January 6, 2011
The identity of the world’s first wine critic is lost to history, but we do know it was the ancient Egyptians who were the first to engage in the practice that defines modern wine criticism: rating wines on a scale of points. The Egyptians inscribed hieroglyphics on the seals of their wine jugs noting the origin and occasionally even the vintage of their wines. In these hieroglyphics they used the word nfr to signify the better wines. Particularly good wines were labeled nfr-nfr. Apparently the scale went up to nfr-nfr-nfr. It was likely the world’s first wine-rating system. Call it a four-point scale.
There followed a period of some millennia in which people seemed mostly content to drink wine without formally ranking it. Then came the Enlightenment and its concomitant obsession with the classification of absolutely everything. The prevailing intellectual fashion of the day was the conviction that all facts about the universe were knowable through the faculty of reason and the practice of the natural sciences. One of the emblematic documents of that era was Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which sought to aggregate all facts about everything in one place and even included a taxonomic classification of knowledge itself. The Enlightenment-era obsession with classification spread to the sphere of wine appreciation and culminated most famously in the Bordeaux classification of 1855, when 79 estates were ranked on a scale of premier to cinquième cru. The 1855 classification closely tracked a number of earlier such classifications, including a 1787 classification by Thomas Jefferson, the all-American Enlightenment figure, who prophetically anointed “Margau,” “La Tour de Ségur,” “la Fite,” and “Hautbrion” as growths “of the first quality.” Jefferson’s classification went down to third growths; the 1855 classification to fifths. Take into account the estates not deemed worthy of classification at all and you can call those projects a four-point scale or a six-point scale, respectively.
The enterprise of rankings has of course refined itself to ridiculous levels of pseudo-precision today, and most critics eschew the four-point scales of old for a hundred-point scale (which is technically a 51-point scale since it starts at 50, but lately has become more like a 17-point scale by virtue of the contagious editorial decision not to publish any review below 85 points). Robert Parker is sometimes falsely credited with inventing the scale. When the British wine writer Hugh Johnson reviewed the galleys of Parker’s first book, he claimed to be so puzzled by the numbers in the margins that he mistook them for printer’s marks. But he shouldn’t have been confused, since all Parker did was take the 20-point system used by European writers based on European school grades and adapt it to the 100-point scale used in American schools. The system of course proved massively successful and acquired a power over wine collectors that one could fairly call hypnotic. None of the other scales that have been devised from time to time―such as the 20-point scale, Gambero Rosso’s (four-point) “Tre Bicchieri” scale, or the (six-point) “Yech” to “Delicious!” scale used by the Wall Street Journal‘s ex‒wine columnists―has ever had nearly the psychological pull.
I’ve always thought that the system’s correlation to school grades was the main reason for this. While there are many occasions to prefer a simpler wine to a more serious wine, there is simply no situation in life in which it is better to receive an A- than an A+. In addition, Parker likes to cast himself as a champion of hedonism in wine appreciation (in contrast to a nameless roster of enemies he dubs “the pleasure police” who, he imagines, cast aspersions on the wines he recommends because they’re just too gosh-darned enjoyable). If his point ratings are a proxy for hedonistic enjoyment, then the functional difference between a 95-point wine and a 90-point wine seems an insufficient basis for preferring the latter to the former; why deprive oneself of five points worth of pleasure?
The system’s incognizance of functional and other qualitative differences among wines leads many people to condemn the scales as misleadingly univariate and to oppose the use of points altogether. But I can’t quite embrace their side of the argument, either. The fact of the matter is that point ratings, for all their flaws, do express something, and it isn’t something that can be expressed in prose.
