The New Scale

“To me a 100-point wine is as good as it gets”

– A Masked Bear who Works for Wine Spectator

I’m standing there, in the kitchen as is more than often the case in my house, stirring risotto. My cat Henry is chasing things we aren’t able to see, ghosts or the such (either that or he is crazy, but the ghost explanation is much better for us pagan biodynamic winos) and my wife is sitting at the table, watching me stir. We talk about what transpired during the day, or horses, or berms and swales, her being a civil engineer. We drink wine. It doesn’t matter what wine at this time. The wine is good. In fact this is the best a wine will ever be for me.

This presents a problem for me in writing to you if you think I’m recommending wine, dear reader, because it’s hard for me to convey an experience as a bottle of wine. I don’t taste in a lab nor do I care for these white tablecloth tastings where 9000 wines are arranged on tables that stretch over the horizon and everybody elbows each other trying to taste whatever burgundy is there before it has disappeared. If I’ve ever come across, on this blog, as a consumer advocate I sincerely apologize. I drank a beautiful bottle of Egly-Ouriet the other day with my wife and some good friends watching the sunset from my roof. I can’t remove the wine from the moment, nor would I want to. Nor would I have the same opinion of it if I drank it while some asshole with an oversized watch stood behind me while telling me to move because he was in a hurry and only came to taste a few wines.

To this end I have never used any sort of ranking system (excepting tongue in cheek). I have never given a wine nine thumbs up or fourteen stars or 17.23 points. I don’t do it with anything else I enjoy, so why would I do it here? Do you rate the meals you have eaten? How does a three star restaurant stack up against the first time you had breakfast with your future wife? Or, if you’ll permit me a little vulgarity, do you ever rate the best fuck (I’ll use “fuck” here because as Wallace Stegner once said “having sex doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as making love nor as much fun as fucking” and I agree wholeheartedly with this) you’ve ever had? Could a scale for these things ever include the vagaries of individual taste, the mood you were in, the details that your conscious mind isn’t even aware you like? Or is the memory of such things sufficient to make you smile when they pop into your head, unbidden during Saturday morning work meetings, or long commutes or that strange half-sleep right before sleep?

But everywhere we look in wine this type of scale has taken over. It’s a group of accountants where the sensualists should rule. It fixes expectations and confuses the act of enjoyment. It negates the act of discovery. Enough is enough.

So I’m proposing a new scale.

The old scale is too linear; it’s a flat-chested, rail thin model in a room full of thick jowled chefs. The new scale has more lines than just the one, more places to go than just up or down. The new scale spreads out a bit, becomes three dimensional, porcine. It starts to fold over itself, it looks like a gout ridden AJ Liebling stalking the brasseries of Paris. It may not be anybody’s idea of pretty, but it is a whole lot more interesting to be around.

Locating any particular spot on this scale is impossible after the fact. It is constantly moving. It remembers things, it has a history. It remembers drinking magnums of cheap malbec before you knew any better, it remembers that time you threw up on your friends door in college and your girlfriend cleaned it up because it was easier than being mad at you. It remembers that bottle of CRB you drank over puttanesca with your family after your grandfather got out of the hospital when he cheated death. No CRB will ever taste that good to anyone else, the scale knows this, unless it does taste that good to someone else.

The new scale drinks, the new scale eats, it doesn’t taste. Thousands of years of people sitting down and drinking wine with food aren’t to be taken lightly. It doesn’t fret too much about pairings. Good food cooked well with good wine and a bit of regional knowledge can go a long way. It doesn’t pretend to know what it’s talking about beyond what it likes. It tells friends and family, people who trust it, but figures other people can figure it out.

The new scale will eventually die. Living like Pantagruel will take its toll. It will keep smoking at the age of eighty after a stroke because it likes smoking, and what else is there to look forward to? Hospital food? We will have a proper Irish wake for the scale. Pay our respects, drink all night, cry, sing. Someone will confess undying love for someone else’s wife, someone will involve themselves in a fistfight with their brother because, well, sometimes that is just what brothers do. We will wake up hurt, still in disheveled jackets and dresses.

