On Scores & Sales & People
Yesterday I woke up sore and foggy. Six days of pouring for over 75,000 trade and consumers at the Vancouver International Wine Fair. It was a lot of people.
My biggest pet peeve for consumer pouring is describing wine like a chemistry textbook. 85% Cabernet, 18% Merlot, 100% no one knows or cares what this means. Even worse is listing oak regimes. 1 year in 40% new French oak transferred to 3rd use American oak for 17 months racked back to Slovenian casks to settle. Just stop.
For consumers (and dare I say, trade), percentages or oak regimes simply shouldn't matter. The wine should taste whole and complex. Blending and oak should be a hidden process to make that happen. Doing it the opposite way is reading the ingredients to a restaurant recipe before taking a bite or memorizing the ikea instructions before sitting on a newly assembled couch (please note: this was an awkward segue to let everyone know I own my first couch).
Instead of meaningless jargon, I usually say what the wine is, a cocktail vignette of where it's from - and what that means in terms of profile - and then list some descriptors: fruits or spice or earthy bits (wet-wormy earth! dry hay on a hot day!).
For me, reading or hearing descriptions is the most helpful when you're new to wine. Parsing out descriptors from a glass of boozy juice is weird. Sure you taste a rough category: sweet, fruity, dry, savoury, full bodied, bitter, acerbic garbage juice, but then what?
When you have someone else be like, to me this takes like tart blackberries and tree bark, all of a sudden your mouth is full of your grandma's blackberry jam in algonquin park. You feel more connected to that wine, like you understand it better and the next time you taste something similar you can be like this tastes like blackberries, but stewed ones and is that barbequed meat with a hint of smoke? #pro
Tasting and categorizing wines based on descriptors is one way to classify wine.
Then, there is the other way. And actually, I take back what I said before, my most detested way of describing wine to consumers. THE SCORE. The score and only the score. This is a Dornfelder from Alabama. 91 points, big pours. *applause*
We all know the 50-100 point score in describing wine and it has been analyzed and criticized to death. This is a method of assessment that skyrocketed to popularity in the 20th century and dominates wine writing today. The most famous proponent of this system is famed American critic Robert Parker. Critics will describe the wine and then assign it a score that encapsulates it's overall worth. Yes, that's right, there are usually words beneath this number, but as any wine agent, sommelier or wine shop owner will tell you, no one reads these words. What remains is this sensory thing reduced to this baffling one dimensional prison sentence. Technically 80 points and over is good, over 85 is very good, over 90 is outstanding and 95-100 is fairy dust. In practice, anything under 90 is a kiss of death. Put a big 89 point sticker on a value wine and watch it gather dust. Anything over 90 suddenly looks a bit shinier. Regardless of what it tastes like, it has this stamp of approval by this human that none of us have ever met.
There are tons of problems with this type of scoring. Beyond gross simplification, the biggest, fuller bodied wines tend to stand out in huge tasting panels. Often, this type of wine is rewarded, penalizing the restrained and elegant and creating this homogeneity at the top.
That sucks. We all know it sucks. Some reviewers work very hard to not judge this way, but that usually leads to lower scores that no agent in their right mind would use - cough, Jamie Goode giving one of my wines an 87 on my own facebook page, can't wait to write that on the technical sheet never! Lolz.
And yet. This week I woke up to an email from one of my all time favourite producers. Their new release received their best score ever, 98 points from Parker himself and even further, glowing praise on the talent of their team. I was so excited. I screamed in bed and giggled like a girl that my stray white hairs will reveal I am no longer. It wasn't because I would sell more, this wine sells itself because it tastes good and is made by a wicked family. It was actually the score. The number. It got me. I was mesmerized. NINETY EIGHT POINTS. To drink something so close to perfection. There is something in humans that loves the simplicity of it all. The validation. The prestige. God. What an insane thing our industry is based on, but boy does it work good on the human condition.