We’re still alive! Don’t worry. I know it’s been a while since there’s been an update. While Wolfie and Daria were off competing at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition and Jackie was doing research for her next entry (spoiler alert: it’s about tea!), I’ve been looking into an institution that has gone largely unquestioned for the past three decades. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time we start asking questions.
Think about how you pick out a new wine. Maybe you go to the store, ask the people working there about any recommendations they might have, maybe you look for the cool label. Maybe you make your decision based on a wine’s rating. If it’s a 90-point wine, it has to be good, right? We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. Hell, I’ve done this since I started looking into this whole rating thing. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to pick out something you’ve never tried before.
But how do they get this number? I had this idea a few weeks ago and thought a breakdown on how wines are rated would be pretty cool for this blog. After all, this isn’t a five-star rating or a two thumbs up thing. This is a specific number out of 100. There has to be some kind of logic or system behind it, right?
Wrong. After a little bit of research, I found out that the 100-point scale is entirely subjective and assigned by individual critics working for a select few magazines. I could find no evidence of a formula or guideline as to how any of these critics make their decisions. If anyone reads this and says, “This guy clearly didn’t do enough research, because I know how one guy does it over at that particular magazine,” I would love to hear about it. I will admit that I did not lose sleep looking for an answer. But I found no answer immediately available for the common consumer. And isn’t that what this is all about?
I briefly thought about writing a critique of the 100-point rating system, but I found a few articles that were better informed than anything I could come up with would have been. Gary Rivlin of The New York Times wrote a piece that covers some of the initial pros that rating wines brought to the American market, as well as the continuing cons. Dave DeSimone of Pittsburgh’s Tribune-Review has a delightfully humorous critique of a Wine Spectator piece that is both informative and fun to read. If you have the time and inclination, you should take a look at W. Blake Gray’s “Are Ratings Pointless?” from the San Francisco Chronicle. I know a five-page article on the Internet sounds like a massive tome, but it’s well worth your while.
I still found myself in a predicament. I’d spent all this time wanting to write about the 100-point rating system, but was no closer to a topic than when I started. Then it hit me. I make my own beer. I make my own coffee. I can make my own wine rating system. And I can encourage you, the reader, to do the same.
The fundamental problem with the 100-point rating is that it takes something as subjective as taste, preference, and personal experience and translates it into something objective, like a number. So instead of trying to determine why you liked that 87-point Cabernet more than that 93-point Pinot Noir, you should come up with a system that works for you!
As a rough template, I came up with twelve categories (eight based on taste, four based on less-tangible qualities) that can be turned into a 100-point rating. I would like to note that these are just the things that I think about when I’m evaluating a wine. I’m not even good at recognizing some of these things, but I’m trying. That counts for something, right?
For the sake of making a 100-point rating scale, these first eight categories should be rated on a 10-point scale. Assigning a number to something can be daunting, especially if you’re only beginning to discover your own tastes and preferences. Something that may help is to rate everything on a scale of 1 to 5 and just double that number later. Rating something from 1 to 10 is nuanced and specific. Rating something 1 to 5 is terrible, bad, average, good, or great. Double it!
Now for the categories!
The length of a wine can be defined as tasting just as good when it first hits your tongue as it does in the back of your mouth. Some wines will knock your socks off immediately and then become dull and boring, giving you ample time to find your socks again and put them back on. A great first sip followed by a lousy aftertaste can be just as bad as a lousy first sip.
Some wines are really simple. They taste really good… they just don’t have much going on. Maybe that’s something you like. Maybe you prefer a more complex wine, something that evolves over the course of a single glass. Maybe there’s an initial smokiness followed by a citrus flavor. This is something that is entirely a personal preference that may very well change over the course of a few months.
When you begin exploring a new drink (wine, coffee, and beer especially come to mind), you will find a dictionary’s worth of words to describe the tastes you’d only been marginally aware of for years. Body is one of those words. The body of a drink is meant to describe whether a drink is light, medium, or full. This is something that may require practice and patience to discern for yourself.
Body is one of those interesting qualities that gets weighted unnecessarily in most professional ratings. A wine with a full body will almost always get more points than its light- or medium-bodied counterpart. As a result, vineyards usually attempt to create wines with a fuller body so they can get a coveted 90-point wine. Think about all the light or medium wines you could be enjoying, but we live in a world ruled by the 90-point scale. Tragic, is it not?
The taste of a particular wine is made up of several different components. The major things to look for are tannins, acidity, sweetness, and alcohol. What we look for in balance is easy enough to understand… it’s a balance of those qualities. Perhaps you like a sweeter wine. That’s all well and good, but an especially sweet wine may not be as balanced as another.
