Monday, May 27, 2013

Rant: Sake Don't Need No Stinkin' Scores!

Should Sake be rated by the 100 point system?

Earlier this month, I posted about a recent issue of Wine Spectator (May 21, 2013), which contained articles on Sake, as well as tasting notes for over 50 Sakes. Kim Marcus, Managing Editor, and Bruce Sanderson, Senior Editor, blind-tasted the Sakes, using Bordeaux-style glasses, and did not write about a few Sakes which did not reach their minimum quality level. They grouped the Sakes, all premium, into six categories: Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo Junmai, Daiginjo, Ginjo and Honjozo. They did not include in their tasting some of the more unique types of Sake, such as Sparkling Sake, Kimoto/Yamahai, Nigori, and Koshu.

The name of each Sake included the Prefecture, the region of origin, though that is not the usual way Sake names are listed. It is good to include the Prefecture within the description but it would better if it were not within the name as that will only make it more confusing for consumers. For example, if they tried to order a Sake online, they would likely see the Sake name, but maybe not the Prefecture. They might hesitate to order that Sake, believing it is not the same as the one they saw in Wine Spectator.

Rather than evaluate the Sakes by their usual 100 point system, Wine Spectator listed the Sakes as Good, Very Good or Outstanding. Within their tasting notes, they commonly mentioned a brief description of flavors, the aromas and mouthfeel. Kyle of Colorado Wine Press wrote about the Wine Spectator's Sake reviews, noting the lack of numeric scores. Kyle stated, "I think the method was more effective at describing the sake than if they had used points, but I clearly am not an advocate of the 100-pt system."

In the comments section of Kyle's post, Thomas Matthews, the Executive Editor of Wine Spectator, mentioned, "We have much less experience with sake, and felt that broader categories would be more appropriate to express our opinions on their quality. However, I could easily see a critic with deeper experience in sake using the 100-point scale, and perhaps if we taste extensively enough, one day we will too." That explains why they did not use numeric scoring and shows a sense of humility, that they were not trying to claim experience and expertise that they did not possess. Maybe other wine writers could follow their example when tasting wines of which they have little experience.

I have seen a few magazines and critics numerically score Sake but it is relatively uncommon. I would prefer that Sake is not scored in that manner as I believe it could have a negative impact on Sake consumption. I don't see sufficient advantages to numeric scoring to outweigh the potential negatives. Describe it, evaluate it, but don't score it. Why do I feel this way?

First, numeric scores have not made some other niche beverages more commonly popular. For example, let us consider Sherry, a wine that inflames my passion. However, most people still don't drink Sherry, especially the dry versions, and less Sherry is sold in the U.S. than even Sake. Sherry is commonly numerically scored but obviously that is not a guarantee of increased consumption and sales. So why should scores guarantee more Sake consumption? There is no guarantee.

Second, one of the compelling aspects of Sake is its relative low ceiling on its highest prices. Usually, you won't find a Sake for more than $150 a bottle. And the prices are often closely aligned with the costs of producing Sake. There are exceptions but they are rare. Compare that to the wine world where there are plenty of wines costing more than $150. And one of the most significant factors that has led to those high wine prices are numeric scores. I don't want to see Sake prices get inflated merely because they garnered a high score. Higher prices will only drive more consumers away.

Third, numeric scores could promote lazy distributors, store owners and restaurants. As it stands, many of those people and establishments need more basic education about Sake. Learning about Sake is an excellent way for them to be able to sell more Sake, just as wine knowledge helps them sell more wine. They need to invest the time and effort into Sake education, just as they do wine. If these people can just point a customer to a high scoring Sake, there is less incentive for them to learn about Sake. Scores gives them an easy out.

Fourth, what Sake taste profile should critics base their numeric scores upon? In general, American palates prefer aromatic, big, bold and rich flavored Sakes. Is this a side effect of consumers following the perceived wine preferences of Robert Parker? Possibly. On the other hand, the Japanese generally prefer more subtle Sakes, which might have muted aromas, and which may be “as easy to drink as water.” Which style would or should garner high scores? If a prominent critic's numeric scores reward big, bold Sakes, then there could eventually be a backlash against such Sakes as there has been a backlash against Parker style wines. Both styles need to be embraced, and neither style should be promoted over another.

Finally, you can include all of the usual criticisms of the 100 point system to the mix. They are as applicable to Sake as they are to wine. For example, a mere numeric score won't tell you anything about how well that Sake (or wine) will pair with food, or which foods that make the best pairing. And if I pondered the issue more, I am sure I could come up with a few more reasons as well.

To get more consumers to drink Sake, the first and most important thing to do it is to get them to taste premium Sake. Too many consumers have had a bad experience with hot Sake. However, once they taste a good, chilled Sake, their opinion can change. The taste of chilled premium Sake is drastically different from the taste of a cheap, hot Sake. It can be an eye opening experience and is more persuasive than any numeric score or tasting note. Wine stores need more Sake tastings. Restaurants need to offer inexpensive tasting flights of Sake, or hold Sake-paired dinners. The best education is tasting.

Women could end up leading the path to increased Sake consumption. We already know that women purchase more wine than men, and they are often more adventurous in their purchase choices. At the Sake tastings and events I have held, the most popular Sake, and overwhelmingly with women, has been Sparkling Sake. Low in alcohol, lightly sweet and effervescent, Sparkling Sake is kind of the Moscato of the Sake world. It makes for a good gateway Sake, opening the door to the diversity of other Sake types.

Sake doesn't need numeric scores!


Dewey Weddington said...

It seems the real concern with the WS piece is in the note ""We have much less experience with sake,..." There are far too many inexperienced people judging sake whether in a magazine, blog or competition. For too many years I looked over the judges list for competitions like the LA International, San Francisco, Dallas Morning News, etc. and found the judges were not sake experts but merely wine judges who applied their palates to a very different and distinct set of flavors and textures.

If scores are to be given, articles written and influence spread across the information thirsty public it should be by people who actually know sake. People who don't leave out Nigori, Yamahai/Kimoto or Koshu because they don't know what to do with them.

Maybe its just me but it seems that there are plenty of unbiased (the hard part) and well informed sake professionals out there who can properly score sake for WS or other publications. Could it be time for Sake Spectator? The Sake Advocate?

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Dewey:
Hope you are well. I agree that Sake articles, competitions, etc. should be conducted by those experienced with Sake, and not just those who have read a couple Sake articles as research. I hate seeing Sake articles in the main stream media which are rife with errors.

Dewey Weddington said...

Indeed. Nothing like a 90 pt. junemay Jingo Yamaha neegori. All is well brother. Be well.