Monday, September 5, 2016

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

"Great sake is like a poem. When tasting beautiful sake, you might sing... Mist in the valley... Spring in the mountains... or Breeze in the forest..."
--Liwen Hao in Wine Advocate, #226

It was inevitable. Back in 2013, I saw the writing on the wall, that it was coming, and I ranted that Sake Don't Need No Stinkin' Scores! At that time, I'd seen a few magazines and online Sake reviews that provided numeric scores for Sake, usually on a 100 point scale. However, it was relatively uncommon and seemed to have little to no impact. You didn't see those scores at local wine shops and I wasn't hearing anyone talking about them.

The May 2013 issue of Wine Spectator contained three articles on Sake, as well as tasting notes for over 50 Sakes. Rather than evaluate the Sakes by their usual 100 point system, Wine Spectator listed the Sakes as GoodVery Good or Outstanding. In comments on a post on the Colorado Wine Press, 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."

It was easy to predict that the day would come when the Wine Spectator, or another major wine publication, would use the 100 point system to rate Sake. That day arrived last week when Robert Parker's Wine Advocate published reviews, with numeric scores, of 78 Sakes.

Technically, this isn't the first time that the Wine Advocate has provided scored reviews for Sake. Back in October 1998 (issue #199), Robert Parker wrote an article, The Sumo Taste (A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Sake), and reviewed 48 Sakes, the majority being Daiginjo, scoring them from 86 to 91. It has taken the Wine Advocate 18 years to start scoring Sake again.

For the new Sake reviews, famed Sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki, who John Gautner referred to as a "sake critic extraordinaire" and "the most respected critic in the industry, especially among the brewers themselves," first selected a group of top Junmai Sakes from an initial pool of 800. Then, Liwen Hao, the Asian Wine Reviewer for Wine Advocate, selected 78 Sakes, all Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo, from the group chosen by Matuszaki, providing descriptive reviews and a numeric score.

The Wine Advocate announced the hiring of Liwen Hao back in December 2015, noting he would review Asian wine and other alcoholic beverages, as well as support the new Chinese version of Hao was born in Xi’An, raised in Shanghai, and first began working in the wine industry in 2004, taking a job with the ASC, the biggest wine importer in China. He also became a wine writer, eventually penning two wine books, and did a series of well-received wine education videos. In 2014, he founded a wine education school, and Liwen notes that he has been learning about Sake for many years.

Liwen wrote an introductory article, Sake-The Drop of Poetry, for the Wine Advocate, presenting some accurate, basic information about Sake, its ingredients, storage advice, serving suggestions, and more. In addition, Liwen presents Sake in an unpretentious manner, providing advice to make consumers feel better about knowing little about Sake. He states: "Some basic knowledge is needed if you want to look professional in front of others, but the best way is to find your own preference and use your own words to describe it." And as Liwen notes, this advice would apply to wine as well.

I liked this article and believe it could help interest more consumers in Sake. First, it presents basic Sake information in a brief and easily understood manner. Second, it helps to reassure consumers that anyone can enjoy Sake and that they should use their own words to describe the aroma and flavors of Sake. Third, when you consider the quote at the top of this post, it seems that Liwen understands the soul and aesthetics of Sake. However, I was less enamored with the scores accompanying the Sake reviews that came after this article.

A list of 78 Sake reviews was presented, including 66 Junmai Daiginjo and 12 Junmai Ginjo, with links to the descriptive reviews. Though the Sakes were technically evaluated on a scale that ranges from 50 to 100 points, not a single Sake scored less than 90 points, with the highest score being a 98. The scores can be broken down as such: 1 at 98 points, 2 at 95 points, 1 at 94 points, 5 at 93 points, 17 at 92 points, 23 at 91 points, and 29 at 90 points.

According to the Wine Advocate rating system, a score of 90-55 indicates "An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character." And a score of 96-100 indicates "An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety." By this rating system, all of the reviewed Sakes were outstanding with a single extraordinary one.

The 98 point Sake was the Kusumi Shuzo Kame-No-O Sannen Jukusei Junmai Daiginjo, priced at 10,000 yen (about $97). The two 95 point Sakes included the Iwase Shuzo Iwanoi Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo and Katsuyama Shuzo Katsuyama Akatsuki Junmai Daiginjo ($190). According to the Financial Times, the cheapest Sake on the list allegedly costs only 1500 yen ($14.50) though it was not identified. When perusing the descriptive reviews, you'll find that a number of the Sakes do not have listed prices.

Obviously, only top notch Sakes were selected to be reviewed, indicative of the high scores they all received. The Sake reviews were not intended to be a general overview of the range of available Sakes, by either type or quality, but rather a showcase of some of the best that is currently available. No Honjozo were included, and only a handful of different styles were included, such as Genshu and Namazake.

A few people have commented that these Sake scores will be a good thing, giving more visibility and promotion to Sake. However, my thoughts are different, and I believe they may potentially cause more harm than good. My current thoughts are consistent with my earlier Rant, though I see the need to expand upon those prior comments, especially as the last few years have seen a greater opposition against the 100 point wine system. I don't see a sufficient potential advantage to numeric scoring to outweigh the potential negatives.

Describe it, evaluate it, but don't score it.

First, the mere existence of numeric scores for Sake reviews from a major wine publication is certainly not a guarantee of increased consumption or sales, especially with the general public. I will note that there hasn't been any discussion yet of the Sake reviews on the Wine Advocate Forums. This could be indicative of a lack of interest in Sake to many of the Wine Advocate subscribers. It is still early, and Sake discussions could take place in the near future, but it is telling that despite a thread on the new issue of the Wine Advocate, there hasn't been mention of Sake yet. Whatever the reasons, it isn't a positive sign for Sake that the recent reviews aren't being mentioned.

