Monday, January 1, 2007

What's the point?

Before you read this post you need to know that, contrary to what you read and hear all too often, the words variety and varietal are not interchangeable; the former is a noun; the latter is an adjective. Chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon—are the names of grape varieties. Wines named after grape varieties—chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon—are varietal wines.

Plus, if a wine is named after a grape variety, wine from that grape must represent a minimum of 75% of the volume. Please remember this fact as you read on.

~A friend of mine in grade school used to justify his recurring grade of 65 with a shrug of his shoulders and the comment, “it’s better than halfway.”
~Of course, what my friend meant was that 50 out of 100 is only halfway, so 65 was a good grade to him. The New York City school system felt the same way and so my friend always passed, whether or not he learned anything.
~I suppose I am of a certain age to measure success by way of a 100-point scale (I’m told it isn’t necessarily done that way in school anymore). In any event, the fellow who made popular the well-known 100-point scoring system to rate wine entered grade school a year or two after I had, so he surely must have been influenced by the grading system—or maybe not.
~This is how the 100-point wine rating system has been explained to me: 5 points for color; 15 for aroma; 20 for flavor-finish; 10 for overall potential for aging, the wine not the rater.
~It took me only a few seconds to realize that the categories add up to 50. Was I was being taken for a fool?
~When I asked about the discrepancy I was told that every wine that shows up for the rating starts with 50 points. I wish that was the case with bowling points when I show up at the alley.
~Obviously, if all wines receive 50 points out of 100 just for showing up, it is a 50-point rating system—or maybe not.
~Under this rating system a wine scoring below 75 is usually considered faulty—my old friend in grade school would have been ecstatic with that grade. I figure that if a rating of 75 denotes a faulty wine the 100-point wine rating system that I thought to be a 50-point system really is a 25-point system—or maybe not.
~ It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that 75 out of 100 represents 75%. But this is a 50-point system impersonating as a 100-point system, then a rating of 75 is in fact a rating of 25, which would be 50% and that, I suppose, can be considered a low score or a faulty wine. But this rating system is getting complex—or maybe not.
~People who follow the ratings seem to get excited only when a wine scores 85 or above (had my friend in grade school received an 85% mark he might have died young of a heart attack). But then, what percentage does an 85 score represent when the scoring starts at 50? Under the 50-point system, that 85 really represents 35, and that represents 70%.
~By now you must be wondering where the rabbit is in this hat. I’m getting bogged down. Let me try to make some sense by analyzing what the 50 points mean.

5 for color:
Unless a wine is oxidized (brown) or the wrong color from what it says it is (red instead of white), I suspect most wines score 5. I am not sure if clarity is considered in the equation; since many people using this scoring system prefer unfiltered wines, I have to guess not. Unfiltered wines often have things floating in them. I likely would score an unfiltered wine 2 out of 5, but I don’t score wines, so I don’t matter.
15 for aroma:
This category is tricky because some wines smell a lot better than others, and it is supposed to be that way. I suspect points are lost based on the weakness of the sought-after smell. I do hope the ones with the right smell are getting the top points allowed. But how can anyone be sure, especially with that pesky 75% varietal rule that allows the remaining 25% of volume to be from any variety than the one named on the label? That 25% must certainly have an effect on aroma, or why else would the rule be in place?
20 for flavor-finish:
Flavor is not so tricky a category because once you know what the grape variety is you should get a certain flavor profile from the wine; of course, there is that pesky 75% rule again, but let’s not quibble and give benefit of doubt here.
As for finish, many in the industry agree (count me in) that the mark of a good wine is a lingering, fine finish—easy to score that one. But I do wonder if the value of flavor and finish are equally divided in those 20 points. Hmmm. I might weight finish more, but again, I don’t matter.
10 for overall potential for aging:
Industry estimates are that upwards of 90% of all wines sold in the U.S. are consumed within hours of purchase, which makes me wonder if this category implies that more than 90% of wines produced are not eligible for the 100, er, 50-point system. But if the 90% of wines are eligible, do they forfeit these 10 points, which would then make this a 40-point rating system—whew!

~I’ve been toying with you. I’ve known all along that people who follow this wine rating system don’t take much stock in any wine that scores below 90, which always leaves them stuttering when someone asks about the difference between a wine that scores 89 and one that scores 90. This is where a 100-point system would begin to merge with a 50-point system—in the former, 89 is one percentage point away from 90; in the latter, the numbers represent 78 and 80% of 50, a 2 percentage point spread.
~The general answer scorers and score followers give when asked about the difference between 89 and 90 is that the judge favored the 90 a little more. That’s a big help.

And so I ask: where have the established parameters been quantified, agreed to, and recorded so that the wine rating system can be “proved” as in proofing the validity of an equation?
Seems the answer is nowhere.
Those who rate wine by this system claim that after a while they don’t need to refer to their numbers; a sniff and a taste and the overall number rating appears in their head.

~Now I get it. We need not concern ourselves with the numerical wine rating system at all; it is completely arbitrary. The ratings are the hedonistic expression of the individual/s who apply the scores. In fact, the system’s defenders say that the numbers are less important than the commentary that accompanies them.
~I agree. So why do the numerical ratings get top billing? And if the benefit is in the words, why rate the wines with a number at all?
~It appears the numerical wine rating system is a fast, easy way for its practitioners to capitalize from that age-old human condition: there are leaders and there are followers, and the latter far outnumber the former.
~The world also provides us with people who take matters into their own hands and go their own way. In wine, they are the winemakers and wine consumers who aren’t chasing a points system, whether 100, 50, 40, or 25.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All rights reserved.

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