05/07/08 – north of 90 for south of $20

By Jesse on May 4, 2008


I just finished a chapter in Red, White and Drunk all Over in which the author Natalie MacLean examines the “purely American phenomenon” of wine scores.  Hugely interesting stuff, and very relevant to us Winos; the vast majority of us, I would hazard a guess, are influenced by those 100-point-scale ratings that we see taped up next to displays of wine in stores.  Charged with a mandate to buy something relatively obscure (a bottle of Pinot Noir from Chile, lets say), and discovering two similarly-priced bottles at your local wine shop — both with positive reviews but one featuring a 92-point designation as well — who among us wouldn’t err on the side of critical approval and go for the numbered bottle?  This inclination, though, raises some important questions: which critic was it?  Is his/her taste similar to your own?  Do you know?  Do you even care… or is a “good” number from some expert simply enough?

The 100-point scale has been around for a while, but the critic who really brought it to the forefront of American wine consumer culture was Robert Parker.  According to Natalie MacLean: “few topics provoke more controversy than [Parker’s] 100-point scale.  Retailers refer to the ‘Parker effect’: a wine he scores above 90 can’t be bought (because demand for it is so high), and one below 80 can’t be sold because drinkers think it’s inferior).”

She describes the distaste that many Europeans have for the 100-point score, citing the example of British wine critic Hugh Johnson, who “refuses to rate wines at all.  ‘It’s a very useful shortcut for people who don’t want to make up their own minds or become involved, or even bother to read tasting notes,’ he writes.  ‘The idea that you can score quality is fundamentally strange… I’ve never seen it tried on works of art.'”

Natalie’s personal summation?  “I didn’t score wines for the first five years I wrote about them.  But… I eventually responded to readers who wanted them.  Many people buy their wine as they do their toothpaste: they want to make a quick decision, but a good one (or at least, a safe one).  A good score may give novice drinkers the confidence to make that precipitous leap from bladder-box swill to bottled poetry.  So I’m conflicted: while I agree that the essence of wine can never be trapped in a number, I do want as many people as possible to experience the pleasure of wine.  If that means using a tool they can relate to, so be it.”

The official position of the Young Winos of LA on the 100-point is currently under consideration.  My personal inclination is to agree with Hugh-J above; you don’t score art on a 100-point scale, so why score something similarly expressive and subjective, like wine?  However, the Young Winos remains a populist organization, and in that spirit we’ll embrace the sentiment that Ms. MacLean displays in her commentary.  At least for this week, we’ll use those goddamn scores, and we’ll use them good.

Not only that, but we’ll take it a step further by injecting a healthy dose of value into the proceedings.  This week, please bring any wine you want, purchased for less than 20 dollars, which received a score of 90 or higher in some kind of wine publication.  I’m leaving that last part pretty open, because I don’t want us to feel like our only choices are Wine Spectator, Wine and Spirits, Stephen Tanzer, or Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate magazine.  (True, you’ll see these names more often than any others on the shelf next to the bottles, but that’s not to say you won’t see others.)  There are lots of critics out there using the 100-point scale, and if you’re open-minded about it, you might just find one whose taste matches your own.  How convenient would that be?  You’d never have to think at all.

So when you show up to the meeting, bring not only your bottle, but also the score, the source, and some tasting notes.  The latter won’t be a problem — any time a wine is rated by anyone, tasting notes are also given, and you’ll generally be able to find these somewhere online (wineries’ websites often feature such accolades).  Trust me, this isn’t the easiest assignment in the world — remember that “Parker effect,” which suggests that wines rated 90 or higher by him, and likely by just about anyone, will be more expensive.  (My suggestion is to perhaps focus your search on burgeoning regions where the price-points haven’t quite caught up to the critical acclaim just yet.  Spain’s a good one, South America has promise, and even Australia and New Zealand still feature values.)  Of course, as always, you can bring ten dollars if your search proves fruitless, or if you simply don’t have time to make it to the wine store.  You know we love those $10 donations.

The specs:

This week features the ultimate Winos double-edged sword: we once again venture into the regrettably cop-happy streets of Santa Monica, but we simultaneously welcome Sasha back into the fold following her necessary period of post-surgery abstinence.  She and Noah will be hosting us for the first time in their new location, which is very exciting.  The RSVP situation is as follows: new members have eight spots reserved for them at each and every meeting, with preference within those spots given to newbies who were denied admittance due to space constraints in recent weeks.  Please do not RSVP in the positive if you’re not sure you can make it, as this will deny someone else the opportunity of attending the meeting.  If you do RSVP and then need to cancel, please inform me as soon as possible.

Go forth and seek out those (alleged) gems at bargain-basement prices — or simply play it safe and bring a crisp $10 bill.  We’ll see you on Wednesday at 9pm.