We will remember the scale fondly at first, but like all things we will forget. Sometimes we will remember, we will ask ourselves if in fact our mom’s chicken and dumplings is as good as our grandmother’s was, when she was alive, or if we’re merely being nostalgic. But we’ll forget that when we see her teaching our sister the same recipe, and maybe that recipe will be taught to her daughter and everything will make sense. We’ll remember what bread and wine tastes like, we’ll continue to fall into bed with our lovers after a meal, sated.
We’ll forget why we ever ranked these things in the first place, why we slogged through so much mediocre syrah as if quantity of experience could ever replace those moments when we got wine not as something apart, but part of.

~ by Cory Cartwright on August 12, 2010.

67 Responses to “The New Scale”

  1. Cory, this is fucking awesome, just fucking awesome!

  2. What do you think of this new approach to judging wines:

    The badge revolution has started. Hoping to see more bloggers jump on and help change the way wine is reviewed in the US. Here are two articles about the new way to judge wines:

    Great blog post from Josh Wade about badges: NEW POST: Changing the wine world one badge at a time – Is a scoring revolution beginning? http://ht.ly/2otGy

    http://pmabray.tumblr.com/post/909424557/badges

    Love to hear your thoughts.

  3. The best scale is The Three Stooges Wine Rating System. I’ve found it to be very effective in conveying a wine’s qualities.

    As a disclaimer, I’ve lost many brain cells imbibing with JD and Yaniger.

    http://the-stupids.com/wp/tasting-note-index/three-stooges-wine-rating-system

  4. I agree with Kevin.

  5. What Sharon said.

  6. outstanding post cory. fuckin’a

  7. Wine should always be about the moment. If you’ve drunk several bottles of the same wine over the years, one of those will stay in the memory more clearly where the others have faded into oblivion.

  8. The moment, yes! We drank a magnum of ’73 Bollinger when my older daughter was born in 1985, and it was lovely, and she remains so to this day. But no less exquisite was the ice-cold 16 oz Coors delivered to me on a hot afternoon in the middle of the Oakland Colosseum during a “Day on the Green” concert…

  9. Love it!

    Proposed my own alternative scoring system a while ago here http://www.simonwoods.com/2009/02/26/having-problems-scoring/

  10. Can we also stop the soul-sucking, WSET-influenced listing of aromas and flavors? I find them completely useless, and I feel like more often than not, they just lead to killing the actual real sensual experience of enjoying the wine. Before I lived in France I used to get into that stuff too, but then I saw that the French aren’t really into it. Some of them can be convinced to talk about it, but others start to get a headache as soon as you start talking about it. Now I feel that way too.

  11. Great post Cory.

  12. Yeah. What Kevin, Sharon and Manuel said.

  13. I taste in a Lab… we don’t believe in scores/scales either. And increasingly I agree with Nick — although not because the French do it; that’s never been a reason to do anything. Flavor descriptors remind me of residential real estate blurbs.

    I think Borges would approve.

  14. thank you for this, cory. seriously.

  15. I like this post and rate it something or other. But it won’t be a truly great post until Thomas Matthews responds in the comments.

    Nick, maybe our WSET experiences were different, but the grocery list wasn’t what they taught when I did the various programs. It was mostly about structure and the few objective things that can be gleaned via tasting, and in that regard quite useful from an analytic standpoint, even if the process leads to probably the most boring tasting notes imaginable…Coates minus his legendary sense of jocularity and whimsy. (Where’s that sarcasm emoticon…?)

    • Perhaps I ascribe that behavior to the WSET when I shouldn’t. There are certainly many who describe wine like that who’ve never had anything to do with WSET. But in my world, almost everyone has done it and they all talk like that. It starts to feel like an introdoctrination to me. They start thinking like that and then they can’t think about wine any other way.

      • That’s a shame. WSET-ish notes, properly conceived, are pretty boring to read unless you’re trying to actually analyze a wine from visual/organoleptic clues: “Moderate tannins. High acidity. Deep yellow color with only a slight fade to the rim. Medium-bodied. [here a fruit might be named, but it’s not necessary] Abrupt finish. Obvious alcohol.” And so forth. Not the fruit salad notes, which I’d lay at the feet of the people themselves rather than the WSET.

      • Generalization? I’ve done WSET, to learn, to network, to get certified. Don’t care how they teach about describing wine. I describe however the heck I think of the best way to convey the taste and the experience, with food. In the end, it hardly matters anyway, since everyone’s description and recommendation is only applicable to them. I do like the Kami no Shizuku way though… dreamy.

