the dreaded 89

Monday, January 04, 2010

It would be convenient – and certainly logical – to assume that within the 100-point scale of wine ratings, each number in a continuous series had roughly the same bandwidth. By that I mean that the breadth of say, an 84, would be the same as the breadth of an 85. Yes, the 85 is higher, hence a bit more valuable. But the jump from one to the next is more of a gentle stair-step than a high hurdle.

This idea quickly breaks down. To begin with, as anyone who uses the system knows, the 100 point scale is really a 20 point scale (no publications seriously offer scores below 80). That quickly reduces to a 10 point scale (no one buys wines below 85, and few wines score 95+). That 10 point scale has shrunk as well. A walk through my local Costco just yesterday turned up a couple dozen wines with scores in the low 90’s, all heavily discounted from their original prices. Consumers catch on quickly – these days, there is no need to buy a sub-90 wine when you can find so many of them for under $20.

Which leads to the dreaded 89. No single score strikes at the heart of the system’s flaws more than this. In better days, when 90 really stood for something, an 89 was “like kissing your sister” one winemaker opined. Consumers quite rightly wonder how a reviewer can make that call anyway. What’s the difference between an 89 and a 90?

Great question. I’ve given out a lot of both over the years, and I have a strong gut-level feeling about which side of that divide wines fall on. But is there a quantifiable, objective rationale for assigning a wine one number over the other? I’m afraid not. It’s a subjective decision. It just happens to be more significant than most others, as it can dramatically reduce the marketability (and pricing) of a wine.

I was thinking of this over the holiday weekend as I drank a very pleasurable 89-pointer, that I had acquired from Jon Rimmerman at Garagiste. The wine was a 2004 Chateau Croix de Labrie Saint Emilion Grand Cru, and I had paid $20 for it. Rimmerman’s write-up noted that “it only received an ‘89’ but who cares? 2004, like 2001, produced very good to excellent wine around the Gironde with a finer style than 2005 but it’s been completely overshadowed by its successor.” He went on to point out that the 2005 Croix de Labrie got a Parker 94, and was priced at $100 or more. Parker’s original review, which gave the wine the dreaded 89, was hardly dismissive, noting that there was “plenty to like.” The original price was quoted at $50. So the dreaded 89 meant that a $50 wine was dumped at $20, while a mid-90’s score more than doubled the price.

The take-away for me was that some awesome bargains can be found in the 89 bin. This was a delicious bottle of Bordeaux, drinking beautifully by the way. Less jammy and Parkerized than the 2005, but more to my taste. So whatever your feeling about scoring in general, critics, 89-pointers, etc., I think it’s definitely worth your while to seek out a few of these ugly duckling 89s. You may just find a golden goose.

19 comments:

Art said...

. . . or an 88 or 87.

EastMeetsWest said...

Is it only the Wine Spectator then that claims they don't take price into consideration? I don't necessarily think price should impact a review negatively, but the barrel program, care, the fine print etc. should be factored in more. Personally, I'd rather pay a little more for a product that was taken care of the way it should be then stuffing money down someone's throat who leaves the wine in the barrel/tank just long enough to bottle it and turn it to profit.

scott, the grande dalles said...

I’m surprised by WAWINEMAN’s 89 to 90 Wow! factor. But then again, Paul’s dreaded 89 would indicate a giant leap and not a stair-step between 89 and 90. There must be fireworks or the earth must move when you taste a 95+ wine. All this leads me to believe that we’re really dealing with a 7 point scale, 89-95, since 90-95 is Wow! to I’m guessing super-duper Wow!, and 89 is humdrum (or whatever less than Wow! is). For something so obviously and admittedly subjective and arbitrary it seems a real crime that there is a “dreaded 89”.
www.thegrandedalles.com

Gewurz said...

...but would it be confusing if I also had "Tanzer" and "Gregutt" with the same "89" number?!?

Gewurz said...

I always wanted to get a football jersey with "Parker" and "89" on the back and the winery logo on front...

Scott, The Grande Dalles said...

Well, actually, I was trying to be a bit cheeky, because super-duper wow is certainly no more over the top than most of the descriptors one can find in many wine critic reviews. That said, I don’t have another way to judge wines, because that would mean I think there is a fundamental and objective way to do so. Judging means quantitative and objective analysis and wine doesn’t lend itself to that model very well.

