Tim James: A crisis of confidence for wine scorers?

By , 1 April 2024



The latest thoughtful contribution to this website from Jamie Goode, on the possible coming demise of wine-scoring, or at least of the 100-point version, reminded me that I’ve noticed a moderate number of more-or-less uneasy articles about their job by wine-critics in recent years. (I myself have been a thoroughgoing scoring-sceptic for ages, and it’s many years since I’ve scored wines except for the Platter’s Guide ­– and I’m opting out of that, of which more some other time.) If there’s not really a widespread crisis of confidence starting to emerge amongst those who make their livings by scoring wines – and, crucially, through related commercial matters – then I suspect (and hope) that a low-grade one is at least starting to bubble underneath.

Jamie is himself a wine-scoring critic, but clearly a reflective one; anyway, I’d say his most invaluable contributions to contemporary wine come from articles and books based on his science-based understanding. His recent avowedly “blunt” article follows one last August, which made a not dissimilar point, but added, more wide-rangingly, that “There are very few critical voices left, and almost no heretics. It would be refreshing to have proper wine criticism back.” It’s worth the while of anyone interested in the contemporary wine scene to carefully re-read both pieces, but here, anyway, is what seems to me the pithy bottom line of the recent one: “For the majority of consumers, I suspect 100 point scores are no longer that interesting. The explosion of critic numbers, the rather mixed-ability wine scoring that is taking place, and the ridiculous bunching of scores at the top end of the scale is weakening the appeal of numerical ratings.”

I think we can count Dr Goode very definitely among the sceptics now, even while he continues, presumably a little unhappily, to rank wines in this way. Looking on this website for any evidence supporting my suspicion that the unease goes wider, I trawled through the last year or two of “Opinion & Analysis” under the “Wine” menu, obviously only able to go by the article title. Christian Eedes, for example, wrote about having “that conversation about wine scores again”, worrying about the role of the wine-critic, and concluding about scores that “We all know that they are philosophically untenable, but they are equally inevitable”. When scoring is so apparently crucial to his wine-life and career, one guesses that job satisfaction must surely be a touch compromised by this existential dichotomy! I’ll return later to his hopeful get-out-of-jail card.

Michael Fridjhon doesn’t seem much concerned about scoring as such (I confess I don’t know about his practices now, but he used to valiantly hold out against the prevalent scoring inflation, giving ratings on a scale much more modest than most; this inevitably meant that those scores were comparatively seldom quoted, which must have been a problem for him). But maybe it was an element of personal anxiety pushing him to ask “Why do some wine producers enter competitions and others not?”, understandably, given his position, indicating that they should.

In fact, it’s part of a larger, widespread concern about the relationship between the public and the professionals that the role of the lucrative wine competition looks to be diminishing. Certainly it seems to be doing so in South Africa. The competition that Michael owns, the Trophy Wine Show, draws less than three-quarters the number of entrants it used to (“close to 800” in 2023, from 1038 in 2013; although the competition has recently branched out to include spirits, which helps to keep fees rolling in.) Veritas, always including brandy, has also declined, though less emphatically, from 1,792 entrants ten years ago to 1,491 last year.

On the apparently troubled relationship between critic and public, Michael has also asked whether “wine critics [are] speaking past consumers”, and has also questioned the character of (mostly other peoples’) wine notes: too often they flamboyantly  contain “descriptors on steriods” or are “overly safe” and dull to the point of unreadability.

Especially with regard to the egregious Robert Parker, the complaint, especially by his supporters downplaying the overweening role he helped the 100-point score achieve, was that retailers et al were traducing him by citing only the scores and not the accompanying, explanatory/justificatory note. That’s a practice that continues ever-more widely. We all know, for example, that Tim Atkin loudly gave 100 points to Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015. But how many have seen, let alone remember, the tasting note, including those that have made the wine one of the darlings of the local auction scene? Not I, though you don’t have to google far to find Tim’s press-release (I think) remark that it is “brilliant” and “one of the greatest young wines I have ever tasted”, which doesn’t say much more than the score.

Christian Eedes, in the piece I quoted above, gives a valid defence of the critic as an authority. To which I’d add that I think the main advantage of the professional critics to be that they taste very widely and can therefore make useful comparisons, including of quality. He says that the inevitability of scores is because these function “as a way of rapidly conveying a quality assessment” – which begs the question of why it’s necessary to make that conveyance quite so rapid unless they’re designed to exist by themselves. Christian doesn’t explicitly mention notes, but suggests that critics are “authorities” partly because they are “probably better at communicating the reasons for their appreciation of certain wines – there are many with great tasting skills who struggle to articulate why a wine is good or not good.”

“Probably better.” Yes, okay, usually probably. If better, then certainly not inevitably much good, as Michael Fridjhon agrees. And, as Michael indicates, there’s not even any consensus about what should go into, and what be left out of, a decent wine note. Let alone, I’d add, about how many people are ever likely to be interested in reading them as such – perhaps they’ve just become jaundiced.

I think the problems nowdays facing the professional wine critics and perhaps the wine competition circus go much deeper. They’re not even easy to enumerate or understand. I can’t see that wine-notes are the way out of dealing with the growing absurdity (philosophical and practical) of wine-scoring. And wine-scoring is, sadly, the larger part of what we’re left with, really. If you doubt that, look at the comparative space devoted to anything deeper than notes-and-scores in most wine publications, online or the few in print. Unfortunately, I can’t see my way to agreeing with Jamie’s suggestion that wine scoring will become defunct, though perhaps, as he says, the 100-point system will. It might, I suppose, just disappear up its own arse as it strives for greater precision and manages to achieve less. How about a nice little five-star system to replace it?

But, rather sadly, it might well be wine-notes that become defunct before wine scores in our impatient world. On the other hand, if the World Health Organization and other fundamentalists have their way, wine itself – or at least any public discussion of it – might disappear first.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


1 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood | 3 April 2024

    I am planning on printing some T-Shirts with the famous Fridjhon slap down of my tasting notes… “Purple Prose Puffery”.

    Let me know what colour and size you would like! 😉

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