Ratings exist to help consumers make educated decisions about products. Cars, electronics, computers, and appliances all have websites and publications dedicated to sorting out the positives and negatives regarding major purchases like an HDTV or a new washing machine. While there is a certain amount of opinion involved with these judgements, most consumers are concerned with facts, statistics, and experience to avoid ending up with a lemon. If a product is poorly made or certain to break down then advance information can be vital to saving money and frustration. Wine, spirits, and food also have notable reviewers in the form of critics, however, the difference between a critic like Consumer Reports and a wine critic is vast. Namely, because Consumer Reports is using facts and data to draw a conclusion about overall quality, while a wine critic is forming an opinion based on his or her own personal taste. Sure, there are some concrete elements like acidity, tannins, or general quality of fruit that can have some objectivity, but the final score is always a very subjective decision.
I think I can safely say that there is no "bad" wine at K&L, and when I use the word "bad" I mean undrinkable, terrible, pour-down-the-drain slop. While I wouldn't choose to drink every single bottle in our store, I definitely could drink any of our selections and enjoy them if offered no other alternative. I bring this up because there's no way you're going to walk out of our store with a terrible product. What we serve to do as employees is help our customers navigate the vast quantity of choices within our retail locations. We listen to the flavor desires of our patrons and direct them to the wine that we feel closest fits their description. We serve to educate those who are interested about the region in which the wine is from, the conditions in which the grapes were grown, and the process with which the wine was made. If asked for our opinion we might say something like, "It's good," or "very delicious," or maybe "it's still a bit young for my taste." We might even say, "it's well made, but I don't like the style of wine so I'm not the right person to ask." One thing we would never, ever in a million years say to a customer is "on a scale of 1 to 100 this wine rates as an 88." We would never say such a thing because it isn't the way people having a conversation about their opinion interact or talk to one another.
I could go on forever about why I dislike the 100 point scoring system as a way to rank alcohol, but I think that the website Score Revolution has already done a fantastic job, so I'll let you read their manifesto (and maybe you'll sign it if you agree). According to Jon Bonné at the SF Chronicle, other big names in the industry like Kermit Lynch, Michael Mina, and Washington producer Hedge's have already lended their reputation to the cause. I am completely behind the movement as well, but I have my own philosophical reasons for backing it that are greater than just the idea that a numerical score does booze an injustice. My fears run much deeper than the possibility that a wine might be misinterpreted. I feel like summarizing an emotional response in a quick, succinct, and concentrated number is going to eventually be the downfall of human communication (dramatic, yes I know!) because it's conditioning us to rank our emotions rather than explain them.
When I come home at the end of a long shift, there are many aspects of my day that I need to get off my chest and when my wife asks me, "How was work today?" she offers me the opportunity to release any frustrations or tell her a funny story. I don't simply say to her, "Honey, this day ranks as an 84," to which she might hypothetically reply, "Wow, at least it's better than yesterday. You only gave yesterday a 72." Choosing to quantify my own personal emotions about my quality of work day would be terrible, namely because it doesn't offer me the chance to share anything deeper or more specific. Humans have an instinctual need to share their opinions (in my opinion!) so conditioning them to interpret a number rather than an explanation is unnatural. We need to practice expressing our emotions in a way that other people can understand because doing so is a vital element of overall happiness! It should come as no surprise that the happiest people in the world are those who socialize the most.
I already know what some of you are going to say now. "But David, that's why scores should never be separated from a detailed description or further explanation of how that number was determined." To me, this is the same as saying that guns should only be sold to responsible people who know how to use them safely - it's a nice fantasy, but it isn't how the world actually works. Never in my time at K&L has a customer asked me to look up a Robert Parker score for a bottle of wine and then requested that I provide him with the text written in conjuntion with the score. NEVER. The number was all that was needed. Never has someone come in and said, "Hey David, I heard Hansell gave this whisky a 92" and then proceeded to explain to me how John actually came to that conclusion. NEVER. When we send out emails for wines that get 90+ points from the Wine Spectator the bottles fly off the shelf regardless of where they are from or what type of wine they are. We have people coming in everyday asking for us to print out a list of all our wines that are rated 90 points or more.
Now, of course, I'm not claiming that no one out there is capable of looking at both a score and a review and making an educated decision upon it. My point is that no one actually TALKS about both. Communication about how wine and spirits make us feel is what suffers when we use systems that attempt to quantify our emotional response. I don't want customers coming into the store and saying to me, "I heard the new Ardbeg got 95 points!" because there's absolutely nothing I can say in response other than, "Wow." or "Yeah, that's awesome." I would prefer it if a customer came in and said, "Did you hear how Hansell described the new Ardbeg? He said it's supposed to be super peaty and really salty, one of the best he has ever tasted." Now that's the beginning of a great whisky conversation! Unfortunately, the points are always the most valued prize and they encourage consumers to trophy hunt rather than delve deeper into true appreciation.
If you think I'm being a bit extreme here, you might be right. However, with Facebook allowing us to give everyone a "like" and other social media sites offering "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to public commenting, people are beginning to think that their every thought has an actual numerical value expressed in how many positive responses they've received!! It's as if our own thoughts are not being properly valued if there's no one around to rate them. Whisky and wine are two things that make me feel incredibly happy, inspired, excited, and alive. Some bottles more than others, but I'm always happy to have an in-depth conversation or write a detailed review about how I feel exactly. While I certainly don't feel it is the intent of any 100 point system reviewer to strip alcohol of its beauty and complexity, it seems to encourage some behavior that does so.
You might be thinking at this point that maybe I'm against the 100 point system because it's bad for business, but that couldn't be more opposite of the truth. The 100 point system has done nothing but bolster our profits by making it easier for us to sell more wine and spirits faster than ever. I simply do not like the 100 point system because it makes me sad to think that we're all in such a hurry to reach a conclusion about quality. I like to think that there's more to enjoying alcohol than only focusing on what someone else feels is the very best.