Wine gets people talking, and it's not just the alcohol. Put two or more grape nuts in the same room and they'll bond like soulmates over Mosel riesling or butt heads over delicate Volnay versus jammy California pinot noir. Screw caps versus cork? Get ready to watch the fur fly.
Few subjects, though, get wine nerds worked up the way scores do - more specifically the 100-point system pioneered by influential U.S. critic Robert Parker. For more than a decade, I've eschewed numbers. But beginning with my column this Saturday, I'll be scoring most wines in print and online. The added feature is part of The Globe's grand relaunch this week, a way to give readers a more attractive and user-friendly reading experience. That last part is where scores come in.
So, I feel it's time for me to weigh in on the numbers game.
I'm going to do it with help from the estimable Matt Kramer, columnist with Wine Spectator magazine and author of the aptly titled new book Matt Kramer On Wine: A Matchless Collection of Columns, Essays, and Observations by America's Most Original and Lucid Wine Writer.
Though never a scorer, Mr. Kramer has over the years defended the practice more insightfully, I think, than anyone. It seems appropriate to deliver our two-headed manifesto in point form.
1. Teachers do it. Perhaps the most vociferous objection to point scoring is that it pretends to dissect wine's flavour with absurd mathematical precision. Well, we grade students and figure skaters, don't we? Just because I got a measly 76 on a brilliant third-year political philosophy essay doesn't mean I'm going to blame the education system; I blame the professor.
2. Necessity. Decades ago, when the wine universe was smaller, reviewers tasted no more than 20 or 30 samples in a day, Mr. Kramer notes. It was easy and useful to slice the field into, say, "excellent, very good, good and below average." Today, top writers may cycle through 80 or more wines in a day, thousands in a year. How does one recall which were better than which? Scores "intrinsically allow a taster of numerous wines to impose order upon chaos."
3. Clarity. Though flawed, the 100-point system serves well for "one utterly persuasive reason," Mr. Kramer says. "You as a reader can understand instantly and intuitively the conclusions that a taster has arrived at about the wine." Those of us who are enthralled by wine can never get enough information, he adds. "But the average person has a life to live. They just want to know 'What's a nice wine?' And they want to know two numbers, the score you gave the wine and the number that says the price of the wine."
4. What's wrong with stars? Movie and restaurant critics commonly use a three-, four- or five-star system. Why not wine scribes? I'd argue those reviews serve a different purpose. Readers in such cases have usually already narrowed down their choices based on film genres and cuisine or neighbourhood preferences. They're essentially looking for a thumbs up or thumbs down. And that's assuming they're looking for practical advice at all. A good film or restaurant review, I'd suggest, is offered more for general edification and entertainment's sake than as a shopping guide. You enjoy reading regardless of the final judgment. Those critics also have the luxury of space, generally devoting entire columns to a single movie or restaurant. When it comes to wine, the field of new entries in most markets is too vast for that kind of verbosity; critics would be forced to ignore all kinds of gems.
5. "Wine-value arbitrage." Mr. Kramer coined the phrase to capture what I believe is the 100-point system's most engaging feature. Financial traders practise arbitrage to take advantage of a price difference between two or more markets. In wine coverage, when an alert reader comes across a score of, say, 91 applied to a $12 wine and an 89 for a $30 bottle, the value proposition is drawn into sharp focus. All other things being equal, you'd buy the $12 bottle.
6. You can outsmart the critic. Though most point-score watchers place emphasis on numbers of 90 and higher, Mr. Kramer sometimes takes a contrarian approach. He tends to favour "detailed, austere" wines over mouth-filling blockbusters. When professionals taste through 50 or more samples in a day, he says, the demure contenders often don't rise to the top. "I've always said 88 is really the sweet spot. You'll get really fine wine, sometimes even great wine, but it won't be dramatic." It's analogous to an exquisite small painting, which can be more beautiful, but in a less conspicuous way, than a giant canvas.
7. Numbers are enshrined in wine tradition. In 1855, the French created a classification system for the Bordeaux region, ranking the most esteemed and priciest estates into five tiers, with such names as Lafite and Latour at the top. Other regions, such as Burgundy, have long classified their vineyards in similar fashion. Those too are scoring systems.
8. The death of words? Another rap against numbers is that they undermine the tasting note. I believe this is true, and this is where Mr. Kramer and I slightly part company. In the preface to the Wine and Words chapter of his latest book, Mr. Kramer insists that words still rule. "I know of no wine critic who is content with assigning a score and then shuffling away silently like a Trappist monk." True, but that doesn't mean everyone is reading the prose.
And that brings me to another peril of scoring that readers should bear in mind. The 100-point system can turn not only consumers and winemakers into high-score chasers but critics as well. Producers and retailers love to quote 90-plus reviews to sell bottles. That generates collateral publicity for the generous critic. I think it's not unfair to say Mr. Parker's own unparalleled fame owes a smidgeon of credit to the fact he tends to cover pricey wines that clearly merit big numbers. I'm not suggesting it was strategic on his part to be quoted ad nauseam on retail shelf stickers. But there's an insidious tendency here that may be at play with critics who tend to review less exalted wines: Score 'em high and you'll make a name for yourself.
It may be one more reason to heed Mr. Kramer's advice: Keep your eye on the 88s.