Monday, January 19, 2015

Scoreaholics Anonymous

Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m a Scoreaholic.

Hello, Bill!

This is my first meeting, and I’m really nervous. It’s not you people. No. Not at all. Everyone’s been so supportive. It’s just that, well, I don’t know, I guess I didn’t know how hard it would be to give up scores. It’s really hard. I tried to do it cold turkey, but I couldn’t. There’s too much temptation! I know it’s ruining my life. My wife left me. I lost my job. I’m still not on the Sine Qua Non mailing list. I’m a failure. I know it’s the scores, I know it is, but I can’t stop. I need help. I mean, right now, right this second, I’d kill to see what Tim Fish gave all the new Turley Zinfandels. Yeah, I know! Tim Fish! I’ve hit bottom. It could only be worse if I were Jewish—bottom Fish isn’t kosher.

I wish I’d never started on scores. I knew better. I was happy then. I’d buy a bottle of wine for any old reason. Maybe I just liked the label. Who says you can’t judge a wine by its label? I think you can. There are just a few rules to follow. If there’s anything furry on the label, skip it. So, no Marilyn Merlot. Don’t buy a label with an insulting name, like Bitch or Fat Bastard or Malbec. Ignore a label with orange—the word or the color. These are foolproof rules. Maybe I’d buy a bottle because I’d never heard of the variety and wanted to try something new. It didn’t matter. I almost always enjoyed those wines. But that wasn’t enough for me, I guess. I had to look for more gratification. I discovered scores. It ruined my life. I’ve hit Fish bottom. That’s why I’m here.

I remember the first time I used. I was at Costco and I wanted to buy some wine. I didn’t know then that Costco is one of the biggest pushers. They don’t sell wine, they sell scores. I was browsing their available wines, and I just didn’t know what to buy. Costco has the dullest selection of wines on Earth. They’re the Smooth Jazz of wine merchants. Then I noticed every wine in the place had a score, and a pretty bland one at that, just like Kenny G or Dave Koz. So I just picked the wine with the highest score. 96. And it felt good to buy a 96. Like I was somebody; like I was a guy who knew a lot about buying wine. Yeah, I know, that should have set off all my alarms. But it didn’t. I wasn’t buying wine, I was buying numbers. Costco is running a numbers racket. I bought in that first time, and, you know what, the wine was pretty good. But I knew as I was drinking it, I liked it as much for the 96 as I did for the aroma and texture. If a 96 is this good, what would a 97 taste like? Or a 98? I had to know.

It’s been ten years, and I still don’t know. I’ve tasted a lot of wines that had 98 points, but I still don’t know what 98 tastes like. Except it’s not enough. Is 99 better? It is to Parker, or Laube, or Suckling, but I think they’re just like me. They don’t know either. How could they? Maybe they did once, when they first started. But you give enough 96’s and it’s like repeating a word out loud over and over and over—suddenly you can’t remember what the goddam word means. “96, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96 … what the hell is 96 again?” Like that. Yet even though I know that those guys don’t have a clue what 96 means, I still want a 96! I can’t even drink a 90 anymore. I hate wines with 90 points. Those are wines that are just barely good enough, wines whose heads just made it to the bottom of the roller coaster height requirement, pathetic little wines. Who drinks a 90? I’ll tell you who drinks a 90. Losers, and people who like Viognier, if there’s a difference. I don’t go below 96. I just won’t. It’s degrading. Below 96 it’s not really wine. It’s just filler.

