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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
04/04/2011
Monday Manifestos
In Which I Defend The 100-Point Scale Reluctantly But Vigorously

By Charles Olken

I hate the 100-point scale. But I can’t live without it. I love the 100-Point scale because it is easy to use, easy to understand and extends and heightens the meaning of the detailed tasting notes that Steve Eliot and I write for Connoisseurs’ Guide. And, while I hate the 100-point scale for its misuses and abuses, I always defend it because almost all of the criticism of it is overblown, overwrought and emotionally charged.
              
I blame this essay on my compatriot Blake Gray whose blog, The Gray Market Report, recently explained how he got waylaid into defending the 100-point scale in front of an audience of skeptics. His comments on that event, which he seems to have enjoyed immensely despite having to take a stand that was perhaps more “committed” than he personally is, are contained in his blog entry of March 30, http://wblakegray.blogspot.com/2011/03/running-with-devil-supporting-100-point.html.

His sense of cognitive dissonance, my term not his, is paralleled by mine. And his responses to the criticisms never missed the mark. Still, in reading them over, it is clear that there is more to be said—at least from my point of view, in defense of the 100-point scale, which I hate. Listed below are the major criticisms as Mr. Gray remembers them together with my comments on those criticisms.

Item: White wines don't do as well in ratings as red wines

Nonsense. Of course they do. But it depends on the white wine. High ratings require depth, complexity and grandeur. Plenty of Chardonnays and sparkling wines as well as Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings, Viogniers and Marsannes and Marsanne/Roussanne blends get very high scores in Connoisseurs’ Guide and elsewhere. But, I will agree that reds score highly in greater percentages because more reds reach the greatness required to score in our three-star/95 points and up range.

The corollary to this argument goes something like: How come there are no 100-point rosés? Simple. As good as good rosé can be, there are none that rise to the level of grandeur. High levels of success—yes, but grandeur—no. If they did, they would not be among the most affordable good drinks in the wine biz. Demand would push their prices up.

Item: There's no real difference between a 91 and a 92

Frank Prial, the legendary winewriter for the New York Times remarked a decade or two ago, at the dawning of the 100-point system, “If a critic scores a wine at 87 points, I know that he or she liked that wine a little more than a wine rated at 86”. For me, that about says it all.

Oh yes, I can agree that it is not likely that all scores could be replicated to the exact level in a retasting. And I will tell you a little secret. Despite double and triple checking, occasionally we have reviewed a wine twice in print. In those half dozen instances, most of the ratings were either the same or one point different. And the descriptions, which are more important than the ratings, were almost identical in direction and in judgment of the makeup of the wine.

But beyond even that anecdotal argument, I will agree that the difference is not great, and what really matters, again, is the tasting note. It is the explanation of what we found and why we have assessed the wine the way we did. And that is the reason why tasting notes in Connoisseurs’ Guide are longer than you will find in any other of the widely read wine publications.

Item: The 100-point scale is really a 15-point scale, because nobody gives ratings under 85 anymore

This criticism is close to being true, but it is not a criticism of the 100-point scale. It is a criticism of the critic. The choice not to criticize wines of less than likeable dimension is based on two assessments: readers do not care about bad wine; they only care about good wine. And, wineries who get criticized for their bad wines will stop supporting the publication in question.

At Connoisseurs’ Guide, we review every wine we taste and tell our readers what we think with no punches pulled. We believe that “the whole story” is our responsibility to the folks who pay our way and let us engage in winetasting for a living. You deserve it all, not just some candy-coated version of our efforts. As the legendary baseball umpire, Bill Klem, said almost a decade ago now, “Out or safe, it ain’t nothin’ until I call it”. Some writers may not want to call the wild pitches. Connoisseurs’ Guide does, and so do some other publications.

Item: The 100-point scale favors "international style" wines: big reds that could be from anywhere

This is another example of utter poppycock. The 100-point scale is certainly applied differently by each writer who uses it, but when writers go around praising Pinot Noir and Sonoma Coast wines and the Cabs of Corison and Spottswood and Ridge, just to name a few of the most obvious and unassailable examples, they are not praising “international” wines. Moreover, the use of the term “international” is meant to suggest, at the first hand, that any wine with oak and expressiveness has lost its way in life. And at the second hand, and this is often the hidden or not so hidden meaning, wines that do not mimic the precise characteristics expressed by wines with similarly composed cepages in Europe.

