Wine Reviews: A Modest Proposal

Decanter, the self proclaimed “world’s best wine magazine,” is “relaunching” its Buying Guide section in an attempt to make wine ratings more transparent and therefore  useful to its global audience. You can read all about the new tasting panel protocols here.

Three Heads Better Than One

Instead of listing a single rating score for each wine, for example, Decanter will now provide the individual scores of three critics. I wasn’t sure if this would make much of a difference, but having read through the new issue, I am a fan. Let me take the big review of Rias Baixas Albarino as an example.

Having read the press release, I was expecting to see four numerical scores for each wine (one for each of the reviews plus the average). What I found was a good deal more, however. Each of the three tasters (regional experts Ferran Centelles, John Radford and Jane Evans in this case) also provided individual  tasting notes for the eight top wines plus summary assessments of the group of wines. (The wines were apparently spectacularly good — 8 top scores out of 74 wines and 25 designated as good value.)

Each of the tasters also provided notes for their “top three” recommended wines and John Radford wrote a brief essay to sum things up. Result: There is a lot of information here and a sense of a wine conversation rather than a monolithic judgment. Great new format.

Global Wine Drinkers Want to Know

For as long as I have been reading Decanter the wine ratings have had three components: a brief but useful tasting note, a numerical rating on a 20 point scale and finally an overall assessment of zero to five stars. Of these three the tasting notes are the most useful for serious study while the star system works well for me as a potential buyer. I’m not sure I can taste the difference between 15.5 and 16.0, but knowing what’s Good, Better and Best (my casual interpretation of three, four and five stars) is something I can use.

But Decanter’s scoring system has changed. Here’s a quote from the press release.

Perhaps the most significant new feature is the adoption of the 100-point score, to run alongside Decanter’s 20-point score, while the old five-star system has been dropped.

Introducing the 100-point system is essential as Decanter is now a global magazine with more than half its readership outside the UK,  [editor Guy Woodward] says in this month’s editorial. Readers can now ‘use whichever [scoring system] they are more familiar with’.

Fair enough — although “essential” is pretty strong —  but I’m going to miss the simplicity of the old five star system and I’m not really sure that I need to have the 20 point British scale translated into a 100 point American equivalent. Converting Decanter scores into Wine Spectator-type figures and back again isn’t exactly rocket science (see the conversation table below). But I don’t see any harm in it, especially if, as the Decanter story suggests, the point is to help “global” readers who may be unfamiliar with the 20 point system to make sense of the ratings.

Follow the Money: A Modest Proposal

It’s good to step back and rethink things like this every so often, but maybe Decanter’s relaunch didn’t go far enough, so in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, I’d like to offer a “Modest Proposal” for future reform.

Here’s my idea. Instead of asking critics to score the wines on a quality scale, let’s ask them how much they are worth! How much should someone be willing to pay for this wine?

Wine reviews generally tell us a wine’s price and a score, but what we really want to know is if it’s worth it. That’s the question that a lot of shoppers want answered and the question they are often trying to figure out when they read critic reviews. From a practical standpoint, don’t you think it would be more useful to translate scores into bucks rather than messing around with 20 points versus 100?

Yes, yes, I know there are lots of problems. A wine that tastes good enough to sell for $20 to you might only taste like it’s worth $12 to me. But that’s nothing new — differences in taste and the problem of what economists might call “interpersonal utility comparisons” are part and parcel of all wine rating systems.

The Mitt Problem … Solved

Income distribution is a more difficult question, however. Mitt Romney has mega-bucks, so me might be willing to pay a lot more for a given bottle of wine than I would. That would mess up the ratings if he were a wine critic. But, hey, Mitt doesn’t drink wine, so … problem solved!

There would be lots of benefits to this new system. Easy to use — just compare the price score ($15) with the market price and you know if the wine is “worth it” or not.  Under a set of ridiculously improbable theoretical assumptions that I won’t explain here because it would put you to sleep, the gap between price and critic-assigned value would be equivalent to the welfare economics concept of “consumer surplus” and so the scores would allow consumers to more efficiently maximize utility and achieve a Pareto Optimal resource allocation.

And while this doesn’t really work in theory, it is how many people behave in practice. How many times have you heard someone brag that their $10 wine tastes like it should cost $20? And although this is a silly thing to say, I believe many people really enjoy the benefit they think they have gained from that value-price gap. So the new system wouldn’t change that way of thinking — just improve it. We’d be drawing upon expert opinion for judgment rather than our own amateur assessments.

