Tip the 100-point scale on its head
Blame Robert Parker. He started it.
The Wine Spectator jumped on the bandwagon and then virtually every other wine magazine in North America followed suit, including Quench.
Under pressure from its readers, Britain’s august Decanter Magazine (founded in 1975), having resisted for many years, reluctantly adopted the concept.
I’m talking about the 100-point system tasters use to evaluate wines. You’ll find it too in authoritative wine newsletters, like Michael Vaughan’s “Vintage Assessments,” which first appeared in 1990. Initially using a star-only system, Vaughan now rates all the wines in the LCBO’s Vintages’ biweekly releases, averaging around 120 products, using both stars and scores out of 100 points.
I confess that I too became a centurion for my website, changing over from a five-star system (which was really marking out of 10 since I used half-stars as well).
The problem with assigning numbers to wine, whether it be a 20-point system or 100 points, is that it is not scientific. Tasters are human; they may accord a wine 89 points in the morning and when presented with the same wine blind in the evening they may score it one point lower or higher — at best.
The 100-point system is really a misnomer. In practice it’s nominally a 20-point scale because very few writers have given a wine less than 80.
For the Ontario Wine Awards competition, which I have run for 22 years, I instruct the judges to score the wines they are about to blind-taste between 80 and 100. To gain a bronze medal a wine must achieve 86‒87 points; a silver medal, 88‒89 points and a gold 90+ points.
If a panel of, say, four judges was allowed to use the entire scale of 1‒100, the disparity of numbers would skew the results when the scores were averaged. (To ensure that one judge is not out of kilter with his or her colleagues in the numbers department, the panels discuss the flight when everyone has finished tasting; if one member differs egregiously from the others, the wine is re-tasted by all.)
Another problem with the 100-point scale is the propensity for some wine writers to use it for self-promotion, elevating their scores to ensure that their name will appear on neck labels and wine lists — a practice colluded in by liquor boards who know that publishing high scores will guarantee sales.
And then there is the phenomenon of the 100-point wine (Parker again). Receiving such an Olympian score makes the wine an instant icon resulting in a stratospheric price. 100 out of 100 in my book is perfection: there has never been a perfect wine, not even when it was changed from water to wine in Galilee.
In short, numbers are shorthand and mean nothing without a vivid description of the wine.
The problem with any system that evaluates wine by numbers is that the wine itself may taste different to even seasoned tasters depending on the day. Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, propounded the theory of biodynamic farming in the early 1920s based on the position of the moon in the heavens. This inspired the notion that wine will taste better on certain days. The following concept evolved:
Earth days: when the moon is in Earth signs (Capricorn, Taurus, Virgo), this is not the best time to enjoy wine.
Flower days: when the moon is in Air signs (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius), your aromatic wines such as Gewürztraminer or Viognier will taste terrific.
Leaf days: when the moon is in Water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), it’s not a good time to taste wine.
Fruit days: when the moon is in Fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius), that’s the best time to taste wine.
But then again, any day is a good day if you’re tasting wine.
(Now how do you rate this column? … 86 points. Shame on you. Go back and re-read it.)