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Thursday Thorns
Throw Off The Chains Of Oppression! Wine Lovers Of The World Unite!

By Stephen Eliot

There are thorns aplenty in the world of wine writing of late, so many, in fact, that it is harder and harder to read the news today (oh boy) without injury. Just when I pick one prickly barb from my posterior another seems to take its place, and a fascinating and rather disturbing bit of writing showed up in my electronic mail box today that makes sitting down more painful yet.

It was entitled "Wine Score Revolution Gains Momentum" sent from a winery that bills itself as "a guardian of Red Mountain Viticultural Area...that protects the terroir in tradition chronicled by principles the old world's great estates sanctified." Oh, Hosemaster, where are you now that we need you.

The gist of the message was to invite me to join other "leaders of the wine world" and embrace the Wine Score Revolution by signing a Manifesto meant to "bring together like-minded souls who agree that scores should not be used to buy or sell wine." The intended purpose, as they state is "to create transparency among buyers and sellers and to encourage people to find wines based on writings and by word of mouth. The power of scores is limiting the discovery of numerous grower wines, encouraging formula wines, and even influencing the creation of brand icons and inflated pricing scenarios." Oh my, I now wonder if wine scores are the reason that the US of A is about to default on its debt.

Now, I really do not mean to be disrespectful, but in these politically charged times, I have grown weary of those who would save me.

The debate about scoring wines is nothing new and, in the oh-so-populist realm of the internet, the topic has pretty much been beaten to death, or so I thought. I am reminded of a fine piece of blogging from Josh Wade on some time back that did a nice job of discussing the issue. "You Don't Score Wine? You're Full of Crap" was, I recall, the title. It is worth a read, and there are many other insightful thinkers that have checked in on the topic. We have as well.

Scoring, whether by 100 points, twenty points, multiple stars, bicchieri or chopsticks is no more than a summary way in which to say that someone likes one wine more than another. While we agree without reservation with those who argue that it is not by itself of singular importance, a "score" can serve as a useful shorthand to many would-be wine buyers, especially when accompanied by writing that effectively describes the wine in a way that is valid and meaningful to most people. That is, after all, the job of a professional wine writer.

Scores may be the target, but the message that was apparently born of an epiphany after trying to sell the family's wines to a disagreeable chef in New York clearly seems to be that any kind of a comparative rating system is fatally flawed and destined to undermine the winemaker's art. The argument goes that you can no more compare wines than you can compare works of art. I hold that it is a part of human nature to do just that, however, to compare. This tastes good and that does not; this is attractive and that is ugly. Pictures of Dogs Playing Poker as good as a Marc Chagall print? Not in my world.

Should we not compare and rate restaurants? I rely on Zagat, and have come to trust Michael Bauer's reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. Do I consider hotel reviews before booking, you bet, and, while not the sole source for a choice, I pay attention to movie reviews and Consumer's Report ratings when it comes to washing machines, cars and big-screen TVs. In none of these instances is the "score" that which wholly drives my decision, but it does get my attention and narrows my likely choices in a way that precludes, for example, the need to read every last word of commentary about every restaurant in town before deciding just where to have dinner. Yeah, I confess that I often find scores, numbers and symbols useful.

As much as I disagree with the notion that ratings and scores are without value, however, I am far more troubled by the claims that because of them, legions of winemakers have put aside their desire to make origin-specific wines and that authenticity, historical style and expression of terroir are in dire jeopardy. It seems to me that I hear more talk about the sanctity of terroir and its considerable ranks of devoted defenders now than I have in the decades that I have been writing about wine. They are far from silent. I am especially impressed by the passionate voices celebrating new viticultural areas with no past or historical perspective at all!

Now, it seems that the folks behind the "movement" by their own admission love wine critics and writers, and that their "sole objective is to eliminate wine scores and does not intend to undermine the importance of wine writers". Amen. They plead that wine critics are allowed "to practice their craft and let their words speak for themselves." Hey, that is what we think too. It is what we do. Our lives and work would be far easier if all we had to do was dole out scores and not spend countless hours searching for words that address just what the wine is and is not. There is, of course, a vocal cadre of critics that decry tasting notes as useless at best. No, you just cannot please everyone.

In the end, the issue is not scores but clear and informed commentary be it by writers or retailers or sommeliers. If it does not meet the need, consumers will turn elsewhere for advice. If scores matter to someone that is fine, but, if real interest in wine slowly takes hold, they will start asking questions and numbers will not be enough. The buyer that is content to buy by scores alone is not likely hunting for terroir, minimalist winemaking and "authenticity", and the notion that eliminating scores will somehow bring him into the fold seems rather a long reach to me. Ratings make life easy for those who want nothing more, and the world is filled with good information for those that do.

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