In 1979, when I was 14 years old, the movie 10 was released. The story was about a 42-year-old man (played by Dudley Moore) who became infatuated with a younger woman (Bo Derek, an actress who embodied the collective imagination of heterosexual males at the time). I attended the movie with four of my friends, all of whom were, like me, in the throes of puberty. Because of our ages, my mom had the great misfortune of both driving and accompanying us while we watched the film. Of particular importance to me and my friends was when Derek emerged from the water in a revealing swimsuit, her cornrowed hair dripping wet—an image that made me cringe when I remembered that my mother was sitting only a few seats away.
On the car ride home, my friends spoke excitedly about Bo Derek, She was the most beautiful woman in the world, they said. I reluctantly nodded in agreement, but there was something nagging at me. After the last of my friends had been dropped off my mother and I drove on in silence.
“You’re so quiet. Is everything OK?” Mom asked. “Didn’t you like the movie?”
To be honest I’d found the movie boring and a little lame, but I had a bigger problem to consider.
“The movie was fine,” I said. “But that girl is not a 10.”
My mother smiled. “What, then, is your 10?”
I knew the answer—Mary from math class—but I wasn’t going to admit that to my mom, so I took a different approach.
“Who’s to judge that she’s a perfect 10 anyway?” I asked.
“A few Hollywood producers I think,” Mom said, laughing. “But watching you and your friends’ rapt attention when she came on-screen, it seems most of them agree.”
“So it’s a popularity contest?” I asked.
She shook her head and smiled, more seriously than I expected. “Seems so,” she said.
What else was there to say?
Which brings me to the subject of wine. I taste a lot of wine. I study, make, sell, critique, write about and cajole wine. I have a deep understanding and respect for wine and the grapes that go into it, but I’ll fall on a sword before telling you there’s a perfect wine out there, even though this is a minority position for most of my fellow wine writers.
Robert Parker Jr., Wine Spectator and many others rate wines on a 100-point system, which was created, essentially, by Parker in the late 1970s. By the mid 1990s, the 100-point wine-scoring system was widely adopted and became the de facto litmus test for buyers looking for high-value wines, satisfying the public’s desire for an easy way to understand wine. Beyond points, wine was described relatively simply, using both consistent and accessible terms such as “blackberry” and “cigar box” that nearly anyone could learn and repeat at parties.
At the same time, the economy was soaring and wines had become a way to show both economic vitality and an ability to suss out “cult-status” finds, providing even more wind in the sails of the wine ranking system.
In 2002, UC Davis professor Ann Noble perfected and copyrighted the “Wine Aroma Wheel.” This new, useful tool provided easy access to familiar flavors and aromas of many common wine varietals in a simple chart that both professionals and amateurs gratefully adopted (and continue to use today).
Ratings based on a number scale and describing wines based on a collection of descriptors is a relatively new phenomenon, but judging a wine’s quality is certainly nothing new; it is, in fact, the basis of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée, one of the oldest forms of wine quality control out there.
Ratings aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, but it’s important to know that what’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow and, when we’re honest with ourselves, we find even our own tastes change over time.
Wine reviewers who use the point system say they have a deeper understanding of wine than others, and therefore know what it takes to make a perfect wine. Maybe they do. But I’ll bet wine ranked as perfect one day might not be ranked as perfect on another—even by the same reviewer. Granted, this would be a difficult or impossible experiment to conduct, but remember: Not every perfectly scored wine is perfect in the eyes of all wine reviewers or wine connoisseurs.
In the future, robots may be used to judge wine, basing recommendations on some algorithm that’s continually optimizing preferences based on the changing tastes of the broader population. Perhaps these computerized preference-predictors will have the capability not only to soothsay a “perfect” wine but also to create it in a test tube on-demand.
I can just picture future generations, sipping their customized wine while watching a movie they found in the historic archives: They scratch their heads as a strangely dressed blond woman runs in slow motion down a beach and become equally perplexed by the desperate male character creepily staring after her, the whole thing looking oddly unattractive and imperfect.
Originally published in the Northbay Biz Magazine, October 2016