Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A(nother) Word On Suckling Points

Had James Suckling had been my high school teacher, I would've gone to Harvard.

In my 2018 year end wrap up, I wondered if critics playing fast and loose with points would devalue the 100 point scale. I also pointed the finger at Mr. Suckling who, for the record, knows his way around the wine world far better than I ever will. Despite swearing that I would no longer be tempted by affordable wines adorned with heaps of points, I fell sucker once again this week. This time the siren was Cline's 2017 Sonoma pinot noir, on sale for $15 and wearing a 93 point shelf talker.

To be clear, any producer bringing a drinkable California pinot to market for under $20 is okay in my book. Hat's off to Cline because that's what they've accomplished here. But 93 points is attention-getting and, as much respect as I have for Cline Family Cellars, a laughably high award. It's a serviceable wine. Nothing less, nothing more.

With yet another example of a wine bearing an overly generous rating from Mr. Suckling, I decided to look a little closer at his grading. First, I went to his website for an explanation:

"We rate wines using the 100-point scale...A wine rated 90 points or more is outstanding (A). A a wine rated 95 points or more (A+) is a must buy. A wine rated less than 88 points might still be worth buying but proceed with caution...We don’t recommend spending your money on anything rated lower than that."

There are some typos in this section, so some meaning may have fallen through the cracks.  As it reads, that's not a 100 point scale, but more like a 12 point scale - and one on which everything is wonderful. What a wonderful world that must be.

Next, I went looking for comparative data. Many online retailers allow you to filter by scores (further evidence at the power of points), so I ran some searches and filtered down to a couple of hundred wines rated 93 points or more by Mr. Suckling. How do his scores compare to those of other major reviewers? Nine out of ten time his ratings were equal to or higher than ratings from other outlets (including Wine Spectator, Decanter, Wine Advocate, Vinous, and Wine Enthusiast.) Translated to his 100 point scale, that's an "outstanding" feat.

If it were 30% or even 50% percent of the time, you might think he's an eternal optimist, but 90%? You could reasonably wonder if there isn't a game of one upmanship at play. Or perhaps its just an attempt to differentiate in an increasingly crowded marketplace. As already mentioned, high points are attention-getting and clearly they work to move product. Regardless, even if only by this simple observation, 90% is far from occasional. In fact, it's very much the opposite.

Which brings us to a question that could be uncomfortable: which master does a wine critic serve, the producer, the consumer, or themselves? This points-like-candy-on-Halloween trend also makes me wonder if other publications will follow suit and adjust their scale to a similar curve.  We shall see.  In the meantime, no more getting lured in by points. For real this time.



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