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sick. I don’t mean any of that. That’s the way Scoreaholics think. And I’m a raging Scoreaholic. I even started giving scores myself. I’m sorry, give me a minute. This is hard…

I hate myself for it, but I started a blog. Yes, I know. I should be ashamed, and I am. I started a blog and I started giving scores! As if I knew about wine, as if my scores had meaning. I’d go to a big tasting and I’d give hundreds of wine scores! Asshole. I was the same as the very wine writers who had destroyed my own passion for wine, walking around a tasting with an iPad mumbling, “8.5 to 9.0, 8.5 to 9.0, 8.5 to 9.0, 8.5 to 9.0…” until it sounded like something out of Lewis Carroll. Fucking gibberish. I thought I was doing it to help people who knew less about wine than I do, but I see now that wasn’t why I was doing it. The truth is, I hated other people, people who ignored scores, people who didn’t know about wine. I hated them! I wanted them to use my scores. I wanted them to suffer my fate, my miserable wine drinking fate, the fate that makes you judge a wine based on a number rather than just not judging it at all. Loving scores is the very death of wine enjoyment, and I wanted everyone who read my blog to lose their love of wine and embrace scores. Like every other addict—I was seeking the company of other addicts. Might as well have joined Wineberserkers—wine’s Skid Row. Most of them will die Scoreaholics.

My wife left me. I spent all our money on mailing lists. I wanted 96, 97, 98, not 38, 24, 36. I got fired right after that. Most of my friends won’t talk to me. Not that I blame them. I’m a jerk, I’m a loser, I’m a Scoreaholic. Help me.

I want to find my way back to wine. But it’s not that easy. Look who I’m telling. You all know. The people who give the scores, and the people who use the scores to sell wine, they’re evil. Sure, they tell you that 92 is a perfectly fine wine, but they know it isn’t! It used to be, back before scores. But not now. Now it’s just a stinking 92. You can’t even say it without a sneer on your face. And 89? Jesus. How much of a failure do you have to be to smell, taste and drink another person’s failure? They may tell you that 92 is fine, but they’re just testing you. The fact that they have to even say it means it isn’t true. It’s like they teach you that the ball going through the hoop is what counts, but then tell you that it’s just fine when the ball hits the front of the rim. And you believe that? You don’t know about scoring.

I don’t know if it’s possible, but I want to go back to drinking wine for pleasure. But how do I avoid scores? I know I have to, I’m a pathetic Scoreaholic. But scores are everywhere. Where there’s wine, there are scores! If I want wine, I have to see scores—in wine shops, online, on wine lists, in advertisements, on stickers on the bottles themselves… I’m a pyromaniac in a fireworks factory. I’ll just want to light one… And then it’s all over.

I know I have a problem. I’m glad I’m here. I want to quit. I will quit. But there are so many others like me out there, people in denial about being Scoreaholics. They’re a sad lot. They really believe scores haven’t ruined the wine business despite all the evidence to the contrary. They don’t believe scores demolish dreams and ruin lives. They live by the score, as I always have. Sadly, they’ll die by the score.

My name is Bill, and I’m a Scoreaholic.

At the very end of January, ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) is having its annual Grand Tasting in San Francisco. “ZAP” is a brilliant acronym—I wonder who thought of it. Especially considering the definition of “zap” is to obliterate. In the past, there were a lot of ZAP attendees who were completely obliterated by the end of the tasting. ZAP was a notorious drunkfest, and those of us in the trade would get in early and leave as soon as the unwashed public was admitted a couple of hours later. In the early years of ZAP, there were a lot of wineries pouring Zinfandel, two or three hundred. But many of them became discouraged by the ugliness of the crowd, I think, and eventually fewer and fewer wineries attended. To their credit, the organizers set out to completely change ZAP, make it more about Zinfandel and less about stupidity. Too many in the crowd were putting the DUI into Dusi. And, judging by last year’s event, they’ve done a remarkable job. While the event had a lot of glitches, it got a lot right, and I think this year’s event will be even better.

It is a great opportunity to taste wines with the legends of Zinfandel—Paul Draper, Joel Peterson, Kent Rosenblum—alongside the younger geniuses of the grape—Mike Officer, Morgan Peterson, Tegan Passalacqua, Jake and Scott Bilbro. I’ve spoken to each of them at a ZAP tasting. It’s a tribute to ZAP that, unlike many tastings devoted to a single variety, the best, most sought-after, the hardest-to-get examples are all available to taste. You can go to all kinds of Pinot Noir events, and there are half a dozen these days, but you’ll never encounter Marcassin or Dehlinger or DuMol or Rhys. At ZAP, you can taste Ridge, Ravenswood, Biale, Limerick Lane, Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle… Holy crap, that’s pretty amazing. That’s the kind of killer lineup you see at a Manson wedding. If you attended a few years ago and were turned off by the crowds and the insobriety, it’s not that way any longer. In the words of legendary Zin fanatic John Lennon, All that I’m saying, is give ZAP a chance. Really, you should go. Tell ‘em the HoseMaster sent you—and look for me at the event. I’ll be the one winemakers are throwing things at.


