23 June 2009

Tuesday: Ask Benito!

It's Tuesday, time for Uncle Benito to open up the old mailbag to see what burning questions are bouncing around the interwebs.

Q: Why is there a closeup of a microwaved cheese pizza at the top of your blog?
Matthew Sparks
Vancouver, Canada

A: That's not a pizza, it's a photo of the sun. Frankly it's blazing hot down here in the South, and I figured it was time for a change of pace after the Green Winemaking Series and my matching spring header. I like to change it seasonally, no idea if I'll stick with this one for the summer. Try pruning an overgrown olive bush when it's 95ºF (35º Canadian) outside, and you'll get real intimate with our local star.

Q: Is your name really Benito?
Thelma Dalrymple
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

A: I mostly go by Ben in real life, but between a trip to Italy and finding myself in a few confusing social situations with other Bens, the Benito nickname took hold in the late 90s. Besides, Benito is a name that can be understood by virtually anyone on the planet, as opposed to the phonetic "ben" that means mountain in Gaelic, older sister in Gujarati, son in Hebrew/Arabic, a common verb in German, and many other unrelated things in dozens of other languages. Ben is a universally basic morpheme that has caused a lot of confusion in the past. Benito was an obvious pick for the name of this blog. Plus it's fun to have this suave, epicurean alter ego.

I'll happily respond to Ben or Benito, I really don't have a preference at this point.

Q: Why don't you use scores, ratings, or some other metric to judge wines? What's your opinion on the popular 100-point scale?
Timmy Jenkins, Age 9
Kenosha, Wisconsin

A: Thanks for writing, Timmy! Always be sure to get your parents' permission before reading wine blogs. To answer your question, if I'm at a wine tasting where there's a dozen or more wines, I use the following system:

- Don't like it
-/+ It's neutral, neither bad nor good
+ I like it
++ I really like it

That's mainly to help me remember later which ones stood out and which to avoid, but I don't publish those marks. If I really like something I'll say it's "highly recommended", or I'll gush about it for a while, but that's the extent of it. A few years ago I altered my editorial policy a bit and stopped writing about wines I don't like. It's really not worth the effort, and most of the "bad" wines on the market these days are simply boring, not technically flawed. I'll make an exception for certain wines from the former Soviet Union.

Scoring is a contentious issue in the wine world. I don't necessarily disagree with scores that have been issued to wines, but the math gets weird with the 100-point scale. Few scores below 80 get published, so you've basically got a 20-point scale with a lot more attention paid to the minute differences in 95-100 versus 85-90.

Ideally, I'd like a system modeled on boxing, or more specifically Olympic boxing with its geographical element. What insanity is this? With boxing, you've got different weight classes. Nobody wants to watch Lennox Lewis fight some guy that's 5'0" and weighs 100 lbs. The latter could be a phenomenal boxer but when matched against a heavyweight champ it's a blowout. Imagine scores (100-point, ABCDF, stars, whatever) in divisions like this:


In such a system, a truly flawless, delicious, and inexpensive Sonoma Chardonnay could get a perfect score, where under the current regime it's always competing against the likes of Montrachet. Now, don't get hung up on the categories I listed there--that's just an example. In fact, I think it would be even better if each publication or blog used its own metrics (clearly listed and explained, of course) and categories. If you only write about Italian wines, you can drill down to very specific regions and grapes, whereas someone who only rarely writes about Italian wines would just lump them into Italy/Red and Italy/White.

The problem is that this is a lot of work and requires a lot of record-keeping, and it eliminates the cachet that comes with that coveted "Wine Spectator 95 Points" shelf tag. If you walk through a wine shop and look at two wines, one that scored a "B+" and the other that scored "3 out of 4 Grapes", it doesn't help you much. In that regard, such a wide range of scoring and classification methods would be about as useful as the various medals won by wines at competitions around the country: trumpeted by the producer but largely meaningless to the consumer.

Faced with the Sisyphean prospect of reforming the entire wine criticism world into a purely logical and top-down structure as outlined above, I take the rational approach and simply choose not to award scores to the wines reviewed on this blog.

Got a question for me? Drop it at benjamin.a.carter@gmail.com with "Ask Benito" in the subject line. If I don't answer it on the blog I'll get back to you personally.


Kristin Runnels said...

Timmy had quite an answer to his question, there!

Benito said...


I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.

More seriously, as far as I know I've never gotten an e-mail from an underage reader in any jurisdiction. All of the questions here are real, as are the locations, but the names are made up and the questions don't match up with the geography.

Some day I'll respond to some of the weirder questions I get.


Samantha Dugan said...

How fun! You are so much cooler than I am...no one sends me emails. Those were fun and I look forward to the weird ones.

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh and I thought the new header looked like an orange peel

Benito said...


Don't worry, the e-mail will pick up over time. Soon you'll be getting offers for Chinese industrial wine equipment and people asking you to send free bottles of wine that hasn't been made in a long time.