Well… are they?
Some background: Wine critics generally use a 100-point scale when evaluating wines (I know most of you know this, bear with the exposition, people!). I don’t, because I think it implies a level of accuracy in evaluating a moving-target product (that can change within hours in the glass, let alone within years in the bottle) and so I (begrudgingly – hey, you asked for them!) use a “fuzzier” scale to evaluate the wine that I’m fortunate (and, ok, sometimes not-so-fortunate) enough to have cross my lips.
Generally, it’s assumed that many (probably most) wine critics reserve some part of their rating score for a wine’s color. For example, long-time Wine Spectator editor James Suckling once explained via video how he doles out his points when reviewing a wine, in which “things like color get 15 points.”
But is a wine’s color an important enough aspect on which to base 15% or so of one’s critical rating? According to a (very) informal poll I took recently via twitter and facebook, the answer is probably “No.”…
It’s not that color isn’t important – it is, as any hard core wine geek (like me!) should be more-than-willing enough to tell you.
The clarity of a wine (which is, in some sense, an aspect of its color) can give you a hint as to whether or not the wine is flawed (there are many, many exceptions to this, but generally spoogy gunk misting up your wine inside the bottle is a portent of bad things to come). Color can reveal a ton of info about any given wine for the truly geeky, most notably the general age of a wine (reds generally brick and get lighter with age, while whites generally darken and take on browner tinges) and maybe even the grape variety, given enough evaluation experience.
But the average Joe and Josette don’t seem to give much of a hoot about a wine’s color. Even those with modest wine experience (again, based on my totally non-scientific, gut-reaction twitter & facebook “poll” I took last week) seem to have clued in on the fact that a darker red doesn’t necessarily indicate a more robust wine, a lighter red doesn’t necessarily indicate a softer or fruiter wine, a lighter white doesn’t necessarily mean a more refreshing wine, etc., etc., etc.
Disclaimer: Yes, this crowd-sourced stuff is subject to the evil Fallacy Of Small Numbers, so I will spare you a list of the exact responses. But I’m not one to doubt the wisdom of the collective crowd when it comes to wine matters, particularly when that crowd consists of people who are wine lovers! In other words, this is not the be-all-end-all on the subject by any means, but it’s not something to casually dismiss, either.
Anyway… In the end, a wine’s color can be beautiful, even spellbinding, but not necessarily an indication of future olfactory or gustatory performance – and 1WD readers have garnered enough experience under their gustatory wine belts to be pretty certain of that.
And while there’s little doubt that a wine’s color gives real aesthetic pleasure – have you ever seen the color on a world-class Tokaji? it will positively blow your f*cking mind! – there’s certainly doubt to be casted on whether or not a wine’s color that pleases you will please anybody else. In terms of pure aesthetic pleasure, my wine color Picasso-Blue-Period might be your personal failed-art-student-water-color.
Part of the general lack of color-concern on the part of wine consumers is likely due to the level of filtering/clarifying/fining to which many wines are subjected now in order to achieve maximum clarity and luminosity. It can be argued – and is argued in the stunningly tasty results of cloudy wines such as Churchill’s White Port and the Natural Process Alliance’s Sauvignon Blanc – that too much of that processing robs a wine of some its more interesting characteristics. For better or worse, as wine drinkers we’ve accepted and established a wine-color standard (or, at least, we’ve let the most influential wine critics establish a standard), but like the current woeful state of airline travel service, or the proliferation of high alcohol fruit-bomb wines, this might not necessarily be the standard that we need.
As for me, after examining the wine visually for flaws, etc., I generally only note a wine’s color if it’s particularly stunning to me, and generally this doesn’t make or break a review/rating – aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and finish far, far, far outweigh the color in my reviews. In fact, my color-rating percentage is probably more like 2% or 5% in my wine-rating-fuzzy-math.
So it seems that a good portion of the 15% or so of valuable review point space is actually wasted on evaluating whether or not a wine’s color is up-to-snuff (at least when it’s measured on an informal standard), when the customers of those reviews – the wine-buying public – might not care the 15%-worth about it themselves…
Should our point-scoring critic friends save the 15 points and doll them out in other areas that matter more?
