Monday, September 12, 2011

Steve Heimoff's Matrix

The world is not as it appears. It's made up; it's code, numerals, digits, numbers like those used in computer coding actually make up our world. The sensory world of wine is otherwise a myth, a fabrication.

Agents in suits, older white guys mostly, make sure that these numbers are put into place and that they stay in place. We cannot escape the 100 Point Matrix...

I say all this because of something I came across on the Hedges Family Estate Facebook page. It was reference to a blog post by Steve Heimoff, a wine writer of some repute who's authored both books and written for the Wine Enthusiast with a focus on California wine. As a writer for one of the three major wine publications (all with Wine as the first part of the title, which isn't the most creative naming strategy, but it certainly gets the point across), Steve is in many ways a large part of the 100 pt institution. Steve is also a "blogger," though how up to to date he is about "blogging" is in some doubt as he refers to individual posts as "blogs," as in "check out my new blog about..." Anyway the folks at Hedges had linked to a recent "blog" of Steve's where he took them to task for their movement; the Score Revolution. From there, Steve defended the 100 point system. He used the efforts of the folks at Hedges with their ScoreRevolution movement as a means to assert his heroism in the relation to maintaining the dignity of the 100pt scale. You think I use the term "heroism" lightly, but Steve included the graphic of a little superhero guy and refers to himself as Super Scoreman.

The ScoreRevolution piece is an effort on the part of Hedges Estate, driven by Christophe Hedges, to get away from scores altogether and get back to tasting wines that reflect the place that they're grown, the terroir. As a part of this effort (and really as a brilliant marketing strategy) Hedges has also created a "manifesto" or pledge for folks to sign in support of moving away from 100pt wine scores, or in the case of publications, that they're committed to not scoring wines by assigning them a number. (In the interest of full disclosure we have signed this manifesto. Ironically, there's a blog that signed it that also continues to use point scores when they review wines.) I am not a fan of the 100 point wine scale but I also recognize the reality that it currently occupies. It has become an enormous part of the wine lexicon, and unfortunately so in my opinion. I also recognize that winemakers and wineries know the importance of these score in selling wines to the general public.

I don't like the 100 point scores for the same reason I don't like books on tape, or these days, mp3 (I suppose books are now on mp3). I think the rating, which I understand to be an attempt to categorize wine based on overall quality, steals from the experience the way a book on tape steals from the experience of reading a book. It encapsulates all that a wine is or can be to the drinker in a number. ( I also think this is very much the point that the folks at Hedges are trying to make.) I do know that people are inherently lazy and prefer to have things encapsulated for them, often the way they prefer books on tape, or these days, mp3.

I don't rate wines as a wine blogger. I talk about wines, winemakers, wine events and ways I've enjoyed wine. I'll even recommend wines based on the price point in the Friday Find series. Not a rating to be found. I don't rate wines because I'm not really an authority as far as I'm concerned. I know what I like but I don't know what you like.

So this piece is not about scores, but rather about a philosophical stance. This stance is summarized in a tanget that Steve Heimoff went down, though he might not be aware. In his post he begins by addressing and, unfortunately, deriding, the people who have signed the manifesto. It's done in such a way that it comes across as juvenile and petty. He names some of the people he knows and either insults them or dismisses them. What most leapt out at me however was his handling of Kermit Lynch, the wine importer of some repute. This is where he constructs the Matrix.

Heimoff wrote (read the whole post or "blog" here): Kermit Lynch. He’s the famous Berkeley wine merchant and importer. Kermit doesn’t use scores, but his newsletter–one of the most entertaining in the English language–certainly doesn’t shy away from hype. Here’s a made-up typical one: “I’ve tasted a lot of Sancerres in my 30 years, but this is the greatest ever.” That’s kind of like a 100 point score, don’t you think? And then sometimes Kermit’s newsletter will say something like, “Won’t set the world on fire, but it’s great on typicité and price,” which is more or less an 86. So the emperor’s house is made of glass, I’m afraid." Heimoff makes an extraordinary leap without seeming to bat an eye. What he's concluded is that one cannot talk about wine in a descriptive, hyperbolic or romantic way without really just referring to scores. And that's just not correct.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the aspect of Heimoff's stance that I most take issue with. While I don't care for the point system, I acknowledge it. I get daily emails hyping a "93 point Syrah for a song" because it's an easy marketing tool for wineries and retailers, it's a "standard" that folks can use to rate quality. Regrettably, it's ubiquitous and for its shorthand purposes, it does the job and I get that. What Heimoff did in the above quote is either piss poor argumentative writing or he just went and made a religion out of the 100pt score. He built the Matrix.