  16. (Wine) writing ain’t dead yet! Thanks for bringing hope back.

  17. Killer post Cory. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you

  18. Oh YEAH! love this post . . . enjoy your wine, your sex, your food, and your life in a true way without scores!@! Great post Cory!

  19. I agree with Linda.

    Goddamn, this piece is beautiful. If I were into ranking wine and fucking and really good blogs, I’d probably give it an 11.

  20. tonight, “value wine” in a tetra-pak is going to become fantastic wine when i break into the metropark and get naked with friends, swim in the lake and watch the meteor shower.

    is this the best possible moment to be in the wine world. my opinion is subjective.

  21. Thank you for that, Cory, from the bottom of my heart. As I’ve been wondering what to write next on my blog – and why – over the last few weeks, this piece is like a well-placed kick in the arse. What we write should make sense in real life. “500 wines rated” isn’t real life.

  22. Fine work, Cory.

  23. Thor,

    In the early days of my blog I had Matthews and sfjoe go at in the comments section of something, great stuff. Nice piece. David Lillie’s system back in his days at Garnett was “Great” “Really Fucking Great” and “Really Really Fucking Great.”

    • Mr. Matthews responded with an email defense of the Spectator and the 100-point system to something I wrote way, way, way back in the misty first few months I was writing about wine. A few months ago, he responded with the same defense to something my wife wrote on her company’s blog. She’s a technology analyst, mind you, not a wine writer. I thought the completed Circle O’ Life there was…interesting.

  24. Can I get an Amen!?

  25. i give this post a 87

  26. Amen!, Matt… amen, brother

  27. But how *do* I talk about a wine I’ve just tried? Or five of them, or 10, because I *do* go to tastings, and I like some more than others, and some in the middle, compared to all others. How to convey that? Did I like it? Yeah. More than any other wine ever? Naw! More than most?

    As soon as you answer that question, you are on the downward path to numeric ratings. Which are just a way of trying to be consistent. Compared to “Like it a lot/it was ok/myeh!/yuck/WOW! — which is a five-point scale, but with words.

    The wine you had while you were falling in love is an essay, and a beautiful one, perhaps – but it’s not a wine review!

    So what IS?

    I hear complaints, lots of them – I don’t hear anything approaching a solution. And I don’t think AJ Liebling is getting us there, either.

    This is not theoretical, because I write a wine-review column, and this question tortures me every day!

  28. This is beautiful and brilliant. Truly. Going to read it again first thing tomorrow morning … to keep my priorities straight.

  29. This is a fantastic post. I operate a small winery in Virginia and we write tasting notes on our wines. most are fairly standard — aromas, flavors, etc … — but for those rare moments when nothing else will do, I like to add things like “Serve only to your closest friends and family.” or “This wine pairs beautifully with the food that you make at home for people you love.” We tend to get some funny looks, but thankfully the vast majority of people get it, and those are the ones we like.

  30. Great post. I couldn’t agree more. On my own (very rudimentary) website — http://www.jacquelinefriedrich.com (aka http://www.thewinehumanist.com) — I try to make some of these points in my post called Slow Tasting: A Necessary Luxury (or Luxurious Necessity). No point scores. Just words. And I hope the reader also senses that context is key — something you’ve expressed beautifully.

  31. This post makes me thirsty, hungry and horny. Thanks Cory

  32. brilliant

  33. Nice post. Nice writing style. It’s nice when great minds think alike. Fuckin-A! ;-)

  34. Couldn’t agree more – thanks for putting it so excellently into words.

  35. Thanks everyone, and it’s good to see that there is so many folks out there who are sick to death of wine writing reduced to shelftalkers.

  36. chapeau bas, Cory, for a great post…

    did you hear that Suckling is going to make wine? How will he rate his own wine? it’s like an Escher painting no?

  37. bravo. as the kids would say, “FTW” – which i believe stands for “Fuck the World!”

