THE MOST SUBJECTIVE SUBJECT
Wine tasting is subjective; that’s just objectively true. Yes, there are structural components in wine (acid, sugars, etc.) that can be measured empirically, as well as other less tangible, yet nonetheless widely agreed-upon elements that make some wines so desirable (and costly), like the reputation of a certain terroir, or producer, or vintage. But the most important evaluation of any wine – i.e., whether it’s good or not – is ultimately up to whoever happens to be drinking it.
Still, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there are people reading my blog who aren’t me, and so I figure it’s about time I explain my own system of evaluating wines for review at Convicted for Grape.
PRICES AND POINTS
First things first: I’m not the Wine Spectator, and I don’t generally taste blind; this means that I’m fully aware of the price of whatever it is I’m drinking (usually because I’ve just purchased it). As such, the dollar factor will inevitably influence my evaluations, whether I want it to or not. But this works both ways. If a wine costs over $20 or so, I naturally expect more from it. So while I admit I may be inclined to take more time with an expensive bottle, to make sure I’m not missing something, I may also conclude that it was simply overpriced – which my rating will doubtless reflect.
For a rating system that considers cost in a much more controlled and objective manner (as well as on a much more consistent basis), I encourage you to check out the Reverse Wine Snob, who also refuses to review anything over $20…which, come to think of it, may have something to do with why he gets so many press samples. Hm…
WRITING AND RATING
Because of that whole subjectivity thing, the practice of using numerical ratings as a basis to judge wine – especially a system as specific as the strangely ubiquitous 100-point scale – is beginning to fall out of favor. As you may or may not have noticed, though, I use a 10-point scale, which is effectively the same thing. So what’s my excuse?
Here I’ll direct you to Vinography, where Alder Yarrow (upon whose system mine is largely based) explains his methodology, stating that he believes “the distinction between an 89 and a 90 point wine, or a 93 and a 94 point wine a useless one.” Our opinions on this issue – and reviews in general – appear to be pretty similar, except that I refuse to discuss the background of a wine in any but the most facetious of manners, and I’m absolutely willing to sell out to the first winery that asks me to.
Even so, for my reviews I decided to adopt Vinography’s 10-point scale with half-point increments, effectively rating wines out of 20 rather than 100, while still adhering to some traditional rules of the trade. For instance, you’ll almost never see scores lower than 5 out of 10 or 50 out of 100, as these are reserved for wines with obvious flaws that should be re-tasted at least once before it’s fair game to disparage them.
Many writers and publications (Mr. Yarrow included) also minimize discussion of wines that score below an 8 or so, while others avoid it altogether; but I find I tend to be most entertaining when I’m mean, so I have no problem posting the occasional precautionary tale. Still, I’m only human, and I prefer to drink good wine. Sue me.
But now what you’ve all been waiting for: a breakdown of my ratings, thumb by thumb (and then, half-thumb by half-thumb…but you get the idea).
and wines are pretty much as bad as you can get (because, again, anything below 5 suggests cork failure or something, and wouldn’t be fair to evaluate). Even for the price – which I’ll admit is usually low in such cases – these wines aren’t worth your time. Conceivably a $100 wine that fails to impress me at all might earn an artificially-deflated rating, but it would have to be pretty damn bad to fall this far.
and wines are, as you may have guessed, slightly better than the wines in the previous category: wines which will perhaps cause me to frown in disappointment, but not to shake my head in disapproval, or challenge the vintner to a duel, like a 5 would. Most importantly, they’re bottles I wouldn’t buy again, even on sale, and reviews will usually include an alternate recommendation at a similar price point.
and wines are the average ones, and just as in life, so too on my blog: they don’t get very much attention. The difference between the 6 and 7 levels might be the presence of an interesting aroma or flavor amidst an otherwise dull or imbalanced wine, or even the fact that when tasting a new varietal or style, I’m more reluctant to condemn the wine until I’ve tried a comparable one. But I probably won’t be buying these again either, unless there’s a heavy discount.
wines are the first that I can say I actually like, and I’d definitely be willing to buy them again for the right price and/or occasion. They usually have a slight flaw or two, be it excessive alcohol, acidity, tannins, sugar or some mix of the above; but for the most part, the positives outweigh the negatives. So to review: 7.5 thumbs up is my highest “bad” rating, 8 my lowest “good” one.
wines are notably better than 8s. These either have some really intriguing smells/tastes but a flaw or two (balance, expensiveness, etc.) holding them back from A status; or else they’re technically proficient wines with no discernable flaws that also didn’t really rock my world…just kind of nudged it. In short, I like 8s – but I really like 8.5s.
wines are the ones that I ardently recommend, that I look to buy again whenever they’re even remotely discounted, and at the threshold of deliciousness for wines I’ll buy specifically to share with friends, for the purposes of showing off my spectacular wine-buying ability. These may have small imperfections, but never enough to detract from the drinking experience.
wines are effectively the best that I encounter on a semi-regular basis (3-4 times per month, I’d say, outside of amazing events like Taste of Chile). These wines are complex as well as balanced, and they usually inspire me to seek out more – not only of the same bottle, but of the grape itself. Wines at the 9.5 level play probably the biggest role in determining the course of my future drinking (see: Aglianico).
wines have been pretty rare in my experience, but they have happened. These wines are (as I perceive them) without flaws, but that alone isn’t enough to propel them to perfection. A 10 has to wow me, show me something I haven’t come across before. 10s must also be refined, which is a difficult term to characterize; the best I can do is to say it incorporates balance while encompassing more, a certain, alluring aesthetic. These sexy wines are truly the best of the best…or are they?
wines suggest that they aren’t. So far I’ve only tried one wine that earned the honor: Concha y Toro’s Carmin de Peumo, whose beauty prompted this revision to my thumb system in the first place, and whose price tag ($120) ensures that it will probably be a long while before I taste another wine at this level. Still, I’ll keep looking, because it’s worth it: a 10 may be without flaws, but a 10.5 actually forgives me for my flaws while I’m drinking it.
Believe it or not, rumor has it there’s another rating out there, the elusive eleven, reserved for wine so good I can’t really even conceive of it at this stage in my tasting career. I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned…
One last important thing to keep in mind is that my rating system, ultimately, is for my own benefit: numerical scores help to define my preferences beyond merely which wines I’ve enjoyed and which I haven’t, tracking the extent to which I’ve enjoyed them relative to each other. For me, this transforms the subjective experience of wine tasting into something a little less abstract, giving me something I can hold on to and refer to long after the bottle is empty and the hangover is over. And I’ve found that something to be pretty damn valuable, especially in terms of deciding what to buy next.
As with all philosophies of wine evaluation – or philosophies of anything, for that matter – you can choose to write my system off as a bunch of bullshit spewed forth from the mind of a wino trying to rationalize his hobby/habit, or you can make the mature choice and agree with me. It’s really up to you.