Several months ago I wrote a little piece called "No Points, No Stars." In it, I argued that both star and point rating systems have major flaws. It is more useful to describe wines the way we describe most everyday things and experiences, with simple adjectives. Everyone understands what "very good" or "fair" means. Adjectives give the reviewer more flexibility to express his or her true feelings, especially for wines that are unique or less conventional, such as many natural wines.
All of the tasting notes on this site were converted from a star system to a small number of adjectives (see sidebar, left). After using this system for several months, it seemed to work fairly well for the majority of wines. Yet, there were still bottles that seemed hard to classify. These wines mainly fell into two mutually exclusive categories - "natural" wines and wines that seem to have been excessively processed or manipulated, lacking true character or a sense of place.
In the case of some natural wines, the very act of putting a label on the wine (even if the label is something as innocuous as "very good") seems wrong. As my daughter is fond of saying, "Labels are for boxes," and some natural wines just don't fit in boxes. How, for instance, do you rate a wine that has the most expressive bouquet you have ever experienced, but is not a heavyweight, full of flavor? Using the Parker rating system, this wine could only be rated "very good." But wouldn't such a result be totally at odds with common sense? How does a critic feel when he or she slaps an "89" score or a "very good" label on a wine he or she cannot forget?
I have run into this problem on several occasions. In most cases I have decided to give the wine a rating. However, in a few cases, such as the Alain Ducroux Beaujolais, a label seemed out of the question. His wines sometimes seem to transcend categorization.
Wines that have been overly processed and manipulated or lack a sense of place can also be hard to rate. These wines, unlike natural wines, seem to benefit from a conventional scoring system, where the wine's rating is simply the sum of parts. If the wine has good color, a strong bouquet, deep flavors and good balance, it will get a good score. It doesn't really matter if the wine was micro-oxygenated, de-alcoholized and centrifuged to achieve this result. It doesn't matter that the wine has no character, no soul. It does not matter if you cannot determine what kind of grape was used to make the wine or where the wine came from, so long as the sum of the parts equals "90." Some of the wines I have tasted this year, such as the Chateau Potensac 2008 fall into this category.
A rating system that does not allow for exceptions is probably destined to be fraudulent. Wines can be shaped and formed to take on the semblance of great wine, even if they lack the character of these wines. Given an "every wine can be rated" philosophy, many of these bottles will score very well. Conversely, wines that lie outside the mainstream will suffer in any rating system, since they are too individualistic. Is it just coincidence that Robert Parker never evaluates sherry, wines of the Jura, "Orange wines", etc.?
The way to allow for some flexibility in a rating system is simply not to rate some wines, to acknowledge that not all wines can be pigeonholed, that one's true feelings about a wine cannot be expressed in a simple number or even an adjective. Wouldn't it be wonderful to open an issue of the Wine Advocate and spot the two simple words "not rated" next to the description of a wine, instead of "87 - 89?"
On this site, wines that don't fit within the typical range will not longer be "rated" with summary adjectives. There will be no more false "objectivity."