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Do Scores Here Really Matter?

Do Scores Here Really Matter?

by Tim Elliott on June 26, 2006

Over the past month or so, I’ve been interested in reader and listener feedback about the wine rating system I use here. Over the past few days, the wine blogisphere has provided me with several data points that has me thinking that perhaps I have been asking the wrong question. First of all, the feedback I have received so far has been about what I expected. The majority of voters have chosen the 100-point scale popularized by Robert Parker and adopted by much of the wine press. That makes sense, since most wine lovers like to compare scores from many sources before making buying decisions. The more consistency and precision here, the better. The problem with this is I don’t have the same tastes as Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer and/or the staff of the Wine Spectator. In a good month I might taste 50 or 60 wines, not the hundreds the real professionals taste. On average, that amount is around 20 or so. As a result my ratings are just not as precise as professionals that have the chance to hone their skills all the time, thus my choice of an imprecise 20 point scale.

But it was two unrelated posts today that got me thinking that perhaps all this energy figuring out the “best” wine rating system is the wrong place to devote my energy. The first was a press release that points to Appellation America’s wine recommendations format. In reading through the reviews, I kept thinking about Alder’s posts from earlier in the year and felt a little guilty that my notes to date fall into the terse variety solely focused on descriptions. There is a lot more to a wine than how it smells and tastes that is important to the wine consumer. Let me illustrate here with the same wine.

Jim Laube’s note from the Wine Spectator:

Winery: Patz & Hall
Score: 90
Wine: Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2004
Price: $55
Country: California
Region: Carneros
Issue: Jun 30, 2006

Firm and concentrated, with mineral, blueberry, raspberry and cedary oak flavors that are tightly focused, with anise, sage and berry fruit. Needs time to unwind. Best from 2007 through 2012. 985 cases made.

Thom Elkjer’s note from Appellation America:

Patz & Hall Wine Co.
2004 Pinot Noir, Hyde Vineyard
(Carneros ~ Los Carneros)

James Hall, Anne Moses, and Don and Heather Patz cranked it up in 1988 with a hold-your-breath business model: don’t own vineyards, pay top dollar for great fruit from name-brand growers, make killer wine, and pray that people love you even if there’s no winery or estate for them to visit. It worked, and now hundreds of labels follow the model.

Because they had all been in the wine business previously, they knew where to look for their fruit. One of their early sources – and still one of the best – is Hyde Vineyard in the far northeastern corner of Carneros (also known as Napa Valley). This is rolling terrain, drained by rills and creeks and full of rocks, swirls of changing soils, and the footprints of Larry Hyde and his vineyard crew. These guys know their site, they know each vine intimately, and they don’t compromise.

Winemaker James Hall is not into compromise either. His Patz & Hall 2004 Pinot Noir Napa Valley Hyde Vineyard ($55) would remind you of classic French Burgundy except that the original models are rarely this flawless. They’re not delivered at nearly 15% alcohol, either, but this is one of those cases – often boasted of but not that often exhibited – where the wine’s in balance at high alcohol and wouldn’t be as good less ripe. There’s absolutely true varietal character in the aromas and flavors, an impressive flood of fruit as it enters your mouth, and a cool dense core of flavor all through the midpalate and deep into the finish. Beautiful now and a slam dunk to dazzle in or after 2010.

Reviewed June 15, 2006 by Thom Elkjer.

So which review told you more about the wine and provided the best buying information? In my book it’s not even close as Mr. Elkjer’s words motivate me to seek this wine out, while the Wine Spectator note gives me the raw data to compare this wine with many others at this score. I may or may not try this one based upon this terse amount of information.

The second data point today was following a new incoming link to a blog called Vinorati. Basically, the founders are trying to build a Technorati-style directory for wine tasting notes found online. A great idea that I will be watching unfold over the next few weeks as they move into beta testing.

Taken together, these two unrelated posts have me thinking about how I will choose to share my tasting notes in the future on my podcast and here on the blog. Whether or not I keep the existing scale, convert to a 100-point scale or do away with ratings all together, I will adopt Appellation America’s format. Although it’s more work for me, I think the results will be much more useful to readers and listeners. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this issue, as well.

  • Excellent, Tim! I think you’re about to fall off the wine-by-the-numbers bandwagon.

  • I really prefer the second review. Wine isn’t an engineering project, it’s about stories and places and people, not just numbers. Go with the affectionate style!

  • Tim

    Thanks for the encouragement; it will be difficult to leave out scores, but certainly the back story is the more compelling than just a cold number. Let’s see what others have to say on this before I make any decisions/changes.

  • The second review is definitely more of a pleasure to read, as well as being more motivating to the buyer. It’s a great example of a literary review style. If I were getting information about one wine I would definitely prefer to get it in this format. If, however, I was trying to look at more than 10 different wines this would be completely unwieldy. For example my own private tasting notes tend to be very succint and definitely include a numerical rating. I think the best review style depends on the intended usage of the review.

    Thanks for coming to have a look at our “vinorati” planning blog. I wanted to clarify on the source of the wine tags. We are planning to launch the site with a pre-loaded database of wine to allow users to tag these wines if they want, but also to add new wines. Users would have a “tasting journal” on the site which consists of the wines they had tagged. Users could add a link (say on their blog) to their tasting journal if they wanted. I really like your idea of continuously adding tags to wines based on reviews available on the internet. Tag clougs aren’t really all that interesting until you’ve collected a decent number of tags. (sorry for going a little off-topic!)

  • Tim

    Great points, Lisa. Also thanks for pointing out the fine points of vinorati. I’m looking forward to seeing this in action. Best of luck.

  • GW

    So much wine. So little time. When you skim read reviews..blah blah blah..blackberry…blah blah…tannins…blah blah…loved the wine….blah blah. Then no score does not cut it for me. It is not about assigning a coarse numeric value to a wine really or reducing that particular wine to a number. It is just about how much you like the wine relative to other wines. I read reviews from many writers with no scores…and so help me I just get a bit lost. Maybe I am simple but I like a simple score. Do you like it or not..and if so how much. Easy. The meat is in the note but the score talks.


  • Tim

    I understand where you are coming from Gary and agree that a score is an important element to a wine rating. So I guess I am coming to the conclusion that a more verbose review with a rating is the best course of action. I’m not sure if that means I convert to the 100 point scale or not.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the issue.

  • DancingDavidE

    I also enjoy a bit of context if there is any.

    Tasting wine in some sort of Henry Ford assembly line maybe goes along with the bare bones approach, but when you’ve tasted a wine and enjoyed it with food, then I think we like to hear the story and the background info.

  • Tim

    I’m not a fan of the assembly line approach to wine tasting, Dave, so I think the additional context will be a regular part of future reviews both here and on the podcast.

  • DrBob

    I am a big online wine buyer. That just wanted to let people know about an amazing website I stumbled apon. http://www.winestilsoldout.com, they seem to be way cheaper than any other wine sites I have found.

    Drink Up!
    Dr. Bob

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  • Hence it does matter because its all about to taste wine in order to find its tendency.

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