Here again, the argument against the 100-point scale is nothing more than a red herring for an argument of a different sort. People have been criticizing California Cabs for ripeness for the forty years that I have been collecting, and the arguments have not varied even though the wines here and in Bordeaux have changed over that period. The 100-point scale has nothing to do with those arguments, yet some people will reach for any value-loaded criticism, no matter how relevant or irrelevant it is.

Item: The 100-point scale doesn't recognize terroir

Here I quote Tina Turner: What’s terroir got to do with it? Wine criticism comes first. Judgments about the wine dictate the rating. Terroir is or is not a part of the criteria applied by the critic. The uses of the 100-point system, or of any system of ratings, or of any review whether it has scores or not, all depend on the reviewer, not the system of symbolic notation that gets appended to the review.

Item: The 100-point scale rates wines without food, but wine is supposed to go with food

It would be possible, I suppose, to get into a long discussion of how critics go about reaching their conclusions, but this is a discussion of the 100-point system, and that is nothing about its use that does or does not reach conclusions about wine with or without food. This argument is even more of a red herring than the ones that preceded it. It is the methodology of tasting, not the rating system that determines whether wines are tasted with food or not.

Item: The 100-point scale misleads consumers

Frankly, I don’t get this objection. Even if there is no statistically or organoleptically significant difference between 91 and 92 save for someone’s slight preference, there is no way that stating such a preference is misleading on its face. Wine criticism lives in the world of small differences. When we or any critic comes face to face with a dozen Rutherford Cabernets or seven single-vineyard Zinfandels from Ravenswood, we must make very fine judgments both as to character and as to overall attractiveness. That is our job. That is the job of any critic. Applying a numeric or other symbolic shorthand to the written words does not mislead the consumer. In point of fact, if done right, it makes the meaning and intent of the tasting note clearer.

Item: The 100-point scale hurts wineries

All criticism has the potential to hurt the interests of the producer, whether we are talking wine or cars or theater. That is the nature of critical review. It is supposed to tell the truth as the reviewer sees it. Using the 100-point scale is no more hurtful than the four-star system applied to movies or the grading system used in educational institutions. Judgment is judgment. “This wine tastes and smells bad” is every bit as harmful to a producer as a 75-point rating. Negative commentary is bound to have negative connotations.

But, dear readers, and especially those of you who are winery readers, is not criticism meant for the consumer, and does not the consumer deserve the best, most effectively described criticism that can be offered? Those who argue that the 100-point scale or any scale hurts the wineries, simply miss the point of criticism. It is the view of the critic, and one can criticize the lack of rigor and the lack of standards of some reviewers, but it is wrong-headed, in my humble opinion, to criticize the system of symbolic notation. It simply is not the cause of any of the criticism that was heaped upon it and upon Mr. Gray’s very solid defense of it.

Bottom Line

The institutions of democracy and capitalism are infinitely criticizable if one looks hard enough, but until better systems come along to take their place, they are the best we have. The same is true of the 100-point system. It is far from perfect, but it works quite well for a very large segment of the wine-drinking public. If it did not, it would not be so widely followed.

Comments

100 pts
by Patrick
Posted on:4/4/2011 1:36:37 PM

You didn't deal with the biggest objection to the scale: That it pretends to be objective.

Factoids
by Ken Payton
Posted on:4/4/2011 5:38:24 PM

"Wine Critics are often misinformed or just plain pig-ignorant. They are prejudiced. They set about doing the job of sampling Burgundy in the wrong way and at the wrong time. They try to imply that there is only one way to judge a wine (i.e., according to the personal taste of that critic), forgetting how subjective and temperamental taste can be, and also ignoring the fact that most wine is made to be consumed and judged mature with food and friends, not immature alongside numerous other bottles.”
“The bad critics look at Pinot through Cabernet-tinted spectacles and so criticise it for being what it never set out to be.
"

So we read in Clive Coates' The Wines of Burgundy. And when I interviewed him and asked about his concept of 'marking within context' he said,

"That’s why putting numbers to things is really a mistake.  If I felt I could get away with it I wouldn’t have ever put a mark to anything. But the trouble is the Americans insist on it. And the vast majority of my subscribers when I did

Disappointed
by Ken Payton
Posted on:4/4/2011 5:43:02 PM
I am very disappointed the greater half of my comment was lost when I hit the 'submit' button. I'll try to reconstitute the text. But feel free to delete the above as it does not remotely get at my point. Cheers.
test
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/4/2011 6:17:37 PM

Test

Objective
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/4/2011 6:18:49 PM

Patrick, not many people who use the 100-point scale and have sufficient backgrounds in wine appreciation think that anything they do is objective. We know better. We may think our words are reasonably accurate, well-thought out, based on a lifetime of learning. We add symbolic notation to those words, but we start with the words, and we know the power of words and the limits of words.

