From Behind the Glass: Naked numbers — a two part series on wine scores and a changing ideology

Nose ItI rarely miss a train. When I do, I remember my high school algebra teacher, Earl Lavery. Imposing in stature, he was a hard nosed math teacher and football coach who eschewed partial credit. “It doesn’t matter if you missed the train by one minute or five minutes,” he bellowed, “you still missed the train.”

Scoring an 86 on his exams was a triumph. Then there was Father Pelletier, who believed it was more important to have a conceptual understanding of where the train station was than to arrive at a specific time. Anything below a 91 was a shameful effort.

Popular wine critics are just as divided in their grading schemes. While most agree on the 100 point scale, finding a common ground on scores proves more difficult. When taken at face value, scores are rendered useless by offering little information as to the quality of a wine. Without the accompanied tasting note, a point score is a naked number with no intrinsic value. Unfortunately, scores are very often the main tool used by consumers (and a disturbing number of retailers) to make purchasing decisions. For many, an 86 point wine is casually brushed aside like crumbs on the dinner table. It’s a common mistake.

Domaine Armand Rousseau is considered by many (including me) to be one of the top domaines for pinot noir in the Gevrey Chambertin appellation of Burgundy. Éric Rousseau is the third generation to run his family’s historic cellar.

Rather limited in availability, its average retail price is $124 per bottle. I purchased the wine for my family’s cellar believing it to be a classic example of Rousseau.

The following tasting note for the wine was published in the March/April 2002 edition of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, the only wine media I still subscribe to, “Medium cherry-red. Aromatic, floral nose of cherry, raspberry and spices. Juicy and intensely flavored, with good grip and inner-mouth perfume. Stylish wine.”

The 2009 Bitch Grenache Aragon is a wine fabricated by Chris Ringland using bulk grenache juice purchased from various sources in the Aragon and Navarra regions of Spain. Its average retail price is $11 per bottle. In the Sept./Oct. 2012 edition of International Wine Cellar, Josh Raynolds (a colleague of Stephen Tanzer) published the following tasting note for the wine, “Opaque ruby. Super-ripe plum and dark berry aromas show a slightly stewed quality. Broad and fleshy on the palate, offering syrupy blueberry and plum flavors and a touch of bitter licorice. Finishes slightly greasy and sweet, with a vague burning sensation. This jammy wine would be a great one to crack open after everybody was too hammered to notice its confectionery character, or to friends whose booze preferences run toward Frozen Mudslides and double B-52s. Rumor has it that some people are into this style.”

Given the information provided for both wines — background, pricing and reliable tasting notes, the decision to add Domaine Armand Rousseau to my family’s collection seems sound. However, using a quality/price ratio based on point scores that ignore the context of tasting notes, I should be looking for a job. The Domaine Armand Rousseau was awarded 86 points. The Bitch Grenache Aragon received 87 points. Point scores are misleading at best.

For decades, the wine industry has been held hostage by a media empire controlled by just a few palates. It’s our own fault. Whether you are an importer, wholesaler or retailer, selling wine using points was easy.

The pitch was elementary and yielded tremendous results, “The Wine Spectator just gave this wine 90 points. It’s $15 per bottle.” Suppliers are finding that in the back offices of a small set of select merchants that pitch no longer works. Reliance on ratings has become a model for discounters and e-tailers. But for a small group of merchants, the model has returned to relying on what they see from behind the glass.

Peter Troilo is the managing director of Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines and has been in the wine business for 14 years. For more information, visit, or email [email protected]

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