Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The 89 Project gets noticed

Our own 1WineDude seems to have started the trouble with his post, The Trouble with Wine Ratings. The article is a fairly even-handed description of the weaknesses of the 100-point system. Then a funny thing happened. One of the guys who makes a living using the 100-point system took offense. Please note, I do not know Steve Heimoff, he is probably a delightful fellow, and by his own admission he was cranky and hungover when he wrote his article. That said, it was a pretty typical lashing out by traditional print media at bloggers. Mr. Heimoff completely misunderstood what the Dude was writing, and that misunderstanding formed the basis for the attack:

1WD concludes by bashing — not us critics — but the consumers who like and trust us.... Then, astonishingly, he announces that he and some other bloggers who are fed up with the 100-point system are launching their own, alternative wine rating system, “The 89 Project.” It purportedly will take wines that the rest of us critics give 89 points (which is famous in the industry for being the kiss of death because it’s not 90) and have the members of the 89 project review them.

This is a little like rifling through the stuff celebrities throw out in their recycling bins to find something valuable or saleable. Or maybe I’m just cranky and hung over this morning because the airport experience has really funked me out and I’m in a bad mood. Anyhow — the wannabe wine critics out there are better advised to find something more constructive to do than bash the 100-point system. It’s not a career builder.

The Dude responded, pointing out:

If you take a look at the 89 Project home page, you'll find that its charter is to try to bring exposure to the wines that fail to meet a 90 or above score in the 100 point scale - these wines are perennially doomed to lower sales figures, because consumers consider the 1 point difference between a 90 and an 89 score to be substantial (but probably not so for a 93 vs. a 94).

So, this is *not* an alternative rating system - it's simply a review of these wines in our own voices. I don't plan to give any of these wines a review based on a scale - I simply describe what I taste and explain if I think it's good value for money (or not).

I was a bit less gentle, rather gleefully jumping all over what Steve probably, in retrospect, would admit was a pretty bad analogy, the whole celebrity trash thing:

Reallly? Are you now saying that when you rate a wine a 90 it is worth keeping, but when you rate it an 89 you, the self-identified “celebrity,” are discarding it? That really does put the lie to the idea that an 89 really is a very good rating, and that you are not aware of your actions when you make that 1% arbitrary distinction. This arrogance is particularly absurd in the wine-rating world, where you and other, well, I guess you want us to call you “celebrities” now, can vary in your own arbitrary ratings by half a dozen points or more.

Aside from my own crankiness, and for that I apologize, I found this exchange fascinating. This was a well-known and well-respected wine reviewer admitting what The 89 Project is all about, that one point difference from 90 down to 89 is the equivalent of throwing the wine in the garbage. That seems a rather ignominious end for a 1% (actually, 2%, since the 100-point scale starts at 51, but what the heck, let's play along with the myth) difference based upon an individual's qualitative judgment.

Catie, our own Walla Walla Wine Woman, chimed in from the perspective of a wine retailer, observing:

In the wine retail environment, more times than I care to count has a customer walked in the door with his sole mission to be about the highly-pointed wine, bought two cases and when asked if they wanted to at least taste the wine they were buying, usually shrugged it off. They rarely tasted. And of course, we all knew those cases would be his new trophy to share with other “trophy hunters.” At a B&B, overheard conversation from other guests: they “only visited wineries that sold wine with 94 points and above, being oblivious that the winemaker has to enter the wines, the wine point fairy usually come to them? Too bad for these wine posers, to be missing out on some real jewels and possible up and coming wines by ignoring those who are not subscribing to a point system. These actions from posers remind me of stories I have read of caveman beating their chests because they built a bigger fire or a locker room of men bragging…never mind.

Steve, to his credit, responded with a similar story.

Alex, from Eating Leeds, responded as well, saying:

My understanding of the 89 Project is that, amongst other things, it aims to question the consumer’s reliance on the points system. It is NOT positing a replacement - it’s more a case of, OK, let’s look at wines that have scored 89 points and see what we think. That’s very similar to saying “let’s only buy wines at x pricepoint/made from y grape and see what we think”.

Alex gets it.

Steve, thank you for the kind wishes and the publicity. Thank you also for the opportunity to clarify the purpose behind The 89 Project. We are all wine lovers. I would venture to say that if we were all in the same room our mutual love of wine would make us friends. I hope you don't mind, friend, if we keep digging through your trash once in a while, because one man's trash really can be another's treasure.

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