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Over the last ten-plus years I’ve taught a classed called Mastering Wine II at the Rudd Center in St. Helena. In most respects MWII, as I like to call it, is a second level wine survey class organized by focusing on a different grape variety or varieties each of the five days.  The schedule alternates between lectures and tastings with two field trips thrown in to keep everyone from falling into a deep classroom trance.  However, over the years I’ve morphed the class into a professional tasting seminar with the express purpose of making sure that the students exponentially increase their ability to taste by week’s end.

During the week I assign a discussion topic for after lunch with the lofty goal of trying to solve or at least examine some of the wine industry’s biggest issues.  Tuesday’s topic is the use of the 100 point scale in wine.  I split the class into two groups and assign one group the task of coming up with everything good about using numerical scores for wine.  The other group’s job is come with everything wrong about it.  Here’s a sampling of answers from hundreds of students and dozens of classes over the last decade (Remember, these are student answers and not mine).

100 Point Scale – Pros:

·Helps wineries sell wine.

·Helps PR and marketing people sell wine.

·Shelf-talkers in retail shops that use scores help sell wine and make it easier for consumers to find quality wines.

·Helps collectors buy futures.

·Provides an impetus for winemakers and wineries to make better wines, i.e., better wines theoretically should get better scores.

·Provides an easy-to-understand system for consumers to understand.

·Creates a level playing field for comparing wine quality.

·Creates instantaneous markets for regions, appellations and wineries that were previously non-existent (Priorat a perfect example).

100 Point Scale – Cons:

· The entire scale is not used—scores practically always fall between 70-92 points.

·A score reflects the opinion of either a single taster or is an average of several different tasters.

·Scores presuppose we all like the same style of wine.

·Wines with high scores tend to be riper styles with higher alcohol and more use of new oak.  Delicate wines don’t get high scores as often.

·All grape varieties are not created equal; certain grapes/wines such as Sauvignon Blanc rarely get high scores like Cabernet Sauvignon.

·Winemakers have consciously have adjusted their winemaking to produce riper, richer wines to get higher scores.  As a result, winemaking and wine styles are becoming homogenized.

·Wine is a living, ever-changing thing; how can a score based on a single tasting experience accurately reflect a wine?

·There is such a thing as a perfect 100 point wine.

·What’s the difference between wines rated at 89 and 90 points?

·Scores presuppose a precision in wine that does not exist.

·Scores don’t take context into account—how the wine will ultimately be enjoyed.  Will a given wine be consumed with food? By itself?

The last point is always my favorite.  While I certainly get the use of scores as an attempt to convey a wine’s quality they simply do not take context into account.  Last year I wrote a post on context and wine called “The Beautiful Imprecision of Wine” (http://www.timgaiser.com/1/post/2012/6/the-beautiful-imprecision-of-wine.html). I put forth that there are three variables in any wine experience: the wine, the taster and the context.  I argued that the context was by far the most important variable because it took into account everything from the time of day the wine was tasted, the glassware, the wine temperature, the temperature of the tasting room, how many wines were being tasted, the order of the wines in the tasting and much, much more.  Change one of these variables and you change a taster’s experience of a given wine.

In case you’re wondering the first group of students always does a good job coming up with the benefits of using the 100 point system.  However, when we get to the cons everyone inevitably piles on and it’s usually not pretty.   But after hashing it out for the better part of an hour I ask the students to do one last thing: given a wine that’s well made and of good quality, come up with a system that can convey the most important aspects of said wine to a consumer without using any kind of numerical score, be it a 20 point or a 100 point scale.

After much deep thinking and serious discussion every class comes up with a strikingly similar system using the most vital components of wine such as sweetness/dryness, intensity of flavor, acidity, tannin and the use of oak.  From there the students take each component and set extremes as baselines, as in a little of something versus a lot.  For example, with sweetness or dryness they list “bone dry” at one end with “dessert” at the other; for intensity of flavor they usually list “delicate” and “intense.” And so on. Then the extremes for each component are filled in either by using low, medium, high and variations thereof or with numbers in increments of three, seven or nine (Remember, no base ten!).  The results look something like this:

Intensity of flavor: Delicate 1   2   3   4   5   6   7  Intense

Sweetness/dryness: Bone dry 1   2   3   4   5   6   7  Dessert

Body: Light-bodied: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   Full-bodied

Acid: Light acidity  1   2   3   4   5   6   7    Tart acidity

Tannin: No tannin 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   Astringent

Oak: No oak 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   100% new oak

At this point the students all sit back feeling pretty good.  After all, they’ve just come up with a fairly creative system that manages to convey a great deal about a wine without using a numerical representative.  I end the session by giving them the bad news: their brilliant system was created and used quite some time ago.

In the summer of 1994 dear friend and fellow Master Peter Granoff opened the cyber doors to Virtual Vineyards, not only the first online wine retail “shop” but also the very first online retailer of any kind.  Peter and his brother-in-law Robert Olson started Virtual Vineyards on a server literally in Olson’s garage.

To avoid using scores Peter devised a system almost exactly like the one above to convey the most important information about every wine in the VV portfolio.  His system used intensity of flavor, body, sweetness/dryness, acidity, tannin, oak and complexity represented in one-through-seven increments.

As with so many other online ventures of the time Virtual Vineyards grew slowly at first. I was the 13th employee joining the company in April of 1996. Then with the help (or curse depending on how you look at it) of tens of millions of dollars of VC funding Virtual Vineyards grew dramatically becoming the original version of wine.com before acquiring a competitor in mid-2000 and ultimately being unplugged by VC’s in April of 2001.  I will say no more.  But aside from being remarkably ahead of its time—there is nothing like it even today—Virtual Vineyards managed to sell over $50 million of wine in five years using Peter’s system and without ever using a single numerical score.

Finally, on the subject of wine and numbers I will leave you with this: in December I had the opportunity to join five other fellow Master Sommeliers from the US, UK and Germany in Istanbul to taste Turkish wines  and meet Turkish winemakers.  It was a great opportunity to have a first look at the country’s wines.  Our tastings were scheduled over three days with the fourth day spent meeting with the winemakers to discuss our impressions of their wines as well as opportunities for export to the U.S.  It goes without saying that in a country that is 90% Muslim the Turkish government is very conservative about the production and enjoyment of alcoholic beverages.  No surprise then that it’s remarkably challenging to distribute and sell wine inside the country with the government clearly moving winemakers to sell their wine on the export market.

Several days before our departure our contact in Istanbul e-mailed the tasting schedule, information about hotels and the tasting venue as well as the news that we would be scoring the wines on a 100 point scale.  Further, our contact would be tracking and calculating the validity of our scores by using the Pearson Correlation Coefficient for every 10th wine tasted.  I’ve included it below for your curiosity and enjoyment (Sorry that the scan is a bit muddled).

Further, all six Masters would be tested randomly for reliability during the three days by having a selected wine served multiple times at random intervals during each tasting session. A Modified Fisher (one-way random average measures), whatever that is, was used to compute the “intra-class correlation.”  Again, the formulas are listed below.

I must confess that Algebra II in my junior year of high school marked the end of my math career.  From then on it was a steady academic diet of a music, world history and literature dotted with the odd volleyball or tennis class.  But how did the numbers actually work out using the complex logarithms listed above?  I’m not completely sure but I can tell you that several times during the three days a quick check among the six of us tasters found that our scores were almost always within 3-4 points of each other with rare exceptions.  And that’s not bad for numbers.

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