When wines push our buttons

YouTube could be onto something. They revamped their website recently, paring the five-star user-rating system back to a stark “like/dislike” choice for content. It seems that under the old system most voting viewers hit the five star button, only a handful voted one star and just about no one voted in between. Overwhelmingly, viewers liked or disliked what they saw. Is it any different for wine drinkers? Do we simply like or dislike wines? Should reviewers follow YouTube to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down approach?

Hugh Johnson, one of the world’s most popular wine writers – and an admitted “relativist” – might be a supporter. After judging at the Royal Sydney Wine Show some years back he commented, “I judge wine by loving it or hating it and there’s not much in between. I love vitality in a wine, the sort of wine where one bottle is not enough. So giving wines points creates a spurious sense of accuracy and if you can believe it means something when someone gives a wine 87 points out of 100, then you would believe anything.”

But Johnson’s subtle approach won’t help everyone, notwithstanding his elegant, meaningful wine descriptions. Faced by thousands of wine labels, most of us become confused and insecure when buying wine. Little wonder then that we seek direction. For example, endorsements – such as awards, reviews and ratings from trusted, disinterested experts – give us direction and security. These ratings tend to be expressed in stars, points or show awards.

As a lapsed retailer I’ve seen gold medals and trophies boost sales. But buyers care nought for silver and bronze medallists – winemakers shouldn’t bother putting them on labels. Paralleling YouTube, gold medals and trophies become the “like” button for some drinkers.

Largely through the influence of American critic Robert M. Parker, many critics now use a 100-point rating system – although the five-star scale survives and a 20-point scale dominates Australia’s wine show system (15.5 equals bronze; 17.0 equals silver; 18.5 equals gold – however, the public seldom sees the scores, just the medals).

Even if we agree with Hugh Johnson that scores out of 100 give a spurious sense of accuracy, it’s hard not to accept that critics need some sort of rating scale and that whatever we use ought to give meaningful help to drinkers. If scores can’t describe wine styles they should at least reflect the relative quality of wines.

Wine shows build this principle into their medal-rating systems – and drill it into trainee wine judges. The first message an associate judge hears is, if you like a wine give it a high score; if you don’t like it give it a low score; if you think it’s middle of the road give it a middling score; if you thinks it’s seriously faulty, give it a very low score – in short, let your scores reflect the quality.

But the 100-scale rating system seems to push sales towards wines scoring 90 points or more – perhaps the YouTube phenomenon again. But, confusingly, critics seem to use very little of the 100-point scale.

In a recent advertising catalogue, the Dan Murphy tasting panel awarded 92 points to a $16 Cotes-du-Rhone and 94 points to a $60 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Despite the price gape, that’s a plausible quality difference – a well-made Cotes-du-Rhone could equal or better a mediocre Chateauneuf-du-Pape

But I’d recently tried both wines and noted a big quality gap. They’re made by reputable Rhone Valley producer, Michel Chapoutier, and imported by Dan Murphy. One was a rich, rustic, slightly rough but enjoyable country wine; the other fragrant, subtle, silky and elegant – a classy example of a much abused appellation. As Johnson says, scores can’t be precise; but they shouldn’t mislead us and they ought, at least, reflect relative quality. On a 100-point scale, that’d be more like 75 for the Cotes-du-Rhone and 90 for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

As wine drinkers we quickly decide our likes and dislikes. But I suspect we have more than two buttons. If we’re interested in our wines, we invariably like some more than others. And the more we explore wine and the wider the range we drink, the more likely we are to develop complex rating systems in our minds.

When we head down this track, someone else’s score means less than a clear description – a note written in plain English, describing a wine’s provenance, style, and an opinion on where it rates within that style. This gets closer to the Johnson relativist view, and it opens the door to increased drinking pleasure.

While rating systems can be useful sources of information, they’re best taken with a grain of salt – and not used as Navmans that keep us on the narrow 90-point, gold-medal, five-star path.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010