Numbers, numbers, numbers. You see and hear wine numbers everywhere.
Robert Parker gave this cabernet an 89. This chardonnay was rated 91 by the Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast said 86 for this zin.
I’ve been thinking about wine numbers ever since the “Chardonnay Challenge” appeared as a Wine Spectator cover story. The Challenge involved two tasters, one an expert on California and the other on Burgundy. They compared 20 California and 19 French chardonnays in a blind tasting, using the standard 100-point evaluation scale.
Sure, it was interesting to see which region “won” (it was California, by a nose). But to me the most interesting result was that the two experts differed greatly in their evaluations of the same wines. Of course the experts sometimes agreed, but only on two of 39 wines — and they were one point apart on just two others. The differences? Well they ranged up to 13 points and averaged 5.1 points.
Five points in wine scoring is enormous. The difference between 89 and 94 for example would be the difference between good and spectacular sales. Ask any wine store. It’s BIG. And the differences weren’t due to the regional preferences of the two experts. No, the differences were due to the subjective nature of wine tasting.
So what do we take home from the fact that experts don’t agree? First, unless your genes and your environment have fortuitously provided you with exactly the same tastes as a wine expert, don’t be obsessed with numbers and depend solely on him or her to tell you what to drink.
Second, the common 100-point scale used by many wine periodicals is misleading, especially when the evaluations come from a panel of reviewers. For example, one of the chardonnays evaluated in Wine Spectator received ratings of 95 and 82 from the two experts. A tasting panel would average these and give a rating of 89, but note that this value doesn’t convey anyone’s perception of the wine.
So should wine drinkers believe that there are real differences between wines rated 1, 2, or even several points apart by a tasting panel? Obviously not.
But I’m not condemning wine evaluation; we all need advice in selecting from the hundreds of new wines released each week. What I am condemning is the assumption that there is precision behind the numbers of a 100 point scale. Can you imagine Siskel & Ebert giving TITANIC 96 thumbs up? And then giving AS GOOD AS IT GETS 95 thumbs — as though that was a meaningful difference?
No, I’d use the 0-100 numbers only as a general guide. In fact, I’d convert them to an A-B-C or 1 to 5 stars grading system. At Wine PocketList, we grade on an A+, A, A-, and B+ scale. Anything lower and what good is a recommendation? But an A- wine at a great price makes it worth a taste.
I’d also ask wine periodicals to give us some help with this. Show people that wine evaluation is not an exact science and replace the inaccurate, deceptive 100-point evaluation scale with a simpler scale that is more likely to express genuine differences.
Something everyday wine drinkers can understand, and use. In short, get real.
John Vankat, PhD
The Wine PocketList