A Crazy Idea

Yes, I know this is crazy, but that’s the point. Jonathan Swift’s original 1729 modest proposal — that the rich  should eat the children of starving Irish peasants  — was also crazy, but the point was very sane. The cost of food (due to the high rents that landlords collected, according to the author) was already killing children in Swift’s day. As he said, the landlords had already “eaten” the parents through outrageous prices — might just as well go after the children next.

My wine rating reform is crazy, too. You can’t use money to rate wine. Wine doesn’t taste like dollars — it tastes like wine! But, that’s my point. It doesn’t taste like dollars, but it doesn’t taste much like points, either, however useful consumers and producers might find the ratings to be. Hey, don’t get upset. It’s just a modest proposal!

Here’s the Decanter conversation table. Cheers.

14 responses

  1. Great idea Mike! I’ve always felt it’s hard to rationalize that a 90 point wine at $20 seems so much better than a 90 point wine at $50. The challenge is that for score, higher is better, but for cost, lower is better.

    How about this:
    You could divide the cost into the score (i.e. 90/20=4.5) with the higher number being the best (90/50=1.8)?

    This would work for wines scored 85-95, and under $100. Let’s face it, anything over 95 points is just great, and it’s going to likely be expensive. Likewise anything over $100.

    Essentially, it becomes a 10 point scale, (as a it’s unlikely that a wine under $9 will get 90 or more), even so, that’s a perfect 10. and if it is $100 and 89 points, then it gets a 0.89!


  2. I like the “worth” scale. I have had many wines, lets just pick a price point, say $30 that I thought were very nice but I felt were only worth $20. Other times I have had a $20 wine that was so good I would pay more for it.

    Is a $30 wine twice as good as a $15 wine, maybe. Is a $100 wine three times as good as a $30 wine? I doubt it. Since the reviewers are tasting large numbers of wines at varying price points it would be nice to hear if a 90 point wine is as good as other 90 point wines in different price ranges. After all if a $15 Cabernet Sauvignon is 90 points why should we ever pay $30 or $50 for different 90 point wine.

  3. Mike, I like the worth scale too — but since wine critics rarely pay anything for wine, are they really the best ones to ask how much they’d pay? 😉 Daniel, have you seen Wine Blue Book? They’ve been publishing QPR for years.

  4. I have been frustrated by the different rating systems since I started to pay attention in 1995. The current system is not designed for the end-user, it has been designed and very effectively used as a marketing tool. Wine suppliers, distributors and sales teams are who made these ratings so popular. If wine is rated by any of these critics or publications using a frame it is not obvious to the reader or consumer. By frame I mean a 90 point Sancerre is better than an 88 point Sancerre and price is part of the equation.

    My own system that I have used for more than two decades at trade tastings to determine purchasing for clients and former employers is a simple 6 point system. -3, -2, -1 0 +1, +2, +3. Sancerre is currently about $19 – $23 retail for an average one. So if I taste a very good one that would cost $19 or lower at retail I would give the wine a +2 rating. Apples against apples PLUS an economic value. Then when I go to another Sancerre that costs retail $30 but the same quality or only a bit better I’d rate that either 0 or -1.

    BUT 3 is less than 93 so I must be wrong.

  5. Seems like I hit a nerve with my “worth it?” idea — and you’ve all been thinking along these lines already. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  6. Mike,

    This is the first time for me to comment on your site even though I read from time to time. The migration of Decanter to the 100 point system is just another indicator that the scale is not going anywhere. As an intellectual exercise, I think all of us evaluate what a wine is ‘worth’ when we taste it, using our own mental benchmarks. As a wine critic, I purposely don’t look at any of the technical information that comes with a sample until after I have tasted and reviewed it. In addition to a review and score, I also include a designation of a “$V” for wines that demonstrate what I consider ‘over-performance’. I will also append a comment to the review if a wine underperforms. A $V wine could be a $15 tasting like a $22. example, or a $125 tasting like a $200. Simply using a dollar figure for what you would pay for a wine doesn’t address how appropriate that wine may be for a particular setting. A great $75 Cabernet is not as good as a $12 Pinot Gris for a summer garden party.

