by Peter Pharos

I’m A Hundred On That

“Peter,” one of my fellow diners said, “you have written about wine scores a couple of times, haven’t you?”. Well, time for another one I guess.
Why do we keep coming back to the value of scores? Their ubiquity and commercial impact must be a major reason. In almost every wine conversation there is someone that declares “I don’t believe in scores and critics anymore”, which immediately transports me to middle school and the self-important bore who informed us that Nirvana “sold out” so he doesn’t listen to them anymore. Well, the rest of us do. (And these days the bore works in the small-town branch of a regional bank.)

For many, the issue is one of deep philosophical conviction. “Wine”, they boom from an imaginary pulpit, “cannot be reduced to a number!” Which, given no critic publishes scores without tasting notes, is the sort of argument that grabs Dorothy by the arm and dances off on its way to see the Wizard. But then again, these people don’t like tasting notes either. (I’ve in the past suggested interpretative dance as an alternative.)

Wine writers have a cunning variant of this argument. The scores dominate, they say. And tasting notes are dull and repetitive, they say. That’s not what they are in wine writing for, they say. They want to tell the stories. Talk about the people. And talk about themselves: tell you exactly why they liked this wine, what they were doing at the time, and how it made them feel (besides, one assumes, drunk). I get it. Sure, I mean, who doesn’t? Especially the last bit, as everyone’s favourite subject is themselves.

But here is the catch. If you want my precious life minutes to tell me your story, in this age of plenty you are setting yourself against some pretty stiff competition. You see Hemingway wants to tell me his story too, and his has bulls and marlins and World Wars and stuff. Chances are I am reading you on the fly, trying to gauge if the Chinon I am thinking of adding to my digital cart will be too acidic for my taste. Asking me if I want to read 2,000 words on how the local gravel felt in your hands or on the life story of Ganache, the owner’s mule, is not unlike me opening the door one morning and seeing you in an ill-fitting suit asking me if I want to hear the Good News. (And we all know that the only time Ganache put on a plough was the day they took the pictures for the website.)

The more astute will see a more practical benefit to wine writers skipping scores. By definition, a critic will need to be critical, which is likely to leave the criticised unhappy. But wine is a small village where everyone knows each other, so leaving people unhappy is bad both for karma and for business. Vague, undefined expressions of approval keep everyone happy and gainfully (self-) employed – and could theoretically stand up in court. A £10 supermarket Malbec can be “hugely enjoyable” with steak, after a long day at work. And of course drinking a £300 Super Tuscan at a posh restaurant on the producer’s dime can be “hugely enjoyable” too. The onus is on the reader to pick up the context. After all, isn’t all wine, except Bacchus, hugely enjoyable compared to an enema?

If you try to follow the rest of the criticisms people level at wine scores, you will end up thinking that it’s only very recently they left a hunter-gatherer tribe or escaped from Foucault’s basement. Their free time must primarily be consumed by the writing of furious emails to customer service departments. (“Dear Uber, I feel offended that you are asking me to boil down the complex, three-dimensional human being that is my driver Lukas, the automotive marvel that is his white Toyota Corolla, and the architectural depth of the route from Piccadilly Station to Salford, to a rating out of five stars.”; “Dear Marks and Spencer, Please explain to me the difference between six and seven in the statement ‘The store is an inspiring place to shop’”, “Dear Trip Advisor, As I am not a trained scientist specialising in sanitation, and you did not provide me with the levels of bacteria that correspond to your abstract numbering system, I am unable to comment on my room’s cleanliness.”) You would think the conceptual difference between assessment and measurement is a fairly straightforward one, but it seems it’s beyond many wine drinkers.

There are reasonable complaints to be made about wine scoring, but these largely involve the practitioners, not the system. Pretty much everyone can understand most scales, and most people can learn how to rate reasonably accurately to a scale. However, this doesn’t mean they will put in the effort required to learn it, or even that they will apply what they have learned. Inclination here plays a part. Some people have more of an affinity for rankings than others. Some do it semi-obsessively, caring deeply about fidelity and consistency; some are je m’en fous. (Famously, one of Facebook’s early iterations was a site for rating people’s attractiveness. The intention can be laughable or odious, but one can easily imagine a slightly spooky young programmer like Zuckerberg getting obsessive about the consistency of his scores.) It is up to the readers to evaluate the evaluators, and in the end every sector, and every market, gets the critics it deserves.

Nor do scales need to be consistent or uniform across all critics. Schoolchildren intuitively and effortlessly understand the difference between strict and lenient markers, and the merit involved in the marks of each (they also pick up who is a consistent and reliable market and who isn’t). In every hobby sector I’ve ever followed, critics having a personality and a style of criticism, including different approaches to scoring, is taken for granted. Can you imagine the quizzical reactions a cinephile would elicit if they complained that one cinema critic doesn’t rate the exact same way as another? Indeed, it is implicitly considered a plus, something that contributes to a rich tapestry of discourse.

And it’s this, in the end, that makes me a sceptic of scoring sceptics. The unshakeable suspicion that, despite how much money they might make selling wine, or spend buying it, they don’t really care for it as an object worthy of aesthetic evaluation at all.

Photo by Austris Augusts on Unsplash

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