Does 100 point thinking poison the mind?

I remember when I started getting interested in wine. This was in the early 1990s, before the internet. A friend had a copy of one of the early editions of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, which I pored over. The sweet spot for me was the ’86A’ bracket of wines: in those days 86 was a good enough score, probably an 89 in today’s money, and the As were the cheapest wines. I was on a tight budget.

As you get older, it’s common to get a little wealthier (or, more accurately, slightly less broke), and your wine budget grows. This is when we can hit one of the problems with the 100 point scale. You raise the score benchmark. Suddenly you won’t buy a wine rated less than 90, and then this creeps up. 93, or even 95 becomes the new threshold. It’s a bit like upgrading your car. When you are a student you are the luckiest person in the world because you have an old car that starts most days. But if you are wealthy and care about these things, by the time you are in your 40s you’d be horrified if anyone saw you driving a six-year-old mid-range family saloon.

For all their usefulness, points rot the mind when it comes to wine. They are a terribly distorting lens to view the wine world through.

This idea of having some personal points threshold is a great illusion. It would be depressing to drink Haut Brion every day, even if you just stuck to great vintages. It is a strange sort of madness to be looking for a great wine experience every time you open a bottle. If you confined yourself to Michelin-starred restaurants, you’d tire of dining pretty quickly too.

And I really believe that the concept of a perfect 100 point wine is quite ridiculous. On so many levels. Chief among these is that the score is not given to the liquid in the bottle, it is given to the interaction between the taster and the wine, a perceptual event in the brain that is impacted on by lots of factors aside from the wine itself. Anyone who really believes in the 100 point concept should read Charles Spence’s new book The Perfect Meal.

In my opinion, holding 100 point wine dinners is a strange sort of vinous insanity that betrays the heart of wine itself. Instead of encouraging people to aim ever higher in their pursuit of points, we should be telling the stories of wines that offer great pleasure and a broad palette of flavours and textures. It is in this diversity of authentic wines that true wine pleasure lies.

Points have their place, but they have the problem that more often than not they taint the conceptual thinking of wine lovers and lead them on a journey down a joyless cul de sac of wine as a competitive sport or status symbol.

11 comments to Does 100 point thinking poison the mind?

  • I suppose it will always be difficult to avoid the point of reference though it would be nice to see the industry move away from this kind of thinking.

  • Excellent piece. Fundamentally, it’s all relative. We focus more on the 11 point deficit between 89 and 100, rather than appreciating the fact that 89/100 in absolute terms is very high.

  • Paul Hoskin

    Because my wine purchases started after the revolt against 100 point began I try not to use points at all when purchasing. I like to do some research using web-sites such as yours and books such as Kerin O’Keefe Barolo and Barbaresco to form and my opinion. I may then try to use the scores given by various tasters to defer some stylistic generalisations (rightly or wrongly). Of course sometimes a leap of faith is required and these can be the most rewarding wines.

  • Damien

    We live in a points-based world though, whether it’s judges’ points in X-Factor or whatever TV game show, Nectar/Tesco/Store points to garner loyalty, and, let’s face it the points we all start out with to get those all-too-important grades that make or break a career when we’re at school/college/university.
    Or even the points you’ll get on your licence if you break the speed limit.
    So why should wine be so immune from the barometer by which we live our lives by?
    Why can’t a “perfect 100 point wine” be achievable, if only for that taster/person at that occasion/dinner?
    The freedom to disagree, or to proffer an alternative that you think merits a better score is surely more important. The discourse is everything.

  • 38 Years in the Industry

    Thank you for your very insightful comments. You are even more correct than you can imagine. I have lived with this since it’s inception. What started out as a simple way for less knowledgeable wine customers to get some vague idea about a wine’s value, exploded into a behemoth that is crushed by the weight of itself. As a producer, we see the countless permutations of what can happen in the production of wine, even in a single lab at a single winery. The natural result is the creation of equally countless apples-to-oranges comparisons that the 100-scale simply cannot assess fairly. Creativity is choked to death in favor of standard models of “groupthink chemistry”. My heart goes out to the Bordelais which have been held hostage for so many years, spending obscene money to garner one or two extra points at en primeur when nobody has a clue if those processes are, in fact, destroying a great wine’s future. Shame on the Raters of Wine who almost NEVER go back and evaluate their own work 10 or 20 years later to see if their precious ratings held up over time in terms of accuracy, and who knows if they would ever admit to any deficiency anyway. Lastly, do you really think that all wines are eligible for the full 100 Points? Think again…the Raters of Wine have told me they have an idea in mind about the maximum value a run-of-the-mill wine is eligible for. The rich kid has to run 100 yards, but the poor kid has to run 110-yards to be equal. Life isn’t fair, and the 100-scale is one of the unfairest.

  • Jamie,

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    The point system as we know it has its benefits but also concerns. One as you discuss is the risk of being driven by points and limiting exploration. The other is following other peoples’ scores instead of setting one’s own benchmarks, especially if it is scores by individuals rather than a wide sample of people. The third is point systems that are not truly full 0 – 100 points.

    Enjoying wine seems to boil down to exploring and understanding one’s palate first and foremost. Irrespective of how high a score may be on a wine, or how knowledgable a connoisseur friend may be, if one does not enjoy a certain type of wine or grape at that stage in their wine experience and life, and if their favourite critic or friend’s taste/palate do not match with theirs, points and recommendations won’t change that.

    Keeping tasting notes and rating the various aspects of a wine like eye, nose, mouth or finish and then coming up with an aggregate score should give people a personal benchmark and a quick reference guide to check against before buying their next wine. Any notes would be better than none. Without such records the exploration exercise would be endless as it has always been for most, with disappointments and intimidation returning each time one touches a wine type or grape they simply never enjoy.

    An educated consumer benefits everyone, and one of the most important areas to learn about is one’s own palate. Having a way to track and reference our likes and dislikes allows us to recall information that most certainly contributes to more enjoyment of wine, being more educated and confident when buying wine.

  • Kristen Nowak

    Refreshing read – I, for one, try not to use the 100 point scale to drive my purchases. I much prefer to do my own research about winemaker, region, climate, etc. In addition to what you mentioned above, there are some all-star winemakers, such as Robert Sinskey who prefer to not send their wines for ratings. If we all blindly walked into our local wine shop and targeted the 89-91;91-95;etc., we would likely not target such an interesting selection!

  • Couldn’t agree more. When I recruited and trained for a London fine wine retailer I would always stress the importance of not relying on points to sell a wine – use them as footnote if you have to. It was sad to see a few staff totally ignore some wonderful, less fashionable, wines and just push the ‘big hitters’. On the plus side it meant that the former would hang around longer for wine lovers to enjoy rather than disappearing into some Banker’s cellar.

  • SLIMES

    “When you are a student you are the luckiest person in the world because you have an old car that starts most days. But if you are wealthy and care about these things, by the time you are in your 40s you’d be horrified if anyone saw you driving a six-year-old mid-range family saloon.”

    I remember the joy of discovering Cassillero del diablo Cab when I was a student. At this very minute I’m washing down McDonald’s food with Chateau Le Boscq 2006 and it’s an ‘every day’ wine.

  • Christophe

    wonderful piece. Join us

    http://Www.scorevolution.com

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