Rating Systems Have Their Good and Bad Points

Some day, perhaps, someone will invent a machine into which you pour an ounce of wine and within a few seconds a number will pop up on a digital readout that will tell you, objectively, if what you have is nectar or swill.

Until then, alas, we are stuck with things like noses and palates, most unscientific objects that have been known to take vacations without leaving word with the operator; become afflicted with ailments that make tasting anything only a rumor, and which need training and constant exercise to perform at peak levels.

Rating anything is tricky business, and rating wine may be worse than rating movies, for example, because wine can change so radically with the mood of the taster, with the setting and the environment, and with time. Not only do we change, so does the wine. (Sure, our perception of films changes, too, as we get older, but the changes are in us, not on the celluloid.)

Suppose you're seated at the dinner table at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and the co-director, Aubert de Villaine, hands you a glass (Waterford, of course) of 1961 La Tache. You'd likely find the wine to be perfect.

So what would your reaction be to the same wine handed to you in an army canteen cup while sitting behind the tuba player at a football game? In the rain? Nice red wine, most likely.

Wine evaluation is subjective, not scientific, and putting numerical scores on wines is an artificial device that shouldn't be used casually and in most cases should be avoided. Yet it's a fact of life that a lot of people like having wines rated by number. It's a convenient short-hand method of remembering something about your impressions of a grand or horrid experience. And a way to remember what someone recommends you buy.

I have rarely assigned numbers to wines when writing about them, yet I've used them when taking notes at blind tastings because it was handy. Some time ago I started getting requests from people who asked me to score wine in my column.

OK, I said, but which numbering system to use?

Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, published in the San Francisco Bay area, and Wine and Spirits magazine both use a three-point system, with top wines getting three puffs (in the case of the former) or three stars (for the latter).

Other publications use a five-star rating system, still others use 10 points. All have their benefits; all have drawbacks.

A controversial scoring system is the 100-point scale used by Robert Parker in his newsletter The Wine Advocate and adopted by The Wine Spectator, San Francisco-based consumer publication on wine.

The 100-point scale has been so criticized recently that Harvey Steiman, executive editor of the Wine Spectator, defended it in an editorial.

In an interview, he said, "Any numerical rating is a short-hand method of determining how you like the wine. What the 100-point scale does for us is to allow us more leeway in stating our preference for one wine over another."

He said the 100-point scale gives the user greater latitude to rate one wine over another.

John Tilson, editor of the Alhambra-based newsletter The Wine Journal, dislikes the 100-point rating system.

Fine Graduations

"Nothing's that perfect," he says. "Don't try to read into this more than is there. People assume (wine evaluation) is more precise than it ever can be." He said such fine gradations as one-point in a 100-point scale are next to impossible to duplicate. "Once you use a 100-point scale, what's next?"

What is next? I conjured up the 1,000-point scale, a kind of Dewey Decimal System of rating wine. Down to the thousandths of a point. I can see it now:

"Hey, taste wine No. 4. That's an 934.776 if I ever saw it."

"Are you kidding? That's not more than 912.692."

Gary Fishman, wine buyer for the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, said the 100-point scale is merely an instantaneous way of seeing if a wine is good or not, and he added, "Realistically, there's no difference between a 93 and 96."

He said all numbering systems fail at one point or another "but as least the 20-point system is sane."

One problem I have with the 100 point rating wine is the precision of the concept. Using 100 points implies objectivity, and this is such a subjective exercise I wonder what the difference is between a 90 and a 95, especially when a wine is tasted one time when the taster has a cold and another clear-headed.

Popular Scale

I lean toward the 20-point rating system.

The 20-point scale has been used for years to evaluate wine in scientific settings, such as at the University of California at Davis' department of enology, where wines go under a microscope both literally and figuratively.

Although the 20-point scale also has its flaws, it is at least the one most commonly associated with fine wine evaluation. Harry Waugh, the octogenarian British wine taster and author, uses it. So does the California Grapevine, another newsletter, Robert Finigan's Wine Letter, Tilson's Wine Journal and other publications.

After debating the merits of all scoring systems, I decided it made more sense to use the 20-point system, and then only for wines evaluated in a blind tasting.

That last proviso was added because of an episode that occurred a few weeks ago when I was evaluating the newly released 1982 Beringer Chabot Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), a most magnificent wine with an aroma of cassis, cherry and violets, a cedary spice and very rich finish.

Tasting that wine with sight of the bottle, I gave it a 19--magnificent. Yet a week later, trying it in a blind tasting, I hedged. The tannins are a little rough right now (expected, of course, from such a wine), so without knowing who made it, I gave it a 17.5.

Well, which is it, 17.5 or 19? Knowing the producer helps. Beringer's Cabernets have this habit of aging beautifully, and the Chabot Vineyard wine (formerly called Lemmon Ranch) has been terrific since it first saw light as a single-vineyard wine in 1977. Knowing who made it (wine maker Ed Sbragia), I vote for the 19.

Will you like a wine I rate 18? That should be determined by the comments I make about it, in which I refer to the style of the wine. More than anything, however, you should taste wines that sound intriguing and decide for yourself.

And then assign your own number.

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