43 thoughts on “Are Wine Critics “Wasting” Points On A Wine’s Color?”
Joe, color is not worth 15% to me. As you stated, color should be noted for descriptive purposes, but does age showing in the hue mean more points? Or less? Do we penalize a wine for being young? Maybe the color, in relation to what's expected, is more to the point. A Petite Sirah you can see through might deserve fewer color points than one which is inky. The focus should really be on the aromas and taste, with color as a sidebar.
Thanks, Randy. You are echoing the sentiment of a LOT of the response I got on twitter and FB. I wonder this: what if some of those points went to aroma instead, would it have had meaningful implications? For example, woudl have made an 88 wine a 91 point wine, thus almost guaranteeing increased sales for that label?
The part that confuses me and makes me think the critics are lying to themselves about the 15 pt value of color is: What if the wine tastes and smells like the best wine they have ever had, but the color is off? Do they dock it to a 95? How about the opposite way, where a wine tastes quite mediocre, but gets up to an 89 because of color? Yet other wines of similar taste are scored 82?
I do think at that point it would be confirmation bias, in that if the wine tastes like a 100 pt wine, then the color all of a sudden is beautiful.
It doesn't make much sense to have color account for so much.
Rogersworthe – thanks, great point about the tail wagging the dog on the truly great wines and their colors!
Good flash of insight, Joe! Of course, I think points of any sort are terribly wasted on wine. You know how I feel: if we don't use points to rate books, films or works of art, why are points used for wine? Critics who believe the preposterous notion that you can put numbers on wine quality only play up to the insecurities of consumers, and themselves. Don't have to tell 1WineDude this, but if you're a writer and you want your readers to get smart about wine, then focus on talking about the wine, not numerically "rating" it. The sooner we all start doing this, the sooner consumers will learn to live without numbers.
This is an interesting post that I saw on my mobile before I got in the shower and read it through once I got to the office. Speaking of the shower, when I turn it on. I expect the water to come out completely colorless. If it is brown or greyish, I don't go near it until it clears because it is the sign of something amiss. The same applies to coloration in wine. As a critic I add only up to five points for color (from a baseline of fifty). I keep the impact of color to a minimum simply because technically well made wines generally have correct color and get that "5". Having said that, I recognize that a Pinot Noir from Joseph Swan (that you can read a newspaper through) IS the correct color. A brown tinge to a young wine, (be it red or white) is usually not going to be the deciding factor if the wine fails to be acceptable. It is however a warning sign that more flaws may lie ahead. If a writer actually does allocate 15 points to color, it severely limits the latitude in evaluating the far more tangible aspects of aromas, flavors and overall impression.
Doug, your comments only reinforce the absurdity of points, because you can apply the same thinking to any aspect of nose and palate sensations: there simply is no objective application in sensory analysis. Blind and double-blind conditions only excaberate the tendency to pigeonhole wines into mental sets of pre-assigned categories. Unique wines with terroir related attributes get sent packing, and the only wines that "stand out" are wines with higher degrees of certain attributes (more aroma, more body, more flavor, etc.). Quantity, not complexing quality, becomes the standard, and standards become narrower and, worse yet, oblivious to the notions of terroir or region, and distinctions originating from human/aesthetic choices.
This is no flash of great "insight" on my part, or anyone's. The French and Germans, for instance, have recognized this simple fact for years: this is why they divide things up by regions, not numerical ratings. You cannot rate a Middle-Mosel against a Pfalz or Rheingau Riesling just as you cannot compare a St. Joseph with a Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas or Crozes-Hermitage. But blind tastings in which numbers are applied would presuppose that all these wines are alike, which is why it's absurd to even attempt this excercise.
Numerical ratings are sadly, and embarassingly, reflections of how infantile our appreciation of fine wine still is. But simplyifying things in such a way so we can understand them, we only acknowledge what simple minds we have when it comes to wine. I don't know about you, but I hate to think of myself that way.
