Musings of a Wine Maven

“Has a Good Beat … Easy to Dance to”

by Jerry Clark

Raise your hand if you immediately recognize this title as coming from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand “Rate a Record” segment. Hmm, not as many hands went up as I thought would. Perhaps, readers of this blog were busy watching Julia Child’s The French Chef or Graham Kerr on The Galloping Gourmet or, as I think about it, perhaps many readers were not yet born. Dick Clark’s legendary TV show, on the air from 1952 to 1989, showcased at least one band and played the Top 40’s songs to which gaggles of teenagers danced the hour away.

wine-rank

A fictitious shelf talker with Ratings

I am reminded of Dick Clark as I walk down the overstocked aisles in wine superstores these days and note the liberal use of “shelf talkers,” touting this wine and that wine and dominated by a large number.  Dick Clark had teenagers rate popular songs, on a scale of 35 to 98, but all teenagers—including me, watching from the comfort of my family living room—really wanted to hear was whether it was cool to dance to. The score was irrelevant.  Likewise with wine, for me, the various scores of wines are largely irrelevant. Some taster, at some given moment, made a personal judgment and put a number to it. Good for him, but for me? Perhaps not.  Most of the wines scored in America today are using a 100 point scale, promulgated to remind you that if you got a 93 in a Physics exam in school you had done great, so you should feel well about the 93 rating you see on the bottle displayed before you now (actually, I would have been overjoyed with a 75 mark in high school physics).

Wine Spectator tasters review wines on the following 100-point scale:

Score Description
95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
50-74 Not recommended

Nobody is touting wines rated at 75. The inference is that they are not allowed into the store, for fear of bringing shame on the wine merchant for selecting them. Where do they go? You won’t find them on WTSO (Wines Till Sold Out), principally a dumping ground of excess inventory, though not drawing from the ocean of common plonk which is very drinkable and awash in the market. Is there any stigma attached to listing such poorly scored wine? Of course there is. Just as I likely would throw away that physics test paper rather than take it home, no wine advisory is going to tout a wine as being worthy of some consideration if its rated under 80. Not good business, nor good for the image. But hey, if the wine is selling for $8.99, and is fruit forward and decently balanced, I will dance with it any night of the week.  For the past three years our white vin de table has been a California Chardonnay listed at $4.99.

Considering the three hundred year history of the British wine trade—Berry Brothers & Rudd opened in 1698—giving a numerical score to a wine would be considered a relatively recent phenomenon. When I first started taking an interest in wine, your pocket pal was a vintage chart card, which many wine shops made available to customers. Armed with that, when you opened The New York Times and saw a full page ad for a wine sale you had a chance to take some measure of the offerings.  Or if really curious, you could walk the aisles of a local wine shop, and quickly pull out your guide to check a vintage or two. Of course, there was no way of knowing which properties had faired better in tougher years—some did by picking before the rains came or being more selective in sorting the grapes. The only way to learn of that was from the merchant, or what had been written in books or periodicals. The pocket guide was of no help there.

In time, I came to learn that there were merchants that were happy to engage you in knowledgeable conversation. I will never forget picking up a half bottle 1957 Chateau Petrus with a price tag of $10 at Morrell’s in Manhattan. Happily when I queried owner Peter Morrell that it was likely mispriced he said it was not. The vines were still suffering the effects of a horrific frost, and the wine was not of its usual high caliber. It remains the only Petrus in my cellar.

Wine Maven Cup 2

The “pocket pal” vintage rating chart

Like so many things, wine appreciation was simpler then. There was more of an element of reverence for what the winemaker had brought forward from the vineyard. Before the Judgment of Paris induced the world to investigate California wine more seriously, my merchant (on the East Coast) choices came from a half dozen or so California Cabs, mostly coming from Napa. Today many shops provide twenty or so Napa choices, and the super stores even more. How does the plethora of Cabs now coming out of Napa distinguish themselves? By aggressively seeking the 90+ summit, glowing reviews, and most recently the anticipated caché attached to emerging new American Viticulture Areas (is terroir the most over-worked term in the industry today?).

