Why Italians are offended by our ratings and rankings

Above: the architects of Italian unification (1861). To the far left, Count Camillo Cavour, Italy’s first prime minister, a winemaker (Piedmont). To the far right, Baron Betting Ricasoli, Italy’s second prime minister, a winemaker (Tuscany). In the center, unified Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emanuele II, a winemaker (Piedmont). Ricasoli’s estate Brolio and Vittorio Emanuele’s Fontanafredda still produce wine today.

A wine writer whom I admire greatly (and who happens to work in the editorial office of the Wine Spectator) wrote me today to express his dismay (warranted) with the recent back-and-forth between VinoWire (which I co-edit with my friend Franco Ziliani) and Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews. (I translated and posted Franco’s most recent entry today).

I can understand his position. After all, we are wine writers, not ideologues. My colleague is right to point out that our debate and discussion should be carried out in a spirit of collegiality and good faith. But I also feel that it is difficult for Americans (in general, not him specifically) to understand how our lists and rankings offend Italian winemakers and Italians in general. Italy was born as a “wine nation” and wine is woven indelibly into its national identity.

Italy’s founding fathers (above) envisioned wine and indigenous grape varieties as an integral part of the nascent Italian economy (remember: beyond its value as a luxury product, wine was considered a food stuff).

One of the reasons why Piedmontese winemakers grow Nebbiolo today is that Italy’s first prime minister, Count Camillo Cavour (1810-1861), recognized its potential in fine winemaking.

The primary reason why Tuscan winemakers grow Sangiovese is that Italy’s second prime minister, Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809-1880), wrote extensively and prolifically on the virtues of Sangiovese married with Tuscany’s terroir and he boldly replanted his estate — where he had grown a wide range of French grapes — with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Malvasia.

Americans do not feel the same connection to wine that the Italians (and French) do. Winemaking was born in this country as a luxury industry and the tastes of our opinion leaders (Robert Parker and James Suckling foremost among them) have been shaped by a youthful winemaking tradition that favors opulence and power over balance and nuance. There’s no doubt about this. Imagine what it feels like to be an Italian and to read that one of your country’s greatest wines (Case Basse) receives pitiful scores (and even in its top vintages!) while a young Brunello producer (owned by one of Italy’s largest commercial winemaking groups) received the coveted 90+.

In the spirit of healthy debate, I encourage you to take a look at the comments at VinoWire to get a sense of the offense perceived by some of our readers in Italy.

20 thoughts on “Why Italians are offended by our ratings and rankings

  1. Great insight. Perhaps we should add the Wine Spectators top 100 to the list of things you don’t bring up at the holiday get togethers, along with politics and religion.

  2. these ‘opinion makers’ who don’t see wine in the context of the table (as you mentioned) cannot appreciate how good acidity and subtlety can exhalt a meal.

    wine is not a cocktail!

  3. Totally agree with what Tracie said. Wine is part of the Italian way of life. It is interwoven with all other aspects of their culture. Those damned scores keep popping up and won’t go away anytime soon. If “words can not touch the soul of a wine”, how can a number? The need to quantify everything from horsepower to wine scores to pixels says much about the underlying assumptions of contemporary Western culture.

  4. I must however say that I greatly appreciate tasting notes on the whole and Wine Spectator gives very detailed ones for the top wines right down to the lower scoring ones and while these are subjective, reveal much more to the reader than the scores they are normally associated with do. It is up to the reader to transcend them and very often I have read tasting notes relative to wines only to mentally discard them on the basis that many simply had undesirable tasting profiles (very often these were top scoring wines). With this in mind, things take on a different perspective and WS’s Le Case Basse tasting notes (to me) seem almost fitting if one manages to imagine the flavour profile the taster was experiencing. Certainly I would have used different adjectives, but nevertheless the sensations ARE conveyed to the reader, even if the score and the conclusion in the end is nonsense. In a perfect world, critics shouldn’t bother boring readers with their egocentrically scoring obsessions that expose them to ridicule (but also to hundred dollar plates and suspects of bouts of “insider trading”) and are meaningless.

  5. we are offended not because we are “anti-american”, but because this kind of ratings and rankings offend the intelligence of the most part of american people that is able to know and appreciate the real quality of wines, also the “difficult” and special Italian wines

  6. Just yesterday I was talking to a wine buyer. He was asking me which Italian wines I had been enjoying lately. After mentioning several he asked me, “what kind of scores did they get?” I replied that I didnt know because I hadnt looked at a Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate lately. I offered my experience as an alternative to the reviews. He said, “All right and fine but my customers dont read you. They read the WS and the WA!”

    I told him then they weren’t his customers, they were the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocates customers.

