The ScoRevolution Can Declare Victory

Posted by | Posted in Out of the Glass | Posted on 08-29-2011

On the face of it, Christophe Hedges has started a fight that he’s going to lose. But in a way, he’s already won.

Last month, Hedges helped launch a digital manifesto – ScoRevolution – aimed at bringing down the 100-point wine-rating scale. As the Manifesto states, “The 100-point rating system is a clumsy and useless tool for examining wine. If wine is, as we believe, a subjective, subtle, and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable. Wine scores are merely a static symbol… and thus completely ineffective when applied to a dynamic, evolving, and multifaceted produce.”

Clumsy. Useless. Completely ineffective. Add such strong language to the fact that Hedges secured the support of some of wine’s biggest names — including importer Kermit Lynch, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, and Rajat Parr of the Michael Mina restaurant group – and it’s not surprising that his effort has the entire wine world abuzz.

Many writers have issued their support. Eric Noreen from Terroirists.net has endorsed it, because “the 100 point system… has long over-stayed its welcome.” W. R. Tish “signed the manifesto to support the concept.” Jeff Siegel, similarly, is happy about the “recent assault on scores.”

Problem is, these writers — and the Manifesto — ignore very real benefits of the 100-point system. Sure, the system is flawed. But as Jon Bonné explained in a qualified defense, “It’s also emerged as perhaps the most effective tool to have spoken to a lot of consumers in the past three decades.”

The best defense of the scale came from Josh Wade of Drink Nectar.

Wade begins by arguing that wine scores have made wine better. He’s right. Had Robert Parker never taken a Consumer Reports approach to wine criticism, a much higher percentage of bottles would be flawed — and plenty of producers would still be getting away with making crappy wine.

Wade also argues that “wine scores act as a guide.” Again, he’s right. Think of movie reviews and restaurant criticism. When there are 20 movies playing at a Cineplex — or hundreds of restaurants to choose from — the advice of a trusted and reliable critic helps direct consumers.

Wine is the same. Whether it’s a four-star system, a 5-cork scale, or the infamous 100-point system, scores help steer consumer choice.

As Mike Veseth once explained, when discussing that the average upscale supermarket stocks 1500 or more wine selections, “Wine is the largest choice space in the modern grocery store, ten times richer in terms of the number of options than the #2 area (breakfast cereals) and much more complex.”

Uploaded to flickr by judepics.

As Veseth continued, “Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.”

Scores help make sense of it all.

Finally, Wade contends that “wine ratings aren’t going anywhere,” so we should “deal with it.” Again, Wade is right. W. Blake Gray explained it best. Even if you “use some sort of blackmail and get Parker and Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits to stop rating wines on the 100-point scale,” someone else will continue using it — and that person will “instantly be the world’s most important wine critic.”

I laid out most of these arguments in a phone conversation with Hedges — but he wouldn’t admit defeat.

The reason? He had no intention of winning the battle over point scores. He simply wanted to start a conversation. And without question, he’s already succeeded in that goal.

“This started as a statement,” Hedges explained. “It was nothing more than a diatribe I just wrote down on a piece of paper and put on the Internet. We wanted to see how many people felt the same way. The goal was never to bring down Bordeaux En Primeur. It was to start a conversation — to suggest that something might be happening in the world of wine.”

I pushed back, as the Manifesto doesn’t talk about a conversation — it’s an absolute indictment of scores.

“I’ll admit that the scoring system has made wine more accessible,” he said. “That’s a good thing. In fact, we [Hedges Family Estate] used scores when we started — so much so that we abused it.

“But, because of score inflation, scores have become downright meaningless. Plus, scores are training wheels. It’s time for wine drinkers to graduate. Not everyone stays in first grade forever — you move on to second grade, and then third and fourth. Wine education is becoming more intellectual — it’s time for wine writers to become philosophers and interpreters of wine. We don’t have to dumb things down any more”

Hedges was starting to convince me — isn’t there something to be said for the philosophy of wine? But I couldn’t help but think about regular consumers — those people who, when they go to the supermarket and see 1500 wine selections, are paralyzed by confusion and reach for a 12-pack of Budweiser out of desperation.

Hedges responded by comparing wine to Britney Spears.

“Why is Britney Spears popular?” Hedges asked. “Her music is easy to understand. But there are also indie rock stations. Because as people become more aware and enlightened, they demand more. From my perspective, the use of a number to describe wine is absolutely ridiculous. The 100-point scales assumes an end — 100 — and that assumes perfection. We could philosophize about perfection for hours, but nothing is perfect. The assumption of perfection disassociates itself with pleasure of wine.”

Here, Hedges was echoing Hugh Johnson, who he describes as the “father of the ScoRevolution.”

In a 1992 essay entitled “A Few Words About Numbers,” Johnson criticized scoring by lamenting the fact that “it asserts the existence of objective absolutes which can be measured.”

“In the world of wine,” Johnson wrote, “there are no such things.”

Johnson’s “most serious indictment” of scores came a bit later in his essay: “It teaches the layman to believe that all wines are in competition with each other; that they are all trying to achieve a perfect 100 points.”

Johnson, Hedges, and everyone who signed the Manifesto have many good points. In the end, though, I can’t help but see their criticism as Tom Wark sees it — “Anyone who has a beef with these critics and their system of reviewing wines has a beef with subjective evaluation and criticism, two thing that have been applied to every artistic or craft endeavor since a Neanderthal first scribbled over a cave-mate’s wall drawing.”

The conversation is valuable, of course, as wine is nuanced and always changing. And it’s impossible to sum up all that makes a wine worth the price tag — it’s flavor profile and aroma, sure, but also its story, value, obscurity, etc. — into a single rating.

But in the end, I think the 100-point system is worth keeping around. And I’m 100 points on that.

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