Wine is scary and intimidating. I get it; it has its own language full of science-y words. It comes from places we’ve never heard of, from grapes we can’t pronounce.
It doesn’t help, of course, that there is a whole fleet of wannabe wine experts just waiting to correct that word you mispronounced, or inform you that even though the wine you like is ”OK,” they like one that is, by far, better. And just how do they know that this wine of theirs is superior?
It got a huge score, naturally.
Before I proceed to rip apart the wine-scoring system that Americans cling to like cellophane-wrapped cheese, I want to point out that we have come a long way in our wine journey. Before wine became hip in this country, we were a Jack-and-Coke, Seven-and-Seven, cosmo-drinking culture. Wine was for snobs or elitists or Europeans. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to go to any city and not find at least one wine bar. We no longer associate all pink wine with sweet swill, or turn our nose up at something foreign. Walk into any supermarket today, and you will find a highly developed wine section with multiple offerings spanning the globe—a far cry from the olden days of one wall of wine that featured domestic, cheap chardonnay and merlot. Well done, America!
So … why—with all this wine sophistication and savvy that consumers now have—do we still hold tight to stupid scores?
Every time someone tells me that wine XYZ got 98 points, or that Chateau Crème de la Crème got a disappointing 87, I start twitching, and my insides get hot. There are so many things about the point scale that bother me, but the No. 1 thorn in my side is the notion that I am supposed to care about that number. There is a pervasive idea that we should respect a system that reduces wine to nothing more than a high school science project graded by a potentially burnt-out expert who may or may not be distracted with thoughts of their long-overdue Hawaiian vacation.
Giving a wine a score—a hard and fast number to hang around its neck like a noose—does nothing positive for the wine industry. In fact, I will say it has been the greatest hindrance to our blossoming wine culture. It infantilizes our decision-making and hogties us from being able to discover what we like about certain wines. Take me, for example: I happen to love wines that are bracingly acidic. I want there to be so much raging acid in my wine that it stings my tongue and makes me wince a little. What if gave 100 points to every wine that resulted in a slight chemical burn? It seems silly for a professional to tout such a concept, but I assure you it is no different than Robert Parker awarding 100 points to wines that are too-concentrated, overly alcoholic, hyper-extracted fruit-bombs. The only benefit I’ve ever found in such ridiculousness is that if Parker gave it a big score, I knew I’d hate it. My wallet and I are very grateful for that, because the other pitfall is, of course, that as soon as a wine reaches Wine Spectator/Wine Advocate stardom, not only does that wine immediately sell out; you are guaranteed to see that wine double in price, if you ever see it again.
Points give consumers the false idea that there is such a thing as a “perfect” wine: 100 points awarded for being flawless! According to that guy. On that one day. And that guy’s palate on that day. By giving power to the points, we fail to acknowledge that wine is a moving target. It is a living thing affected by all kinds of variables, the most important of which is you. I actually feel sorry for wines that get 100 points; chances are, they will never achieve that status again, and thus, they’ll never be quite as good as they used to be. In that same vein, I feel pretty sorry for us consumers, too: We will constantly be subjected to a wine industry chasing those big scores and crafting wines to appeal to what that guy likes—row after row of wines like little Stepford wives that are perfectly bland and soulless.
I often wonder if the scores these wines get would change if the circumstances were different when the wines were tasted. Maybe that Central Coast syrah wouldn’t taste like 95 points with a plate of yellowtail sashimi. Just maybe, in that same scenario, the 87-point chenin blanc just got a little bit better? Points eliminate context. Are we always just drinking wine alone, without food, in a vacuum—or do you actually eat during the day? Just last night, I opened a bottle of Spanish cava with some friends as we downed a bucket of cheap fried chicken. It was glorious (seriously, one of the best pairings you’ll ever have), and the bubbles were exquisite. Would I have enjoyed it any less if the cava received an 82? Nope. And I find the very notion of my pleasure being dictated by a number irresponsible and more than just a little bit laughable.
“I give that donut a solid 91!”
“That massage was an 88 at best.”
“Your house is lovely, but there’s no pool, so you get an 83.”
Sounds ludicrous, right?
Scores will obviously continue to be used, and despite my ranting, I do understand why; I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Scores act like little life vests to shoppers drowning in a sea of options. The idea is that scores help people paralyzed with the fear of buying the “wrong” wine. I’m here to tell you there is no such thing: No matter what the score is, you’ll always be faced with the unknown flavor in the bottle. Scores are not a guarantee that you’ll like the wine. They simply imply that someone likes the wine, and maybe you will, too.
I feel certain that you know your palate better than anyone else, and you probably know more about wine than you realize.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.