    Now I’ve gotta go duel him @ sunrise, thank you very much. Wish me luck. Great post, amico!

  7. I don’t know that Soldera’s Case Basse is such a good example for the influence of ratings on wine. They obviously have no problem selling all the wine they make and a quick search on wineaccess.com shows the 2001 vintage Case Basse going for $252 and garnering 96 points from Tanzer. It’s a sought after wine regardless of “Giacomino’s” hatchet job of a review. While many pleasurable things in life require some work – the writing of a blog, appreciation of Opera etc. – Dott. Viliani’s comment of the American’s lack of appreciation for “difficult” wines has too often been an excuse for poor winemaking. The Europeans have always been far more provincial in their taste for wines. Walk into the average wine shop in even Milano or London and see how the selection of wines compares to a decent store in NYC. Americans buy Japanese and German cars, eschewing American marques because over and above their desire to “buy American” they want to buy the “best”. That does not mean that the average American understands or appreciates the qualities of a “classical” Italian wine, but they’re far more open to understanding it than the average European. While stylistically polar opposites, the Brunelli of Casanova di Neri and Soldera are both extremely well made wines and yet some Italian reviewers equally dismiss the Casanova di Neri wines as Suckling dissed the Soldera. They are both (and rightly so) prized here in the US.

  8. I think the entire debate as to whether wine ratings are actually useful, accurate and/or offensive is moot. They are there, people read and follow them, and they aren’t going to go away soon.

    I commented on Franco’s post because of my experience at WS, and as an ex-insider, I wanted to share what I saw there.

    But once we flow over into the philosophy of wine ratings, I think we can all agree that taste is objective.Perhaps the best policy may be to look at numerous sources, especially if they differ widely, taste the wine and align your palate with the critic that suits you, and NOT take whatever WE or RPJr say as gospel.

    I also said on Franco’s blog that the “American palate” (as Jeremy points out here) is aligned differently, obviously looking for Impact over finesse. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s a “beginner’s palate”.

    I remember well a conversation I had at WS with Bruce Sanderson early on. He asked me what my favorite wines were. I answered Cali Cabs and Merlot. When I asked him the same question he said Burgundy and Alsace. I replied that I wasn’t a Pinot Noir fan. He said: You will be.

    And he was right, of course.

    The BULK of the people who read WS and RPJr don’t really understand something like Case Basse. It is NOT a wine for beginners. I’m sure I would have poo pooed it back in my Cali Cab days. Hopefully our palates grow an mature and we begin to understand what these wines are really supposed to be. WS needs to sell magazines. The need to play to the common denominator. Tom Matthews said it himself… they are spreading the word about wine, and WS was instrumental for me and for many other people during our ‘initiation’ into wine.

    We just need to get past that. Some never do.

    That’s not an excuse for defective wine.. but that’s a debate for another time…

  9. I agree with much of what Wayne says. The WS has a clear preference for lower acid “international” style wines and almost always awards higher ratings to wines focusing on impact over finesse. This is largely reflective of the average American palate which prefers lower acid, fruit-driven wine since the vast majority of Americans drink wine on its own as a substitute for a cocktail rather than as a complement to a meal. Although my intention is not to defend the WS, its main priority is to sell magazines and it has obviously concluded that part of that strategy is to utilize a numerical rating system oriented towards impact wines that are easier for the average American consumer to understand. Additionally, the WA (with the exception of some of Antonio Galloni’s reviews) and ST (more recently) are just as guilty of this practice. For example, in the most recent issue of Tanzer’s periodical (much of which was not written by him), a certain producer from the Central Coast of California received ratings in the mid- to high 90’s and all of the reviewed wines had alcohol levels between 16% and 17% (including the white wines). Not much subtlety there. I would add that finesse and subtlety in wine is probably more difficult to discern when you are tasting 100+ wines on a given day.

    As someone who has a clear preference (as Jeremy knows) for more artisanally created, higher acid, less manipulated wines, I would love to see more coverage of these wines in the American wine press as there are so many beautifully crafted yet “unsung” wines that are being produced all over Italy as Franco points out. It wouldn’t kill the WS to branch out and publish an article on some of those wines from time to time. They certainly have the resources to do it. However, as sad as it may be, it is not realistic to think that such wines will garner significantly higher numerical scores in the mainstream American wine press in the near future.

  10. and on top of all this Jeremy, look at this post – so compact and well written, with compelling ideas sparely and fully formed in each paragraph. post of the year candidate…

  11. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read this post: I’m planning to expand the Ricasoli, Cavour, Vittorio Emanuele, “birth of a wine nation” theme in a story I’m writing for Gastronomica. And there will be more on the Italians’ sometimes puzzling relationship with American wine scoring later. I’m glad the post generated so much — and much needed — debate and I’m thrilled to see so many illustrious voices here. Thanks for all the kind words and for taking the time to read and comment.

