88 points in Wine Spectator? Who cares?
I'm sorry, Ben Parsons, but...
I don't really care that you and Infinite Monkey Theorem landed an 88 from Wine Spectator.
In no way do I mean to negate the accomplishments of Infinite Monkey Theorem, the urban winery on Santa Fe Drive. The place makes good local wine. It has a nice patio. Parsons has a charming accent. For all of these reasons and more, I want it to stick around.
But in general, wine ratings suck, and I'd like nothing more than for the whole system to be abolished so that I never have to see a shelf tag touting a particular wine's score -- from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker or some other (and much more fringe) publication -- ever again.
I didn't always disdain such scores. In fact, I did and still do faithfully subscribe to Wine Spectator, and I used to spend many an evening paging through the print and online score guide, making a wish list of bottles to purchase, based solely on the wine landing a 90 or higher and costing $40 or lower. And when, inevitably, I couldn't find a single selection on my carefully honed list at local liquor stores, I'd check for anything that displayed those shelf tags, choosing the 90+ product on the spot. I was a real d-bag about it, too. "This got a 92 in the Spectator," I'd say with a terrible wink as I poured splashes for college-aged guests who were just there to get hammered.
But one night a couple of years ago, I hosted a dinner party at which my twelve guests started the night clinking glasses of sparkling over foie gras and ended the evening pulling straight from the last bottle of a half case of Chianti. One of my favorite buyers in the city had helped me choose that particular wine, finding, on my request, a food wine that promised to be different from what I normally drank. And in what I'm sure was an entirely fair and balanced assessment, that group of friends and I came to the drunken conclusion that the Chianti was the best wine any of us had ever had.
So the next day, I pulled up the Wine Spectator score, confident that I was about to be personally validated for my excellent taste. Nope. The wine got a 77. As in "This wine sucks, you idiot."
I was crushed. I have no palate, I thought. I'm no different than my friends who are completely content drinking wine out of the box.
Except here's the thing: That Chianti was a good wine. I can't remember what it tasted like, smelled like, whether there was the telling sign of cherry on the nose or the proper tannen on the palate. But we had one hell of a good time drinking a half case of it, thinking it was the best wine ever, and that's pretty much all that matters.
That's what the scores miss. Wine is about context: food, friends, occasion and our own palates. It doesn't matter how high a classic California Cabernet scores; I'm almost never going to choose it over something medium-bodied from Italy or France. I like high-acid, old-world wines that match with food. That's my palate. And I don't need a score to tell me what I like.
Which brings me to another point: I love Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a pretty, delicate, floral red that's only made by a few Italian producers. But most bottlings of the wine probably wouldn't have been rated by Wine Spectator to begin with. Did you notice how Parsons got his Palisades-sourced Rhone-ish blend considered in the first place? He had to submit his own samples, and then the publication arbitrarily chose from submissions to review. Which means big wines from big regions get the most play, so much so that a lot of small producers don't even bother submitting. When you buy by scores, you're cheating yourself out of the truly unique little vintners that make kick-ass juice.
What's the alternative? Descriptions work better (that's why I still subscribe at all), a good merchant or sommelier even better than that. The best wines I've ever had came from someone who knew what I liked and pushed me to try something. That's how I found that Lacrima. That's how I first tasted the Infinite Monkey Theorem's wine.
Wine's a conversation. And that score? Just a charged, sucked-in breath between sentences.