Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pointless Commentary

I'm thinking about only writing about wines from now on. You know, endless reviews of wines I taste with really obscure and annoying descriptions accompanied by a meaningless number. (There was a time in my life when I was involved with mathematics, I nearly graduated with a degree in mathematics, and that's why I'm so offended by numerical scores. A number has meaning to me and is supposed to be arrived at through a rigid formula that gives it credence. Sticking a wine in your nose and mouth and declaring "89!" represents nothing but self-importance.) No more satire, no more lame jokes, no more outrageous opinions. It would sure make sitting down and writing this crap a lot easier. I could write a review in the Gary V. style.

"The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir was amazing! Wow, man, you put your nose in the glass and it's like, hey, you know when you forget to clean your oven for a couple of years and then you have to scrape the charred crap out of there and it smells like roadkill on a Texas blacktop, like an armadillo had an abortion on the road and a semi ran over it and then it was hot for two weeks? Kinda smelled like that but in a good way. And maybe a little bit like the seat cushion after Jancis Robinson left, kinda had a hint of that. Gotta be a 92."

This, of course, is the "future of wine writing." Sort of like Saturn was the future of cars.

It's so damned easy to just review wines and pretend everyone cares about your opinion. I love the Vinography approach. Taste 120 wines and list them in number categories. This is about as helpful as putting phone numbers in numerical order in the phone book. And on a ten-point scale, which actually translates to a four-point scale since wines never get below six. So instead of mining the mysteries of how an 88 point wine differs from an 89 point wine, we behold the marvel of being able to distinguish a 7 point wine from an 8 point wine. Apparently, the 8 point wine went for the 2 point conversion. I wish I'd thought of this system when I was a sommelier. I could have broken down the wine list this simple and effective and informative way.

Pacific Dining Car Wine List
Page 1 "Wine Between 7.5 and 8.0 Points"

Page 2 "Wine Between 8.0 and 9.0 Points"

Page 3 "Wine 9.0 and Above"

Page 4 "Wines I Actually Care About"

I love that wine bloggers express their opinions about wines. I don't read them. Nobody reads them. Only wineries with Google Alert read them, and then just for the sheer comedy. I recently read one that said, speaking of some Tandem Pinot Noirs "...tried about a hundred wines, I don't have notes, though I can remember how wonderful they were..." I'm not making that up, friends. (It's from a blog called "Eat It, Atlanta." Don't go there, whatever you do. The blog, or Atlanta.) Makes you want to run out and stock up on Tandem, doesn't it? Probably tastes really good after thirty or forty wines. And, really, notes are highly overrated. That's for, like, journalists and stuff. Real bloggers don't take notes. To begin with, taking notes involves paying attention as well as literacy! Who can be bothered with both?

So maybe I'll just stick to my usual stuff. Writing about wine, the wine biz, bloggers and anything else that annoys me. There is always something to write about in the world of wine and news about wine. For example, I noticed this interesting little news bulletin:

AP--The group Wine Coopers of America announced today that it is officially changing the name of the plug used to seal a filled barrel of wine from the "bung" to the "Beck," after FOX News analyst Glenn Beck. "Hell, no one can tell the difference between Glenn Beck and a bunghole, so we thought we'd just make it official."

Great news, fair and balanced, indeed.

Statue of Glenn Beck at the Wine Cooper Hall of Fame in Butte, Montana


Arthur said...

Ron, Ron, Ron, Ron..........
You're being glib. You haven't studied wine rating like I have. You don't know that it's impossible to rate wine objectively or apply any criteria-based methodology to arrive at a wine score. The ONLY way to rate wine is on the basis on how much you enjoy it....

I would say that spontaneous, divine revelation "89" gets pulled out the terminal end of the digestive tract.

Anonymous said...

Arthur's comment then begs the question: Are wine ratings anatomically correct?
In reading some critics and blogs, it's clear to the Anonymous One that many "don't know their arses from their elbows."
The Hosemaster is quite right in his assessment of the notion of merely listing wines according to the critic's numerical score. As a reader, I cannot possibly glean any sensible information regarding the characteristics of any of the wines listed, apart from the fact they didn't taste like "Janitor in a Drum."

Perhaps the same critic would like to post his/her ratings of "Favorite colors on a Tuesday," "Vegetables in my local grocery stores this weekend," "Assessing Hallmark Gift Wrap" and "Shoes."
If readers know more about the taste of the critic/wacko (might be redundant, might not), that might be helpful.
On a side note: Kosta Browne is amazing ! Getting paid $40-million for that brand is larceny on a grander scale than Napa vintners placing $50 price tags on bottles of plonk.


Charlie Olken said...

I have always thought that a review of a wine scoring 89 points meant that the reviewer enjoyed it a little more than a wine reviewed at 88 points. I could be wrong about that, but that is how I understand it.

Of course, there are always reviewers who get their understanding of wine out of "the terminal end of the digestive tract". I used to say that those folks did not know shit about wine, but Arthur is right. That is all they know about wine.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Puff Daddy,

I am the last guy who wants to stir up the points debate--I think I declared that dead recently. But my mathematical point is not that 89 is better than 88 (or maybe higher is a more appropriate word), that's pretty obvious, but that each number was arrived at in an arbitrary fashion. Sort of the "I know an 89 when I taste it" school, which may have tremendous meaning for the taster but very little meaning for anyone else. The 100 point scale has purpose and is here to stay, but it still puts an objective value on something that is utterly subjective. This is the same tired argument, but it's tired because it's accurate.

