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Bigger than myself: Vintage 2009 and the scoring of wine.

March 18, 2010

The topic of scoring wines is widely debated. When I first started taking notes I considered it the norm to assign a score. These days I cannot claim that I am immune to the effects of scores but I vaccinate regularly. When confronted with two ostensibly similar wines that I have no experience with I will invariably go for the 90 pointer over the 87 pointer. If I read the tasting notes I might very well opt otherwise. Because I am in the wine industry I am lucky enough to taste most of the wines that I take home. In the case of wines I haven’t tasted I most often rely on prior experience with a producer or the recommendation of a trusted colleague. On occasion I do take home wine based on professional reviews. In regard to these wines I might contend that I’d  rather not know about scores. They only mess with my head. But then why did I buy them in the first place? I will likely have more to say about the nature of scoring wine in some future post. I don’t disagree completely with the idea of scoring wines. It has it’s place, but I would like to argue that in the case of 2009 Bordeaux point scores should be abandoned.

Red Bordeaux seemingly defines the world of fine wine. It is pretty much the only region that is implied when, without any geographical context, one posits a particular year as great. So many times I’ve carded a young customer and informed them that they were born in a notoriously great year before realizing that I should qualify my statement with “for red Bordeaux”. It is as if it is understood that Bordeaux is the be all and end all of red wine. Sure I might disagree because there are so many great wine regions and they all have their great vintages (somehow many of them happen to correspond to great Bordeaux vintages) but Bordeaux is undoubtedly the best known apogee of red wine.

Everybody knows ‘en primeur’ is coming up. The Bordelais will be slinging an already notorious vintage; 2009 is said to have been a perfect growing season to rival the likes of any other. Given the product of such meteorology only human error would account for less than profound wine. In the Bordeaux region there is presently no lack of well equipped and well qualified human effort aimed at producing wine demanding years in the cellar and profundity in the pockets. Speculation has, at least in theory if not in practice, already begun. There is nothing one can do about the prices of the First Growths, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Lafleur and many others but the prices of countless other wines will all too often be determined by the scores awarded to them over the course of the next few years.

I think it would be awesome if for the much anticipated 2009 Bordeaux vintage critics just published their tasting notes and not any point scores. Given the confluence of  a great region and a great vintage what need is there for scores. No writer ever reviews every wine in Bordeaux and in the case of good vintages they always tell us to be on the lookout for inexpensive and unknown wine because there’s a better chance it will be a good value. For the 2009 vintage of Bordeaux I’d love to see critics continue to give the unabashed opinions their readers have come to love them for and forget the essentially meaningless numbers. Let the world know that the vintage is great and that there are deals to be had but cause those who would look into the matter to look into it a little more. What would that wine merchant, who for years paid particular attention to numbers between 90 and 100, do about choosing and pricing his wines. In actuality abandoning scores would likely do little to change pricing schemes but it might at least make things more interesting. I can just imagine someone saying “errr…umm…well this would have been a 100 point wine”.

I can understand the desire of the wine writer to direct the consumer to a pleasurable experience but might the writer misdirect the consumer with a numeric score? Critics are always saying that their tasting notes and not their scores should be the ultimate guide in choosing a wine. They also comment on how their own tasting notes do not make for very compelling reading.  I think they are right to think that most people won’t find tasting notes particularly compelling. There are however many who will find scores all too compelling. So if the less compelling article is considered more important then why place a more compelling and less meaningful article right beside it. It may be better to leave scores alone and let people read the notes unhindered. Notes sans scores might better direct a consumer to an understanding of the inherent qualities of a wine which should serve them well in their quest for wines they like.

Regardless of concentrated efforts against them there will invariably be people in every industry who successfully hawk their substandard wares. Consumers should be on guard and media sources can act as beacons with their honesty. I want reputable critics to keep reviewing wines for as long as they please to do so. I applaud the notable figures of wine writing for making the world’s great bounty of fine wine more accessible through their work and I respect their desire to protect the consumer from the artifice of marketing. The world of wine today is however different from the world that presently prominent critics started up in. Wines are not always accorded praise based on the prices they have fetched for centuries but rather often on the judgments of a population of widely traveled consumers. There are also many qualified tasters in sales and media who have little stake in selling or promoting one wine over another. The wine industry is booming and there are a plethora of resources with which the consumer might educate themselves. Attention paid to scores does nothing to educate the consumer and in the long run may only serve to confuse them in their quest to find wines they genuinely adore.

There may be justifiable exceptions. I don’t think any wine needs a score to succeed but in the case of  some brand new up and coming star a score might be in order. A critic might think it unfair not to give them the leg up that so many other wines have gotten from high scores in great vintages. Also if the 2009 vintage turns out to be a stinker then maybe critics would have more reason to continue grading wines but I still don’t think any vintage needs scores. But if it is the wondrous vintage it is being hyped up to be then I think it would be an inspired move on the part of prominent critics (Parker, to a wide world of wine buyers and drinkers you are the Bordeaux (and Rhone and California) god, you shook things up with your reviews of the great 1982s and you could do it again for the 2009s,  if you were the only one to live up to my ridiculous vision the effect would likely be doubly profound) to abandon their scoring of wine at least this once.

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