This is crazy, it's bullshit and he's gone too far. In fact, I would imagine in a moment of clarity he would have to admit that. To assert that you cannot talk about wine without really talking about the 100pt scale that Parker created is poor logic, particularly when you don't go on to give any reason for that assertion. A sound logical argument requires two things, a premise which gives reasons, grounds or evidence for accepting that second thing: the conclusion. The conclusion in well structured argument is established on that premise, or premises. A standard example given in logic is "A bachelor is an unmarried male of marrying age. Bob is an unmarried male of marrying age. Therefore Bob is a bachelor." Steve's argumentation is "Kermit Lynch uses adjectives when he talks about wine. Therefore he's really talking about 100pt scores and he's being disingenuous about it."

We don't have to agree on the place 100pt scores do or should hold with the wine drinking public. We are free to disagree with the folks at Hedges or call them romantic idealists. We can assert, and convincingly so in some cases, that the 100pt scale is the best possible shorthand wine rating system that currently exists. (Despite his title which declares that I'm full of crap he makes good points. I do think Josh is way off here in asserting that it's human nature to rate things. He simply asserts it, never proves that point, rather just gives examples of how he does it.) We can disagree with Steve Heimoff and the guardians of the 100pt Matrix. We can hold onto the dream that people will look beyond the shelf talker and read the tasting notes, or ask the wine steward to find a wine that reflects a certain place, whether that's the Mosel, Burgundy or Red Mountain. (We can similarly hope that public library use will go up and television watching will go down.) What we cannot do, however, is just make shit up to defend our stance or style of writing and take ourselves seriously when we do. Nor can we expect anyone else to.


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well said! i, too, shook my head at the "leap," ("That's kind of like a 100 point score, don't you think?") for at that moment it was clear how thick his 100 point wall was. while we did not sign the manifesto, we've always believed from the day we planted our vineyard, it has to be about the place, the people, and the wines it/they produce (a.k.a. no purchased grapes, ever!); something that can not be captured in a score.

the grande dalles

Thanks for the post on an all-too-important topic. This subject continues to evolve and I like the fresh take you have on it. In your analogy it seems Neo is the wine consumer, and traditional media is the Agent Smith's of the wine world. They're everywhere and you will obey or you'll get a roundhouse kick to the chops.

Not sure it's fair to pick on Steve. He is, after all a contrarian journalist who loves to say one thing but do another. Steve's one of the biggest critics of why social media will fail in the wine industry, but then uses social media to push out the message.

The 100 pt. model, like its creators (the Architect aka traditional media) can hear the fat lady warming up. You won't find bigger defender of the 100 pt. scale than the traditional media generation who created it. Mr. Heimoff is part of that generation.
If there was one single 100 pt model that was a standard it might prolong the inevitable, but the Oracle has already spoken and Neo knows the new generation of wine drinkers want to be free from the Matrix. The Millennials are like the people in Zion dancing around at like they're at a rave because they know they can finally think for themselves rather than have someone tell them what they should think about a wine.

Thanks for your comments Rick. And thanks for further illuminating my analogy. I don't know if there is necessarily a better way to "rate" wines but I do hope that as people learn about wines they'll look beyond those digits on the shelf talker. As for Steve, I just wish he had taken the time to explain to all of us the conclusions he had drawn instead of assuming we'd read his mind, and actually got it, in that post, er blog, whatever.

THere are simply so many holes in the 100pt scale system that much of the discussion has boiled down to "like it" or "don't like it." Steve's foaming-mouth defenses stand apart from most, however, in both the tone and hypocrisy. After all, his 100pt scores, no doubt achieved through honest blind tasting and earnest descriptions, are then used to create a marketing guide that poses as a "buying guide," replete with paid advertisements (label repros) that are portrayed as pure editorial.

As I have said often, it is *abuse* of the scale that has ruined the system, for critics and consumers primarily, with the trade still managing to wring some superficial utility out of it via POS and advertising.

Along with expanded abuse, we have obvious grade inflation, disingenuous cherry-picking (Wines Til SOld Out and in particular) and perhaps most important of all, continued diversion of attention via ratings away from what matters most, which is finding ways to guide people toward wines they will like. Numbers fail miserably at that task these days.

I see Clive's point about not knowing if there is necessarily a better way than 100pt scale. In fact, given the incalculably large pool of wines out there, there may never be a functional uber guidance system possible any longer. But going old-school and trusting a mentor/friend/retailer who can actually guide one to specific wines and keep style, context and value at the forefront is not such a terrible fallback. May well be the only defensible "system" moving forward.

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