The Problem with Numbers

As a frequent reviewer of beers and spirits, I have often been asked why I don’t adopt the system, ever-so-popular in wine writing circles, of scoring brands on a one hundred points scale. Usually, I’ll explain that I don’t think taste is as cut-and-dried as one or two percentage point differences, or point out that most reviewers only use 40% or less of their full scale, opting to effectively confine their rankings to between 60 or 65 and 100. (And so why not just use a scale of 1 – 40 or 1 – 35? I have no idea.)

Every so often, however, something will come along that clearly illustrates the perils of a 100 points scoring system much more effectively than I ever could, like this pair of reviews:

Oliverhill Petite Sirah 2007 – McLaren Vale, Australia

93 Points — Wine Advocate

The opaque purple/black 2007 Petite Sirah, is aged for 17 months in 20% new American oak hogsheads. The nose gives up notes of earth, mineral, cedar, and assorted black fruits. Full-bodied on the palate, the wine is rich, layered, and contains a boatload of ripe tannin that will require 10-12 years of cellaring for the wine to blossom. When it does, it should be sublime in the manner of a well-aged Ridge Vineyards Petite Sirah.

Jay Miller, #181 (Feb 2009) Price: $46.95

Illuminati “Riparosso” Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2008 – Abruzzo, Italy

89 Points — Wine Advocate

The 2008 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo Riparosso is a plump, juicy offering endowed with generous dark fruit and an inviting personality. There is a lovely richness and raciness to the fruit that flows effortlessly to the round finish. Readers in search of a delicious, entry-level Montepulciano will find much to admire. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2013.

Antonio Galloni, #189 (June 2010) Price: $12.95

So, on the basis of the numbers provided, I might deduce that for slightly more than one-quarter of the price of the high-rated bottle, I can enjoy a wine that is a mere 4% less worthy.

Is this an accurate interpretation of these two reviews? Likely not, but I can almost guarantee that won’t stop a lot of people from drawing the same conclusion, especially in these price sensitive times. Forget the differing characters of the wines, forget the growing conditions in the vineyards, forget supply and demand, forget every little element that goes into the production and pricing of a wine; 4% difference in quality is next to nothing , so why not buy the cheaper red?

And that’s why I don’t score by the numbers.

5 Replies to “The Problem with Numbers”

  1. I agree that we often focus too much on the numbers. I confess that my wine knowledge is not sufficient to distinguish between those two ratings (although I can discern enough from the reviews to know that they do not match my own tastes.)

    Unfortunately when you read some beer reviews/reviewers (the All About Beer panels are one that comes to mind) that give good technical descriptions of the flavours and such, but it can be hard to get a sense of whether or not they actually liked it, or if it is any good! A balance between the two typically provides the best results imho.

  2. I don’t like using numbers, or anything similar to that, either. It gives the impression that everything is measured with the same bar. Perhaps that’s not the intention of the reviewer, but that is what the readers get, because they will more almost invariably go straight to the numbers, etc, quite often without even bothering to read the review itself.

    To me a good review of anything is one that tells me what the reviewer liked/didn’t like about the, in this case, beer in question and tells me why. After that, I can make my own mind whether I would like to drink that beer or not in a much more informed way that just seeing a number.

  3. When I do score beers, I use 100 point system. And I really do use the whole range of numbers. Actually, more than the full 1 to 100. The highest score I’ve ever given was 130 (Courage Russian Stout) and the lowest -15.

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