Where Wine Ratings and Masking Meet
Critics of the 100 Point Rating System and pro-masking folks find common ground.
I’d like to see everyone get on board with the idea that the 100-point rating scale for wines is a real benefit for consumers for the simple reason that it provides them with more information about a critic’s assessment of wine that they may otherwise not have without those digits.
“I swear to God if he writes about the 100 point scale I’m gonna spew all over this screen.” I know some of you readers are thinking this. I want to urge you to get some Handiwipes and a towel.
But I didn’t start it. In fact, Randy Caparoso started it (continued it?) with his article at Wine Industry Advisor entitled, “The Enduring Mythos of Wine”. His argument boils down to this:
“We may truly want to believe that a 95-point wine is better than an 89-point wine, but logic tells you that the critics or magazines conjuring these scores are as partial as anyone. All quality ratings are personal—the opposite of objective.”
Here’s the thing: if anyone seeing a critic assign 89 points to a wine believes those points represent some sort of objective assessment of the wine based on formulas and calculations, then these folks handlers need to make sure there is no butter knife in their general vicinity, let alone a sharp object nearby.
Randy’s concern is that a number assigned to a wine gives the impression of objectivity (scientific objectivity, even) when in fact there is no objectivity in evaluating wine; that the project of wine assessment is in fact entirely personal. And of course, this view is correct. It is entirely a subjective thing for the simple reason that the reader will never be able to experience how the critic’s palate transfers signals to their brain.
The 89 point score is in fact the critic’s precisely rendered response to the question, “how does this wine compare in quality to other wines you’ve tasted.” This is a legitimate question when you consider that there are hundreds of thousands of other wines available to taste and purchase.
Another way of understanding the numerical rating is as an adjective.
Randy and other critics of the 100-point rating system almost always fail to mention as they disparage the rating scale as faux objectivity that this score is usually if not always directly adjacent to a written description of the wine. It doesn’t stand alone. It can be used all by itself by the consumer and that is their choice; and not a particularly bad choice if they are familiar with the critic and their palate. But the rating almost always originates right next to a written description. It doesn’t stand alone and therefore represents anything like a single, objective assessment of the wine. It is an adjective modifying the written review. One more piece of information about the wine…from the perspective of the critic. How can more information be bad?
Often, you’ll hear critics of the 100 point wine rating scale demand to know how a critic can possibly discern the difference between an 89 point wine and a 90 point wine? The single-digit difference between them, they note, can’t possibly be objectively calculated in the way the two numbers suggest, but in fact, the difference is entirely one of impression. And of course, they are correct in this. But this shouldn’t be couched as a criticism of the rating scale, but rather one more indication that what we are dealing with is a critic’s impression of the wine.
More than others, wine writers understand the significant nuance that goes into assessing the character and quality of wine. These are complex objects that speak to place, time, material, production method, rules, and regulations. This nuance is what many if not most wine writers love so much about wines. They are intellectually satisfying as well as sensory objects. The idea of placing a number on a wine (even though its not always JUST a number) seems diminishing of that nuance and this, I think, is at the source of so many writers’ opposition to something as seemingly precise as a 100 point rating scale.
I think there must also be some dismay among critics of the 100 point rating scale that after so many years of consistent public denigration of these numbers they still exist and are still used prolifically across the industry not just by critics but by retailers, data manipulators, and consumers. The pushback has been entirely ineffective. No doubt this creates frustration.
In his article on myths in wine, Caparoso suggests wine writers use the same formula the New York Times book reviews used to create their “Top Books of 2021”:
“these writers used what all wine critics should seriously consider when making their assessments: words. They used words to summarize each book, parse distinctions, and highlight their significance—even while pointing out strengths and weaknesses. The benefit: readers receive the information necessary to make their own choices.”
Caparoso is convinced that “It seems perfectly possible to evaluate wines the same way, without erroneous use of numbers. We just have to start demanding this from the wine media.”
This perspective reminds me of pro-maskers. They insist we should insist folks continue to wear masks…DESPITE the fact that most folks don’t want to continue to wear masks. We can demand writers abandon the 100-point scale, but consumers don’t want to see the 100 point wine rating scale abandoned. It works for them. It’s more information about the critic’s assessment of wine.
This condemnation of the 100 point wine rating scale will not be the last. If tradition holds, there will be another 4 or 5 articles published through 2022 that point out that the 100 point wine rating scale isn’t the objective evaluation of wine it presumes and appears to be. We will read these articles. The critics will read these articles. Consumers will read these articles. And that will be followed by the continued use of the 100 point rating scale by critics and consumers. Because it works.