As much as some of you may hate me for saying it, we need a rating system.
I say this fully aware of the fact that alcohol ratings are purely subjective and almost completely dependent upon the palate of the reviewer. When Robert Parker gives a wine 95 points it doesn’t mean you’ll like it (though you can be reasonably confident it’s better than Matthew Fox Shirax), it means Robert Parker likes it. If you like the same type of wine as Mr. Parker, that’s great; but what if you don’t enjoy wine with fruit that’s forward enough to make you file a restraining order or an alcohol level that would fatally maim a mid-sized rhinoceros?
Sadly, you’re out of luck. A rating system can never be all things for all people. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in them.
Rating systems are a starting point. A vote of approval. A straight forward way to recommend noteworthy wine. Not everyone has time to read 450 words about Tamas Pinot Grigio (though, if you have the time, you should). They want answers and they want them now. A rating gives that to them, quickly and easily.
Furthermore, a rating is a great foil for discussion. It’s one thing to say you don’t like Miller Chill, completely another to give it a 5 out of 100 points (for the record, on a scale from 1 to 100, I’d give Miller Chill a negative 75. I wouldn’t use that abomination of a beverage to clean the rims on my car. Frankly, the only positive aspect of Miller Chill is it’s ability to instantly inform me that the person drinking it and I will never be friends, but I digress…). A rating provides a starting point for discussion about the relative quality of a beverage. You might agree, you might not, but at least now you have a framework for discussing the difference in opinion.
So, regardless of any potential moral misgivings we have about beverage rating systems, we still need to use one. Grudgingly and with full disclosure of its subjectivity, but using it nonetheless.
Now comes the fun part: What rating system should we use?
We can employ a current familiar system (like Parker’s aforementioned 100 point scale) or create a new rating scale altogether. I think the following methodologies merit consideration and I’m interested to hear your opinion of them or suggestions for different methods.
(Note: I was initially going to send this as an internal email to the Drink with Aloha team, but thought the discussion of rating systems was relevant (and, hopefully, entertaining) to readers of Drink with Aloha. When someone asks why we use our chosen system, we can direct them to this discussion.)
Potential Beverage Rating Systems
The Robert Parker 100-point scale
Most wine consumers are familiar with Parker’s scale, which runs from 50-100. It is fairly widespread, used by the preeminent wine publication, Wine Spectator, and assigns a nice, big, round number to the ratings. People are used to dealing with scoring systems that go to 100 and associate 100 percent with a perfect score, so that ratings are very intuitive.
On the downside, since it’s already widely used in the wine community and has some negative connotations. Not everyone likes or agrees with Robert Parker and we don’t necessarily align ourselves with the somewhat snooty wine crowd. We don’t want our ratings to seem aloof or pretentious and that might be somewhat unavoidable with a 100 point scale.
A standard A-F letter grade system
Everyone who went to school (in the United States at least) is familiar with letter grades. A is exemplary; B is good; C is average; D is poor; and F is a failing grade. Pluses and minus provide additional granularity. A letter grade assigned to a beverage provides a clear and simple indication of overall quality. It requires no further explanation.
That said, since the system only has 12 potential ratings (A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc…) it does not provide as much room for detail or subtle difference as a 100-point scale. Furthermore, because of the association to scholastic endeavors, negative grades, particularly an F, carry potentially undue negative connotations. F isn’t just bad, it’s an abject failure. (And, yes, for the record, Miller Chill would receive an F-minus).
The rating system is currently used by Christopher Null, the author of popular drinking blog drinkhacker.com, which I suppose is an argument for and against the system.
A new kitschy rating system (e.g. 1-10 Cocktail Umbrellas)
Drink with Aloha is independent and a little irreverent, so perhaps we need a rating system to match.
We could use a simple 10 point scale, but instead of points, incorporate our cocktail umbrella logo (e.g. a Chimay Blue might score 8 out of 10 cocktail umbrellas, while a Schlitz Malt Liquor might receive only 2 cocktail umbrellas). A logo based system would reinforce our branding and differentiate our rankings from others.
On the flip side, a completely new rating system would require additional explanation and might not get taken as seriously, especially until Drink with Aloha becomes more of a household name. We have a lot of work to do before people associate Drink with Aloha with quality, reliable drinking information and establishing a new ranking system would represent another hurdle. I’m fully confident that we’re up to the task and am not, in any way, suggesting that we curtail our enthusiasm or originality, but I think it’s important to keep our current situation in perspective.
Lastly, a 10-point rating system provides even fewer options than a letter grade system, which might limit our ratings more than we want. A smaller scale is simpler and forces us to make hard decisions — if Netflix uses a 5-point scale for movies, who’s to say we can’t use it for alcohol — but it also limits our ability to differentiate between the good, the great, the amazing, and the truly transcendent.
A multi-tiered system
Most rating systems consist of a single grade, an all encompassing measure of quality. While that makes it very easy to compare beverages, it oversimplifies the rating process. Does a 90-point rating mean a wine is a good value? Easy to obtain? Does it have a nice aroma? Will it age? Does it have an impressively designed bottle or cool back story? Does it pair well with food? Is it crowd pleasing?
Beverages are inherently multi-faceted and perhaps our rating system should reflect this.
What if we had a four part-rating system that consisted of Quality, Value, Wow factor, Overall Rating?
A bottle of Opus One might score highly on quality and wow-factor (in large part due to the name recognition), but comparatively lower in value and a lower overall rating as a result.
A bottle of Gazela Vino Verde might have an average quality rating, but it’s incredible value and the novelty wow-factor of the light green wine, brightly colored bottle, and smooth fizzy finish would give it a higher overall rating than one would normally expect.
A Miller Chill could score a zero across the board, but end up with a negative overall rating to emphasize just how truly embarrassing it is to drink a can of artificially flavored moose urine.
No matter what categories we selected for the final system, a multi-tiered rating system would provide a more well-rounded and accurate representation of each beverage.
Unfortunately, the additional specificity adds an increased level of complexity and, potential, confusion to the rankings. Rather than planting our flag in the sand and providing a definitive opinion about a beverage, it creates a more subjective, somewhat ambiguous scale for comparison. This will make it more difficult to compare previously rated beverages.
If we liked the general idea of a multi-tiered rating system, but wanted to avoid the additional complexity, we could rate simply on quality, but also provide a list of “best buys” or “staff picks” that deserved mention due to good value or a certain je ne sais quoi.
In summary, I think all the options have merit, but I want to know what you think. Please leave your thoughts, questions, comments, concerns, musings, ramblings, and wild machinations below and let’s make this decision happen.
The deadline for selecting a rating system is next week Friday, September 24 (a completely arbitrary date that I selected just now), so speak now or forever hold your drinks.