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Jefford on Monday: Scored Rigid

The mother of one of our village friends stopped me at the market a couple of Sundays ago. She and her partner have a wine domain in Fitou, about three hours from here – one of the few privately run domains, in fact, in what is an intensely cooperative-dominated area.

Some buyers from Canada had passed through recently. They liked the wines; they’d expressed an interest in importing some of them. But had they, um, been rated? Did they have some scores, from North American critics? If so, that would make the importer’s life a lot easier, and up the sales potential.

Our friend’s mother was puzzled. She’d heard of Parker, but apart from that, who were these North American critics? How did you go about getting some scores? I did my best to help – in other words, ran through some of the main names of people and publications, and suggested sending samples. But with misgivings.

If a wine is unsaleable until it has a critic’s score appended to it, what does that say about the professional skills of the importer and retailer? Do these count for nothing? Do consumers really think that importers and retailers trawl a drag net through a region, dump the catch on the critics, and leave it entirely to them to sort out the sole from the sand eels?

I’m gently sceptical about scores, too. This is partly because they strike me as philosophically untenable: they provide a mathematically closed, definitive verdict in an aesthetic debate which, all my experience suggests, is subjective right down to its toenails. More generally, I find them uncongenial and inhumane: wine just isn’t like that, any more than people are.

At the same time, of course, scores can be fun. My children know this: they have piles of cards with the characters from ‘Kung-Fu Panda’, ‘Madagascar’ et al. scored for intelligence, force, humour, fortune and kindness. Those scores help them refine their grasp of character and narrative.

It’s beyond question that most consumers like wine scores for much the same reason — as an educative benchmark against which to calibrate their own opinions. In simple, practical terms, too, they are a useful shorthand or synopsis of critical opinion.

So I’m happy to use scores if asked — for fun, and to try to be helpful. The scale, by the way, is irrelevant: a carefully used 20-point scale and a carefully used 100-point scale amount to the same thing. Note, though, that there is very little international calibration of scales, and scores themselves (save in the context of blind tasting) often strike me as highly political, since most wine critics don’t like to upset most wine producers, especially when the two are close friends.

Scores become problematic when the system is regarded as being a necessary gateway to the market: no score, no existence. And the problems grow acute when the stakes get higher — when scores cease to be fun and become deadly serious, and when the financial implications of a point or two here or there, or even of being scored at all, become disproportionately significant. The possibilities for corruption or for market manipulation are evident.

Worse than that, though, is the sense that life, freedom and autonomy have been knocked out of the wine by its score, and that it’s existence as a sensual object has been in some way closed off by being ‘only’ 87 or — more profitable but barely less tragic — doomed to ‘perfection’. The more ‘perfect’ wines I taste, the more I think the whole concept of numerical perfection (which if taken seriously equates to a kind of subjective dictatorship) is preposterous.

That, though, is the way our wine world is at present. It would be naïve to think that scores will ever go away; they won’t. I hope, though, consumers will eventually view them as diversion rather than scripture, trust wine importers and retailers, trust their own palates, and come to realise that there is no ‘best’ in the wine world, only ‘different’.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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