Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.
Want to see my eyes glaze over? Tell me how many points a particular wine received. "Points" are awarded by many wine aficionados: professional critics, of course, but also ordinary folks jotting notes on the back of a napkin.
They drive me nuts.
There are several point systems in use, but the most common in the U.S. is the 50-to-100 scale. This is most powerfully employed by Robert Parker and his contributing writers at Wine Advocate
and also by Wine Spectator
, a large-circulation wine and lifestyle magazine. Most other critical publications now use this system as well, including more focused "wine geek" publications like Alan Meadows' Burghound
and Claude Kolm's The Fine Wine Review
. You'll see scores, at least the 90+ ones, from all of these sources (and many more) plastered throughout stores and touted in advertisements.
I am in the third -- and, I hope, final -- stage of my relationship with the scoring of wine. The first was what I now call the Lighthouse Stage. In those early days, a wine gleefully touting 90 points on the little sign hanging from the store shelf radiated a bright beam of apparent quality that safely guided me through the confusing, perilous ocean of unknown wines. When choosing between a wine with points or one without, points seemed safer, a guarantee that an expert -- or someone with more expertise than I had -- thought the wine worthy.
Next came the Hoarding Stage, in which wine became a mere medium for the transmission of points -- the more points, the better. I entered this stage after grad school, when I had my first real income and no dependents. I dedicated a generous slice of my budget to wine. I feverishly pored over new issues of Wine Advocate
, trying to ferret out the "best" wines and the best values (invariably calculated in points per dollar). Then I raced the other point-chasers to secure as much of each wine as possible.
There was definitely a thrill in this hunt...until I started drinking my point-laden prey. Turns out my palate doesn't have much in common with Robert Parker's. While we did smell similar things in the aromas of wine, the tastes and textures that sent Mr. Parker soaring to stratospheric heights of purple prose left me quite cold. I wondered whether wine was for me at all.
Thankfully, I stumbled onto the corner of the Internet devoted to wine and discovered that I wasn't alone. I learned that amongst all those scary point-free wines were bottles I would probably have preferred if I'd had the courage to pick them up. I concluded that if wine was going to become a true passion, I wasn't going to have any luck chasing scores. I would need to read, taste, explore and, most of all, think for myself.
Which brings me to stage three: Pointless...and Proud of It. The wines that I purchased solely for their points were sold at auction long ago. (Hat tip to Mr. Parker's points for the tidy profit.) I now happily curate a cellar sized to fit the pace of my consumption, with selections diverse enough to pair with many different foods. Stage three has been a nine-year journey so far, educational, inspirational and a lot of fun.
So why don't I just ignore points and go merrily along my Zen-like path? Unfortunately, points present problems for those who are really interested in learning about wine.
The first issue is cultural. Our society equates success with being and consuming "the best." Numerical ratings feed this craving for "the best" in a quick, easy-to-understand way. Now we can determine objectively how to spend our wine dollars -- and we can stoke our egos (or shield our insecurities) by having the same opinions as Mr. Parker and the other experts.
But when we let ourselves be influenced by points, we trade our unique tastes for the more generic notion of "taste." The pleasure of wine isn't an objective human truth. Sure, there are aromas and tastes present in wine -- you may not be able to name them as specifically (or pompously) as others do; you may not be as sensitive to them as others are -- but they are there. In truth, many of the critics who employ points, Mr. Parker included, argue that their written reviews matter more than their points.
What's most important is how you -- yes, you! -- perceive the combinations of aromas and flavors in a particular wine on a particular day, and whether, ultimately, you enjoy them. This will be a function of your body, the environment in which you're consuming the wine, its temperature, your health, what food, if any, you're consuming with the wine, what you had to eat earlier in the day and countless other factors. The absurdity of assigning a number to such a fleeting personal experience is surpassed only by the idea of placing significant weight on a number assigned to such an experience of another person!
I encourage you to step out from the fallacy of points. Pick up a bottle of something you've never tried before and enjoy it for what it is -- a unique interaction between you and a bottle of wine. It may be a positive experience, it may not be, but it will be yours, and you will learn something new.