Responding to a reader’s comment on excessive travel and narrow scoring

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Responding to a reader’s comment on excessive travel and narrow scoring

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I had an interesting comment on my blog a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over. If anyone takes the trouble to comment at length like this, and offer opinions, then I should be listening. And I am. Here it is:

Dear Jamie
I have been mulling over this for a while… but I think you ought to hear this, and think about it. You actually have to be grateful that the Earth is round, and it has gravitiy, so you do not spin off into space in your high-intensity spinning-around the world. Today it is Australia, but the write-up is actually done in South Africa or Canada, and the write up of that is from … Godonlyknowswherefrom.
There is only so much spinning around the world before the “immersion” becomes discredited. For me as a reader, you are approaching this limit. Every now and then you show signs of thinking about various stuff, as if you stopped and started to think “what is it all about?” – but then you resume the high-speed flying-around-the-world. I am not sure this is good for you, and I am not sure this is good for the readers.
And another thing, about your write-ups and points: you bascially operate in the range of 85-95 – OK, theoretically 100). Most of your scores are around the 90s, give or take 1-2 points. (Please check, I have not, but this is my impression). This is bordering on the useless for the readers. It seems you do not want to be unkind to anyone, and I think this stems from your nature, not opportunism – but this is precisely what makes the advice less-than-useful.
I hoipe the situation is not unsalvageabble, but it calls for thinking and action.

This raises several points that I should probably address. I guess there’s a degree to which this can be seen as criticism, but it’s criticism of a constructive kind, done with what seems like good motivations. That is, it’s not a mean person being mean. It’s someone expressing concern. And it’s also quite humorous. So I’m not being defensive here.

1. Travel. Maybe a bit too much, I admit. I see a gap in the diary and then surrender it up. Leaving no more gaps. And a lot of airports, time zones and nights in strange places. I enjoy travel, but I admit that it is possible to do too much. I’m human and have to respect the fact that I’m not indestructible.

But, on the flip side, with all these new experiences, I’m learning a great deal. Since the beginning of the year I have upped my travel because changes in circumstances have left me much freer to travel all the time. I have had some amazing trips, and met some great people, and just soaked it all in like a sponge. So I need to address this: the commentator is correct – it’s probably a bit bonkers at the moment. I’ll settle down a bit in time, I’m. But in this job, a lot of travelling is called for if you want to be the best.

2. Scores. Yes, it’s a good point. My scores fall within a narrow range. At least, they do on this blog. There are many wines I rate far lower, but they never make it here or into my online write-ups. This is for two reasons. First, they aren’t that interesting to readers, and to feature them I’d have to squeeze good wines out. Second, because a false positive is better than a false negative. I’m pretty consistent and quite good at what I do, but I make mistakes. If I give a wine a low score and I’ve got it wrong, it could harm someone’s business. So I would rather not say anything about wines if I don’t like them.

I also need to say that the 100 point scale is very compressed at the top end. Especially in recent years. I didn’t invent it. I have to use it because it’s the standard, and if I didn’t give scores you wouldn’t be able to tell how much I really liked the wine. However good my descriptors, there’s something helpful about a score, even though it communicates a degree of precision that we can never really have in wine tasting. So it is with a degree of reluctance that I score wine, and use this scale that is becoming so bunched at the top end that it is nearing the end of its useful life. I simply can’t start using my own scale unilaterally. It would be daft.

 

10 Comments on Responding to a reader’s comment on excessive travel and narrow scoring
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

10 thoughts on “Responding to a reader’s comment on excessive travel and narrow scoring

  1. I really think that reputable people like yourself should abandon using scores, especially the 100 point system. Particularly when you’re not principally wine reviewers. Rosemary George, for one, does, and I prefer her reviews more so for that reason.

  2. I’m not going to comment on the travelling, only the scoring. Because of what I do (judge wines in competitions) I have found problems with the 20 point system we use. I did some research and looked at several 100 point systems (yes there are others), 40 point ones, a few 20 point ones, a unique 13 point scale as well as 5 stars and school letter grades – A, B, C+, etc. Most of them had some merit, as well as problems. In the end, our group stuck with our 20 point system and made some adjustments to the descriptors. They are what they are. Most end up being ten point scales one way or another.

    My second point is few people bother reviewing low end wines. People who read reviews are not interested in them. Most of the good, very good and excellent wines are far better than they were years ago. Grape growing science and wine making technology has never been better and so the wines are better. This does result in a narrower range of scores.

    Now only if there were more (affordable) amazing (95-100 point) wines to be had.

    (For the letter writer – you might want to check out the wine app ‘Quini’ which uses a true 100 points. You might find that the wines you really like come out at lower scores that the standard 100 point system, but it just for your own data base, so who cares.)

