The Irrelevance of Scoring Wine

As the svelte brunette, a sommelier at one of my favourite restaurants in the Stellenbosch winelands says: “If I want to score, I’ll head for the bars just off Main Road in Sea Point.” This irreverent, yet weight-bearing reference, usually comes up when she is asked an opinion on the score a specific bottle achieved at the hands of critics tasked with adorning wines with points and star ratings. Like me, the lady in question is an utter agnostic when it comes to the religious fervour with which wine-drinkers follow the ratings of wines handed out by the disciples of vinous judging.

It was a film that convinced me art is un-rateable. And my conviction that the use of points to “score” what is in the glass, stems from the fact that I am truly convinced that wine is an art-form. For reasons I have stated in the past and will not go into at this moment in time, suffice to say that Ernest Hemingway does it for me by saying that “good wine is the most civilised thing on earth”.

In the early 1990s I was a film-reviewer for Die Burger, an Afrikaans language daily newspaper, where house-style dictated the judging of films using a one-to-five-star system. One and two stars usually went the way of movies featuring Leon Schuster or Jean-Claude van Damme. When reviewing modern classics such as Dead Poets Society, Goodfellas, Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs, I spent more time sweating over deciding between a 4- and 5-star rating than writing the actual 600-word review.

One night I was tasked to check-out an art-house flick called Barton Fink made by the then up-and-coming brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Half-way through this extraordinary film about a New York playwright’s internal struggles resulting from him having sold his artistic soul to 1940’s Hollywood, I started wondering: How the hell was I going to confine this piece of film marvel to 5-stars? The acting (John Turturro, John Goodman and Judy Davis), the intense originality of the storyline, the power of the script….all the other movies I was reviewing and had handed 5-star ratings to paled and withered when compared with what I was watching here.

When it came to ending the writing of that review and listlessly typing in the 5-star rating, it was with a feeling of dishonesty to the readers. For despite my – I think – powerfully positive appraisal of the film, those 5-stars seemed a lacklustre and lazy cop-out, a restrictive and stuffy way with which to rate, recommend or review an exceptional experience.

Which brings me back to wine. The rating of wine with a score, a practice that Robert Parker made acceptable, is to me an incomplete and sluggish way with which to end-out one’s appraisal of a wine. Sure, ratings are motivated by critics claiming their scores are driven by virtue, the defining of the points-score being the generous offering of the reviewer’s insight and knowledge in order to guide the consumer who – obviously – needs such expert guidance in order to gain an informed opinion.

But this I don’t buy and certainly don’t follow. Points ratings are for air-fryers, flat-screen television sets, and wireless head-phones. Would one use a points-rating to guide a reader to a novel by Lionel Shriver, Douglas Stuart or Etienne van Heerden? If Irma Stern, Pierneef and Walter Meyer are 5-star artists, what about Gauguin and Picasso? The same goes for music, drama; poetry and sculpture.

Art is not followed by scores and ratings, although monetary value has today become a popular and shallow guide to its perceived merit.

John Turturro in Barton Fink.

This is why social media is changing the face of wine reviewing and rating for the better. Two sentence-tweets containing real and heart-felt words and enthusiastic Instagram pictures are becoming more convincing and more relatable to consumers than a 92pt rating. Sure, the conveyers of these social media opinions and recommendations are mostly nowhere near the lofty heights where informed and educated wine critics reside. But their raw and spontaneous reaction to wine succeeds in conveying what a score cannot do, and that is emotion and experience. The sharing of this emotion and experience, in ever-which-way, is by far the most effective way of eliciting consumer response and will, in due course, make the current obsession with ratings and scores irrelevant. If it is your thing, however, enjoy it while it lasts.

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3 thoughts on “The Irrelevance of Scoring Wine

  1. Emile, spot on.
    May I add: art as formed by nature? Like a beautiful flower?
    For my pleasure, I taste the wine.
    To make a profit, I sell wine with 90+ ratings to the better restaurants.

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