I think wine should be considered in context and with a more encompassing perspective. A good example for this is looking at Willamette Valley pinot noir from 2006 and 2007. 2006 was hot and dry, and the level of ripeness achieved had rarely been seen before. 2007 didn’t turn out so ripe. Some critics have even called the 2007 vintage a disaster. If we look at the two vintages side-by-side they are strikingly different, but is one year better than the other? The difference between the two is primarily because of ol’ Mother Nature, and that is a context and that is what we should think about and appreciate. Mother Nature is not the only influence that can be considered in context. Wine should please and stimulate not just our palate but also our mind. There are very, very few other products out there that we humans can experience that are steeped so richly in context.
www.thegrandedalles.com

PaulG said...

Scott,
For the record, I have not made any sweeping comments about the 2007 Oregon vintage. There have been some real successes, many of which I've pointed out in this blog and in print. I do consider wine in context – which is why I do not subscribe to the notion that blind tastings are more objective or somehow superior to tasting wines knowing what they are beforehand.

Todd Hansen said...

Paul:
Good post, as always.
Perhaps those who receive the dread 89 just need to submit to another publication? Two examples from recent issues:
Adelsheim 2007 Boulder Bluff Pinot Noir - WE 95 pts., WS 89 pts.
Le Cadeau 2007 Diversite Pinot Noir - WE 89 pts., WS 92 pts.
Several wines were on the "wrong" side of 90 in one publication and the north side in the other.
For better or worse, consumers (or at least enough wine magazine buyers) currently embrace the "10 point scale" despite its obvious shortcoming - attempting to portray as "objective" - through the use of false precision - something that inherently contains subjective elements. (BTW: I'm all for decimalization to avoid the current system's alphabet bias.) My hope is that as wine drinkers develop more confidence in their palates they'll look at more than just numbers when reading reviews and, ultimately, purchasing wines. (Who is the tail and who is the dog? Hmmm ...)
I will say that I appreciate that WE's reviewers add their initials to their reviews (personalizes the score) and, despite the obvious rigors of the profession, still seem truly to enjoy many of those wines that are 'only' "well recommended."

MagnumGourmet said...

I find it very hard to subscribe to someone else's scoring system. In the end, wine tasting is a very personal endeavor. My own scoring consists of 3 scores and takes price into consideration. It is either "would not purchase again", "would purchase again" or "WOW!!!". Every wine will fall into one of those buckets. Now, I have tasted a number of very nice wines that I would not purchase again at $50, but would if it was $25. Pleasure is subjective and I don't think that you can rely on any one person's score to tell you how you are going to react to a wine. Way too many factors.

PaulG said...

I was just reading thru Parker's latest and came across an 89+ score. Now that's really slicing it thin!

Plymale said...

Regardless of the scoring system, or lack thereof, it's the context that matters. Take movie reviews, for example. Some newspapers rate movies on the 5-star scale, some don't. I enjoy reading movie reviews in both the Seattle Times (stars) and the New Yorker (no stars), for example. I don't think that a star rating in the Times should be taken out of context of the review itself, just as the thumbs up/down of a reviewer in the NYer should be obvious after reading the review.

Greg Harrington said...

Paul - interesting article. But these days, 89s are totally irrelevant. As are 90, 91, 92, 93, and possibly 94. From our experience, most people won't even get off the couch for a 92/93 point score. It takes 95+ to get the phones ringing. We also see that a great write up without a score in a limited list does better than a mid 90s score i.e. Top 10 Syrah in the US.

Bernie said...

At the end of the day... an 89, 4 stars, WOW, 2 puffs and 3 bicchieri are all just opinions. Nothing more - nothing less. Thus far, the posts in the thread all appear to belong to people in the "opinion" business; wine journalists, vignerons, consumers, et al.

As a fine wine wholesaler, I often marvel at the dynamics a simple numeric score can have in the market place. Yes, there are "consumers" of opinion up and down the supply chain -- producers, distributors, retailers and customers that all react to numeric or symbolic edicts. A 90 point wine clearly behaves differently in the market place than an 89. But seldom do I see consumers carrying around magazines (consumer or trade, but let’s leave that for another day's discussion...) in the wine shops I call on. Once in a while I will see a consumer with the newspaper food section tucked under their arm.

I too am both a purveyor and consumer of opinions, always on the lookout for favorable nuggets of perspective, numeric or prose, on behalf of my suppliers in the name of selling more wine. I routinely and aggressively read (favorite) columns, blogs, magazines and tweets in hopes of discovering a catalyst, which I then turn (verbatim) into a shelf talker. The reality is, these “silent salesmen” (salespeople?) are perhaps the most widely read “consumer” purchasing resource in print, and not the publications the produce them.