  12. I found this thread to be thoughtful and constructive.

    Regarding the “back story,” my comment addressing VinoWire’s criticism of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 was not meant to be hostile; I was attempting to clarify what I felt were inaccuracies and misperceptions concerning Wine Spectator.

    I appreciated that the comment was posted in full, but VinoWire’s use of it (David vs. Goliath) has convinced me that Mr. Ziliani is not much interested in dialog. I regret that. Why is it not possible for one palate to prefer Brunello from Frescobaldi and Casanova di Neri and another to prefer Biondi-Santi and Case Basse, without one of them being incompetent or corrupt?

    I must also say that I disagree with Mr. Parzen’s contention that Americans do not feel the same connection to wine that Italians and French do. A “connection to wine” is not a birthright; it is achieved and maintained through engagement: tasting, reading, visiting vineyards and talking with producers. Wine Spectator seeks to foster that engagement through our articles and our wine reviews. Our hope is that more people around the world will engage with wine, no matter who they are or where they come from.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator.

  13. Thomas Matthews brings up good points. More often, the problem I have with the Spectator and Advocate ratings isn’t coming from their wine writers. It’s in the way that people put such complete faith in those words, rather than drawing from a larger wellspring of information.

    As one of the silverbacks of the industry, I am still mystified when I stand in front of a client, tasting wine with them, who, instead of relying on my 30+ years of experience or worse yet, taking cues from their own direct contact with the wine, defer to an “expert opinion” from afar. I don’t think that is the intent of publications like the Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate, but it seems to often be the default destination of so many people in wine stores and restaurants. Not all, but whatever happened to taking the direct experience and deciding for oneself?

    Historically, the Italians are much more confident in their own palate and they appear to have a better developed confidence in what they taste and what they personally think about it. But then, the Italians (and many Europeans) have had a couple of thousand of years to train and develop their palates.

    Alfonso Cevola
    Italian Wine Director

  14. To respond to Mr Matthews:
    Perception of wine’s role in society is what I think is an underlying cause for disagreement here. To say that Italians and French have no different a connection to wine than Americans is to disregard the culture of all three countries and their people. Wine is produce, the unique result of land, sun, and human involvement and it is no doubt linked to the traditions of the people that produce it. For this reason we have wines that are span such a large range of flavor coming from Italy. Yes, you have wines that taste great with a huge steak but you when something like Treviso or braised fennel is part of your regular diet you probably are not drinking big fat red wine everyday.

    The problem with an absolute point driven scale is that it assumes that if a wine has certain attributes such as body, power, and sweet vanilla flavored fruit, then it must be good, regardless of what its purpose is. As such, it does not care about light wines that are meant to be drunk with many traditional Italian foods- think Bianco di Custoza, Freisa, Ancellota, etc. Sure, Italian food and wine may not be one in the same but they certainly are bound by something more than coincidence. Many wines from Italy could taste different if any of a thousand factors were altered (maceration time, oak regimen, picking date) but they do not simply because they are connected to and defined by the unique people and culture in Italy. This is what accounts for the diversity of wines from Italy- different people: different wine- it is part of their identity.
    Mark Villalobos

  15. If someone came out with ratings for beautiful women, everyone would realize it was just one person’s (or panel’s) opinion. (Pam Anderson, the human equivalent to the Luce della Vite, is one man’s 100-pointer, while another may choose Gwyneth Paltrow). The wine-buying public doesn’t understand that wine is just as subjective. A couple observations:

    1. Last week I went to a 7-of-the-Top-Ten Tasting at a local wine store. As I paid the cashier, he said “you know we’re drinking the top seven wines in the world today.” I remember thinking, “I bet the folks that make Seghesio Zinfandel LOVE that misconception!”

    2. Over the years I’ve raised over $50K putting on 100-point tastings for charity. If I can find 3 or 4 wines that float my boat at these events, I’m lucky (we can’t always get someone to donate ’89 Haut Brion). The fact that people have no problem paying $500+ for the detestible “Just for the Love It” never ceases to amaze me but that’s usually the group favorite.

    3. Talk to anyone that works at a wine store, and two things cause the phone to ring off the hook. First of all, when the top 100 list comes out, everyone calls looking for the wine-of-the-year. The other is when that couple from Wall Street Journal goes goo-goo ga-ga over some wine. But the WSJ wines are almost always low production bottlings that never make it to the West Coast. At least the Spectator wines are findable.

    Personally I give the 100-point system a 59.

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