During one of my many recent Left Coast jaunts, I had a rather disturbing conversation with a California winemaker over dinner. It’s a conversation that haunted me for weeks afterward, until I could catch up with that particular winemaker (who needs to remain anonymous for reasons that should become obvious very quickly) and get more detailed information on the topic that we’d discussed.
The short version of the story is that the winemaker with whom I spoke referenced a matrix he’d developed that set qualitative and quantitative targets – for color, extraction, sugar levels, tannin, taste profiles, etc. – for achieving specific scores from specific U.S. wine critics.
Not a wide ranges of scores, but in some cases, targeted score ranges that were quite narrow (between three or four points).
While the matrices began innocuously enough – as reference points for achieving certain styles or quality levels of wines more quantitatively – in some cases they morphed into tools meant to target specific scores from certain critics for marketing purposes. And this winemaker hinted that such matrices / formulas were and are fairly common tools in terms of fine winemaking in California.
Apparently, certain characteristics are almost guaranteed to get you a better chance at a particular score from particular critics. There are companies that will do similar analysis and – for a fee that is apparently not unsubstantial – will tell you when (harvest timing, etc.) and how (extraction, manipulations, etc.) to make your wine, based on that analysis, complete with target score ranges in major wine publications…
Here’s what my source told me specifically:
“Think of the original analysis matrix of the consultant winemaker, like a Paul Hobbs… you hire them to make your wine, they have all this experience in their head, they’ve done it over and over again so they know what to do in the winery and in the vineyard in order to get the results that they want. You can use that to try to get better every year, or use it to try and get a score. The trouble with trying to get a score is that it’s not just analysis and taste with scores, it’s also politics. It’s relationships. And that’s another factor. So as a winemaker I’ve always said, let’s get three or four wines as our benchmark set, our competitive set, taste those wines and score them blind, and then analyze them so that we have both qualitative and quantitative reference points. And then when I make a wine for you, as long as it falls into those parameters then we know we’re going in the right direction. Otherwise there’s no [internal] way to measure it.”
So how did this winemaker’s matrix work out? Pretty well, from a score perspective:
“What I did is a mini version of that matrix, with twelve Cabernet wines. We went through every wine, we did all the chemistry on the wines, we did oak aroma analysis. You can measure the oak aroma compounds in each barrel that you use. Basically, after about a year doing that matrix, we found commonalities, trying to be in-between 93 and 98 points. We found that there’s a certain color that seemed to be favored by the critics; there’s a certain level of tannin that seemed to be favored by the critics; there’s actually a certain level of sugar that seemed to be favored by the critics. And I actually got a 92 and a 95 [from a major U.S. wine critic]!”
Think about that for a minute or two.
What it means is that you can allegedly aim for scientifically-testable and chemically measurable levels of color, sugar, extraction, oak, etc., that will (statistically, presumably) increase your chances of getting a rating – within a few points margin of error – from the wine critic / publication of your choice.
The matrices have been tailored over time, apparently, for specific critics:
“One of the things we tried to do is isolate wines above 90 points from both Spectator and The Wine Advocate. Some people prefer Wine Enthusiast, some prefer wine blogs like yours. It depends on your audience. You have to figure out who’s your consumer and who you want to be scored by. And making sure you’re keeping up with the Joneses in your competitive set.”
There are several interesting (read: scary) implications here:
One is that the subjective preferences of certain critics (myself included) / publications are probably fairly consistent in what they’re looking for in wines, and those preferences might have a not insignificant impact on the rating that they give to a wine.
Another is that those subjective preferences can be measured quantitatively – and likely manipulated – from a winemaking perspective, if you have the patience and resources to exploit them.
Finally, it lends credence to the oft-cited but never fully proven notion that the world’s high-end, high-scoring wines have converged onto a predictable aroma, taste and texture profile.
I’ve seen fields, vast fields, Neo, where high-scoring wines are not born… they are **made**… [ Insert your own wine-related The Matrix joke here. ]
Personally, I’d love to turn the tables on this by getting involved in an experiment in which wines are systematically manipulated to get particular scores from particular critics, and then publish the results. That’s the kind of report that would really get the wine-critic-bashing media whipped up into a yeasty fermentation-like frenzy. But then, I suppose we don’t need the bad publicity at this point…
Anyway… The driver in almost all uses of the matrices is (unsurprisingly) sales, according to my source:
“If you’re two thousand cases and you sell out right away, then you probably don’t need to worry about it. You can make the wine you want to drink. But if you’re above two thousand cases, then you have to find a way to measure what you’re doing. It’s all sales. How do you sell 100,000 cases when competing with wines from all over the world? Unfortunately it’s become a global market driven by scores. Some places won’t let you sell your wine there unless you have a score above 90 points.”
It’s like wine-to-order for a score-to-order! I feel like the wine world just told me to go f—k myself!
But if you find the concept disgusting as a wine lover (I know that I do), then go look in the mirror; we should be blaming retailers, importers, and primarily ourselves as consumers for this sad result. It’s simply a matter of good business, and fine wine is, after all, a business. Back to my source:
“It all comes down to wine education. The wine industry is super young, by hundreds of years, when compared to Europe. We’ve come a long way, but a lot of people are still seeing wine as a special occasion thing. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what publication you’re using, but the score has become the way that a consumer thinks they are differentiating a good wine from a bad wine. I’ve seen these matrices used in different ways; I think they’re important, because otherwise you become stagnant in your own style. But trying to use them only to get scores, you don’t properly factor in the other things that might also be important.”
I realize that there are counter arguments to all of this. Wines just get high scores because they are of higher quality, for example. Or this one: scores aren’t just the convenient-but-flawed shorthand, consumers actually really want them. The trouble is, I don’t fully buy it. The situation isn’t black and white; anyone who’s spent any time whatsoever tasting fine wines knows that high quality wines can get high critical scores but sometimes do taste the same; or that some styles/grapes/regions always seem to be perennial also-rans when it comes to the high scoring department, despite those wines being high quality and beguiling to us geeks. Those underdog wines just seem to not ‘fit the mold’ of ‘deserving’ a higher score – and that might be simply because they don’t fit into the matrix profile.
Enter an eerie robotic voice: “We value wine diversity… wait… you are different… the matrix rejects you!”
The most disconcerting potential implication of all is that we place so much importance on something – ratings and coverage – that can be so easily manipulated.
Don’t like it? Neither do I (obviously). Keep wondering why only certain styles of wines get the big points from critics while other styles are perennially underrated?
Then maybe you should stop buying high-scoring “matrix” wines based strictly on points or any other single judgment taken out of its context. Maybe you should learn to continually develop and trust your own tastes, and act on that wine-buying confidence, voting for what you consider to be the unique gems of the wine world with your wallet. And the geekier among you, who have already hit that point of independence in your vinous buying habits, should as much as reasonably possible encourage others to develop the same level of independence…