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100 point wines must necessarily be rare

June 23, 2011 by steve  
Filed under Wine

People sometimes ask me why I don’t score as many wines with a perfect 100 points as some other wine critics do. Here’s my answer.

The only way a wine can score 100 points, IMHO, is for it to be in a large blind tasting of its peers. And by a large tasting, I mean at least, say, 30 or 40 wines. All the wines should come from the same region and be of the same type, e.g. California Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or Pinot Noirs.

Now, I know some people, including some winemakers, would argue that a statewide blind tasting is of little use, since it’s pitting apples versus oranges. Bob Cabral once told me he wishes I’d taste his Pinot Noirs against other Pinot Noirs from the same regions, so that, for example, I’d taste his Weir Vineyard Pinot only against other Yorkville Highlands Pinots. That would be pretty hard, since there are fewer Pinots from that Mendocino County AVA than I have fingers on one hand, but I take his point. Certainly, I could separate out his Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs and taste them only against other RRV Pinot Noirs (which thus wouldn’t include Weir or Bob’s Sonoma Coast bottlings).

That makes some sense. But I don’t think it’s the best way to do it. It’s certainly not the fairest. Take Cabernet Sauvignon. If I restricted myself to a large tasting only of Napa Valley Cabernet, then a Happy Canyon Cab, or one from Paso Robles or Alexander Valley, wouldn’t be able to compete against them. If I tasted the Paso Cab only in the company of other Paso Cabs, probably the overall lower quality of Paso (compared to Napa) would result in a degradation of the score of the best of those Cabernets. On the other hand, if I tasted it blind alongside Napa Cabs, it might score respectably well.

Wait a minute! Did I just imply that context is vital in reviewing a wine? Yes, I did. I know that the MW crowd is going to come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches, but it’s true. If you think Petrus is the greatest wine you ever had, and then you stick it in a blind tasting with 50 other red wines from all over the place, I guarantee you your perception of the Petrus will be influenced. You might still like it; you might like it less; it depends, because the context has shifted, and so have what Dr. Timothy Leary used to call “set and setting.”

Since I believe in contextual tasting, it seems obvious to me that the only way to accord a wine the supreme accolade is to taste it in a large setting in which, over the course of hours, the taster meticulously works his way through the wines. First, he goes through them in order, making preliminary notes, separating out the wheat from the chaff. Then, he revisits the outliers. He retastes those wines that seemed spectacular at first, in order to confirm his impressions. He might even revisit wines that seemed odd, or clumsy, to see what time in the glass has done. He revises his initial notes, making new ones. Then the process is repeated, as many times as it takes for the taster to decide that, finally, the tasting is over; all good things must come to an end. And if there remains one wine that, over all those hours, retains its supremecy to the end, then that wine deserves the highest score.

Consider the alternative: Could any reviewer with a shred of honesty or integrity blind taste a single wine, by itself, and declare it 100 points? Without context, without competitors, without calibrations to consider, such a thing is unthinkable. If you hear of anyone doing it, be skeptical. Very skeptical.

I look at other wine magazines and newsletters and see 100 point scores handed out like candy at Halloween, and I shake my head in dismay. I’d like to know the circumstances under which each of those wines was tasted. I, at least, can sign off on a 100 point score knowing that I tried my best to prevent it from happening. Why do I say that? Because a reviewer shouldn’t be profligate in awarding the highest scores. Score inflation lessens the value of high scores (and also makes the publication suspect). For a wine to be, literally, perfect in every way must always occur only rarely. Even when I am dazzled by a wine, there usually is some slight, small defect or distraction that shows up, sometimes after airing. But a 100 point wine may not have the slightest defect. It must continue to impress the mind and senses, and above all it must triumph above the competition. That means it has to be tasted in the context of a large tasting of its peers.

I recognize that others may feel differently, and I look forward to hearing your comments.

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