Thanks, Randy. People need to hear/read that sentiment more often. Me. I've grown tired of writing it…
Randy – thanks for chiming in, man!
Your comments highlight, for me, how pathetic wine ratings are generally – and I include my own crappy rating system in that assessment; I use it because people wanted something and I wasn't creative enough to come up with a better alternative!
Ultimately, ratings are of limited utility generally, but of potentially great help to the EDUCATED consumer. By that I mean the consumer who has educated themselves on a) what they like and don't like when it comes to wines and b) have sought out a critic or critics with whom their tastes seem to most closely align. In that scenario, ratings I think have a high degree of utility, assuming that the consumer is ok to stop there and doesn't want to learn more deeply about wine (it's my hope that my blog and other resources can help to move more people to that point of wine self-actualization, where they wouldn't need the crutch of points or any other ratings – or, at least use them as guidelines only and not as markers of true worthiness or of gatekeepers, etc.).
Randy, I wonder if you have ever been in a position where you were tasting say 3 wines, and you actually expressed a preference for one over the other 2? If you did, you've just implicitly given those 3 wines scores.
There is a distinct difference between the statements "this is good" (objective) and "i like this a lot" (subjective). Wine scoring is the latter, and is nothing more than a short-hand for enthusiasm. When Mr. Parker gives a wine 100pts it does not mean "This is very good!", it just means "Robert really likes this when he tasted it!" The fact that some may confuse the two is unfortunate, but does not change the logic.
As for the French and the Germans, they are scoring wines every hour of every day. In every bistro and weinhaus, when someone states a PREFERENCE of one wine over another, they have just implicitly applied different scores to those two wines …
As for movies, books, music and art, I suspect we don't like everything equally, and if we have favourites and preferences we've just applied a score to them too! The fuzziness of not ascribing a number to it might make us feel better about it, but does not change the fundamental logic of what we are doing.
I do want to know what 1WineDude like! As I do Parker and Jancis too. They are merely sharing their enthusiasm for different wines. Surely there is nothing wrong with that?
Thanks, Tai-Ran! Hope things are going well! I should note that I *try* very hard to limit the preferences and subjective aspects of my ratings, but I would never say that they do not exist and that they do not influence the ratings in some way even if it is small. Cheers!
Despite what some critics or wine publications may indicate in their "How We Score" statements, I suspect very few are actually calculating a certain number of points for color, aroma, etc. I've had many critics tell me — even ones who worked for Wine Spectator, etc. — that when they evaluate a wine, they just "know" from experience where that wine falls in the 100-point scale. As in: "This just tastes like a 92."
Hi Tina – totally appreciate what you're saying; in fact, it constitutes the vast majority of how I formulate my (pathetic) ratings, I just chose to use a scale that is fuzzier so as not to imply the process could ever actually have a high degree of precision. Cheers!
Critics have all of the flexibility that they can justify in apportioning credit for characteristics…
However in judging, say with the UC Davis 20pt scale, 2 points are awarded for clarity and 2 for color which is a pretty significant percentage. Is the UC Davis scale flawed for judging that so much weight be on appearance?
I personally do not require absolute brilliance, and some of the most interesting wines I have ever had, have not had the clarity that the marketplace expects. That said, I do wonder how the craft brew market has affected consumer perception of cloudy beverages.
That said the hue CAN tell us something about the wine before we even approach it with the nose or mouth…oxidation in whites is pretty obvious. In 'red' wines, the phenolic hues are red, blue, and purple…if your delicious Pinot Noir is anything but red, there may be an allowable percentage of something else blended in.
I drink wine.
I don't paint with it.
I don't dye my clothes with it (at least not intentionally.)
I don't use it to put on a fake tan, nor to color my hair. I drink it.
And color plays no role in the taste nor the aromatics. It should be at most, as one of the commentors said, a sidebar note.
Thanks, Erik – but theoretically you *could* dye your clothes with it. At least temporarily. :)
I certainly have done-in a number of jeans and shirts…pressing is a bloddy mess. It has make me thaink that if we could truly make it color fast, we should be whipping out wine-dye Grapeful Dead T-shirts.
