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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
01/10/2012
Tuesday Tributes
I Despise The Hundred-Point System

By Charles Olken

I despise the 100-point system. But I use it willingly because I know that words alone are an inadequate, imprecise way to impute qualitative value to wine or to any other product.

I have been writing tasting notes for more than three decades, and I challenge anyone to find a widely published comprehensive reviewer anywhere who writes more words about each individual wine than I, or my associate here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, Steve Eliot, does.

Yet, for all of those words and all of the value-loaded jargon that we intentionally employ, it is virtually impossible when reading dozen of notes within a few points of each other in our judgments to discern our small but important preferences without some additional notational form of communication.

Points do not take the place of words. They are an additive. They are a sharpener. They clarify. They do not describe. For description, one must read the words. Intensity cannot be described in numbers or stars or puffs or diamonds. Nor can delicacy, varietal precision, tannin levels, acid balance, ageworthiness or the host of other facets of a wine. For that we need words.

That is why Connoisseurs’ Guide writes much longer tasting notes than you will find anywhere else. That is why we provide food guidance with every note, often to the point of individual dishes. That is why we review only a handful of wines every day—so we can take the time with every wine before us to delve deeply into its soul, its viscera. One cannot write clear, complex descriptions without taking the time to understand the wine and then taking the time to write those long tasting notes.

Still, there are some in this world who question the value of rating systems, whether 100-points or anything else. Some of the criticism seems misguided. Yet, in many ways, it is a reaction to the grade inflation that has produced reviews like the one recently seen in the Wine Advocate in which 80% of the reviews scored 90 points or better. Scores like that diminish the value of those scores, and to a large extent of the wines themselves. The idea of wine evaluations done for readers is to differentiate the average from the good and the good from the excellent. When everything is very, very good to excellent, there is no differentiation. And very little critical judgment exercised.

It is the bastardization of the system, then, that I despise. I hate it that the range of points used has become so narrow. I hate it that folks dispense 90 points like Halloween candy—every kid on the block gets some. I hate that the misuse of the rating systems reflects badly on all of us—even when our publication has tried to stay true to itself. Still, the world is changing and reviewers like ourselves are stuck with an imperfect system (all rating systems are imperfect, by the way) that works both for us and against us.

Into that arena of “what value do points have today” has stepped Mike Steinberger, one of the most learned, erudite commentators on the wine scene. I commend his most recent blogs to you because they and the comments that follow, while not providing a definitive answer to a question that has none, nevertheless manage to look at the problem from many angles and ultimately provide plenty of food for thought.

http://winediarist.com/the-point-less-life/


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Comments

Democracy and Wine
by Sherman
Posted on:1/9/2012 9:48:38 AM

I participated in Mr. Steinberger's discussion on this topic and drew the distinction between the Mass Market wine buyer (MM) and the Wine Geek (WG) wine buyer. Different segments of the same market with different attitudes and re: the 100 point system, different attitudes.

 

But the 100 point system is rather like democracy -- it's the worst system around, until you compare it to all the others.

 

It's readillly understood by most folks; it convers a good deal of information in a single reference; it gives the opportunity to lead into more detailed discussion (if that's wanted); and (MOST IMPORTANTLY) it serves the needs of the intended buyer.

 

*That's* why the 100 point system is still the best realized version of a quick reference qualitative review and that's why people will continue to use it. I wait to see if something better comes around -- but democracy's been around for a while, and I haven't seen anything better (yet).

Democracy
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/9/2012 10:00:41 AM

Sherman--

Your very long and thoughtful comments over on the Steinberger blog were perhaps the most valuable of al lthe contributions to that discussion.

My distaste for the 100-point system does not prevent me from using it in addition to the CGCW star system. It is, as you say, a well-understood and accepted methodology of symbolic notation. And unless we or any other reviewer insists on being a lonely iconoclast, we will all use the 100-point system until something better comes along.

If you have the inclination, I think it would be useful for you to add some of your extended comments here.

Hmmmmm....
by TomHill
Posted on:1/9/2012 2:28:59 PM

Hmmmmm....yet another blog post on the 100-pt scale. However, Charlie, this is the first one that actually reflects my thoughts on the subject. Great minds think along the same lines, perhaps???

   I thought Mike's blog/post was pretty much dead-on. The grade inflation we've seen over last so-many yrs makes the 100-pt scale (and here we must diistinguish between the Parker 100-pt scale and the WineSpectator 100-pt scale....so I'm led to believe) of increasing irelevance. But the 100-pt scale is not going to collapse under its own weight of irelevance. I don't see anything on the horizon replacing it. Many/most of us serious wine folks to cede not much relevance to it. It's just going to be people that do give it a lot of credance are going to find it of less and less value in their shopping decisions.

   Like you, Charlie; in a wine review I get most of my information from the TN. The descriptors may not match my take on the wine, but I can generally tell when this reviewer really likes a wine. How much does he like this wine?? Then I look at the score....be it a 100-pts score or a 3-MeadowMuffin score. It simply tells me how much he liked the wine. I may not agree w/ it...but he is communicating to me how much he liked the wine.