An excellent series of posts, but I for one have long since tired of the 89 vs. 90 argument and the evils of the 100 point scale, because it really doesn’t matter, does it? I mean the argument. Pretty labels, favorable comments, good numbers, food parings and dayglo all mean something or nothing…. to someone... or everyone. Some folks just need the numbers, while others loath ‘em and I’m okay with that.

Just keep posting your opinions, and I’ll pass them along to the consumer.

KeithJ said...

From a marketing and sales standpoint, I'll take a "Best Buy" or something similar, like a PG "Pick of the Week", anytime. The WOW factor leeway, or perhaps forgiveness, between an 85 and even a low 90's rating becomes much greater when that extra moniker of great value is added - and now more than ever in the last 30 or so years that I've been paying attention.

Rich said...

Being a semi literate almost winemaker/producer, I have to say that the scores are meaningless so long as you are just looking at scores. However those scores radically affect sales and an 89 just won't cut it - in today's market, there are 95 pointers going unsold. The consumer simply needs to be more educated about wines and then be able to make their own decision and I don't see that happening anytime soon. BTW: to show the arbitrary nature of scores - Wine Enthusiast gave one of my wines an 89 and Wine Spectator gave the exact same wine a 95.

Marlene R said...

When Tanzer (not his assistants) give a wine an 89 score, I am out the door running to buy. Tanzer is notoriously stingy with his scores...

Justin said...

I think wine scores from critics are all so heavily subjective that very rarely can much stock be put into any one review. If every critic standardized the way they tasted and scored wine, (ie: double blind tasting) then maybe apples could be compared to apples and the consumer could make an educated decision to which critics palate they relate to best. But when you have scores being issued by different critics from blind tasting, consumer/trade tastings, barrel tasting, private tastings, tasting with foods, etc., the variability of outside influences are so great. How can one consider an 89 from one critic who tasted blind and a 91 from another critic who had a private tasting with the winemaker/owner at the winery or prior knowledge of the wine they were scoring? And what about the critic who gives a review based on past performances, not current tasting notes. Not that any critic would admit it, but it does happen. I find it absurd that you would refer to a wine given an arbitrary score of 89 by one critic as classified as an ugly duckling. Sure, the 89 sits in the shadows of higher scoring wines, but to refer to them as ugly ducklings is a disservice to the consumer, your readers and the efforts of the winery to produce the wine. Unfortunately, 95% of wine consumers are sheeple who will follow this advice and revert to purchasing wines with copies of WE/WS/Parker in hand while shopping. Consumers and wine marketing departments rely on these scores so much; the stories behind the wines/winemaker/vineyards have lost their importance. Just take a look at how many wineries promote a silver medal instead of promoting vineyard locations, winemaking styles etc. This does not mean wineries should get a free pass when they produce bad wines, but the influence of scores that differ by single digits from critics to critic is bad for the consumer and is bad for the industry. Unfortunately, I do not have a quick and easy answer, but here are some possible suggestions; have wine writers certified on a standard set of sensory analysis and most importantly, standardize the way critics taste wine, DOUBLE BLIND.

PaulG said...

Justin, you take offense where none was given. I was not opining that all these wines are ugly ducklings! The whole point of my post is that there are some real gems. However, in the eyes of the trade, and many consumers, the 89s are seen as ugly ducklings. That is the point I was making. As for the blind/double blind/triple blind/whatever tasting concept. It's been tried. It's basically a failure, except in a lab setting where the object is to find flaws. All reviewing is subjective, whether the subject is film, theater, art, dance, music - or wine. I think that wine reviewing is clearly evolving, and the impact of scores is being offset by social media. Which is why I am dedicating such a huge amount of time to this blog.

K-Syrah said...

Paul i love how you broke down a 100 point system into basically 10... and i agree, 89 and 90 are seemingly miles apart. like apparently 19.99 is under 20 bucks... but really after reading thousands of ratings over the years, i can't say i give it that much stock. to start, one man's 89+is another mans solid 93. Second,if it was crap, it wouldn't be printed. so other than high 90's it all comes down to "generally recognized as a quality wine. but the worst part for me that really makes me turn the page is 92 pointer at $15 beside 93 points at $75..
that close huh?... nope. don't buy it. Generally good for what it is supposed to be i guess...

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!