Monday, June 27, 2011

For A Change, A Good Word About Scores

Though I have no intent to buy either carriage or horse, I occasionally mosey into the barn out back with ambitious plans to clear it of outdated automotive parts, electronics, furniture and the like, thereby making room for I don't know what; maybe a Harley.

Much of the clutter is box after box of wine memorabilia - auction catalogs, competition results, winery newsletters, tasting notes, labels, posters and assorted other detritus that eventually may end up on eBay or in the catacombs of some library.

I never get far toward my goal of sorting and organizing, however. Invariably, I'm soon distracted by some wrinkled, stained and faded piece of paper I'd forgotten I even had but nevertheless again find captivating, rediscovering why I saved it in the first place. I sit down and start to read. Before I know it, it's dinnertime, and I amble back into the house for the day. Such was the case over the weekend when I came across a copy of the one-page newsletter that Richard Peterson was writing and publishing at The Monterey Vineyard in Gonzales three decades ago.

In a pithy essay under the simple headline "Theory of Relativity," Peterson lays out his scheme to make sense of scores that just then were gaining currency in the reviewing of wines. At the time, 20 points was widely seen as the highest score a wine could receive. That's because competitions and critics frequently based their evaluations of wine on a 20-point metric developed by UC Davis. Today, 100 points is the standard used by several competitions and critics, its origin attributed to school tests with which most Americans are well acquainted, and thus easily could relate.

Regardless, Peterson's principles still apply. "I've never seen a consistent relationship between price and quality in wine," said Peterson at the outset of his essay. At the time, he'd put in more than 20 years in the wine trade. "Price sometimes depends upon the amount of a wine to be sold, but doesn't necessarily correspond to its quality," he added.

Then he showed wine enthusiasts how to apply his "theory of relativity" to everyday life. His intent was to help consumers find the best wine at the lowest price whenever they run across a list of wines whose reviews prominently feature a score. He knew from his long experience as both a winemaker and as a judge on the wine-competition circuit that there's apt to be little difference in the nature and quality of wines whose scores are relatively close.

"How maddening it is to see a wine ballyhooed in publications as a 'grand winner' because it received an average score of, say, 16.3 points - over another which averaged only 16.2 points. In reality, whichever of those two wines sold at significantly lower price should be the true 'grand winner,' as far as the consumer is concerned. I believe that if competent judges rate several wines as 'equal' in quality, then the lowest priced wine should always be reported as the 'winner' in value. Yet, this is rarely done by the wine press," added Peterson. Remember, he wrote this nearly 30 years ago. Things haven't much changed since then.

Here's how to put Peterson's theory into practice: Divide the score given each wine in a tasting by that wine's price. This will give you "quality points per dollar," and the higher the resulting figure the better the value. The July issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example, lists 11 California chardonnays with scores between 90 and 93 points. Of the 11, the wine with the most points also was the most expensive ($65). According to Peterson's theory of relativity, it also offered the fewest "quality points per dollar" - 1.43 - and thus the least value. The wine with the most value, with 3.91 quality points, was the Talbott 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, which scored 90 points and sells for a mere $23.

But don't stop there, Peterson says. He urges consumers to do their calculations, buy wines that stand out for combining high relative value with recognized quality, then taste them and decide for themselves which wines are truly high in value. "After tasting, you can score them and figure a new 'personal' relative value if you wish; but once you've made your own personal decision about various wines' relative values to you, then you must thereafter ignore the original tasting judges' scores," he writes.

It's an old story (encouraging consumers to develop their own tastes) with an enabling twist (the "theory of relativity"). In short, each consumer decides for himself or herself where they get the most value for their buck. Nearly 30 years ago, Peterson offered a quick and simple formula to help consumers on that journey, and it is as applicable today as it was then, if not more so, given the popularity and power of scores given wines.


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  2. Mike--

    I would like to say that Dick Peterson was ahead of his time. but the fact is that wine scores predate him by decades, and the question of score versus value has always been part of the debate.

    The use of the 20-point system for scoring, of course, also predates those comments. And no one used the pure Davis 20-point system for cork-finished table wines. The Davis system had very specific parameters that were intended as a guide for tto assessment of high production wines, not fine wines.

    When the 20-point scoring regimen began to be applied to higher quality wines, it was done as a purely hedonistic measure of relative quality. What has always fascinated me in the way that some pundits attack the 100-point hedonistic system is that 20-points were always used with decimals so the system was really a 200 point system.

    Decanter Magazine, that bastion of English wine thought, uses 20-points to two decimal points thus making it a 2,000-point system.

    And, finally, one needs to remember that Dr. Peterson was making relatively inexpensive wine at the time of his essay. He, of course, had earlier in life been the number two wine guru at Beaulieu, where he made much more expensive wines.

    Good luck on your quest for a Harley. I hope you do not need to complete the clearing out before you buy it.


  3. Hi, Mike! Yeah, those were innocent times, when Peterson was writing his Monterey newsletters (I was a subscriber). Apart from Riesling, those Monterey Vineyard wines were pretty much undrinkable -- even then, that much was clear -- although I would venture to say that Peterson would contend that they were at least "average," and deserved recognition as values.

    Ironically, you can find wines at the exact same price points today as those Monterey Vineyard wines ($8-$10) that anyone, no matter how objective or subjective, would have to say were two, three times better than those Monterey wines. A staggering thought, considering the rate of inflation since then, but that's how far along wine quality in American and internationally has come. Wines we though were really, really nice, even "great," in the seventies, would be considered average at best by today's standards.

    Which only exacerbates the point of anti-point people: all point systems -- 20, 100, or 2,000 -- are basically absurd, because special attributes like terroir or chosen stylistic distinctions, plus the value quotient Peterson was citing, basically gets lost in any point system. The very fact that a wine from thirty years ago might have rated a "very good" score of 17/20 might not rate even an 80/100 today underlines that absurdity. What of wines thirty years from now, which might be twice as good as a 95/100? Should they rate 150 out of 100?

    In any case, just because a wine rates 19.5 or 95 doesn't mean it's the among the "best" wines for a given person or group -- the taste of wine being such a personal thing.

    Finally: scoring systems are also false, and highly prejudicial, snapshots of quality; and even worse, they tend to be "permanent" assessments -- and everyone knows that wines at a certain level of quality gain and recede in qualities through bottle age. Duh.

  4. Charlie, while the 20-point system predates Richard Peterson's "theory of relativity" perhaps by decades, I bring up Dick's approach in the belief that most of today's wine enthusiasts, a few of whom may be reading this blog, are unaware of his take. Secondly, regardless of the inspiration for the 20-point system, it still is used today by both formal and casual tasting groups, as well as at least one wine competition, though more as a relaxed frame of reference than a strict set of standards.

    Randy, you get no argument from me concerning the overall improved quality of wines these days, though I will quibble about your harsh assessment of Monterey Vineyard wines of 30 or so years ago.