Thursday, July 12, 2007


~There’s a new book out by Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel titled, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.
~It seems that Mr. Sandel is concerned that the human pursuit of perfection may be our undoing. To bolster his argument he cites sports figures taking steroids, parents selecting the sex or health of their unborn, and other such things that he believes threaten the dignity of human beings.
~ Mr. Sandel didn’t cite it, but I can easily see how one other pursuit of perfection fits into his thesis: wine ratings inflation.
~Right now, because of this “perfection” quest, the majority of wines produced in the world are being devalued by being ignored by most critics and much of the press. That is a slam against the dignity of the wines and the dignity of the producers of the wines.
~In my last blog entry, I wrote my feelings about medals that wines receive from competitions. In one of the comments I received about that entry, the poster wondered that since wineries all over the place seem to have all kinds of medals hanging on their walls, what exactly is the value of the medals they’ve won?
~I could be glib with my answer, but I’ll try to do better:

The value of the medals is in the marketing.

~Let’s face it, the general consumer doesn’t know what perfection in wine is or how to identify it—professionals don’t know that either.
~To many, the Gold Medal symbolizes perfection and so, to the press, only those perfect Gold Medal winners are worthy of attention—Silver and Bronze Medals are just a bunch of white noise. Nothing to market there.
~If Gold represents perfection, we have to wonder why someone upped the ante by creating the Double Gold Medal? How can you double up on perfection?

And the more the press blathers about the Double Gold Medal its eventual devaluation will lead to the Triple Gold Medal.

~Numerical ratings inflation may be even more insidious than medal inflation.
~Consumers assume that the people awarding medals are wine professionals who generally know what they are doing. But to many consumers, wine critics who assign scores are more than professionals, more than mere mortals—they are gurus, mini-gods, celebrities. These people surely must know perfection.
~What’s worse, when mini-gods give high scores to wines, the wine producers often become mini-cults. The wines become allocated and expensive—and you should see what happens to the dignity of the consumers who beg for allocated wines at any price...
~As consumers are desensitized to high scores, the scores need to get higher; what used to be a good score pales; 95 becomes the new 90.

Did you know that major wine scoring people usually don’t bother to tell you about a wine that scores below 85 out of 100?

Have you any idea how many wines they aren’t telling you about?

Is 85 out of 100 a bad score? It wasn’t in high school!

~No one can argue that 85 is perfection, so I guess it makes sense not talk about it. But is 95 out of 100 perfect? Of course not, and so the closer to perfect a score can get, the more frenzy that is generated, and the higher the price that can be had for the wine, plus the more important the wine critic becomes to the consumer.
~Talk about inflation: one day, 98 will become the new 95. When that happens critics will be forced to find wines closer to 100 points.
~What happens after 100 becomes the new 98 is anybody’s guess—maybe a Double 100?
~When it came to identifying premium, top quality, worthwhile wine I used to believe that I knew what I was talking about. After all, I had been consuming wine for decades; I spent hundreds of hours studying wine; I learned how to grow grapes and to make wine; who better to pass judgment on wine?
~What I discovered is that the wine wasn’t really my focus. My focus was that last question, in other words, my focus was me and my heightened sense of my abilities ~How pompous can one get? I had to quickly shoot down my internal inflation. After many years and many situations where wines proved me wrong, I stopped thinking that I knew so much. If only most wine critics could do that.

The link below is a bulletin board thread that you must read. Buried in the thread is a comment by a wine critic that is quite revealing, and it illustrates, I think, where the idea of rating wine has taken consumers as well as critics.

The critic’s comment illustrates beautifully what Mr. Sandel means about the direction in which the pursuit of perfection can take us.

Submit to critics:

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
July, 2007. All Rights Reserved.


  1. "Is 85 out of 100 a bad score? It wasn’t in high school!"

    Good question but your flippant answer isn't. Com'on - this isn't high school, it's wine! 85 is really poor if you try to sell the wine based on that score. 85 in High School is a pretty good B grade, but not an A. Parker (nowadays) doesn't report on wine that score lower than 85. But High Schools do.

    But I think what you really want to talk about is "ratings inflation". First, wines, in general, are better now than 20 years ago. (Yes, let's ignore the higher alcohol part of this generalizationg.) This is because wine knowledge has grown and been shared worldwide. Even the fruit is much cleaner in France. So numbers have to go up because of that.

    However, every wine critic has his scoring range. Tanzer stops at 98. Meadows 97. Parker 100+. Laube uses a big range them 70(?)-98. Jay Miller's is more like Parkers. But Galloni and Schildneckt are more conservative (like Meadows). Each guy is different. If you decide any of these guy's ratings have value to you, then you can also put their scoring range into perspective.

    Sorry, I just haven't seen any evidence from the critics I name above that they are inflating scores.

    And I don't think they belong in the same conversation as group judging awards.

    "What’s worse, when mini-gods give high scores to wines, the wine producers often become mini-cults. The wines become allocated and expensive—and you should see what happens to the dignity of the consumers who beg for allocated wines at any price."

    Some people have to chase what they don't have. Fine. Some are quite disappointed when they finally taste that holy grail and find it's made of silver or copper or lead. Some learn, some don't.

    What about the opposite? Josko Gravner, who makes two of the greatest white wines in the world, has just seven wines rated by Parker - all scored from 85 to 90. Right, no 95s, 96s, 97s or 98s. But seriously, how about a column on scoring wines too low? (And I'm not implying that Parker scored them wrong - they're not to his taste...that's fine.)