  3. Bob, I am not sure how the review (lots of words and sentiment) is damaged by having a point of 100 at the end. You can understand Jamie’s thoughts on a wine without looking at the score purely by the way he describes it. The number is purely a benchmark and useful for comparison, especially if you were looking to buy some of these wines that have been reviewed.

    As such, your statement that his reviews are not of the same merit of Rosemary is a rather unjustifiable and subjective statement, perhaps you prefer her writing style? As there is no way a number at the end can change 70 or 80 well written words.

    Jamie, maybe a system where you hide the numbers and have a click box for the scores? Almost like on the evening news where they tell you to look away now if you don’t want to see the football results.

  4. I can see what the original comment means but I do think you have answered the travel point well, Jamie. Sometimes a change of circumstances gives you the chance to grab things with both hands and you have to do it. The world of wine is large and who of us would refuse these trips if we are suddenly in a position to go…and as you say, learn.

    I am with those who don’t use points. I’m even more extreme in that I don’t really loke tasting notes as such. They can get repetitive when you attempt trying to find nuance between a row of fine Côte d’Or Chardonnays or Mosel Rieslings. That’s why I enjoy writers like yourself, who tell the story as well. I think scores are fine for people new to wine, but taking a score as set in concrete is dangerous, for a score of reasons. So keep up the travel, but keep keeping fit and get some sleep in between.

    At the end of the day, I enjoy your writing as much as anyone’s, and more than most, Jamie.

  5. Dear Jamie
    Thank you for reading my thoughts and replying to them. I admit, as a mid-long time reader of your blog, I expected some reaction; nonetheless, I am honoured by your attention (no sarcasm intended).
    I understand what you intend with the scoring. Still, the narrow parameter space (i.e. the 8-10 point range you use) makes your recommendation rather simple: that you are either impressed (90 and above), or maybe yes but find some imperfections (I think I have never seen a score of 85 or less, so let’s say this is then 86-89). Knowing that the circumstances, mood, situation, etc. can modify scores at least 1 or 2 points up or down – in reality there is no difference between 90 and say, 91-, your final recommendation, even if expressed as a number, remains rather qualitative. I mean qualitative to a reader with experience with wines. The non-experienced then has to attach great importance to a 1-point difference, which is not what you intended, and is wrong, anyway, for reasons above. So, one kind of reader may get a simple recommendation (great / less so but enjoyable) another is mislead by believing the small differences numbers mean something.
    Further, I sympathise with you not wanting to damage someone’s business/livelihood, but as these people often offer you various forms of hospitality, even pay for your travel, you may find yourself in a compromised position: you accept hospitality from a winemaker, or groups of winemakers, then they expect you to write about their wines. And you write in your reply that you’d rather not write anything if the wines are not impressive. Hm… does it not happen? Is it always, always that at least a few wines impress? At what point does it become a loyalty conflict between loyalty to readers vs. winemakers… (I admit the situation is different for wines bought and tasted, although winemakers or company owners passing through London often invite you for lunch or dinner, and I suspect this is not at your own expense).
    So, I see a second topic emerges – maybe you wrote about this earlier, I vaguely recall something, but possibly this aspect merits a new post in the near future? Or some clear statement on the website about your own guidelines re. “conflict of interest”?
    On the first, I am glad that you realise the excessive frequency and speed of your travel. This then brings up another, related point: your contribution to environmental change. You seem to embrace and encourage natural and biodynamic winemaking. I agree. I do not know if you simply find these wines more interesting, and have no additional opinion about e.g. carbon neutral winemaking (another topic that perhaps merits a post) – but you certainly contribute a lot to the CO2 relase via your air mileages. You must be a diamond frequent flyer on most airline groups of the world. This is one; the other is that an aim to become a world expert in wine, even if it is natural wine, is a mission doomed to fail. And it certainly threatens to destroy you in the process. Thus I hope that you set yourself some limits soon (not necessary to let readers know, although you seem to like to occasionally put your heart on your sleeve, so to say). I disagree with a previous commenter that all opportunities have to be grabbed with both hands. The ancient Greeks have – as so often – put a finger on something when they recommended moderation as an ideal. Less may be more indeed. I do not see how your reputation can be tarred if you limit your in-field visits, or even if you take frequent travels but to closer locations, and also declare this. BTW how is the running?

  6. Don’t be such a purist party pooper, Gabor! Since you invoke the ancient Greeks, it strikes me that you have more in common with Calvin than Dionysus in your joyless sermonising about moderation and “setting limits” to Jamie’s blog activity.

    I mean, come off it, it’s great that Jamie has the energy to travel to all these far-flung corners of the globe and report back with such vivid snapshots of different winemakers’ approaches to their craft. Really brings out the human side of wine and winemaking. You should applaud, not chivvy him.

