Those who have followed my writing in recent years are well aware of my disdain for wine ratings done on the nefarious 100-point scale. Call it my 90-point bugaboo. Occasionally I plan to focus on a certain aspect of the ratings issue, making my reasoning as clear as Vinho Verde. Today’s focus—partly in honor of Earth Day—is the forest vs. the trees.
Think of the U.S. wine market as a forest; but instead of being populated with distinct types of trees, flora and vegetation, it’s filled with bottles (boxes, too) of wine. It’s complicated… a veritable morass of myriad labels that do their limited best to let forest wanderers know what lay within each bottling.
The Wine Raters of America take a taxonomical approach to the forest situation. Dubbing themselves “experts” primarily based on sheer volume of sipping and spitting, the Wine Raters see their mission as needing to identify each and every tree/bottle. They organize them into regional and varietal categories, describe them in stilted, descriptor-heavy language and tag them with numbers which, once applied, are beyond flexibility (and beyond criticism, but that’s a topic for another day). Via bloated “buying guides,” they portend to strip the forestlike universe of wines of its daunting complexity, and encourage forest wanderers to follow their terse, sterile, numbers-led tags like trail markers place on every single sprout of vegetation.
Sensible wine communicators, on the other hand, are not afraid to let the forest be a forest—and to revel in its diversity while still offering guidance. Numbers, simply put, get in the way of appreciating what wine is meant to be (a beverage, not a commodity) and do (to enhance our food and enrich our lives). If we keep in mind the ultimate goal of incorporating individual wines into our lives/lifestyles, numbers are practically useless. They imbue a false sense of immutability.
I fully believe that every bottle in the wine universe, like every tree in the forest, has the potential to transmit pleasure. And that pleasure is completely impossible to reduce down to a rating and tasting note. Far more important than what a wine tastes like to an individual rater on a specific day within a specific “blind” flight is the notion of how/when/where/why and with whom that wine is going to be enjoyed. And that enjoyment ultimately will be derived more from the wine’s style and the drinker(s)’ particular context–not its deduced body, aromas, flavors and finish.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone claim that ratings simplify the decision-making process for consumers. The simplicity of a grade-like rating is fodder for fools. When I write and speak about wine, I try to focus on where particular wines fit in the grand scheme—their relative style, their likely best usage. By pulling a particular wine out of that forest and inserting it into a real-life situation, that wine—indeed, any wine—becomes a true 90-point experience, regardless of the rating a middle-aged man tattooed it with some afternoon in an office with not a morsel of tasty food in sight.
Lofty ambition, you say perhaps? I don’t think so. It’s a very realistic and attainable goal. The lion’s share of wines lurking in that deep, complex forest are ready, able and willing to make your life better. I’m not afraid to challenge people to embrace the sense of wonder that comes with wandering amid the complexity. The first and most important step in navigating that forest in search of good wines is to think of it as a many-splendored place, with beauty to be found in multiple ways, and in different ways on different days. There’s no more such a thing as the right wine as there is the right tree.
Don’t fear the forest; do get in there and mosey around. Think style. Think context. And when it comes time to assess specific trees/plants/flowers, do so based on your own taste and experience. Keep an open mind; you’re just as likely to get a good tip from a fellow wanderer as you are from a supposed “expert” in an Ivory Tower.
And above all, remember that every time you enjoy a wine, within an hour or so, that life-enriching liquid is headed right back to the ecosystem it came from. I’ll drink to that.