Through all my years of reviewing and occasionally rating beers and whiskies and other spirits, I have steadfastly refused to involve myself in point-based ratings. Wildly popular with many of my drinks-writing peers – or perhaps endured as an unavoidable reality – I have long viewed them as problematic in the extreme.
I’ve explained why I feel this way several times, but every once in a while an example comes along that illustrates my misgivings so well it deserves reiteration. Late last week was one of those whiles.
It arrived in the form of a promotional email from a wine importer I follow. (Yes, The Beer Guy both buys and drinks and thoroughly enjoys wine, too. Get over it.) The email was hyping the arrival of several wines from the same producer, including the two following:
****** **** Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
92 Points, Wine Advocate
****** Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
92 Points, Wine Advocate
I’ve omitted the names because they’re beside the point, which is that these two wines, made from the same varietal and from the same region and the same producer, merit the exact same score. Yet Wine 1 is more than twice the price of Wine 2, which, absent of actual tasting notes – as many of these scores are presented on shelf-talkers – is enough to make one wonder why in heaven’s name anyone would pay $46 when they can get equal quality for $20.
(The same offering, by the way, also included a Cabernet-Malbec blend from the same producer for $109.95 with a Wine Advocate score of 98. That’s a six point difference over the $20 wine, or $15 per point.)
Now, granted any rating system is going to run into the same problems, but it is my view that: a) Words are always better than points; b) If you offer people a scoring shorthand, they will almost always use it; and c) If score you must, four or five stars provide a similar indication of quality with a broader margin for inclusion. For instance, Hugh Johnson’s rating system from his Pocket Wine Book:
* plain, everyday quality
** above average
*** well known, highly reputed
**** grand, prestigious, expensive
Not necessarily the scale I would use personally, but certainly something more descriptive than an arbitrary 92 or 89, I think.
Review: America Walks into a Bar, by Christine Sismondo
Disclosure 1: I am very late with this review. Reason being not the appeal of this read, but rather the odd way my life sometimes rolls. Basically what it boils down to is that I read AWIAB in two parts, then procrastinated dreadfully until now.
Disclosure 2: I know and like Christine Sismondo. She is a lovely lady with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. I have tried, however, not to let that influence my review, although of course it has.
Now, the review…
I have read more than one or two books about the history of bars and taverns in America, including the terrific but heavily academic Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger, which Sismondo cites in her extensive bibliography. My conclusion from this experience is that it is very difficult to be both illuminating and entertaining in such a tome.
Somehow, with the exception of the first chunk of Part I, Sismondo manages to do this, and it is to her enormous credit that this is a remarkably info-packed book that seems like a light read.
What AWIAB does is guide readers through the development of American society, cultural and political, via the barroom, and in this lies Sismondo’s greatest deception. For although this book is billed “A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” it is actually more a history of revolution and emancipation, suffrage and gay rights, all viewed through the prism of the nation’s watering holes.
So while we are learning about such barroom “innovations” as the trough in front of the bar that allowed men to – ahem! – relieve themselves without needing to abandon their drink, or the glass-free bar that charged only for as much booze as you could slurp through a hose in one breath, we are also getting the inside story on how America came to be what it is today. And also the inside scoop on the many, many interesting characters who got it there.
What may surprise readers is how closely American bar history and assorted other histories intertwine and, indeed, are to a large extent dependent upon one another. But despite the lengthy history of Puritanism, temperance and prohibition in the United States, the nation has never been able to divorce its development from the seductive allure of the demon drink, and as Sismondo teaches us in America Walks into a Bar, stands today as a better country for it.
Filed under beer books, books, social commentary