    Oh, and J has never presented himself as an anti-global warming crusader, so CO2 considerations are a complete red herring. By Zeus, wine and wine writing should be about pleasure and celebration, not joyless virtue signalling!

    As for scores, regular readers will long since have got used to the mostly 87-95 scoring range that J uses. That’s not a problem at all and I personally find it useful. All I miss from J’s blog is more of a focus on what is sometimes known as QPR (Quality Price Ratio). It;s not entirely missing from the bog but it would be good to know more about the seriously characterful, non-commercial or unusual wines out there that present the best value for money.

  7. Lots of good points, I agree with nearly all of them but not the travel limits. Jamie’s “job” necesarily involves large amounts of travel. Our “job” is to read about it and learn through his eyes. Yes, loads of CO2 but perhaps Dr. Goode offsets this in some way. I don’t feel in a position to preach.

    Re. scores, I think they may add something at the end, but the main point for me is the context, the photos and the description. Though these days to be honest I may gloss over descriptions too, e.g. 10 grower Champanges that I will never taste in my life. I don’t see the blog as much as a list of recommendations, rather a way to keep up with wine areas. A kind of wine travel blog and I like the readers’ comments too.

    For me the point is: Does Jamie like it?, it is really good?, or just jaw-dropping? So really a 3 point scale would do, which roughly maps to 88-91 / 92-94 / 95+

    Good point though about being hard to criticise people’s wines you’ve been out on the lash with the night before, whoever was paying. In this kind of circumstance I’ve tended to focus on the ones I did like or write in a slightly ambiguos way / faint praise etc. It’s tough though. I think if Jamie were Parker 10 years ago, ie he moved markets on a single point he might have to do less hospitality / socialising. Big name though he is I don’t know that 92 or 93 points will make a massive difference to anyone these days and it’s his blog so it’s really up to him and we can decide whether to pay any attention or not.

  8. Jamie,
    I only wanted to comment about the scoring as I just came across your blog from this story. The reason it caught my attention is that I blog about and review cigars and am very interested about the reviewing of items in other industries. I previously worked on a blog that utilized a 100 point system which is also the norm for cigars due to Cigar Aficionado’s popularity.

    I always found the 100 point system flawed due to the fact that it is so concentrated at the high end. Why only utilize 10-15% of something that is available to you? The other thing I dislike about the 100 point system is that although multiple people use it, they each use it differently, and without having a history of reading a particular persons review to know their typical range, you can’t determine how really good that score is, or even compare it against another score.

    I started a new site this year and implemented a 10 point system, along with two decimal points, but we’re using the entire range. We are using the guidelines of 0 being a horrible product, 5 being an average product and 10 being a perfect product. Using a different scoring system is an uphill battle, but I feel it is a far better system than a 100 point system that requires way more leg work to get a feel for what a score really is. If you’re interested in a full explanation of the system it can be found here: http://developingpalates.com/scoring-system/

    The second item in regards to scoring is the topic of publishing low ratings. I feel it is an important point to publish low ratings. I understand your worries of effecting someones business, but you’re only describing your point of view on the subject and it isn’t gospel, it’s your palates interpretation. The other reasons I believe that publishing low scores are to show that you can and that you will. Without that, people may get the idea that you just fluff products. Along this same line, people may think that you haven;t tried a particular product when you have and it is up to them to determine if they should try it because you haven’t or that they shouldn’t try it because you have a didn’t like it so it wasn’t mentioned. The other reason is to show your true scoring range. Without these lower or higher scores, you get stuck into a range and is the exact reason this topic was brought up in the first place.

    In my opinion, being honest, open and true (not mean or nasty) is far more important than being friendly.

  9. I very much enjoy reading Jamie’s blog because of his clarity of writing and knowledge on his subject, however, I must admit to feeling a slight disappointment with such excessive travel. Although other commenters are less bothered by the effects of CO2 on global climate, warming trends are breaking records month on month and year on year placing huge stresses on many Earth systems. Wine is one of those forms of agriculture that is greatly effected, especially in Europe, California, Australia etc.

    Indeed flying is necessary to visit wineries around the world but I expect attitudes to excessive flying will change over the course of the next few years as impacts of a warmer world are felt even more than they currently are. Recent research has shown that the world will certainly not hold to 2ºC if flying is not curbed and we should keep in mind that warming above 1.5ºC commits us to a very different planet. Above 2.5ºC and we lose the worlds forests entirely. So, nothing is inconsequential.

  10. I think the 100 point scale exists for a reason, everyone understands it. We don’t use the entire scale because no one would release a product below a certain standard, just as a 50 in school, is not passing.

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