Whew....there....I did it. Finally I posted my (not terribly profound) thoughts on the 100-pt scale. It's like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulder. Thanks for letting me vent, Charlie. Now I think I'll go have a nice glass of Ribolla.

Tom

 

AndFurthermore...
by TomHill
Posted on:1/9/2012 2:31:01 PM

"My distaste for the 100-point system does not prevent me from using it..."

There are names for those kind of "ladies", Charlie!!!!  :-)

Tom

 

Grade Inflation or better wines?
by Tyler Thomas
Posted on:1/9/2012 4:47:14 PM

Hi Charlie -

Great post!  Your critique of the 100 point system is well targeted, but as my subject implies allow me to play devil's advoate.  Would you prefer - if we were to use numbers at all which you clearly have called into question - that we RANK wines within a certain category?

As you well know rating and ranking are quite different.  The probelm with ranking is that a great wine may appear to be "last" (20th out of 20) because it is up against other great wines.  It is a forced choice.  Additionally, it is impossible to taste 1000 wines all at once and rank them.

But with rating, a reviewer may taste 20 wonderful wines, with wonderful descriptions, and give them generous scores.  All the wines may indeed be wonderful.  Would you have that indifidual use a broader range of scores simply for the sake of doing so (in which case they are basically ranking again)?  If wines have truly improved over the years (which is debatable and a different discussion) then one would expect the average to rise and even the standard deviation to shrink when rating wines.

To combat this, we could begin grading on a curve like in my old organic chemistry class.  The semester I took the class, 45% was a C.  It wouldn't be hard to take past data from one reviewer to calculate the average, standard deviation, and then readjust the mean to a different value (all 92 point wines are now 85).  This would not prevent clustering, and you would have to assign the new "average" arbitrarily.  Those two last points do not solve your problem, but they also highlight the point I made before: this is what you get when you rank and a reviewer feels many of the wines are excellent.  Additionally, since the Advocate doesn't report much below 85, we don't have a real picture of what they think of all the wines.  Additionally, they only rated Napa, so we don't have an accurate normal distribution of their opinion of CA wine on a whole which might bring the average down and broaden the standard deviation.  Don't we expect Napa to have a higher average than others because of their alledged quality superiority?  (I say that tongue in cheek as I work in Sonoma!)

Anyway, now I'm rambling.  Thanks for the discussion.

Better Wines?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/10/2012 10:09:11 AM

Hi Tyler--

Without getting more detailed and arcane than an internet conversation can handle, let me simply point out that an overall increase in wine quality does not change the equation that some wines are better than others.

We just went through our top pciks for our Feb issue, all Pinot Noirs and found a range of points in those top wines that, in CGCW ratings, which are often more restrained than others, of eight points. And those are for our most highly rated wines.

There is a bit of grading on the curve, but only in the sense that no matter how much wine improves over time, there is still a hierarchy of perceived quality.

It is the job of the critic to provide that hierarchy to the readers. A failure to find the hierarchy is, in my humble opinion, a failure on the part of the critic. No hierarchy; no judgment.

Grade inflation is not pushed uniquely by wine improvement. If that were so, then PN, when measured against the recommendations of the '70s and '80s, would all range from 90 to 110, and since we cannot use that scale, we either suffer grade inlfation or we adjust in order to create a useful hierarchy that speaks to relative differences in perceived quality.

At some point, I suspect the commentators like Steinberger and others will begin to suggest either new systems for ratings or some variation on the system that adds in hierarchy. For the moment, I dislike the 100-Point system because it now distorts the perception of a hierarchy.

100 point
by Kurt M Burris
Posted on:1/10/2012 12:48:19 PM

Charles:  I have always preferred your star system to the 100 point.  It's like the Michelin Guide.  If a wine gets one lonely star, it is still worth trying, especially if the price is good.  If a wine gets three stars, chances are I can't find it or if I can, I can't afford it.  But then, I have gotten some great wines on close out that "only" got 88 points.  Maybe with score inflation 92 is the new 88.  Cheers all!

Points- bah humbug
by Joel Butler
Posted on:1/23/2012 12:17:18 PM

So...if we all despise points, don't use them!  What is so wrong about using a simple but meaningful 4 tier category system, as I have done for years:

Poor

Good 

Very Good

Excellent/Outstanding

What this allows is clear distinction of quality, but in a comparative not absolute way, whereby wines of equal quality but different style/character can be described without the prejudice of a bullshit number.

Joel Butler MW 

Humbug?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/23/2012 1:22:27 PM

Gee, Joel. What about a five-tier system?

Gee, Joel. What do you do with wines that are dull/average bt not poor and not good.

Gee, Joel. If excellent is really excellent, at what point does excellent morph into very good, which is the rating that Parker et al give to most of the wines they review.

The fact is that the 100-point system is far from perfect, but it is way better than nothing. Sort of like democracy and capitalism. Not perfect, but ours until better systems come along.

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