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Tuesday Tributes
Wine Ratings: Bad Science or Good Guess?

By Charles Olken

Let’s do this backwards and jump to the conclusion. Wine Ratings are not science at all. They never were and never will be. No one who issues wine ratings would ever call them science.

Can we have a show of hands, please? How many people reading these words think that movie reviews are science? How many here think that restaurant reviews are science?

Okay, you get the picture—so no need to prolong the agony. Reviews that rely on subjective reactions to any sort of highly variable product or production, whether ballet or sculpture or rhythmic gymnastics or perfume, are by their very nature not the least bit scientific.

But those who then dismiss learned ratings because they are not scientific also dismiss the very essence of humanity. Humans are not automatons responding to fixed stimuli. We do not ask wine to have a static level of acidity or alcohol or time in oak. We rejoice in the thousand flowers approach to food, to figure skating competitions, to dresses on the red carpet, to the making of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Convincing evidence of our reliance on the subjective judgment of man is found every day in the thousands of words that consumers seek out to help them wade through the massive array of choices they face. Even automobile reviews, which do have at least a scintilla or two of science attached to them, are nevertheless also highly judgmental. That is why my new favorite car, the Audi A7, can be reviewed like it was manna from heaven by one reviewer and the next will advise that people should buy the Audi A6 at thousands and thousands of dollars and one sloped roof less.

Wine reviews are not bad science because they are not science. However, at their best, they are products of the rigorous methodology that looks to “scientific method” for guidance in reaching conclusions. Since there is no “proof” possible in critique of various art and craft activities, there is only thoughtful “findings” based on careful observation and comparison to known standards of judgment.

Therein lies the rub. Even wine critiques, who might universally agree about the character of Cabernet Sauvignon in the abstract, will not necessarily agree with each other when it comes to the evaluation of a specific bottle of wine. Indeed, individuals are known to disagree with themselves. The San Francisco Chronicle’s recent article focusing on 2009 Napa Valley Cabernets came up with recommendations across a wide spectrum of styles, including extra ripe, heavily extracted wines of the very type that its wine editor has preached against on other occasions.

I see this as no sin. We think we have established parameters like alcohol content as useful determinants, and we argue for lowered ripeness, for higher natural acidities and for the green potential that can be delivered by picking Cab earlier than is the current practice these days for most wineries both here and in France. And then, whether Connoisseurs’ Guide or the San Francisco Chronicle, we taste blind and chose wines like the 2009 Chappellet Pritchard Hill bottling that show a stated alcohol of 15.1% on its label. We make choices like that because our palates, our learned palates that have tasted hundreds, indeed thousands, of Cabernets from several continents and seemingly settled on an array preferred passages to greatness in Cabernet, tell us whether a wine rates highly or not based on the way it tastes, feels, finishes, can age where appropriate. Theoretical constucts are fine. Blind tasting is the ultimate testing ground.

Those kinds of judgments we derive, no matter how carefully reached, are not scientific. They are learned appraisals. They counter the argument, the nonsensical argument, that wine cannot be judged. It can be judged. It is judged by every person who comes in contact with it and cares about its quality. That judges of wine can disagree is fundamental to the human condition. Those disagreements do not deny the rigorous methodology employed by most respected wine critics, nor do they deny the validity of the results proffered by critics who disagree with each other at times.

That Jon Bonne and I agree about the Chappellet wine does not make our conclusions absolute nor mandate that we will agree in the future. Nor will a similar set of conclusions offered by the next three or five or fifty critics of that wine. We will never reach the level of scientific proof. We will have to settle, instead, for agreement.

And you, dear reader, will have to settle for that as well, no matter how often you hear that wine ratings are not scientific—and thus not worthy of being trusted, you will have to either stop reading wine reviews or accept that they are the best efforts of critics who, for the most part, know whereof they speak.

A good wine review is an opinion. It is a learned opinion based on observation and experience, but it is still an opinion. It may not be science, but it is far more useful and reliable than a good guess.


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by TomHill
Posted on:5/22/2012 10:48:05 AM

AuContriar, MonsieurOlken...I would assert that the UC/Davis 20-pt scale is very much scientific based. Unles you would characterize it as a "scoring" system, rather than a "rating" system.

   It was developed waaaay back when (before...gasp...either your or my time), based on their research that tasters could only perceive 20 degradations in quality. It was a system that required training to be able to use it correctly. It was person's 18pt wine would almost always be another taster's 18pt wine. It was useful for..say...determining the effect of close-spacing of Cabernet on the quality of a wine.

   But it was next to useless for the/us wine connoisseurs. Most of what we were tasting were in the 18-20 pt range. It would give a high score to a wine we didn't particularly like. Hence the evolution of the (WineSpectator or the Parker or the WineEnthusiast or the Bonne or the Connoisseur'sGuide or whichever) 100-pt scale. Which, as you point out, are not "scientific". But are (perhaps) more useful to the connoisseur than the truly scientific Davis scale.

   If truth be known, my favorite scale was, and still is, the CharlieOlken 1-2-3 MeadowMuffin scale.



by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/22/2012 12:59:49 PM


yes and no
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:5/22/2012 1:41:47 PM

Tom Hill hits the nail on the head. Scoring vs. rating makes the difference.

That does not contradict Charlie's final thought: "A good wine review is an opinion. It is a learned opinion based on observation and experience, but it is still an opinion."

Yet, I caution comparing wine scoring with other types of reviews. For example, many theater critics have had theater training; they know about staging, lighting, etc. Their reviews are more complicated than simple subjective opinions. As for gymnatics, that kind of rating is accomplished within prescribed standards and guidelines, similar to the 20 point wine rating sytem; wine critic reviews usually follow little to no standards or guidelines save for the likes and dislikes of the critic.

The problem with wine scoring/reviews is not the lack or presence of scientific methods; it's the questionable value of one person's likes or dislikes for the community at large. The often repeated concept that the consumer should find a reviewer with whom he or she agrees and then buy those wines is without doubt on the safe side, but it also is quite limiting to consumers, and can create bloating in the reviewer's ego.

Having said all that, I agree 100%, as you probably know, Charlie, that blind evaluation is the best way. It gives the wine a fighting chance to be reviewed on its merits rather than to simply serve as a conduit to highlight the desires of a critic.


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