WineKnurd said...

I want to start a scoring system in order to adjust a critic's scores. Like wind chill but even more made up. Sure it's a Parker 96 before you open the bottle but it feels like its only 32 degrees when you drink it.


Thomas said...

Dusi--a nice in joke.

Will Biale present its whole Bialestock at ZAP?

Knurd, I do like your "score chill factor" idea. It might be the answer to score inflation.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You may be on to something, though it sounds like you're a Scoreaholic--yeah, it doesn't count if I mix it with something healthy.

And a lovely "Producers" reference for you--one even Wilder than my obscure reference.

And, for the record, I applaud score inflation. Give 'em all higher scores. Who's afraid of a wine score bubble? Not me.

Batmang said...

Are you a scoreaholic if you can't tell the difference between an 89 and a 93?

--Nathan (just trying to educate my palate)

Bob Henry said...

Among the now challenged (if not discredited*) archetypes of supertasters versus (average) tasters versus nontasters, one's inability to discriminate between a 93 point and an 89 point scoring wine makes you . . . a "blessed" nontaster.

Swill tastes swell! Your pocketbook loves it!

[*Tim Hanni, M.W. has offered me a phone chat on his research bringing this canard up-to-date.]

gabriel jagle said...

My first "industry" tasting was taking my girlfriend to ZAP at Ft. Mason when we were both about 23. I might be too old for a drunkfest tasting at this point in my life, but that will forever be one of my great wine tasting memories. Well, at least the parts I can remember...

Samantha Dugan said...

Last time I attended ZAP I had an old customer of mine try and give me an old fashioned.

Bob Henry said...

"Orange is the new black."

And the Family Winemakers of California tasting is the new ZAP?

The public co-imbibing with the trade, sampling from hundreds of winery exhibit tables.

Too many doing "the Big Spit."

About Us said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pecos said...

On a slightly serious note, can every single judge objectively score every wine they drink? What if a judge prefers a NZ Sauv Blanc to French or American?

Rob Romano said...

While Wilder is worthy, it is Zero who gets 100 points in my book...

Charlie Olken said...


We judge every hamburger, every milk shake. Every movie. That is the nature of taste. It is personal and unique, but it is not limited to one wine or one style of wine.

And, it is never universal. That is the danger of taking any rating or judgment too seriously.

As for whether numbers help or hurt, my sense is that they make no difference at all except to the Numberholics--of which there are millions.

And the language they speak is not stars or puffs or letters or chopsticks, but numbers. It is the lingua franca of wine reviews--and that is value of numbers even as it is their danger, their achilles heel.

Note to Batmang: Frank Prial, the esteemed former wine writer for the NY Times once said, "I don't understand all this fuss over the differences between, say, 86 and 87. It just means the taster like one wine a little more than the other."

There is no universal meaning to 87 or 89 or 93 or 96 or even 100. They just represent gradations of liking for the taster who uses those numbers. I don't understand 93 when I see it. I do understand the difference between 86 and 87 when I see it.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,
My day has been about computer problems, so sorry for the brief responses.

Gabe, ZAP in its early days ruined a lot of people's memories. Including mine. Zin can do that to you. But it was cheaper then, and they were way too lenient with industry passes. Things are better now. I think. I shall attend and let you know.

My Gorgeous Samantha, it would not take much to get you to stop attending a Zinfandel tasting. That's like twisting my arm to skip the Gruner Advocates and Producers tasting, which they can hold in an ARCO station.

Pecos, judges are mostly human, which rules out objectivity. All scores are opinions, and as such, should be viewed with great skepticism.

