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The problem with scoring wine


Whitey explains why he’s given away his weekly wine review scores, concentrating instead on the value of his words.

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I’m sick of stars and numbers. Back when Johnny Rotten was growing bumfluff and I swapped writing about rocks and rock music for rating wines on the magazines, I inherited the standard five star system, which was no big deal.

There’d be three expert judges feigning independence while pointing out of a possible 20 and we’d average their scores and convert that somehow to stars which were implicit mechanisms of the business model. Many publications’ basic income was dependent upon selling the winemaker the opportunity to have the wine’s label displayed beside its review, and nobody’d do that with fewer than three stars out of five so the wines reviewed ended up with one of only three gradings: three, four or five stars.

As if there was nothing more subtle on the rack.

Need less money? Go tough on the scores. Take advantage of the two mushy bits: the judges’ average could easily be influenced by ganging up on anybody who dared to point low. Then the editor could make another fudge turning that fluffy number into stars, as if the punter couldn’t work out what 15/20 meant.

On Wine and Spirit Buying Guide, the major booze glossy of the day, I attempted to straighten this out by recommending only wines that scored an average of 16 or more out of 20. Sixteen scored one star, 17 scored two, 18 scored three, 19 scored four and only the near-perfect wine gonged five. Then the poor spaceflogger had to call the maker and explain why they were getting fewer than three stars and beg for money. That didn’t last long. Friggin’ business models, see?

I was always annoyed by the standard show judging system, where many judges really award one of five ratings then convert that, consciously or otherwise, back to points. Faulty wine, the vast majority, scores below 15.5/20. In another word, nothing. Sound wine scores bronze, meaning 15.5-17/20. Good sound wine lives where silver glimmers between 17 and 18.4 … 18.5 and higher brings gold bling, maybe even a trophy once all the arguments are had. In other words, the wine shows award their equivalent of one to five stars.

They might consider following our Minister for Foreign Affairs’ tweeting example and move to emojis. That’d save all that infernal adding-up and rubbing-out.

Knowing that there was a lot more complexity in the drink, I happily switched to the 100-point system when that first hit, mainly to escape the suffocation of the arcane imperial method of the Royal Shows.

But that didn’t work, either. People thought I always pointed high, without realising that I’d fill a wheelie bin with rejects to get one or two wines worth more than 90.

A score of 95 was about as high as I’d go. I seem to recall awarding a couple of 96ers but I balked at giving the perfect 100 in case I then encountered a better wine than one I’d thought was perfect. Unlike many of my wealthier colleagues, I gotta keep that top door open.

But the perception then put my precise efforts eerily close to the five star system. As I struggled for years to find wines worth 90/100 or more for recommendation it broke down to a score of 90 looking a lot like one star; 91 scoring two stars and so forth … while in any typical week, my average score over the duration of the wheelie bin was between 60 and 70 points.

As I’ve developed an allergy to vineyard pollen atop my appalling reactions to olive pollen and the golden bloody wattle that’s the emblem of our land, I was recently kicked to death in the hooter by a fortnight of hayfever.

I could drink, but be buggered if I could perform anything so fine as to award a meaningful score.

So I stopped. And I ain’t going back.

Put very simply, whether it’s the wine shows or the shiny mags or books, the system of scoring wines has not done much to improve the average quality of the wines made in Australia. Rather, the scores are awarded according to fad, fashion and what needs to be sold, usually as dictated to the judging teams by their chair.

Judging teams are usually winemakers who have overwhelming vested interests. If they fail to recognise their own style, or indeed their own wine, they shouldn’t be judging. If they make wine of a style and don’t reward such wine with high points, they shouldn’t expect us to drink it, or expect that we should respect their presence at the judicial bench. Simple.

My colleague and friend Max Allen has earned a certain infamy among habituees of that shady realm by refusing to score wine. Flat out. Max has filed columns in both The Australian and Gourmet Traveller – for 18 and 11 years respectively – without scores.

“Refusing to score wine has lost me precisely one freelance commission in all that time,” Max says, “and that was only very recently – the same magazine subsequently commissioned a feature, so it was hardly professional suicide to stick to my guns.

“And not one of the (ahem) award-winning books I’ve written over the last two decades has included scores,” he explained. “The closest I got was in the annual Quaff guide, which had three ratings: ‘pretty good,’ ‘good,’ and ‘bloody good’ … indeed, the most successful of my books, Red and White, didn’t even include the names of any specific wines!”

Which reminded me that nobody seems to have noticed that A year in the life of Grange, which I wrote with photographer/publisher Milton Wordley, contains no tasting notes.

Along with that piece of outright Maxism, I’ll be writing about wine until about three weeks after my death, without stars or scores. After that, I’ll be hangin’ out with the Morning Star.

The temptation is to here commence another essay, in response to Andrea Frost’s elegant discussion on, the blog of British critic Tim Atkin MW. Titled Wine and anthropomorphism, this tenderly nudges the matter of writing of wines as if they were people.

Such carnality is common in this cement mixer of senses I think must be my brain.

The lexicon of English words specific to aroma and flavour is an empty book. We use metaphor and simile and some of us use people. Andrea says some icon wines can taste “like a big, ripe, warm mouthful of money”.

Most folks, of course, use numbers. I suspect there are more people in the wine industry that can subtract than there are working as writers. This seems to preclude their chance of having anything much along the way of your actual writing going down so it’s probably a good thing, their numeracy.

For them, pithy and clinical’s the safest place to be if it’s honest.

Those who think they’re Sam Orr should get straight off the back labels. Sam wrote for Gordon Barton’s Nation Review in the early ’70s, with Michael Leunig doing the toons. Sam was mad. His real name was Richard Beckett. Richard was mad too. Mad geniuses. Sam used to rank wines according to the influence he thought they’d have on the many types of farm dog common to this country, like “kill two black dogs,” or “drive six brown dogs to drink”.

That was long before everyone hit the winery dog porn books. I can’t recall Sam recommending any poodles but I’d warn anybody off trying to swell to fit his uniform. If you’re not a daggy hayseed Ocker don’t try to be one. Which is almost science: like it’s not there until it is. Good luck if you already is.

When a point including science need be made I promise I’ll at least try to use some of the numbers that matter which means right there that I’ve made the decision of one with deeply vested interests.

Like I’m a glutton for a good drink, whoever I think it is. Some of them have vital statistics.

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