well that I probably don’t need to bother.  I will do it, though, because, to paraphrase Joan Didion, I often do know what I think until I write and with all the time I already spending thinking about what I am drinking I might as well put something down on digital paper. I also tend to believe that the idea, of implied if not outright stated, by those who taste, rate, sell or otherwise consider wine et al. for a living, that the evaluation of these things is a careful and precise science.

The sommeliers and other experts aren’t at fault for this impression, really. I suspect that most of them hate the number-one cause of this fallacy even more than the casual drinker. The problem is the damn ratings. The 100 scale of wine ratings is a nightmare. It is unnecessarily specific and that makes it arrogant. What is the qualitative difference in wine that scores 89 and one that scores 91? If it is significant enough to matter, why is the spread only three points on a scale of one hundred? If it is not a meaningful distinction, why even make it? And where are the 50-point wines in this scale (which is the bottom of the Wine Spectator scale linked to above)? Is it safe to assume that that handle of $5.00 Gallo Merlot is a 50 or could it be lower? In reality, outside the wine magazines themselves, you only see ratings over eighty anyway, because no one advertises a rating that is lower. Fifty-to-one hundred is a fifty-point scale and a difference of three points looks more meaningful in that context. If only wines that get over 80 are worth consideration, that make a twenty-point scale for those, where a three point spread actually matters a lot. So what is the real scale and how much is each point really worth?

There is no good answer if you are just at wine shop trying to decide on something to buy. False precision makes the system itself seem almost useless. The ratings imply more meaningful difference than the drinks can possibly deliver. And for an industry that is hurt by a reputation for snobbishness to start with, being arrogant enough to believe you can rate things this precisely is more off-putting than helpful.  In reality, I tend to see a few tiers of quality and craftsmanship and not much more worth digging into. The predictive power a 91 rating over an 89 rating for enjoyability is essentailly zilch, even if the rating system linked to above implies they are in different classes. Wines that are rated 95+ are the great wines of the World, basically without fail and they are correspondently rare. That doesn’t mean you will like them. You might love them, but you might also find them above your taste, but that is, at least, a very distinct class. Experience is key with this class (and some serious money to spend helps too).  I drink wines in the second tier almost exclusively, for practical reasons. Or at least I try to. When rated by the big ratings folks, they will score somewhere between 92 and 87, and they are, for the most part, reliably good, though not reliably exciting or thought-provoking and ratings difference seems basically arbitrary. The next tier down would be the vast majority of non-jug wine. The average ones, the kind of wine that you could grab for a decent price, serve to people and they would nod with thoughtless approval. It’s “meh” in a bottle, not objectionable or memorable in any way. Price is no predictor of the difference between the second and third tier and ratings don’t really nail the difference down either. It’s wildly subjective and the best guide is either the tasting notes and your preference or advice from someone with taste like yours, preferably an expert. Below that, there are ones you regret buying and ones you probably shouldn’t have been considering in the first place.

People like the ratings, though.Hell,  I even kind of like them (mostly because they come with better tasting notes than the winemaker’s).  I am loathe to go without them completely. I think they just need more humility by way of broader strokes. If I have to create some kind of numbering system for wine rating, I’m going to go with the 20-80 scale that baseball scouts use. It is sx-tiers, with grades limited to the tens and “half-grades” at the fives. The 80- grade is extremely rare (it’s Mike Trout and nobody else) and the 20 grade is so low as to not factor into most discussions (you might say Bartolo Colon is 20-grade baserunner, but that’s about it). 50 is average and while half-grades (ie 55, exists), they are used judiciously. A 75 is rare in relation to how rare 80 grades are and so on down the line. This works well for wine not only because it gives nice, understandable tiers and enough wiggle room to make distinctions but because it also implies, through its lineage that different factors could score differently and that would be a welcome addition to the wine conversation in my mind. 65 nose, 50 pairing ability, 60 finish, solid everyday contributor with a chance to develop into something special in 5-10 years. I’d by that wine and start it at shortstop tomorrow.


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