BHW Discusses the 100pt Scoring System with Dr. Rusty Gaffney, The Prince of Pinot

 

Greg Martellotto

Let's talk about wine criticism and bias in tasting blind, versus tasting with a winemaker or with tech sheets. And also the 100 point system. We talked about, is there a perfect wine? You said you don't believe in perfection in anything, and that you like to keep your scores at 98.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Yeah.

 

Greg Martellotto

What are your thoughts on this, because I know you spend a lot of time, you rate wines?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, you know, when I started out, the first seven or eight years, I didn't give scores to wines. I just used the general, "good, very good, outstanding," summary at the end. My feeling then was, I wasn't good enough to give scores, because I didn't have enough experience. I really didn't have a feel for, how could you score wines? How could you put a number on a wine? I never felt comfortable with it.

And readers would tell me, "Well, you know, we can read between the lines in your reviews. We can tell which wines you really like, and which you don't." But then, they would clamor for scores. People want scores.

So, finally, around 2009, when I was sitting here, and I felt, well, I've got enough experience I think I can handle it properly. And, so then I started scoring wines.

But, you know, it torments me. It really does. It's so hard. I mean, I can tell the difference between an 87 wine and a 93 wine, that's easy. But it's like, when they get up into the low 90s, and a lot of wines these days are 90, 91, 92, 93. How do you? It's really hard to separate these things. It torments me sometimes.

Because I know that, like, you know, it's gotten to the point where if I wine is 90 and above, people pay attention. If it's scored less than 90, and even though the wine is good, and I mean, even an 88 or 87 wine is really good, it just doesn't follow the same interest for the consumer. They're used to that cut off, sort of.

 

Greg Martellotto

We took a complex, deep subject of wine, and dumbed it down to 100 point system. We dumbed it down by naming a handful of varietals that were relatively easy to put your arms around, to the exclusion of, really getting into the thousands of varietals that exist, and the real profound exploration of wine in general. Because it became a simple check mark, a number, that you would stick on the bottle, and I wonder if we need to, sort of come back from that. That maybe this is what the arc of a maturing wine society looks like.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, I wrote about this, this past year. I wrote an article, “Is scoring outdated? Has it lost its usefulness? Or is it losing its usefulness?”

As I talk to my sons, that are Gen X, Millennial, they don't know anything about scores. They don't pay attention about scores. They look on the social media sources. They talk to their friends. They don't even know about wine critics that much. So, there is some change in that regard.

But wineries still depend on very high scores for marketing. And they will send their wines out to several reviewers. And whoever gives them the best scores, those are the scores that they post. And, it's a powerful marking tool, and wineries depend on it, and they use it.

But I'm just wondering, long term, whether it has the same importance to the consumer that it once did?

 

Greg Martellotto

Well, and you did a really interesting thing to, you went back, and reviewed, after 16 to 24 months, a couple dozen wines, that were sent to you upon release. And you had a second bottle to re-review those wines. And you compared your scores to then and now.

And I thought that was very interesting. And essentially it came out about 50/50. Right? 50 were about the same, and 50% were-

 

Rusty Gaffney

Either a little better or a little worse.

So, it shows you the variability. There's a lot of variability.

When I taste wine, and pinot noir is particularly difficult. Chardonnay is pretty easy, because you open chardonnay, it's pretty much like it's going to be when you open it. Sure, the really great chardonnays can change over time, you might find more interesting, after they've been opened.

 

Greg Martellotto

Pinot noir is a roller coaster.

 

Rusty Gaffney

But you open it up. And usually, it's been in barrel for a long time, and then in bottle. Usually, all of the sudden, a lot of that oak influence comes to the front. And you need hours for that to go away.

If you're just popping the cork, and you're tasting pinot noir, based on that one point in time, it's not a real fair evaluation of the wine.

What I try to do, is I'll retaste the open bottle later in the day. Just before dinner, I'll take a sip. The wines that were good, and we'll see. And then, a lot of times I'll taste it the next day too. And I think that's the only fair way you can do it.

And even that, I had a reader, I gave somebody some pinot noir. This guy said, "I'm annoyed."  

I opened it, and this was just recently, it didn't do much for me, I didn't like that much. So I put it aside, and I tried it the next day, and it was marvelous. And the next day, it was still marvelous. And that's pinot. They can do that.

 

Greg Martellotto

Have you compared your scoring to other critics?

 

Rusty Gaffney

I have done that. Yeah.

 

Greg Martellotto

What did you find?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Pretty much in alignment, although once in a while out of alignment, they'll score really high, I won't.I don't really like a lot of oak on wine, on pinot. If oak, if that comes to mind, when I'm tasting a wine, it usually is a turn off for me.

I mean, pinot loves oak. You need some oak, generally. If you taste pinots that are made completely in neutral oak, they can be good they're fruity, but they just don't quite have the complexity.

 

Greg Martellotto

The 10-40% new oak is the sweet spot?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Right. And I noticed that, some reviewers, that doesn't seem to bother them. They don't even respond to their review.Chocolate, toast, espresso, you know, all these things that come with oak. Those should never be in a review of pinot noir, a good pinot.

Wines that are bold, full-bodied, fruity, big, some reviewers can find those very attractive. Which I don't.

 

Greg Martellotto

Right, right.

 

Rusty Gaffney

So, but the problem you have in reviewing wine is we all have our stylistic preferences.For me, I like elegance. I like silkiness. I like energy in a pinot. I like alcohols that are 13.5, 13.8. I don't want to taste wines that are 14.5, 14.6 and when I’m tasting my lip burns a little bit. I know that's probably more than 15% alcohol. I don't really like that.

I see high scores for some of those wines.

 

Greg Martellotto

Right.

 

Rusty Gaffney

So, I think every reviewer is a little bit different. And, we've compressed the 90 point scale so much, that we're really talking about 85 and above. We rarely get wine that scores less than 85. 

 

Greg Martellotto

This goes back to the validity and/or the value of the 100 scoring system in this day and age, and if it's, given its imperfection, in the chase for perfection, what would be a possible replacement?

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, that's the way I ended this article I wrote. What are we going to do to replace it? What can we do? I don't know. I don't where it leads.

 

Greg Martellotto

I think what we're seeing maybe with younger people too, is more of an interest and alignment of values among the producers. So, that's where I think some of the natural wines come into play. Some people who are concerned about organics and the environment are more inclined towards wines that hang a banner of natural.

And I think that's one step. The other step is, as you mentioned, appreciating certain appellations and vineyards and producers within those regions. And then, I think there's probably something to be said for, as you mentioned, this winery where your son works, the marketing, and what's happening.

And then you ask, well, does that mean the loudest voice wins? Or the most wild marketing antics. Which concerns me.

 

Rusty Gaffney

Well, like I told you, my impression is, the winery, which is very popular where my son works, the people come there, they're not really fed a lot of score information. And, they don't really ask about it. They're looking for the experience.

They love wine. If the wine is good, they're going to be happy. They're looking for the experience that goes along with that.

 

Greg Martellotto

Right, right.

 

Rusty Gaffney

And I think, if we can emphasize that, rather than have somebody on the tasting book saying, "We'll so and so gave this wine 93." I don't know, I think that's not the way to do it.

 

Greg Martellotto

Yeah, I just wonder how 2500 pinot producers become distinguished and identified. Differentiation. Because that's a longer, deeper conversation, the experience. It's not the world we live in, which is sound bytes and limited attention.

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