I recently joined something called the ScoREvolution, because 1) I am a habitual joiner, 2) I have never been a huge fan of wine scores, and 3) I can’t stress enough that there has to be a better way to review wines. Now, in trying to keep up with the Joneses, I was surfing other wine blogs and happened upon Steve Heimoff’s latest, regarding comments on his Facebook page, comments that circle right around to the aforementioned ScoREvolution, begun by the folks at Hedges Family Estates.
The endless debate about wine scores is to use them or not to use them – a kind of “damned if I do/damned if I don’t” argument. Those for seem to point out that it is hard to navigate the vast shelfscapes of wine that lie within the walls of all these brick-and-mortar stores, and indeed, for example in my store, there are around 3,000 different wines on the shelves; it is hard to make each one stand out from the other. Yet the score is not the be-all-end-all descriptor: I’ve been harping on that one to Dr. Jay Miller over at Wine Advocate, who somehow comes up with a score yet never has any tasting notes to accompany the score. It reminds me of the whole American Bandstand thing (I am dating myself with this analogy) – “it’s got a good beat, I can dance to it… I give it an 87.” Yet does all this quantifying really tell you about the wine itself? We seem to want to treat wine like a commodity yet it truly defies simple commodity status; it is far too much an experience, an art form that transcends an arbitrary rating. It can be argued that music, books, movies and art are quantified as well, yet there are enough people who are of a contrary position or belief to that of critics in those realms that sales of these items aren’t swayed too dramatically one way or another. Yet in wine, a wine score can mean boom or bust. I think that this is the fact that many in this business find ridiculous. Only politics could be compared to the wine business with regards to its critics in that a low score almost assuredly spells certain death.
For years, I have been a tirade-prone maniac, and I actually was confronted by a very prominent editor of one of the wine magazines, who at length called into question my level of experience in this business, implying I didn’t quite know what I was going on about with relations to wine scores. And in some regards, he was right. What I mean by that is this obtuse state of denial I have been living in, believing that the scores don’t matter, because they do – to a point. Like with any descriptor on any shelf talker that accompanies a particular wine, a wine score is just another barometer by which a person can gauge their interest in purchasing a particular wine on a particular moment. The caveat should be that this score, and this tasting note is an opinion based on one reviewer’s palate, and however unbiased this review is portrayed, it can never be more than the opinion of the reviewer, unless you industry folks buy in to the rumors that there is a bit of “payola” in the wine biz and higher scores can be bought with more advertising revenue spent at any particular wine mag.
And hell, technically you could say I score with my ranking system of “Amazing,” “Outstanding,” “Average,” and “Sucks Ass.” It’s essentially a 4-for-Amazing, 3-for-Outstanding and so on. Sure it dodges the whole post-elementary-school-traumatic-stress-disorder but it is still technically a wine “score.”
The onus falls squarely upon the retailer how best to utilize these reviews and scores, I fully concede this. After having been in this business in varying facets for around 20 years (both restaurant and retail), I find myself trying to utilize these reviews by integrating them with my own reviews, and those of fellow bloggers, and those of my staff. And in educating the customers on what wines are more apt to glean the top scores from which magazine also go a long way in demonstrating to said customers that going solely by wine scores is not the way to go.
I still feel as if there is a better way to get the message across about a particular wine. Indeed the number of wines that are reviewed in correspondence to how many wines are being made is extraordinarily disproportionate.
I used to just jump all over critics like Steve Heimoff, James Laube at Wine Spectator, James Suckling (late of Wine Spectator), Robert Parker, et.al, but those days are passed for me. I do think it is going to take a collective innovation to move us all into the next century when it comes to wine scores, but then again, we all take these things way too seriously, and it’s all just grape juice, right? But then again, James Laube does resemble Dick Clark, with white hair and a mustache – or is that just another acid flashback of mine about to go down?