I will repeat what I said above. The addition of a symbolic notation, whether it is three stars or ten chopsticks or 20 points or one million points, adds further guidance to the words that appear. If there are reviewers who only publish points, they are not the only reviewers out there. If you do not believe me, go ask all the writers who use 100-points and see which ones believe that their point scores are objective, self-evident, above question.

Factoids
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/4/2011 6:20:00 PM

Ken, Clive Coates is a one-off comment. Look at all the fancy English writers who use either 100 points or 20 points. Hell bells, Decanter uses what looks like 20 points except that they take the number out to two decimal places thereby turning the system into 10,000 possibilities. Besides, Coates does not understand that comparisons invite hierarchies. My favorite movie review book uses a four star system but then lists the reviewer's favorite 100 movies out of the ten thousand he has reviewed. A word system of dismal, below average, average, above average and excellent is still hierarchical. And while it is possible to review Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright and not put a symbolic notation next to the review, those are single reviews that run hundreds of words. Thank goodness the world does not expect me or any other comprehensive reviewer to write 500 words about every wine. We would all be bored to tears. This is wine for goodness sake, with values of $10 and $20 and $50 for most of what I review.

Coates point about "bad critiics" is, of course, instructive. There are bad methodologies and less informed critics. Most of them do not make a living for long or at all. But the beauty of the blogosphere, even more than print, is that it allows anyone to speak and does not require them to be anything more than interested.

Oh Boy
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:4/4/2011 6:59:36 PM

Kudos Charlie, I rate this post 10 out of 10 chopsticks.

I’m happy to see we are not the only ones who post the good, the bad and the ugly. We don’t sugar coat anything because our readers deserve an honest review. Who are we writing for anyway? Consumers or Wineries? Many scold us for posting/sharing reviews that are likely better off being poured down the drain, but like you, we feel consumers deserve the whole story and deserve the best.

100-point favors international style? Eh, utter poppycock agreed.

Food & Wine subject -- (sort of veering off the subject in a good way). Our methodology for reviewing used to be the traditional speed tasting (open the bottle, set up a flight, drink, rate). Once upon a time, long, long ago, we were enjoying a meal and drinking a wine that we speed tasted/scored earlier that day. The wine didn’t score that well in the flight, but it blossomed into a wonderful little gem after time. It was at this moment we decided to give all wines a fair chance by scoring them after we consumed the bottle over time (from the first sip to the last) while pairing with food.  The rest is history for us. Think about it, how many wines have we opened, loved it, only to be let down mid-way through the bottle? On the downside, we can’t produce as many reviews (but as Centrum says) one-a-day (maybe two) is good enough (at least for us).

...and those who claim one rating system is better (e.g. UCD 20 point, vs grade (ABC) vs 100 point vs stars, vs my granny said so, etc.) is nuts.  Anyone can map each rating system to another and come up with a definition of what it means, so who cares if one critic uses stars and another uses the 100-pioint system?

WTH?!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:4/4/2011 8:39:42 PM

Um, me thinks something has gone wonky in the wine blog world. Your site is all wacky too....

Wonky Wine blog world
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:4/4/2011 9:34:03 PM

Woot W

WTH??
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/4/2011 11:22:29 PM

Thanks to all who have endured the out of control nature of this site. Hopefully, tomorrow will bring a better day. OUCH.

taking issue
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/5/2011 5:18:27 AM

Charlie,

 

I take issue with this comemnt of yours in an otherwise lucid explanation (not that i agree, just that it ius lucid).

In rationalizing that the 100-point scale is not simpyl a 15 point scale you said: "...readers do not care about bad wine; they only care about good wine. And, wineries who get criticized for their bad wines will stop supporting the publication in question.":

First, the word "bad" has no place in subjectivity, but even if it has, who defines and knows when a wine is "bad" and how do they make that judgment?"

Second, who determined that a score under 85 makes the wine bad? Where is the standard that guides that recommendation?

 

Point Taken--1
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/5/2011 8:22:02 AM

Point taken, but not totally. Bad is subjective, but then so is beauty. Flawed may be more objective but dismal and drek are like bad. Can a movie be bad? Sadly, I paid for one the other night.

As to who defines bad, well, that would the same person who defines superb, special and 95 points and up.

The use of "less than 85" for bad was probably less artful than it should have been. My experience, both in my own writing in reading others critics, is that wines below 85 are rarely recommendable--although the occasional very inexpensive (under $10) wine at 84 points has come across as a Good Value in CGCW because it is clean, cheap and won't give anyone a bellyache. Most people who read CGCW or almost any wine publication do not drink many 84 point wines, but "bad" is too strong for the context.

