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intent to buy either carriage or horse, I occasionally mosey into the barn out back with ambitious plans to clear it of outdated automotive parts, electronics, furniture and the like, thereby making room for I don't know what; maybe a Harley.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.
Critic’s Notebook: Small Plates Grow Up
2 hours ago