Thomas said...


If that's a serious question, the answer is yes, if trained to do so.

Don't confuse wine judging with wine criticism.

Judges are trained to focus on the wine, what it purports to be and how it gets there, if at all.

Critics generally focus on the palate--theirs.

If yours was not a serious question, I take it all back.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Numbers are fine, and are a necessary evil now. My stupid piece is about the obsession with scores,which is a different subject. The biz has become addicted to scores, we cannot get enough scores, we look for scores everywhere. Winemakers get fired for lousy scores. You go to tastings and there are scores everywhere. Winery owners might sell their offspring into the sex trade for high scores. In so many ways, it's an illness.

Scores are fine. Can we be a little less addicted to them?

Thomas said...


A little taste of history proves that nothing changes. Even the ancients kept score, and you see where that got them ...

Samantha Dugan said...

Mr HoseMaster Sir,
Pretty sure it was the emotional scars of a 50+ year old woman with a feathered mullet wearing a Members Only jacket....and turquoise jewelry, breathing sweet, vanilla and prune juice backwash in my face while trying to feel me up that put me off Zinfandel in the first place. Yick.

Pecos said...

Charlie, being the offspring of a winery owner myself, your comment scares me a little.

Thomas, yes that was a serious question. I've submitted plenty of wines to plenty of comps with medals on the same vintage of the same wine ranging from bronze to double gold depending on whether it was in Lodi or SF, I've never delved into the dark world of scoring and I'm a little too intimidated to do so.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

A wine critic should be tasked with this dualism: (1) assessing the "typicity" and technical quality of a wine, and (2) its pleasure-giving qualities.

(Aside: wine scoring scales have their academic origin in identifying defects in commercially made wine. The wine press adopted these point scales to give the patina of academic rigor to their reviewing. With mixed results.)

If an "orange" or "natural" or specific grape variety wine is true-to-type, and evinces no technical flaws, then the critic should give credit to the winemaker for her/his prowess.

Then admit s/he has no palate "affinity" for that style of wine.

The 1986 Mouton is a monumental wine that shows the winemaker's talent. But its formidable tannins made it largely undrinkable for the first 30 years of its Robert Parker-projected 100 year life -- giving little pleasure to its first or second or possibly even third bottle owner.

So award the Mouton one score for typicity/technical accomplishment, and a second for hedonism.

The 1947 Cheval Blanc is a technically flawed wine. But many consider it to be the most decadent red Bordeaux they have ever tasted.


(Aside: in the music industry, recordings should be judged two ways: audio fidelity, and artistic interpretation/expression.

A "Victrola" phonograph of Enrico Caruso singing an aria might sound like crap from an "audiophile's" perspective . . . but the musical interpretation might be peerless.)

Don Carter said...

What's the old saying? If you claim to remember a ZAP tasting, you really weren't there.
(From a rant last year) Let’s ditch these boring number rating systems and award some flashy prizes and medals. The time has come for the wine industry to hand out a trophy cup. After all, tennis players have the Davis Cup, soccer players have the World Cup and baseball players wear a cup. And like baseball players, wine tasters will actually put their cup to good use.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...


Read this article on how the same wine can receive such divergent county fair medal awards:



Ron Washam, HMW said...

Common Taters,
Like any other sort of award ceremony, we give credence to whomever agrees with us. That there is a difference of opinion we chalk up to ignorance. Awards for wine are foolish, ridiculously subjective, but we love them, as we love awards for books and movies and "peace." Guideposts are fine, but taking them as gospel is stupid, as is real gospel.

Scores and medals are about money and marketing, neither of which is objective.

Take the scoreaholics anonymous pledge.

Charlie Olken said...


Don't be afraid, my friend. No one single review or score or rating or guidepost is definitive.

There is no way it can be. There has yet to be the critic or magazine or humorist yet who can tell each of what we will like.

That is why I smile a bit at the Hosemaster when he lambastes numbers but says guideposts are OK.