  38. What so you mean, like, a scale of 1-10?

  39. Good work!

  40. […] “To me a 100-point wine is as good as it gets” – A Masked Bear who Works for Wine Spectator I’m standing there, in the kitchen as is more than often the case in my house, stirring risotto. My cat Henry is chasing things we aren’t able to see, ghosts or the such (either that or he is crazy, but the ghost explanation is much better for us pagan biodynamic winos) and my wife is sitting at the table, watching me stir. We talk about what transpired du … Read More […]

  41. Well (for a male) there’s apparently no such thing as a bad fuck, whereas there is such a thing as a bad wine. 84/100 for this article. ;)

  42. Just to make Thor Iverson happy, here’s my comment.

    As a heartfelt rant, I give this post 100 points. As a well-crafted piece of writing, I give it a 90. As a philosophy, I give it a 70.

    People make distinctions; it’s one of the qualities that makes us human. We make comparisons and we have preferences; rankings inevitably ensue. Georgio Vasari ranked the artists of the Italian Renaissance. Clement Greenberg ranged the Abstract Impressionists. Pauline Kael ranked movies. And Thomas Jefferson ranked Bordeaux chateaux. Are all these people idiots or humbugs? Okay, they didn’t assign numerical scores to their rankings. But once you admit to a preference, you are implying some kind of scale. Wine Spectator’s reviews simply specify the scale.

    When Cory says he has “never used any kind of ranking system,” does that mean he has never tasted two wines side by side, and liked one better than the other? Or had a ripe, fresh ear of corn and said to himself, “wow, corn just doesn’t get any better than that!” That would really surprise me. But maybe in his world, nothing is better than anything else, everything is groovy and we are all ok.

    I suppose that would be a pleasant place to live, for a while. But I would miss the debates and the stimulation of defending a preference. I think that the effort to make valid distinctions and justify them to others leads to learning, and progress and growth. But that’s just me, and I would only give myself an 89 in terms of my success so far.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  43. Great post Cory, you’ve stimulated an interesting debate and maybe more importantly, let us have a peek into your relationship with wine. Cheers!

  44. Love, love love this posting.
    Thank you for putting into words something I wish I could.
    And you get 5 bonus points for have Thomas Matthews comment as well.

  45. I just shat a brick, I think?

  46. I have never read your blog before, but it was brought to my attention by Talia on Facebook. What a poignant way to describe what I call, “The Love.” I could have never written so eloquently on this subject that I have failed miserably in describing to my enophilic, point-watching friends.

  47. this is simply lovely wine writing. thank you.

    scott

  48. My uncle used to say you could rate wine like this: Poor, Good, Damn Good .

  49. Any rating system that can be described as “porcine” gets my vote…;) Very well done!

  50. Thomas, Thor, Cory and the gang,
    There are some thoughtful ideas running through out the comments on this- Thomas, while I find what you guys do useful, I do think that it is possible to express preferences for things without reverting to scalar modalities. One can make distinctions between tastes or ideas without it. In music people often say “I like Bach, but not Brahms” without scaling the exact two pieces of music. Wine scoring reminds me of trying to “score” or evaluate numerically music or poetry (Jr. High anyone?). Distinguishing, categorizing and exploring flavors is great, as is relating wine to emotional experiences . . scores are harder to justify.
    Cheers,
    Ben

  51. Nice post, Cory. I hope the new scale has a masked mascot as well.

  52. Cannot really say more than has already been said but wanted to add my name to the list of admirers of this beautifully written and inspiring post. Lovely. Absolutely lovely.

  53. Love it, thanks Cory

  54. […] on a fine summer night, with friends, around a nice barbecue. That ranks pretty high along the new scale proposed by Cory Cartwright over at Saignée. The steak was great and paired well with the wine. We actually got exactly what was advertised in […]

  55. […] posts on this much-debated topic. Recently, Cory also wrote a wonderful, touching post called The New Scale. Read it. It’ll make you rethink the way you look at a 90-point wine, and how we all get to […]

  56. […] https://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/the-new-scale/ […]

  57. […] feel much closer to Cory Cartwright’s non-scale, as expressed in a beautiful blog post he wrote last August. Cory has been getting tired of categories and rigid evaluations of wine, and […]

  58. […] tiré d’une récente chronique du Wine Spectator. On peut penser ce qu’on veut de l’échelle de pointage proposée par ce magazine, on trouve ici un bon survol de ce qui sera offert dans la […]

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