:) And sell those t-shirts on ebay!
One word to describe why color is (with many big varietal reds) irrelevant: MegaPurple. Enough said… Color is a good way of telling something about a wine that has not been overly manipulated, though… And I am 100% with you on the Tokay…
RickTee – :). I always thought MegaPurple would be a good name for gum. Or a condom.
I'll guarantee you that you can smell and taste the difference when comparing a wine that is brown with another bottle of the same wine that has not turned that color…
But to be serious, the question is not "does appearance make a difference?" the question is, "should numbers be assigned to any aspect of wine?"
My answer: yes, for a technical evaluation; no, for an aesthetic one.
Another good topic, Joe.
The only thing that I would like to add is, how about the color on some of the top Rosé Champagnes? It can be one of the most beautiful sights ever in a glass, and certainly makes me thirst for a sip!
@fatcork – Alright, bro – do not push it! :) I like to quote my friend Mark Oldman on this, rose wine is often treated as guilty by pigmentation, but I woulda gree some of the roses can have beguiling colors.
Fun topic, Joe! I couldn't come up with a response that I liked in less than too many words, so I wrote a blog of my own in response. But, in brief: Half the overall points are wasted anyway and appearance is an important part of determining wine quality. So, 15 overall is reasonable.
For the longer version… http://norcalwine.com/blog/51-general-interest/59…
Thanks, Fred! I think in a lot of cases, the answer is "out of our asses!" :)
Bleh! Blind tasting was invented for a reason. I couldn't care less about the color (as long as it doesn't look like some disgusting sludge or some other sign of a clear wine). All the joy comes from taste and smell- Why waste points on something so pointless?
Hah!… I meant "some other sign of a clearly bad wine!" … this is what happens when I post comments after my bedtime Joe; I forget words! :D
Thanks, Matt – I would not necessarily call the color pointless, but your point is well taken in terms of the value and amount of those points devoted to it. Ok, no more gratuitous use of the word points in my response (whoops! :). Cheers!
Good post Joe. When I do trade tastings I love to to quote Master Som Richard Betts during one of his awesome seminars:
"Remember, people, that you can't taste or smell color!"
Clay – :)
Great post. I judge a number of major Calif wine competitions (S F Chronicle, Sonoma County Harvest Fair etc.) I've reached the point where I pay almost no attention to color. I've had light looking wines with low color intensity that knocked my socks off. I've had very dark wines that were totally lacking in varietal character. Perhaps the only color I notice is browning around the edge raising an issue of premature aging.
Thanks, Bob – I am at a *very* similar place when it comes to critiquing wines, in fact that is what spurred my mental juices to write this post…
Dude, as you know in the WSET Advanced and Diploma appearance only garners 2 points of which color is only worth 1 out of the total of 25 points for the rest of the parameters being assessed. So you how important it is.
Mark – great point; and a we know, I am a WSET convert. :)
This just in, my friend Alder Yarrow has chimed in on this very topic (thanks, bro!) over at the excellent Vinography.com: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2011/11/when_i…
Very much worth a read (and his response is certainly longer than would normally fit into a comment here – so go check it out already!).
DM WineLine has also chimed in! Read it at http://dmwineline.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/worth-… (thanks, Dave!).
Just getting around to seeing this post… and it occurs to me that you and I very clearly agree.
Evan – thanks for sharing that awesome story. Very interesting to see folks likeMolesworth basically saying that too much hooplah is made over color generally.
And very strange to see Suckling saying, "Well, others do it, so that makes it fine to give 15% to color." Not exactly a stellar argument…
Evan – Agreed. And when you combine that with the fact that many consumers – even wine-geeky ones – do not really seem to care all that much about color as a standard, then the argument for weighting color heavily loses even more ground. I doubt that it has made much of a difference for a large volume of wines, in terms of say keeping a wine from going above that magic 90-point threshold, for example – but it *could*…
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