Winning Wine

Unless you’re a total shut-in, you have heard from athletes who are taking it one game at a time. You’ve heard from the notionally mold-breaking voters who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative. And, god help you, you’ve heard from your friends who are spiritual, but not religious.

The wine world has its own abstruse platitudes. If I had a dollar for every California winery I’ve heard tout its chardonnay as Burgundian, I could buy a case of Bâtard-Montrachet. And I am going to lay my hands on the next winery rep who tells me that the humble winemaker he represents is hands-off. These old chestnuts are spoken earnestly, as if they hadn’t already been roasted to oblivion.

Perhaps the one that the sommelier hears the most from hungry reps is the “we don’t care about scores” line. Wines – not all – are scored, usually on the 100-point scale that is so ubiquitous that it is hard to believe that it, like the pro and con* list, had an actual inventor. The inventor is Robert Parker, Jr., who, since he started his publication The Wine Advocate in 1978, has become the most powerful wine critic – maybe the most powerful wine anything­ in the world. We don’t really care about scores... but Parker gave this a 93. I hear it all the time. Lucky for me, every one of these wineries that “doesn’t care” about these statistics always seems ready to rattle them off.

Here’s a quick primer on the 100-point system. Parker starts it. Consumers appreciate it. Producers embrace it or hate it, often depending on whether the system has damned or lauded their juice. Wine people wring their hands over “Parkerization,” which is the phenomenon, real or imagined, of wines being engineered not to maximize quality or local expression, but the characteristics prized by the omnipotent kingmaker. There’s a backlash against this system. Part of the backlash is that wineries claim not to care about scores. Hence your pervasive platitude.

The public relationship with wine scores is fraught. Wine people speak derisively of “score whores-” consumers of dubious taste who play mine’s bigger by conspicuously collecting and consuming highly-rated wines. These consumers may be ridiculed, but they’re valuable. Most wine stores display scores on shelves or on websites, and some restaurants take the putative low road by actually displaying scores on their wine lists- this is a business, after all. Like it or not, the 90-point line seems to be the one that matters, and consumers consider a score north of it to be a reason to buy a wine.

The value of the scores is arguable. The scorers are all human, so whether it’s Parker or James Suckling or a Wine Spectator editor, the scores are subjective. Moreover, each critic has his own tastes, so one’s 98 may be another’s 92. Maybe Suckling is your guy, so you’re more likely to shell out for a Suckling 93 than a Parker 96.

Detractors say that scores are inevitably just reflections of what pleases the scorer. Scorers would disagree. Parker has said that his scores are based on certain marks of quality that are detectable regardless of personal taste; the 100-point scale, then, is just a way of informing consumers of quality. As a wine professional, I would back him up on this point: Just as I can acknowledge a good Mumford and Sons song or a beautiful Kardashian, I can identify a wine as high-quality without liking it at all.

When I hear someone talking about how they are above scores, I tune them out faster than a Coachella story, so it was refreshing when I heard a Paso Robles winery we'll call Jade proudly admit that their goal was to make a 100-point wine. It is their singular focus, and they fund their ambition with higher-margin lower-end wines. That way they don’t have to fret over the profitability of their chief pursuit. Such plain aspirations are rarely spoken. But is pursuing a 100-point wine a noble goal?

Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just a way to say that you are dedicated to being the best you can be. Show me a serious Hollywood actress who does not have Win Oscar somewhere on the dear list of goals she scribbled out when she was still waitressing. Show me the Nashville songwriter who does not pine to reach number one. But are these the closest comparisons we can make? Why, on the face of it, does an Academy Award seem like a worthy goal, but the goal a 100-point wine seems trite or wrongheaded?

Most simply, because it’s uncool to pursue points in the wine world. It’s impure. It’s too much bald-faced practicality and approval-seeking in a world that, by and large, likes to pretend that critical approval and commercial success are secondary. It would be fine to declare an intention to make the best wine possible, or even the greatest wine of all time, but the point-system is seen as a soulless and unnecessary addition to a spiritual craft – the rough equivalent of introducing a clock to speed up baseball games. A winery declaring its own goals, lofty though they may be, in the cold terms of the point system just seems uncouth.

But just because it goes against convention is no reason to discount this goal; sometimes the wine world seems too full of blind reverence for establishment and tradition. To me, it just seems like too much potential frustration to go after such an external goal. Wine scoring is simply too fickle a standard on which to base your ambitions.

And not just because scores are generally given by one person; Sure, it’s an expert, but it's one person nonetheless. Academy Awards are bestowed by what is generally accepted to be a body of experts, so the peculiar tastes of a few loose cannons pretty much get sanded out. The awards don’t go one crackpot critic’s wacky favorite, nor do they automatically go to the public’s box office champ. Gates of Heaven doesn’t win Best Picture, but neither does Furious 7. Not that committees always get it right (where were the rogues on this one?), but the peer-review aspect of the Academy Awards makes giving an award for “best” anything seem a little less silly than the prospect of wooing one critic into declaring that your wine is unimproveable.

External validation isn’t evil, but it’s too nebulous to be a reliable driver of achievement. Yeah, John and Paul joked, “Let’s write ourselves a swimming pool today,” but do such motivations produce songs like Let It Be? I doubt it. Tastes change, trends shift, and there’s gotta be a target that is not tied to those things.

In an industry that is so beholden to the whims and peccadilloes of nature, what does it really mean to produce a flawless wine in an ideal vintage? A rising tide lifts all boats – shouldn’t a winemaker be more proud of a 92-point wine salvaged from an abysmal year than a 98 made in an exceptional vintage?

Meanwhile, customers are drinking bottle after bottle of these wines, toasting their sons' graduations, and sipping on the porch as the sun sets on another long day. For the drinkers, that’s what makes the wine as good as it can be. I’ve got nothing against this kind of ambition, but I would tell these winemakers not to sweat it too hard if they never achieve their goal of “winning wine.”


* Yep, Benjamin Fucking Franklin.

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