Frankly, I've always felt that your Puff system at CGCW was the best system for rating wines. It reflects how we really feel about wine, and your stinginess with giving 3 Puffs has always been admirable. Doesn't it feel false to assign numbers? It does to me. I taste a lot of wine, like you do, and saying that an 89 point wine is simply a little better than an 88 point wine makes sense on the face of it, but which 88 point wine? When several hundred wines have 88 points, which wine is the 89 better than? All of them? On any given day? Really? And it's just not as good as all the hundreds of wines that got 90? Really? Just doesn't sit right with the old HoseMaster--seems false and disingenuous. The system, not the people who are forced to use it.

And, besides, I'm just funning here. And, by the way, when is someone going to rate blogs on the 100 point scale? I might be the guy for that job.

Charlie Olken said...

Re Anon and critics who score without comment.

Last winter, Alder Yarrow posted scores with comments on three large tastings (UGC, ZAP and Brunello) within a week or so.

I was also at those tastings. I won't say that he accomplished the impossible, but when one averages less than two minutes a wine in a crowded room where you have to wait up to two minutes to get a small pour and there is nowhere to stand, to write, to spit out the wine without extra effort, one does have to wonder what the ratings were worth.

So, I wondered, and I compared his to my 35 wines tasted more critcally (a chosen group for my own purposes).

I came to a number of conclusions. His ratings of similar wines were not half-bad, and while half-bad is not good enough for professional reviewing, he exceeded that standard. I don't

I and most of the folks interested in the Bordeaux offerings understand the winery style, have an inkling of the vintage style, and so there is a certain utility in the ratings to most folks. But, of course, if you don't know Angelus from Lynch-Bages, then the ratings are meaningless.

But, his ratings of the 2004 Brunellos, not half-bad either, become a lot harder to fathom for most of us because Brunello is not exactly Grand Cru Bordeaux in terms of folks' attentions.

And maybe it is just me because I cover CA wines, but I disliked his ZAP ratings because styles seem to shift from year to year and winery to winery. That may help me make a living, but the overripeness factor, the changing vineyard source facter, etc, meant that many of the rated wines did not the kind of easily referenced and understood stylistic patterns that are exhibited by Grand Cru Bordeaux or even by the Brunelli.

And since we are all targets for humorists, the tasting of 100s of wines in rapid pace and printing scores only (believe me, there would have been almost no time for more than the most minimal note taking) makes Yarrow and all who would do things like even more obvious targets.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Charlie,

Targeting the obvious, it's what I do.

Jeff said...

Completely fucking hilarious, and so glib. I love it.

Samantha Dugan said...

Fuck I hate it when all the smart guys get here first, makes whatever comment I was thinking of posting seem re-tard-it. Gonna go with a classic, "Nice post Ron!"

Charlie Olken said...

Ron, oh, Ron, do Ron, Ron, Ron.

Oh sorry. My granddaughter was here for dinner and she finds my poetry funny.

Question from you: Saying an 89 point wine is a little better than an 88 point makes sense on the face of it, but which 88 Point wine?

Answer: All 88 point wines at the time I tasted them.

Question from you: Doesn't it feel false to assign numbers?

Answer: No. I write, as you have so kindly praised, rather long descriptions of the wines reviewed in Connoisseurs' Guide. One of the things that always frustrated me is the cusp wine. For some reason, our two-star (some day we will get to the bottom of this puff business, but not now because Puff Daddy is infinitely more fun as a nickname than Star Daddy) ratings became the tipping point at which people got excited. So, when a wine would not reach that level, our recommendation seemed to carry no weight.

Still, we would not have gone to the points system as an adjunct to the star ratings if it were not that points became the currency, the lingua franca of wine review values.

Still, I do find the 100-point system worthwhil. Let's take a cusp wine as an example. We recently rated Merry Edwards Pinots and many of them got two stars but some did not. At some point in the writing process, based on quality against our perceptions and standards, a rating has to get applied. The Coopersmith 2006 came up two stars. The Meredith Estate botting did not.

Two stars versus one star. Big difference in perception regardless of what words we write. 91 points and two stars versus 90 points and one star. Far more accurate portrayal of the differences between the wines in the symbolic notation part of the tasting note.

The only way to avoid the ratings gap perception entirely to assign no ratings at all and to rely on words alone.

With all due respect to you, whose writing I very much enjoy, no writer yet has found a way to portray those small differences across hundreds of reviews.

The brilliance of the 100-point system, even in its current usage of approximately 20 points, give or take a few depending on the publication, is that it does allow the writer to identify small differences in preference.

There are also great imperfections in the system as there are in all systems of symbolic notation. I personally prefer a wide range of ratings accompanied by detailed description.

To that end, I am driven up a wall by Alder Yarrow's use of points and half points without so much as a word of commentary.

And fortunately for my continued employment, the rating of wine is not dead--even if it has killed off a few brain cells over the years.

Anonymous said...

When Alder Yarrow posts a note proclaiming 2002 Bordeaux, as a vintage, to be superior to 2006, as a vintage, one might discount his "expertise" in the realm of Bordeaux wines.
Tasting and rating Brunello wines is, indeed, a tougher task than Bordeaux. The estates in Bordeaux tend to have some sort of track record and, often, a measure of consistency in terms of style. In Montalcino, there are so many brand new estates with no track record and there are numerous properties that have recently hired consulting winemakers that you don't have a reference point for a particular property. Add to the mix the hugely variable climate...and it's really difficult to peg those wines with clarity.
The "puffs" and points listed in the pages of Connoisseur's Guide are more a signal of the editor's assessment and excitement factor for the wines. I find, in each issue, wines which have (for me) more attractive descriptions and lower scores. This is why simply posting (solely)a number as some sort of scientific measure is relatively useless.

Charlie Olken said...


Please give Anon 1 a silver dollar. He has it all correct in one try.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Puff Daddy, Star Child,

Anon 1 just copied off my homework.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Puff Daddy: Thanks.