For me, wine scoring took hold in late 1983 when I proposed to a few friends that we should meet three or four times a year to seriously taste some wine. We called ourselves “The Sunday Night Irregulars,” in deference to our host, a baker who only had that one day—Sunday—free each week. We tasted eight wines blind, always arrayed in two distinct groups of four, under a subject heading of some sort. By far the most memorable was “The 1966 Vintage in France – Bordeaux vs. Burgundy.” It was our wake-up call to Pinot Noir, then a grape practically unknown to any of us (Burgundy won by a large margin). The scoring sheets listed the names of the four wines in front of the taster. All one had to do was concentrate on the four wines just served, score, and then decide which wine was in each glass. Originally we debated serving in groups of three, but believed that if one wine was easy to identify then nailing the other two was like picking the right side in a coin flip. You had a 50% chance to guess right, and if you did, then voila, you got all three correct.  It was very much more challenging, even though you were confident you had one right, when there were still three wines to identify. We used a 20-point scale modeled upon the well regarded University of California, Davis scoring sheet. Up to two points for color, eight each for aroma and taste, and two for aftertaste.

UC_DAVIS_FORM

University of California, Davis – 20 point Wine Judging Form

The disadvantage with this approach is that you need to provide the tasters with enough room to arrange their four glasses, and the nominal 8 x 10 scoring sheet to write upon. I no longer put anyone through this, as it inhibits the conviviality I seek in home entertaining here in America. If you walked in on us back then you might think we were accountants one hour away from finishing some company’s annual audit. We were a super serious tasting group, to be certain. When we moved to France, I introduced this approach to tasting to friends there and discovered it was more fun tasting on that side of the Atlantic. Our gang never let the reverence accorded such group imbibing in America interfere with their interpretation that first and foremost we were assembled to have a night of wine, food and merriment, accenting the latter. Dancing and champagne always ended the evening. If in the midst of the tasting someone started smoking it raised no eyebrow. Nor did spontaneous table chatter. I still recall one evening when a guest passed around a most unusual nudie magazine as we were holding our glasses under our noses. I could only smile then and wonder what our American tasting group would make of that.

Wine Maven Cup 4

The Wine Maven’s scoring sheet for “serious” wine tasting gatherings with friends

Though it is rare today, I do pull out those 20-point score sheets and set up four glass blind flights when I am sailing into what I consider unchartered water. A tasting I am thinking of now is with under-appreciated and under-valued Ugni Blanc and Rolle (Vermentino, as the grape is called outside of Provence). Blends featuring these varieties, normally in the $15-$20 price range, could stand up well in competitions with more expensive wines, in my humble opinion (and I am fearful that the huge clamor for rosé engulfing Provence will lead to a decline in their production in that region).

The scoring system can be whatever you want it to be. Today Jancis Robinson publishes her highly regarded evaluations using a 20-point scale, as follows:

Score Description
20 Truly exceptional
19 A humdinger
18 A cut above superior
17 Superior
16 Distinguished
15 Average, a perfectly nice drink with no faults but not much excitement
14 Deadly Dull
13 Borderline faulty or unbalanced
12 Faulty or unbalanced

Perhaps Robinson had the popular UC Davis system in mind as she launched hers some years back. There was no commonly used scoring system in effect in England at the time although the highly regarded Michael Broadbent, director of Sotheby’s wine department, regularly used a five star method. Robinson also may have been looking across the channel for guidance from the French (though I know most self-respecting Englishmen would never admit to any constructive influence coming from that direction). The 20-point system is very much in evidence in France. In fact, I can’t recall a published source, such as Gault & Millau, that does not use it.

Perhaps the inspiration there, as in America, is the domestic education system; secondary schools and universities in France employ a 20-point grading scale:

Score Description
16-20: Very Good (tres bien: TB)
14-15.9: Good (bien: B)
12-13.9: Satisfactory (assez bien: AB)
10-11.9: Correct (passable: not an official grade)
0-9.9: Fail (insuffisant)

Five, ten, twenty or one hundred points, just pick one you like and stay with it…or opt for none at all.   If enjoying wine is anything, it is a hedonistic experience. Does it have a good beat? Is it easy to dance to? The score is irrelevant.

Did the satyrs score the virgins? I will go back and check my Rabelais Reader, but I think not.

24 Comments

  1. Hi Jerry. Love this article – you brightened my day. I assume that’s you cutting the rug with a most quaffable red. Hope your having a fab time in California collecting your Wine Blog of the year award for best article!

  2. Yes, we are in Lodi for the conference. The past 24 hours feels like a ’30’s dance marathon. Thus the dancing shoes have been getting a real workout. But the Lodi wines tunes have been amazingly energizing.