Numbers are guideposts. If there were no 100-point systems and critics all used stars, wine lovers would worship stars. They did when those stars were offered by Bob Finigan years ago. They did when other critics used the 20-point system.

Wine lovers, who simply cannot tasted the thousands of wines on the market, have always and will always look for help in narrowing the field. It just does not matter what the guidepost is: precious medal, celestial bodies, big boobs, 20 point or 100 point or one million point scales. They are all just ways of narrowing the field.

gabriel jagle said...


As a winemaker, I imagine the old ZAP format would drive me crazy. I'm sure none of the old heads here would enjoy those drunken wine orgies (my young/old self included). My only point with that comment was that ZAP used to occupy the same role as Zinfandel itself in the wine zeitgeist - It was the "anti-snob" wine tasting. I know "appealing to millennias" is a tired trope, but in my imagination ZAP is still the tasting for young and eager drunken idealists.

I am eager to hear your report on the ZAP tasting; and I hope it is still the type of tasting where a sarcastic and funny hose master feels more at home than an old and experienced sommelier. (why yes, I am a little drunk) I hope you give us a funny, serious, critical evaluation of ZAP that only The Hosemaster would have the perspective to deliver.

Thomas said...


In my opinion, the crutch of numbers belies the critic's professed intent. I see nothing inherently wrong in writing one's impressions and leaving it at that--but as Ron points out, scores serve a separate purpose.

Having said that, I still believe it is possible to judge wine while keeping one's personal preferences at bay, but to do it one has to be trained for the job and also has to have no vested interest in the outcome: two hard to come by things these days.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

As I've written before, scores are so supremely stupid, they're immortal. So I'm completely OK with them, as guideposts or sacrament or career. But I still love to make fun of that culture, one so seemingly contradictory to the nature of wine itself.

I might write about ZAP. It now has a more serious tone. After all, two Zin guys were named winemakers of the year by Jon Bonne! Take that IPOB motherfuckers! But writing about tastings usually gets me uninvited.

I have no vested interests, though my fly is usually down.

Pecos said...

Charlie, I'm now just worried I might be sold off into sexual slavery in order to pay for a good score. Zing, or something. Whatever it takes to sell wine these days I guess; at least the beer crowd are doing their best get caught up in this world of alcohol-fueled snobbery.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You'd be lucky to be sold into the sex slave trade. I had to buy my way in.

Good point about the beergeeks. Next up for them--beer terroir.

Man About Wine said...

My employer, Safeway, runs neck and neck with Costco as the USA largest retailer of wine. We post very few scores. Every now and then we put some scores on our shelf price tags. But since vintages move fast, the lag time from a review score being published to our getting it on the shelf, the vintage sells out, the score might disappears next week when new shelf tags go up. I don't know for sure, but I don't see that scores drive our sales at our stores. The driver is that overall quality is fine. Styles can be wildly one way or another, but virtually no spoiled, bretty, oxidized, chemically poor, wine gets into the marketplace anymore. Some people buy scores, many people just trust that a large company that sell Grey Goose and Betty Crocker, is not going to sell bad wine.

Thomas said...

"Next up for them--beer terroir."

Well, Central NY used to be the capital of U.S. hops growing, and since it is making a come back you won't have to wait long for the interminable PR to begin.

HISOB--Hops In Search of Balance.

Mike Dunne said...

Terrific line: "Wines that are just barely good enough, wines whose heads just made it to the bottom of the roller coaster height requirement." Now I'm off to GAP; fill 'er up.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Man About Wine,
It's not bretty, oxidized, spoiled or chemically poor wine I'm worried about, it's boring wine. I think I hate boring wines more than anything, even funky orange wines.

What's wrong with IPOB. In Pursuit of Belching.

As a kid who had to wait until he was shaving to make it to the height requirements at Disneyland, that line is more poignant to me than funny.

Have fun at GAP. Usually an ARCO station's aromas might interfere with a wine tasting, but Gruner and Diesel go together!

Sam Goth said...

In the interest of brevity the event formerly known as GAP at ARCO shall be called Vin Diesel.

But not today.

Thank you and don't forget to tip your server.