Most wine drinkers are aware of the 100-point scale, whether they are familiar with Robert Parker and his recently sold Wine Advocate, or simply with the numbers on gold medallions adorning shelves of bottles. Although these numerical shelf-talkers are helpful to a lot of customers when it comes to purchasing decisions, they are often a little too helpful when it comes to the mentality people adopt when developing purchasing preferences.
The scenario we’re discussing is one where someone gets into drinking wine, and goes bargain shopping, using these points to determine “value.” What this customer doesn’t know is that the 95-point bottle they’re considering may be from a spinoff competition that decides to adopt a 100-point scale, and not the esteemed Parker scale. In the other case of a genuine Parker score, these consumers may have no idea that Parker tends to prefer big, jammy, high-alcohol New World wines. If this person’s palate is sensitive to alcohol, or prefers balanced, medium-bodied wines, he may not understand why he doesn’t like a high-rated wine, and may question his own palate. (Which is wrong!)
If this person wanted to learn about his preferences in wine, he could focus on countries, regions, varietals, and other characteristics not related to ambiguous points to determine what he likes. The world of wine is intimidating enough without these statements of quality acting as barriers to learning.
Turn to the other side of the coin in craft beer, and the points system is pretty well established too. Fortunately, these ratings come predominantly from users, and not the man behind the curtain. User review websites such as Beer Advocate and RateBeer drive the majority of beer reviews, and they have the potential to be helpful to inform other drinkers of one’s opinion of a beer. However, a lot of these reviews are full of forced writeups in which a user lists as many descriptives as possible in order to somehow display a deeper knowledge or understanding of beer drinking. It wouldn’t be an issue if someone new to craft beer could easily sniff out the snobs, with their skewed sense of self-efficacy and laughable over-analysis. But because of the abundance of such reviews, it may appear as if being able to write a paragraph each about the appearance, taste, mouthfeel, and aroma of a beer is the only way to understand what one is drinking. This is simply not the case.
This type of analysis will undeniably improve the palate and understanding of a seasoned or even intermediate drinker. In the process, however, it alienates people who are coming into craft beer in the same way that hoity-toity wine writing and scoring intimidates people who just want to enjoy wine. As someone who has worked for years in a winery’s tasting room, nothing is more disappointing to hear than a customer saying, “I don’t know anything about wine.” Says who? At what point was this person told that because they don’t understand the superfluous nuances described in a shelf-talker, that he doesn’t know how to enjoy wine? Although beer has the reputation of being the more everyman beverage of the two, elitism and nose-thumbing in craft beer pose every bit the risk of keeping potential craft drinkers in their macro or “crafty” comfort zones the same way the wine industry has to its entry-level consumers. The last thing anyone in the beer business wants to hear is a customer admitting his or her lack of knowledge preemptively.
It’s unnerving to see scores used as a marketing ploy that could pave the way for corresponding purchasing decisions. The same way that so many new wine drinkers can lose focus on varietal and region, so too could beer consumers when it comes to beer style, ingredients such as hops and malt, or the source brewery. Much of the wine industry’s marketing advice these days is to get away from old standards of analysis, and ask “which one do you like?” The beer industry (and its writers, supporters, and advocates) should learn the lesson of a neighboring industry that is only now learning to stop telling its customers how little they know.
Trust in one’s own palate and a basic understanding of styles and ingredients will go a lot further than flowery prose and a number rating. For all of us, it’s essential that people revere their own judgment first and foremost.