I am a wine critic. And so, of course, I am called on to judge the quality of thousands of different wines every year. Not just to describe them or to give an opinion on their quality but also to score them and rank them in a league table. And that’s where the trouble starts.
It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the absurdity of giving a number score to a work of art or, worse still, an artist. Salvador Dalí had huge fun scoring great artists (including himself) on the basis of design, color, and composition-but that says far more for his sense of provocation and irony than it does for the principle itself. When it comes to wine, alas, US wine critics, starting with Robert Parker, have convinced us that awarding an absolute score out of 100-to any wine, regardless of year or country of origin-is not only possible but actually in the best interests of the consumer. No one doubts that such scores mean something to a palate as discerning as the Maryland guru's, but only a mind reader could understand the tiny nuances that distinguish an average-vintage California Merlot awarded 89 points from a greatvintage sweet South African wine awarded 88 points.
The fact is, an absolute score serves only to flatter the self-esteem of wealthy buyers. It must be a real ego trip to know that you can afford the perfection of a wine rated 100/100. The rest of us must, meanwhile, surf the top-scoring options in search of wines within our price range. The sooner a critic awards that score-to the newly made wine (why not?) or, better still, within one or two years of bottling-the more useful it is for that huge army of budding speculators looking to buy the latest vintage at the right price, whether to drink it themselves or, increasingly these days, to sell it on to buyers in Asia and elsewhere.
Then there is the other kind of wine critic, who admits that their scores are quite obviously relative, understandable only in the context of a particular type of wine, a particular vintage, and, indeed, a particular preference (meaning you personally prefer the wine awarded 90 points to the wine awarded 88 points). Such critics are accused of cowardice, of being unable to do their duty courageously for the benefit of their public. They are reproached by the average consumer for assigning more or less the same score every year to the same (good) wines made by the same (good) producers. We may well point out, however, that this is only natural, given a consistent quality of production that in good years or bad brings out the best in the vintage and the terroir. Idiots will simply see this as a veiled admission that we are in the pay of those producers. They insist that even if we won't or can't give an absolute score to the wine, then we could at least award an absolute score to the vintage to help people understand our scores from one vintage to another. But that's just as pointless-and equally impossible. How do you award points to a vintage?
Do you base it on the value of the worst wines, or the best wines, or the average value of the wines tasted, or the average of the average? You could use computers, I suppose. But what use is that when trying to determine how much pleasure a wine will give when it reaches drinkability, which for wines from the greatest vineyards is definitely not going to be on the day of tasting? A skilled taster will, indeed, predict the likely evolution of a young wine and give a "prognostication" (the only way to put it) about how good it will be once it is fully mature- a maturity that might come to pass five years, or 10 years, or sometimes 20 years after this first tasting.
What right to judge?
And it doesn't end there. As scary as it is, there is only one question worth asking when the voices of contradiction can't agree among themselves: "By what right do we declare one wine, one terroir, or one method of fermentation to be better than another?" Conventional wisdom doesn't help here, since it's invariably tainted by ideology. If you say, for instance, that it's better to buy minor wines from a great vintage than great wines from a minor vintage, that will be anathema to anyone who doesn't believe in a hierarchy of terroirs. But it's even worse if you take the opposite position-that it's better to buy great wines from minor vintages because they will always be more elegant than small wines from great vintages, and more reasonably priced, too!
All of which goes to show that a whole bunch of arithmetic scores is not the way to educate consumers about wine. What we critics have to do is teach people to compare their tasting sensibilities with our own. This starts by helping consumers to discover what they like or what they are seeking based on the reviews that we provide. It does not mean spoon-feeding them with ready-made critical evaluations on the misguided assumption that they are too lazy to digest the information themselves. A difficult duty, for sure-but it's our duty nonetheless!