  3. Jerry,
    I particularly enjoyed reading this article.It reminded me the fantastic moments you have offered us over the years with friends,enjoying so much your wine tasting parties.

    • So very many good souvenirs together of wine evenings, and the occasional blind tastings – here and in France. I am bringing wine back with me from Lodi for us to try together. You will be impressed.

  4. I love it your quote, ” If enjoying wine is anything, it is a hedonistic experience.” Based on that, I have a new 2-point wine scoring system: Any glass of wine in front of me gets a “Tres Bien,” and any wine that is not gets a “Insuffisant.” it’s easy to go from “Insuffisant” to Tres Bien – just pour me a glass s’il nous plait? And make sure it’s served in fine crystal.

    • Love it, the two point system! Takes me back to Caligula standing above the gladiators. Thumb up, or down.

      • Yes, yes that’s it – the new wine scoring system -The Caligula Thumbs-Up/Thumbs Down Wine Scoring System. If it’s thumbs down, the person bringing the wine must pay for all the wines tasted during that wine tasting session- much more civilized that death, although it could still cost dearly.

        • Great material for a Ridley Scott production. I can see Russell Crowe back in Ancient Rome, as personal wine and food taster to the emperor. He slips nightshade into his goblet of Falernum, then leads an uprising of slave sous chefs.

  5. This is a great piece, Jerry! I will adopt your motto as I have already adopted the practice! “Does it have a good beat? Is it easy to dance to?”

    I was particularly pleased to read your statement: “Some taster, as some given moment, made a personal judgment and out a number to it. Good for him, but for me?” My palate often differs with others when it comes to wine. What one person finds dry, I find sour. Another person’s “dry,” can be oddly fruity to my taste buds.

    Now, with all my curiosity, what was your $4.99 Chardonnay?

  6. These past days here at the Wine Bloggers conference I have heard several negative comments about our wine score culture. Perhaps it’s real influence is on the decline. After all, Parker did sell his business.
    Our table white during the week is Crane Lake Chardonnay. Lately on weekends its one of several refreshing whites which come from the other side of Long Island Sound from us (in New York’s North Fork region).

  7. OH – MY – GOD !!! AND THE WINNER IS… JERRY ! ONE MORE TIME…

    • I must share the credit with the producers of the thousands of French wines I have enjoyed in my life (up to now).

  8. So close yet you didn’t stop by?!? Michael and I were just at Kivelstadt, one of his CEO buddies’ tasting rooms in Sonoma last weekend. Had we only known, we could have kidnapped you for more than blogging.

    • Of course I would have loved to be with you and Michael, however the program in Lodi was jam packed, including pre and post conference wine estate visits. For a place that built its reputation on run of the mill everyday wines (90% of its production still goes to a handful of really big players), there is an emerging number or craftsmen that need to be heard, and their comely wines tasted. Next November the conference will be in Santa Rosa, so stay tuned.

  9. The neighborhood is so dull when you are not around. Thanks for another informative and entertaining piece that makes me want to wine and dine, but especially sip many glasses of wine! Thanks for sharing your love of life.

    • Not only am I back, but ebullient over what wonderful people I met from the Lodi wine industry. I managed to slip a few bottles I especially liked in my luggage, and will come up with a plan to try them at Chez Clark.

  10. Great article, Jerry!
    Do consider that the French scoring system also includes 18-20 = “félicitations du Jury”, surely applicable to wines as well!
    Cheers,
    Fred

  11. Great to read your musings and memories on wine, Jerry. I noticed on your tasting sheet that you lived in Mystic CT. If you still live there, I was there last week and twice visited the new M Wine & Coffee Bar (full disclosure) which happens to be owned by my wife’s sister, Merrily Connery. Her husband, Michael, owns Saltwater Farm Vineyards in Stonington. Both fun places to visit! Congrats on your Blog Award! – Peter Morrell

    • Peter,
      Yes, we are still in Mystic. So far we have not yet made it to M Bar, but are planning to do so this week. Saltwater is a lovely spot. Please give us a nod on your next time in. I can show you that half bottle you sold me back in the day.
      Jerry

  12. Jerry: Your articles are so interesting to read, and thought provoking in a way that the comments generated by your readers are just as interesting to read! Can’t wait till your next article. Gerry Nathe

    • Yes, it’s great when readers respond. Makes one want to set about finding other things to write about. This new life in blog writing is both challenging and rewarding. Truly a lot of fun.

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