  2. Jack,

    You make an assumption that scoring wine is a necessity. I'll bet that I could continue to find wonderful wines for the rest of my life without ever following a critc's scores. But then, I have opted out of the illusionary pursuit of perfection. I just want a daily blast of pleasure with my meal, as I hope most wine consumers want.

    Scoring is a wonderful construct for those who created the concept so that they can run their businesses, and for those who need someone else to do their legwork, but one of its weaknesses is that as humans reach for perfection, higher numbers are bound to be required--not that the numbers mean perfection, just that they give the illusion of it.

    Scores are subjective. If they weren't every critic would score each wine exactly the same. So what is their value after all?

  3. "First, wines, in general, are better now than 20 years ago. (Yes, let's ignore the higher alcohol part of this generalizationg.) This is because wine knowledge has grown and been shared worldwide. Even the fruit is much cleaner in France. So numbers have to go up because of that."


    I just noticed this paragraph and I want to comment on it.

    Maybe I agree that wines are in general better than they were 20 years ago--maybe not. I'm not sure about that. In any event, if I give you that, then I have to ask who has established the Nirvana point of wine? In other words, if wines are better now than they were then, how much more must they travel to become perfect?

    As I've said in my post--I doubt anyone knows what constitutes a perfect wine (or a perfect score). Unless there is a scientific scale to work with, evaluations are subjective, but numbers are exact. How can those two facts be reconciled?

    The scoring ultimately will get ridiculous mainyl because it rests on a shaky premise.

    I will be away for a few days, so if I don't respond to an answer you might post, I will next week.

  4. I, too, have been contemplating the wine-scoring situation recently. One consideration that most casual readers may be unaware of is that, unlike many analytical "measurements" about quality determinants in consumer products, wine scoring will probably remain largely subjective simply because of the virtual absence of so-called (chemical) reference standards. Without such standards, it seems virtually impossible to ascertain or validation the reproducibility, precision, etc, etc, from one qualified wine scorer to the next. This a serious shortcoming, No?

  5. "You make an assumption that scoring wine is a necessity." Me? Hmmm...with tens of thousands of new wines coming on the market each year, scoring them somehow as a way of sorting through them is a necessity for a certain percentage of retailers, consumers, importers and the wineries themselves. Pricing is involved. That is the value of scoring (for good and bad) and the market could not function today without such. (I can also say it's not a necessity for every consumer of wine.)

    Let's say no score, just tasting notes. Hmmm. Everyone writes a different tasting note for the same wine. At least with a score, you have a summation/clue.

    Ideally, it would be great to taste every single wine you might buy before the actual purchase. But this doesn't happen in our big global economy. (Well, it's does a bit...locals drinking just local wine.)

    My own goal is to buy/drink more and more wine that I've first tasted rather than either chosen carefully at random (i.e., from a great importer), or succumbed to via a sales pitch of some sort. I'm succeeding, but really only because I live in the right place - a place where I get to taste so many wines. (Think I'm now off topic...)

    Perfect scores - ah, those bother me more and more. I guess it's mostly because 1) I never seem to agree with any wine critic's very top score (although I don't get to taste many of the $200+ Bordeaux and Burgs), 2) My favorite wines of the last few years are from Gravner, Movia and Fiorano, who are ignored by the US critics (- so my likes differ!), and 3) I've seen no correllation between a very high score and such perfection being in the bottle 10-30 years down the road. The tasting group I'm a member of in Napa/Sonoma did a Cult Cab tasting (i.e., those with the super high scores) and, in general, I found them disappointing.

  6. Jack,

    Not sure I understand your first paragraph, but I think for the most part I agree with your post.

    Incidentally, when I operated a wine retail shop in Manhattan, my partner and I purposely stocked the shelves only with wines that we knew did not receive critic ratings. Our aim was to both educate the consumer and to get the consumer to trust us, not the critics.

    In my view, most retailers who rely on ratings to sell product may very well be lazy.

  7. Thomas,

    What I was saying is there's just a crazy number of wines available in the US. More than ninety five percent of the retailers need ratings to give them a clue as to what to buy.

    With consumers SO CONCERNED over price rather real quality, there just aren't many wine merchants who focus on knowledge rather volume pricing.

    Many, but not all of the best wines are scored by wine critics. (And with Galloni and Schildneckt on the prowl now for Parker, a whole bunch of those good/great ones that were missing will get outed, er, reviewed in the coming year.)

  8. Jack,

    What you say is true--and sad too. Retailers unwilling or unable to find their own wines should go into auto repair work...

    The day I need someone to tell me what level a wine has reached is the day I'll probably need someone to spoon feed me Pablum, which often turns out to be the same thing ;)

    As for the additions to a critic's stable: could be a nice way to silence the opposition!

  9. TP - Thanks for your timely link to the “Submit to Critics” thread. A well-meaning wine retailer once warned me about several dubious, behind-the-scene practices on that squeeze-box. The following quote from Dear Leader speaks volumes: “in the last 28 years...anyone making great wines has always wanted me to taste their wines.....the producers that produce swill are the ones trying to market and sell the wines before I can taste them.....” Diagnosis? Idiopathic hubris. As Lord Acton affirmed: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Heaven help us if this self-proclaimed David is our last hope against wine goliaths.

  10. Jay,

    You should see the email I received from that thread...

    It is an incredible sentence, and I assume you read my WOW in response to it.