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The 100-point Scale and The Myth of Precision

by Tim Elliott on January 14, 2011

James Suckling explaining his tasting approachEvery once and a while the debate about the 100-point scale swirls around the wine blogosphere (and now wine twitteratti). The latest flash-point is wine critic and recently turned blogger James Suckling who posted a video on his site yesterday detailing how he evaluates wine. Different than a lot of wine bloggers, but consistent with the norms of wine critics like Robert Parker, Suckling tastes blind in large batches. This approach is certainly an efficient way to taste through dozens or even hundreds of wines in a morning but we don’t get any sense for how the wine will hold up over a few hours or after decanting. This is why I literally live with wines I’m reviewing over 2 and sometimes 3 days. But this system would slow a writer down significantly if you are tasting 50 wines at a go so we accept the “moment in time” approach used by most wine critics.

And that brings me to the dirty little secret about the 100-point scale; the myth of precision. Mr. Suckling reviews his approach to applying scores in his video which is very similar to my process. But each area we break down still has far too much wiggle room and can easily make an 89 wine a 91, and vice versa. The same thing applies in my grading papers when I teach marketing. This objectiveness is at the heart of why I was proposing a new rating scale for wine bloggers a while back.

The only way to somewhat smooth the ratings variability is to taste a wine over the course of time in the same tasting conditions and normalize scores or taste a boatload of wine so the reader can get a sense for the reviewers’ palate. The reason I use the 100-point scale is because readers ask for it and, like it or not, it will be with us for a long time to come. But I don’t think it’s a precise instrument.

What do you think?

via James Suckling

Reflections on 89 points

by Tim Elliott on July 28, 2008

Note: This is a cross-post from a new multi-author blog devoted to the discussion of 89 point wines. An interesting idea that I hope will generate some more conversation on the subject.

Like many people who review wine, I use the 100 point scale. It’s not because I think this is the best system — and I’ve proposed alternatives — it’s just the current industry standard. When I was invited to write here, my first thought was to just get my latest review from my blog and cross-post with some additional detail on why I rated the wine 89 and not 90. But in looking back, I see that 89 has become a more popular score for me so I wanted to reflect on why for my first post here at The 89 Project.

Let’s look at my pair of Rieslings from Wine Blogging Wednesday 45. Both earned 89. Why? Because I liked them both about the same. They were tasted side-by-side over a couple days and I couldn’t pick one over the other. But why not 88 or 87?

To answer that, I have to go back to the mechanics of how I score wine. When I somewhat reluctantly adopted the 100-point scale a few years ago, I looked at how Robert Parker did his reviews. He helpfully posts this on his website. So I follow this same process with each element rated on it’s own, then a total score tallied afterward. In a large tasting, this final score does not get calculated until after all wines have been tasted. In the case of the Rieslings, both wines scored the same amount of total points but the individual elements were different.

So is this a precise science? No, but I do try to keep my scores as consistent as possible when tasting a group of wines. But what makes a wine a 90 and not 89 is probably a more interesting question. And the answer is, “something extra.”

Let’s face it, there are more very good wines on the market today than at any time in history. Between modern winemaking and viticulture techniques there has been an equalization in quality across the world. Great wines are coming from the old and new world at almost every price point so no country has a lock on wine quality (branding, however, is another story). So with that as the backdrop, I interpret “something extra” as going beyond just well made, varietally correct, nicely balanced wines. It is definitely a subjective judgement but you know it when it’s encountered.

So I guess this is a long way of saying that the difference between an 89 and a 90 is not an objective calculation but a subjective judgment. But you probably already knew that…

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