Critics seem to score wines quite generously. All the reviews I read seem to be in the range of about 86 to 96 out of 100. But quality surely is more variable, and in my experience often worse, than that. Why the high-scoring convention?
That’s a good observation and a fair question. I can’t speak for all critics, but I can speak for myself, and I assume that what I’ll say can be extrapolated to apply more generally. First and foremost, it’s true: A lot of wine is mediocre to lousy and certainly not worth a score of 86 or better. Why don’t you see more lower scores? Because such wines rarely see the light of print (or pixels) in the form of published reviews. Personally, I don’t waste too much time telling people what not to buy (though sometimes I do when I think it’s warranted). It’s not because I’m afraid to slam the dreck.
There is generally not much point to warning people about terrible wines. You see, wine criticism is not like movie, television or theatre criticism, where people are as eager to know about the bad productions as the good. In those worlds, there are only so many options available to readers in any given week, and it’s a manageable task for a publication to review them all. Besides, movies, television and theatre productions tend to get lots of hype. People become aware of them because of advertising or scuttlebutt on fawning entertainment-news programs or coverage on talk shows and the like. There’s great utility in a newspaper lambasting the bad ones while also celebrating the good ones. “Gosh, I almost went to see the latest De Niro comedy but I read that the script is pathetic and the acting is overwrought.” As a result, a culture has grown up around critical writing in those disciplines where much of the fun for readers is to delight in the sharp barbs. The same goes for restaurant criticism, where nothing is more delicious than nasty.
When it comes to wine, by contrast, there are literally thousands of choices available in stores in a big city in a given week. The selection changes all the time, too. If a reviewer were to spend a column covering eight or 10 wines that merited scores of, say, 72 or 79 (which is not great for a wine), readers would soon tune out and turn away. They’d begin following other columnists who tend to recommend what to buy rather than what to stay away from.
On one level, I would love to write at length about bad wines. As any honest critic will tell you, it’s easier and more gratifying (and earns you a bigger Twitter following) to lambaste what you hate rather than write about something that’s moderately good. I would argue that virtually all restaurant critics are cited or remembered more for reviews in which they skewered detestable establishments in the strongest terms than for pieces in which they awarded, say, a moderately good two stars to a decent, inoffensive brunch spot that had prompt and courteous service.
Wine criticism, alas, doesn’t work that way. Wine readers are far more interested in drinking well than in reading about Carlo Rossi California Blush or Sawmill Creek Dry Red Bag in Box. (Oops, did I just write two negative reviews?)