10, 20, 100, STARS OR SMILIES? Ernie Whalley looks at Rating Wines

I’m not mad about the idea of scoring wines. I grew up drinking wine in an age when good wines were treated with reverence and bad ones were scorned* but there was never any attempt to evaluate on a comparative basis other than stating a preference for bottle A over bottle B.  Certainly no one ever attempted to construct a new ‘league table’. We followed the 1855 and subsequent assessments, of course, but never slavishly. We noticed that some wines were in decline and that the star of certain others was on the rise. As wine writing in newspapers and magazines began to proliferate, so rating systems were invented. Some were numeric, usually based on a 0-20 point scale. Others involved stars, glasses (typically 1-5) or a row of happy faces.

Around 1985, everything changed. Robert M.Parker, a young American lawyer who had fallen in love with wine, invented a scoring system he believed would take the mystery, the guesswork out of choosing wine. As methodology it was perfectly suited to the American market where the public, it seems, have little truck with subtle nuances or shades of grey. Here was something they could relate to. Robert Parker’s rating system employs a 50-100 point quality scale (Parker Points®), based on the belief that the various 20 point rating systems – popular in wine competitions – do not provide enough flexibility, often resulting in compressed and inflated wine ratings. In Parker’s words “The Wine Advocate (the newsletter he founded)  takes a hard, very critical look at wine, since I would prefer to underestimate the wine’s quality than to overestimate it. The numerical ratings are utilized only to enhance and complement the thorough tasting notes, which are my primary means of communicating my judgments to you.“ Thus a wine rated  96-100 will be “an extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.” One rated 89-90 will be “a  barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character, with no noticeable flaws.” A 60 – 69 wine, on the other hand, will be below average “containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.”  Wines rated  50 – 59 are deemed “unacceptable.” Trouble is numbers such as 93/100, especially when awarded by an influential taster, tend to become set in stone. In the minds of winemakers, wine buyers and wine lovers these can become as exact and absolute as a blood pressure reading or the Premiership league table at the season’s end. Ratings are of so much interest because of their effect on producers, markets and consumers. We are , however much we dislike them, stuck with ratings. Robert Parker’s influence is enormous, particularly across the pond, much as people like to say it’s on the wane. A wine’s commercial success can vary greatly on whether it receives an 89 or a 91. Yet there are only two points between the scores. Minute differences in scores move the market, increasing or decreasing the price the wine can command. As the apocryphal saying goes “Parker gives a wine 89, no one buys it. Parker gives a wine 91, no one can afford it.” Taking advantage, certain wine producers have deliberately sculpted their wines to get attention and  garner better scores – a process that’s become known as ‘Parkerisation’. This is hardly Parker’s fault. In fairness Parker does issue a caveat that evaluating a wine and assigning a score to a beverage that will change and evolve, in many cases for up to 10 or more years, is “analogous to taking a photograph of a marathon runner.”Parker defends scoring as “important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group”. He also asserts that  “there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” This is very sound.

When I started writing ‘So it Goes…’ my monthly column in Food & Wine Magazine I decided I needed a rating system so readers could take advantage of the work I’d put in at the numerous tastings I’d attended during the year. I constructed my own 0-20 point system (though some might be churlish and call it a 7-20 point system as wines rated 8 or less I regarded as ‘undrinkable’.  I should stress that it was just invented for my own purposes. No wine is likely to fluctuate in price because Ernie Whalley has rated it high or low. And amen to that, I say. The system, subsequently modified from the original,now  goes something like: 18-20 = Stellar Wine 17-17.8 = Class act 15-16.8 = Stylish wine, some excitement as you move up the scale. 13-14.8 = Decent drinking 11-12.8 = Reliable and value for money 10-10.8 = OK as “party wine” 8-9.8 = You might like it, I didn’t Under 8 = Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Lately, I’ve been using an excellent iPhone/iPod touch/iPad app called ‘Wine Notes’. It’s fun, quick and easy to use and I’d recommend it as a useful tool for the wine aficionado. I have petitioned Bill Lindmeir the inventor to add a user customizable choice of 10, 20, or 100 rating systems. At the moment it’s 10. So if you see a wine I’ve scored on Facebook, Twitter or Forkncork using Wine Notes  just double the score. 8.6/10 will equate to 17.2/20 on my 20 point scale. I’d recommend, to anyone interested in the subject of scoring, pages 38-45 of the English wine writer Hugh Johnson’s autobiography ‘WINE – A life uncorked’ (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson). To my mind it’s the most commonsense that’s ever been written on the subject.  Chapter 5 of Gérard Basset’s ‘The Wine Experience’ (Kyle Cathie) contains some interesting stuff too. *I received my first taste of and tuition in wine back in 1956 from my Aunt Ethel who knew a deal about good Burgundy despite her mispronunciation. “This is called ‘Newits’. What do you think of it?” (‘Newits’ was, of course, Nuits Saint-Georges).