Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wine By the Numbers

It seems downright un-American to attribute success or failure to a series of random events but the effect of randomness is much greater than we realize (or acknowledge) argues Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk “How Randomness Rules Our Lives.” (www.vintagebooks.com) Although the (hardback) edition of the book has been out for about a year, the paperback version has just been released and I received a copy last week- owing, I guess, to the second word in the title.

At least that's what I thought until I got to the book's seventh chapter “Measurement and the Law of Errors” in which Mlodinow discusses the value of wine ratings. His premise- unsurprising as he is a scientist – is that the taste perception of a wine is too subjective to be suited to numerical ratings.

He cites several sources who more or less agree with his premise and notes that a few wine editors even admit to the “nonsensical” nature of the ratings system - though theyfound that when they used verbal descriptors that wine drinkers were unconvinced- and ultimately unmoved to buy a particular wine. They wanted a wine with a number attached.

Alas, the anti-numerical wine score argument isn’t exactly new- though Mlodinow’s attempt to address it by means of a mathematical model is a great deal more dispassionate than, say, the raving anti-score editorials generally penned by British wine journalists. But (much) of the rest of the book is quite diverting and even entertaining in parts, particularly when Mlodinow cites a number of popular examples of random success (for example, the career of Bruce Willis and the books of Stephen King) and the way our culture equates success with personal worth.

In the end, Mlodinow concludes (we must) “keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.” It sounds a bit like my dad’s favorite saying: “The harder I work the luckier I get.” Maybe it’s just a matter of chance- and a few advanced degrees – that my dad didn’t write a book like this. Leonard Mlodinow is a visiting professor of physics at Caltech and the co-author (with Stephen Hawking) of A Briefer History of Time.

The Drunkard’s Walk, by the way, is a mathematical term to describe random motion- and as Mlodinow says, “a metaphor for our lives.”


  1. I own a small wine shop in Bergen COunty NJ and I do not use numeric scores in my store. I agree with the statement "that the taste perception of a wine is too subjective to be suited to numerical ratings." I am an infant in the wine business with a decade of experience in both retail and wholesale wine sales, but in that decade I have developed a good palate and I have no idea what 90 points tastes like. I am encouraged to read that thenext generation, the milennials, are trending away from numeric scores generated by a select few critics and relying more on blogs and social network sites. This group is the future of the wine business. Oh the times they are a changin' thank god.

  2. Hi Gregg-
    I don't have a particular beef with numerical scores- I certainly prefer a score with some thoughtful commentary attached by a critic I know and trust to a random blogger or a publication I've never heard of. But I'd also trust a good retailer (like yourself?!) too and seek his/her opinion about a wine.

  3. Thanks for the compliment. As a service based retailer, not a discounter, I have to bring new wines that over deliver. Most of which are never reviewed. I am lucky to have friends in wholesale who turn me on to small brands that really remind me why I got into this business. I have only had the store since last Aug but I have had great word of mouth so far and that has helped me grow. I do love your articles in Food & Wine and I am not just kissing your ass. Cheers

  4. Hey Gregg-
    Thanks! Where is your store? Are you far from New York? (My knowledge of Bergen county ends at Leonia) Would love to stop by sometime.

  5. I am in Walwick NJ about 35 Minutes from the GWB. Please come visit.

    Maratene's Fine Wine
    18 A East Prospect St
    Waldwick, NJ, 07463
    201 444 7200