I’d like for you to take this opportunity to make this rating system your own. Say you like an acidic wine. Then 10 points in the balance category should be a wine that has an accentuated acidity. This is your rating system! Own it!
Wine is interesting. Sometimes a wine will taste wonderful when it’s in your mouth, activating all those taste buds, but as soon as you swallow it, you feel less wonderful about the whole experience. Whether you’re watching a movie, reading a book, or tasting a wine, the end may be the most important part. No matter how good a wine starts out, that final taste is what’s left in your mouth until you have something else. It’s an important thing to consider.
You could pour a glass of the best wine in the world that is best paired with braised lamb shank. But oh no! You don’t like lamb. This might not be the best wine for you. Obviously, a great wine should be able to stand on it’s own, but the pairing of wine and food is important. When grading a wine’s pairing qualities, you may consider how well it pairs with your favorite dish, or how well it pairs with a variety of dishes. The choice is yours.
A wine’s consistency can be evaluated a number of ways. Maybe that 2010 vintage doesn’t hold a candle to the 2009. Maybe the second time you bought a bottle of a particular wine, it did not hold up to the standard you set for it. The question to ask yourself is whether this wine holds up the test of time. You may not be able to grade every wine you taste in this category. Maybe you won’t have the same wine twice. Maybe you won’t remember your first impression of it. But if you become serious about evaluating wines, this may be a quality to consider.
The versatility of a wine is somewhat linked to its pairing ability, but for me, these are two distinct elements. When considering how well wine pairs with food, the dish should be bringing out a certain taste that wasn’t necessarily there. It should highlight a wine’s strengths. To me, versatility is how well it does with everything. Is this good to cook with? Can I serve this with pasta when my parents come to visit? Will this go well with burgers?
This is where I look at some of the other qualities of a bottle of wine. These have little to do with the way a wine tastes, but are still important things to contemplate. I have decided to give these categories 5 points each towards the overall score since (1) they are less relevant to the taste of wine and (2) the scale fits 100 points really nicely that way.
OK. You just drank the best wine you’ve ever tasted. How easy is it to get again? I’d like to share an anecdote, if I may. There is a place called Boston Speed Dog. It is essentially a guy with a truck in a parking lot in the meat-packing district near South Boston. It is not easily accessed by public transit, I have no car, and his hours are subject to change based on the weather. Needless to say, I have rented a Zipcar for the sole purpose of buying a hot dog, only to find that the shop was closed. Sometimes this makes for a frustrating afternoon. Other times it makes for a glorious adventure.
I guess the point is, how convenient is it for you to procure this wine? And if it’s inconvenient, or difficult to come by, is that part of its allure?
This is a no-brainer. Wine can be expensive. Very expensive. Whenever someone tells me they don’t drink wine, this is usually the reason. And if you are working at a cafe while also planning a wedding, price is very important when it comes to choosing wines. It should be graded as a relative. If I have an earth-shattering revelation of a Pinot Noir that cost me less than $20 for a bottle, that’s going to get full marks for price. But so does the $3 Charles Shaw I get from Trader Joe’s. And if I get a $12 bottle that I really don’t like, I would rate that better than an average tasting wine that costs $30.
This category combines elements of taste (especially versatility, balance, and pairing) and aesthetics (namely price and accessibility). How good is this wine for a party? Will people like it? Is it affordable to get a case of? Will it go well with what’s being served? Can it accomplish all of these things and still be interesting enough on its own? The next time you drink a wine, you should think about whether you would want to share it with friends or keep it all to yourself.
I don’t care what anyone says, a fun label is going to get my attention. If I don’t know much about the wines I’m trying to choose from, I will always pick the one with the coolest label. I will remember that wine. I readily admit that I am a slave to effective marketing, but I don’t care. It doesn’t even have to be cool or funny, I’ll give points to a label that is subtle or understated. This is something that matters to me for reasons I cannot adequately explain.
Let me reiterate. This is a formula I have just thrown together. I have not even tried rating a wine with this yet. I am not introducing this formula as an argument to the subjective ratings given by wine critics. I came up with some of the tastes and elements that I appreciate in a good wine and put them in the context of a rating system. There are many other tastes and aspects to consider. I just presented these as some of the possible categories on which to grade wines.
You know something else? You may come up with an extensive, well-thought-out system for rating wines, and your absolute favorite may come up somewhere in the middle. The truth is that taste is entirely subjective and that there will always be factors that cannot be quantified. Your favorite wine is still your favorite wine, no matter how many different ways you attempt to assign a number to it. So go out and drink wine! All different kinds, all different years, from all different countries!