  7. As a professional wine writer I have always been totally against any form of wine scoring since my first visit to a US wine store many decades ago when I noticed a number next to the price on the shelves. I asked what this referred to and was told that it was a points-awarding system without which ‘people would not know which wines to buy’.
    40 years on I am still amazed that buyers of wine are apparently influenced by ‘experts’ whose own individual tastes can never have a meaningful relationship with other people’s individual tastes.
    Even before Parker’s methodology was totally discredited by the activities of his Spanish team, Jay Miller and Pancho Campo, caught with their fingers in the till requesting fees for carrying out tastings (undenied and undeniable proof in spades on the web), the whole system has been brought into massive disrepute. But….
    …. what no-one seems able to get into their heads is why wines have to be rated at all. Is beer points-rated? Vodka? Perfume? Films? Electric shavers? Motor cars? Gas stations? Supermarkets? Shoes? Books? Newspapers? TV programmes?
    Why is wine one of the very few products in the entire world that people think needs a rating system? It is just sheer lunacy. If I go into a supermarket to buy a bag of peanuts, would it help me if each bag had a points score on it, awarded by some peanut expert?
    I confess for my own personal use I keep a score when tasting wines about which I will later write, but I would never presume to think these scores should be made public, and more important – which is why I agree with the Author – my scoring is based purely on a value-for-money basis.
    Does it help anyone to read that such-and-such a wine has been awarded 97 points (the price is never referred to), but when you look it up it costs $300? If a wine costs that much it has to be good.
    Let’s start a campaign to get wine points-scoring dropped completely. Are wine drinkers such morons that they need more guidance on what to buy than, say, a beer drinker?

    • AJ,
      Sadly, everything now is rated. Beer, yes. Vodka, yes. Films (4 stars!), Electric Shavers, ever read Consumer reports. And with Yelp and other sites like that, every restaurant, sandwich shop, grocery store and place you can imagine is getting some kind of rating by ‘experts’. or at least their customers!

      • Hi Daniel, as stated I am writing from Spain, and have no idea where you are located on the globe. In this country at least, thankfully, none of the items you mention are rated. People read informed reviews in the event they exist and decide for themselves what to buy/see/do……

  8. Mike, you are a metropolitan man. as Georg Simmel wrote in The Metropolis and Mental Life back in 1903, ” The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy. Here the multiplicity and concentration of economic exchange gives an importance to the means of exchange which the scantiness of rural commerce would not have allowed. Money economy and the dominance of the intellect are intrinsically connected. They share a matter-of-fact attitude in dealing with men and with things; and, in this attitude, a formal justice is often coupled with an inconsiderate hardness. The intellectually sophisticated person is indifferent to all genuine individuality, because relationships and reactions result from it which cannot be exhausted with logical operations. In the same manner, the individuality of phenomena is not commensurate with the pecuniary principle. Money is concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the exchange value, it reduces all quality and individuality to the question: How much?
    All intimate emotional relations between persons are founded in their individuality, whereas in rational relations man is reckoned with like a number, like an element which is in itself indifferent. Only the objective measurable achievement is of interest. Thus metropolitan man reckons with his merchants and customers, his domestic servants and often even with persons with whom he is obliged to have social intercourse… The money economy dominates the metropolis; it has displaced the last survivals of domestic production and the direct barter of goods; it minimizes, from day to day, the amount of work ordered by customers.
    The matter-of-fact attitude is obviously so intimately interrelated with the money economy, which is dominant in the metropolis, that nobody can say whether the intellectualistic mentality first promoted the money economy or whether the latter determined the former. The metropolitan way of life is certainly the most fertile soil for this reciprocity, a point which I shall document merely by citing the dictum of the most eminent English constitutional historian: throughout the whole course of English history, London has never acted as England’s heart but often as England’s intellect and always as her moneybag!…
    …This physiological source of the metropolitan blasé attitude is joined by another source which flows from the money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination. This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, as is the case with the half-wit, but rather that the meaning and differing values of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial. They appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other. This mood is the faithful subjective reflection of the completely internalized money economy. By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveler.

    Mike, here’s a wine scoring system that avoids all the issues of dollar equivalents and 100 points or star ratings, bottom to top:
    vin tres ordinare,
    cheap and cheerful,
    (followed rarely by YUM!)
    Try it. You just might like it. Or not.

  9. Well, seems I’m so late in discovering this blog that this view may never be seen. Yes, I’ve read and pondered the articles and comments and I’m looking forward to Mike’s difficult task for the 2015 book…taste, price, value and so forth and I’ve published a few wine rating articles and also have a wine cellar but bottom line this is how I select wines when I want a few cases: with friends and family 3-6 wines are blind-tasted. The best are on the list to purchase. What happens is lower priced wines are selected as best nearly as often as their more costly cousins, thus, price (and higher point scores) seldom influence the choice to buy. And a given year’s best is not a sure bet the next year’s vintage will be as good. It is necessary to continue with the brown paper bag technology year in and year out. Amen.

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