Meaningful and/or lucrative scoring

Scoring wines is a funny business altogether, of course. In a recent spat over the bizarre practice of the great and good assembling in Bordeaux each spring to score Bordeaux wines, some of which have scarcely finished their malolactic fermentation, and few of which have been finally blended, British wine writer Stephen Brook related how “a well-known and highly informed British wine writer once gave a talk at a wine conference in the USA, at which he invited the audience to score works of art he illustrated with a slide show. The point was well made: scores may be a necessary evil, but they are intrinsically absurd.” The same wine writer, Brooks says, is “one of the worst” when it comes to scoring. (Brooks’s article can be found here, while the equally eminent, but I suspect much richer, Tim Atkin, one of the implicitly and actually accused, wrote a response here.)

Precise scoring, if not judgementalism, is a practice I try to avoid, but succumb each year when it’s time to rate wines for Platter. But I seldom find it a nice – let alone easy – thing to do. A particular problem, maybe worse in South Africa now than ever, just because of the proliferation of styles, is how to reward (ie score) wines that don’t easily fit into the (more-or-less) established aesthetic. Christian Eedes sort-of alluded to this recently with regard to modern Cape cinsaut. Not, it scarcely needs saying, that Christian showed much irresolution in his scoring, but at least a few question marks hovered around the issue of whether a lightish, fresh cinsaut could get the same sort of big score as, say, a cabernet in established style. I myself have worried over exactly this issue – but, then, I seldom deploy the confidence in assigning value that so many critics (abler ones, no doubt) do.

Stephen Brook complains about “routinely stratospheric scoring”. It’s not just a problem for Bordeaux, this, but pretty universal. (Personally I feel it also applies to the Platters’ Guide, so I am implicated in it.) One of the reasons, of course, is money (and fame) for the scorer. If you want to sell your stickers advertising your scores to the producer, you’re far more likely to do so if you give a good score – I’m not necessarily accusing critics who sell these lucrative stickers of cynicism, just suggesting that it can’t help but be some sort of factor. High scores sell wines to insecure or ignorant customers.

I asked Roland Peens of Wine Cellar, a retailer for whom I have respect, why the only local scores he ever cited were those of Christian Eedes (with whom, incidentally, his business has a commercial relationship). Why not those of Michael Fridjhon, a widely well regarded judge, whose business is entirely built around rating wines? Partly, it seems, because MF tends not to be involved with the cutting edge wines that Wine Cellar (to its great credit) pushes; but also partly because Fridjhon’s scores are on a scale that is too low.

For Michael, a wine scoring in the 70s is “good to very good”, while such a score would be regarded as pretty insulting by most users of the 100-point system; For Christian, a wine scoring thus is “Poor – plain and simple”. A wine getting in the 80s for Michael is an “excellent wine of distinction”, while for Christian a wine must get over 90 to be excellent; in the 80s it is “Very good – may represent a bargain depending on the price point”.

Whose scores (especially given that Christian represents the international, ie American, norm) is a retailer – or a producer – more like to quote? It is interesting as well as admirable, perhaps, of course, that Michael Fridjhon – who understands the situation and is not known for being averse to commercial success – is seemingly too proud to adjust to the higher and narrower range norm which would give his ratings more publicity, and his website a greater chance of success. The sort of narrow range of high scores, of course, that Stephen Brook sneers at.

But I find I’ve sidetracked myself – I wanted to say something about the real difficulty in scoring wines for Platter’s which deviate from the aesthetic norm in BOTH directions: towards more natural, fresh and low-alcohol styles, as well as towards extremes of the big, sweet, ultra-ripe tendency. My blogging is much reduced at present, I fear, but I fully intend to return to this matter on a hopefully refreshed and non-loadshed tomorrow.

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