Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Giving Wine a Pop Quiz

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 14 - 2010

Wine, even basic-yet-tasty wine, really fascinates me. This is why I loathe the 100-point scale for assessing wine. Scoring wines in this way is…you know, I can’t actually say what I’m thinking, because I want this to remain a family-friendly site.... Okay, how's this: giving wine a numeric score is the crowning achievement of the boundless limits of superficiality. Before someone raises the alarm and I have to start stuttering and backpedaling, I should say that those who engage in this practice are not themselves superficial (to my knowledge). My issue is that, even if you read the tasting note (which is supposed to illuminate the score), grading a wine so specifically is a perfunctory way of taking stock. Sounds like a paradox, I know, considering that spending the time and mental energy to award a score ought to allow you to get lots out of the wine, but it fails to take contextual usage into account. Does anyone--other than a wine critic--drink wine with a mind to a hierarchical score? Even wine critics (well, most of them, anyway) don't do this for pleasure. I can tell you what we (since I suppose I’m one, too) do is compartmentalize: we taste through a whole lineup of wines as a part of the job, little sips and sniffs at a time, no food, except for the occasional piece of bread or a cracker. For good old fashioned joy, however, we just pop the cork and go. Wine is (and has always been) meant for that much nobler pursuit.

Wine is part of a larger "something" than simply tasting through a group of wines. Certainly we drink wines without food, but in those situations we are--ideally--having a larger experience not fully dependent upon the wine. Wine is an obvious partner for food, but it is even better when shared communally, food or no. Scoring creates a hierarchy, placing some wines over others and pushing people to buy the “best”--which in the case of wine, is not only an extremely subjective notion, but is, more importantly, dependent upon the circumstances surrounding its consumption. Here you find a limitation on the relevance of such a detailed assessment of a wine’s quality based on its own merits (especially in relation to its peers). Speaking of peers, here's another problem that often arises with wine judging: how do you grade a sweet Riesling against a dry one? Why would you do that? The sweet wine's peers are other sweet wines, yet they are often the highest scoring wines out of a lineup of Rieslings that range from dry to sweet.

Score Your Wine with Thought for Your Food
You're not going to use a dessert wine with your chicken Tetrazzini, but you might be delighted by an off-dry German Gewürztraminer, especially a Spätlese. Is that twenty-year-old dry Riesling great with your steak? Believe it or not, of course it is! But the Riesling Kabinett from Germany is...well, not the right wine for a hunk of beef. What do you do with that Pinot Noir that is a little too acidic to drink on its own? Do you not buy it because it got an 84? No! Make the purchase and serve a crab salad powered by celery root and radishes! It'll be an absolutely sublime pairing, but the 92-point Pinot Noir that you may want to buy (for no other real reason than that it got a 92) is probably going to clash with the same salad. Judged by its own charms, “free” of outside influences the 84-point wine suffers, but if you serve it with food, it might taste like a wine which, at that moment, is so great that you can't imagine anything better. If that's the case, shouldn't it get 100 points? Oh, but you'd have to specify that it was only that way for the crab salad. Which is what should be said every time someone publishes a score for a wine, because it's only a 92-pointer (and then it’s actually only a 92-pointer for the critic writing about it) when you drink it without unusual external influences--the air quality in the room should be normal, there are no ancillary odors like mildew or a piece or Parmesan on the counter, and of course there can be no food.

Putting Points in Practice
That 92 is not real (oh, but is it ever seductive…). For argument’s sake, let's try to warm up to the 100-point system by applying it in (an imagined) real-time. Think of it as a pop quiz for your wine. Let's say that 92-point wine is not a Pinot Noir but a Côte Rôtie (Syrah-Viognier blend) from the Rhône Valley--Yves Cuilleron’s Terres Sombres, a very fine example from that appellation. However, you’ve chosen to have it at your favorite restaurant with sable in a white truffle nage, which is not a good pairing, so tragically, it'll only get an 81; move on to the leg of lamb with lavender jus and it jumps up to an 88; but with the venison steak and blackberry beurre rouge--it's a 96! But then you catch the eye of Jensen, the chump from your spouse’s office (every office has one) who just walked in the door right as you put a glistening morsel of venison in your mouth, and he decides to come join you, uninvited. You coolly take a sip to still your inner assassin and--oooh…I’m afraid that taste of wine is only going to get a 73…even a great wine can’t wash away the bitter taste of jackass.

Now who is constantly scoring their wines like this, really? I'm sure someone does. It's probably Jensen.

Wine Assessment that Makes Sense
I don’t find anything wrong at all with tasting wine critically. I enjoy it very much, and do it as often as I can. It is stimulating and engaging, and can even offer marvelous emotional rewards. My view is simple: I don’t think that giving wine a numeric grade is a good idea. Perhaps there is a need to use some kind of system to readily communicate the quality of a wine. There are plenty of ways to do it, but I’m not sold on most of them. There is the commonly found 20-point scale, which I find only slightly preferable to the 100-point approach. I’m amused by the people who try to convert the score someone gives in the 20-point system into the 100-point system, as if that would actually tell them anything. A wine that gets a 16.5 would work out to about an 83. Usually the 16.5 is a pretty good wine, but an 83…well, I wouldn’t have wanted to get that score on a test (although, I got plenty of them)! I’m a bigger fan of the zero to three stars approach, because there is much more room for interpretation in this scheme. Of course, some will suggest that this is nothing more than a four-point scale, but that’s only true if you need to see wine assessments in point form.

In the end, I’d just as soon recommend a wine straight up, no ratings. I share how I experienced the wine and try to guide a customer based on their personal tastes, if I happen to know them. Wine is so useful, and even soulful…it seems shameful to me to place it in the straightjacket of a point score.

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  1. Tweets that mention Wine Pairings & Commentary at WineThink » Blog Archive » Giving Wine a Pop Quiz -- Topsy.com Said,

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    Posted on May 14th, 2010 at 1:05 am

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