You’ve no doubt seen the magazine advertisements or the tags on the shelves of your local liquor store…announcing that someone who you’ve never heard of before has awarded a particular wine 92 points! And of course, that means the wine must be better than the one next to it (or the wine that you bought last week, that you actually quite liked) because some other person who you’ve never heard of has only awarded that one 88 points. And everyone knows that 92 is better than 88, right?
Naturally, you assume that there must be some sort of formalized and precise grading system, developed over the years by learned experts, who because of their superior intellect and ‘palates’, can, with barely a sniff, not only precisely judge a wine but also tell you where it came from, the year it was harvested, who the grower and winemakers are, their grandchildren’s ages and the exploits of the goats at the farm down the road. And of course because, as you’ve been told repeatedly throughout the years, you lack the ‘palate’, the sophistication, the experience necessary to understand and enjoy a great wine., you need these erudite wine scholars to lead you.
There’s only one problem.
It’s all bullshit.
Wine critics are full of it.
Let’s start with the biggest problem…the point system. Assigning a numeric value to something implies precision. There is a precise difference between 92 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit, and there exists a tool, called a thermometer, that measures and illustrates that difference. It’s not just how you feel when the temperature is 1 degree hotter. Likewise, liquid measurement (cup, pint, liter, etc.) is precise and can be quantified. Therefore, weights, amounts, heat units and other quantifiable measures can be compared and analyzed both at the moment of measurement as well as historically. And even if the measurements use a different scale (Celsius vs. Fahrenheit, or metric vs. imperial), those measures can be converted and compared because there exists a global agreement as to the precise value of each.
Not so with the 100 point wine scale. There is no agreement, neither global, regional nor local, as to the precise value of 1 point on the wine scale because no one can (or will) define a single point. And therefore, there is no basis for comparison…neither from critic to critic, or even within each critic’s perspective. Today’s 90 point wine might only ‘worth’ be 85 points tomorrow.
A numeric system that suggests precision, but in reality is vague and elastic is fraudulent. And critics that insist upon scoring wines with a precise numeric system that is undefinable are frauds.
From there it only gets worse. There exists in the world of wine, a qualification (importantly, not an academic degree), called Master of Wine (MW). Issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the UK it’s the gold standard in the industry. It requires serious study and commitment…prior to enrolling in the MW study program, students must obtain a Diploma level qualification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or another wine qualification of at least a comparable standard. The study program is comprised of three stages. Stage 1 is the foundation year and gives students the opportunity to meet Masters of Wine and fellow students in both professional and social settings. Stage 1 assessment includes six pieces of work throughout the year, culminating in an exam. The exam involves one tasting paper and two essays. Students must provide three pieces of work for assessment throughout the Stage 2 year, and must pass both the Theory and Practical parts of MW Examination in order to progress to the Research Paper in Stage 3. The Research paper is an individual paper of between 6,000 and 10,000 words in length, on a topic of the student’s choice. The whole qualification takes at least three years to complete. Also, by the time they attain the title ‘MW’ they will need to have had five years trade experience. There are currently 356 Masters of Wine in the world. Are the biggest, most prestigious, most quoted wine critics MWs? Parker? No. Laube? No. Suckling? No.
Now that’s ok. The existence of credentials does not automatically impart wisdom or sound judgement. But coupling the lack of credentials with the un-precise scoring ‘system’ does raise questions. But wait! I’ve got more…
When it comes to matters of taste, we all have preferences. Whether we call them likes, predilections, fondness, or bias, they exist. And that’s fine. Human beings on an individual basis are inclined to interpret situations in biased ways, often based on their cultural norms, beliefs and experiences. But somehow, wine critics have managed to escape that normal occurrence. They continually claim zero bias, that their professional ‘training’ allows them to judge and assess without regard for their cultural norms, experiences or even likes and dislikes. Count me a skeptic. I really don’t have an issue with bias. I have an issue with a claim of no bias. I don’t think it’s possible and I think that people that claim that due to their particular brand of superiority (remember palate, training, sophistication?) that they can ‘overcome’ bias are seriously full of shit.
My last point is a question of ethics. I draw your attention to the image of Lady Justice, a personification of the moral force in judicial systems. Her attributes are a blindfold, a balance, and a sword. These symbols invoke impartiality (blindfold), weighting of attributes (scales) and authority (sword). So here’s the rub…wine critics typically judge wines not only in full view and awareness of the wines, but often in the presence of the producer. In other words, no blind tastings.. There is typically no comparative weighting, because as we previously discussed a imprecise numeric value allows for no accurate comparison. And, perhaps most damning, the wines are freely provided by the wineries being judged. So no impartiality, no clearly expressed standards and freebies. Troubling, to say the least.
None of this would be a problem if wine critics were just not so sanctimonious. I could accept their opinions if it was just rendered as an ‘opinion’ rather than as a truism. Then we could read critics’ opinions, accept or reject them based upon their known biases, and value their opinions as tools in the purchasing decision. Because at the end of the day, the only opinion that has any resonance; the only critic with any credibility is the consumer of the wine. The wine is good or bad; enjoyable or not, solely upon that judgement, irrespective of points, score or grade. If you like it, it’s good.