Consider the way numbers are used in a somewhat different field: baseball statistics. The master statistician Bill James once observed that baseball statistics were peculiarly interesting, as distinct from statistics in other fields, because they “have acquired the power of language.” He called them “imagenumbers,” explaining:
Let us start with the number 191 in the hit column, and with the assertion that it is not possible for a flake . . . to get 191 hits in a season. It is possible for a bastard to do this. It is possible for a warthog to do this. It is possible for many people whom you would not want to marry your sister to do this. But to get 191 hits in a season demands (or seems to demand, which is as good for the drama) a consistency, day-in, day-out devotion, a self-discipline, a willingness to play with pain and (to some degree) a predisposition to the team game which is wholly inconsistent with flakiness. It is entirely possible, on the other hand, for a flake to hit 48 homers.
Wine ratings seem to me to have a similar illustrative power. And the scale isn’t really univariate, because it tells you three things: the point rating, the person giving the points, and the identity and type of wine. Sometimes that tells you all you need to know. You do not need to read the tasting note of a California Rhône blend rated 98 points by Parker to know that it will have fruit concentration reminiscent of a reduction sauce, an intense new-oak infusion, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15.5% alcohol. In fact, the number tells you more than Parker himself will tell you, because the accompanying tasting note will invariably make the wine sound as exciting and engaging as any number of uncontroversially classic wines; it’s only the obscenely high rating and the track record of the man bestowing it that signals that this is a wine to be avoided by all people of good taste. And obviously it’s at least as useful for those who don’t treat it as a reverse indicator. If a little number can communicate so much, that’s a good argument against abandoning the tool.
Which isn’t to say that the effect of the numbers on the enterprise of wine appreciation has been wholly positive. The most obviously destructive effect of the points regime has been in the number of abhorrent wines elevated to fame by high ratings and the corresponding number of respectable-to-exquisite efforts consigned to commercial purgatory by low or indifferent ratings. But this isn’t an argument against points per se, only against the governing philosophies of the people who have been dispensing them. My main objection to the 100-point scale derives from the very thing that accounts for its hypnotic power, its correlation to school grades. It encourages people to approach a wine like a student submitting his work for the teacher’s approval, and part of the system’s appeal doubtlessly lies in the ego boost of playing teacher and purporting to issue an authoritative pronouncement on the value of somebody else’s labor. But this has it exactly backwards. It’s the wine that has something to teach us, not the other way around. If we take it seriously, we should see what we can learn from it before we presume to grade it.
For further reading:
- William Younger’s Gods, Men, and Wine, as comprehensive a history of winemaking as there exists and the source of the anecdote about the Egyptian wine-ranking system.
- Wikipedia entries on Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the 1855 Bordeaux classification, and Thomas Jefferson’s classification of the wines of Bordeaux. The Jefferson classification is also discussed in any of the three (!) books published to date on the third President’s wine hobby: James M. Gabler’s Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, the R. de Treville Lawrence III‒edited anthology Jefferson and Wine: Model of Moderation, and John Hailman’s more recent and more popularly oriented Thomas Jefferson on Wine.
- Hugh Johnson’s autobiography A Life Uncorked.
- Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, from which I pulled the Bill James quotations here. A Search-Inside-the-Book on Amazon for the word language points you to the relevant passages.
- A fascinating blog post this week, “Why All Wine Lovers Just Don’t Get Along,” by W. Blake Gray. Gray discusses some market research dividing wine drinkers into six groups, two of which account for the kind of serious wine drinker who might have a cellar and actually read about wine: “Quality Seekers” and “Enthusiasts.” “Quality Seekers,” he explains, “want the best wines available.” They’re the group one might pejoratively call the point-chasers. “Enthusiasts” care more about drinking something “interesting” than something “great.” Unsurprisingly, most Enthusiasts “don’t like numerical ratings.” More to the point, Quality Seekers and Enthusiasts don’t much like each other. They will argue until they’re breathless and still fail to convince the other side to think about wine on their terms. So Gray offers a suggestion: “You want to get people on the other side to pay attention to you? You have to speak their language.” I agree. Perhaps part of the reason the points system has had the effect of marginalizing classically made wines and popularizing trash is because people who see things differently don’t use it, giving the “Quality Seekers” nowhere else to turn.