Broken
by Some guy
Posted on:4/5/2011 10:23:34 AM

But can't be fixed?

Agreed
by Troy
Posted on:4/5/2011 11:59:21 AM

The 100 point scale has some holes, but at least it is a uniform system.

Well then...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/5/2011 12:08:10 PM

I disagree about "bad" and subjectivity. I rpefer the words "like" or "dislike" as vehicles to get across a subjective assessment. "Bad" seems to presume that the wine is flawed, and if that's the case, then the critic owes it to the reader to expand on the nature of the flaw.

As for your finall point, if wines below 85 are rarely recommendable, and therefore not critiqued, then the scale is in fact 15 points.

By not reporting concerning wines that score under 85, how do critics let their readers know if they tasted those wines at all? If readers don't know, and they value the critics' ratings, then it seems to follow that readers are left on their own when it comes to wines that they have heard nothing about. If critics believe that their judgments are beneficial to readers, then why are they not offering the complete package of judgments?

An inquiring mind wants to know.

The Choir
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/5/2011 12:22:36 PM

You are singing my song.

Admittedly, space is expensive in print publications, but when people pay for opinioin, they are entitled to receive the whole story, not just the juicy bits.

Making the Grade
by Matt Smith
Posted on:4/5/2011 2:38:32 PM

I would counter the arguments that "Bad" is subjective.  There are wines placed in the bottle and sold on shelves that are genuinely spoiled.  These are not wines that I just dislike, they have literally gone bad.  As for defending the 100 point scale lets face it, this is called making the grade.  In grammer school your work was graded on a scale of 0-100, 75 is passing but it is not impressive.  With out a grading system you can't compare the levels of quality in the work.  Wines that score in the 90s are wines with distintive style and exceptional quality but it doesn't mean everyone is going to like that style but you should see the quality of the wine.

agree and disagree
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/5/2011 5:07:30 PM

Matt,

Of course I agree with you concerning "bad" and subjectivity, which I've stated above. Concerning the analogy of grading educational achievement as opposed to a wine's achievement, I find fault with your concept.

When grading a person, a teacher puts the person's response up against a set of information that was given to the person to learn. There is a set standard to which the grade applies.

When grading wine based on personal subjectivity, the critic works from no set standard by which to compare the level the wine has achieved to the level expected of it--other than the vague notion of subjective preference. This is why critics can't defend the difference between 88 and 89 points, or even between 85 and 95 points, for that matter.

James Suckling expresses the critic's process beuatifully when he prcolaims, "I'm 90 on that." The grading system is not about the wine; it's about the critic.

 

 

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/6/2011 5:04:46 AM

Matt,

Please forgive the typos. I go faster than my fingers can follow. But I'd like to pose a challenge to grading systems in general:

Give someone a test of 100 questions and that person answers 80 correct: 80% score.

Give that same person 50 questions, leaving out 30 questions that the person would know the answers to, but including 20 questions the person would not: 60% score.

Give the person 20 questions, for all of which the person does not have an answer: 0% score.

How knowledgeable is that person on the subject?

Sometimes, the grading system can't be trusted.

It's Not The System
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/6/2011 7:28:08 AM

It is not the system that cannot be trusted. The system is a constant.

It would not matter what manner of criticism was employed from words without symbolic notation to the million point system. If the critic lacks the background to make the evaluation, the evaluation will less than trustworthy.

But, this is wine we are talking about. Very few wine critics, especially those professionally employed come to the tasting table with no knowledge. Whether they know the answers to 50 of 50 questions or something less than that depends on the critic and the subject matter he or she chooses.

But if a critic does come to the table with less than adequate knowledge, it is not the fault of the system. It is the critic.

But Charlie...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/6/2011 10:10:19 AM

 ...as far as I can tell, there are no standards against which critics evaluate other than their own, and so, the critics make up their own system.

Yes And Thank Goodness
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/6/2011 10:42:42 AM

That is why we agree on the subjective nature of criticism for things like wine, art, theater, symphony. It is the critic who brings the criteria into the evaluation, and we either accept the way the critic applies that criteria or we reject the critic.

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:4/6/2011 11:34:43 AM

"...we either accept the way the critic applies that criteria or we reject the critic."

Agree.

I applaud you for putting forth no pretense toward objectivity and wish that other critics would do the same instead of proferring the appearance of objectivity based on a bunch of numbers that they pull out of their arses.

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