We can also examine the status of other niche beverages, which have received wine scores for many years, but which haven't caught on with the general public. For example, Spanish Sherry still remains a tiny niche, especially the dry versions, currently selling even less in the U.S. than Sake. Scores didn't boost the general popularity of Sherry so why would it do so with Sake? A few high scoring Sherries might be cherished by wealthy collectors, but the average consumer could care less about Sherry. There are a number of other examples of niche wines, from Greek wine to Cremant d'Alsace, which certainly don't seem to have been helped significantly by the existence of scores.

Since the release of the Wine Advocate reviews last week, the Financial Times has already noted that initially, there has been a boost in sales of the reviewed Sakes, but it seems mainly from wealthy collectors and high-end restaurants & bars, including some seeking to buy large amounts of specific Sakes. This is only a tiny part of the market and doesn't include the average consumer. Sake scores might spur on wealthy collectors, but there isn't any evidence yet that there will be increased sake purchases by average consumers. And if wealthy collectors start buying all the highly scored Sakes, that will lead to my second point.

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 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. One of the significant factors that has led to those high wine prices are numeric scores. Wine stores may raise the prices of high scoring wines, pricing them out of the range of the average consumer. Do you want to see Sake prices rise merely because they garnered a high score? The effect of higher prices would likely decrease general consumption and drive more consumers away.

The Financial Times is in agreement, stating: "But the days of reasonably priced sake may be numbered: one of the drivers behind the list, said Ernest Singer, Robert Parker’s representative in Japan and a veteran wine importer, was to enable the best sake producers to raise prices." Thus, it seems that scores were specifically intended to raise prices, making my previous worry a reality. The alleged rationale for this matter was: "That in turn increases the odds of survival in a market where only 1,300-odd breweries are active and even the best are walking a financial tightrope."

But can the producers increase their production to meet demand? That is a real concern. In addition, should Sake breweries place their future merely in the hands of wealthy collectors, who might turn out to be fickle? As Sake generally should be consumed within a year of their release, it isn't the type of beverage that collectors can store away for years. It thus becomes less of an investment vehicle. It isn't like Bordeaux or California Cabernet. Its shorter life span might be an eventual turn off to wealthy collectors once they realize that fact. And then, they could move onto a different niche beverage, one that they can safely age in their cellars for many years.

Third, 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 so-called Parker style wines. Both styles need to be embraced, and neither style should be promoted over another.

Fourth, numeric scores could promote lazy and ignorant distributors, store owners, restaurants and other purveyors of Sake. As it stands, many of those people and establishments already need more basic education about Sake. If they learned more about Sake, they would be capable of selling more Sake, just as increased 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, making a recommendation merely based on a number, there is less incentive for them to learn about Sake. Scores give them an easy out.

There is no guarantee that a consumer is going to enjoy a Sake just because it receives a high score. Despite its high score, it might not be the style of Sake that the specific consumer would enjoy. And if a consumer tastes a high scoring Sake and doesn't like it, they might decide they don't like Sake at all.  A mere numeric score also won't tell a consumer anything about which foods would best pair with a specific Sake. Though consumers are advised to not rely on just a score, but to also read the review, that is not what always happens in reality. A significant number of consumers find it much easier just to rely on a numeric score and not read the reviews.

Consumers are best served by educated wine store employees who can help them select the best Sakes for their preferences, as well as indicate the best food pairings for those Sakes. Wine store employees will take the time to learn about wine, and they should also take time to learn about Sake. It isn't that difficult of a subject, and will help them sell more Sake. Don't take the easy way out and just promote scores, rather than provide more constructive suggestions.

Fifth, there are some unanswered questions about the future of Sake reviews at the Wine Advocate.  Most importantly, how often will they review Sake? Will it be a once a year event? If so, how will a single annual review effect general Sake consumption? It would seem that wouldn't help much, catering more to wealthy collectors who once a year stock up on highly rated Sakes. A once a year review also wouldn't do much to help consumption and raise consumer awareness throughout the rest of the year. Even if they review Sake quarterly, that still might not be sufficient to raise awareness for the general public.

There are other questions to consider as well. Will they only review Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo? Or will they review the entire range of Sake types and styles? It would be better if they reviewed the entire range of premium Sakes, and expanded beyond the limited parameters of this initial review. Will future Sake reviews also be initially filtered through Haruo Matsuzaki before the final group is chosen by Liwen Hao? Or will Liwen make all of the selections on his own?

Finally, the 100 point system, as it has been used for wine, has received much criticism in recent years and those criticisms would generally apply to scoring Sake as well. You can find those criticisms listed in numerous online and published articles. There is little need to repeat all those items here.

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.

Sake doesn't need numeric scores!


Archer said...

Thanks for writing this. I agree with your position that Sake should not be subject to numeric scores. Personally, I enjoy standing in front of a Sake isle for half an hour or so and picking two or three bottles of something I haven't had yet, partially because I know that whatever I get it's going to be great.

What I hear most from other Sake enthusiasts is that for some reason, a relationship has developed with Sake. It's not just something to drink at a party, but actually it's something special and unique to appreciate and stare at through the glass in wonder. That's how I feel about it anyway, and that's something a number can't relay. I love beer and wine but I never felt so compelled to buy books and study them, like I have with Sake. There really is something alive and alluring about it.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks very much for your comments. Sake certainly has a special allure and scores do nothing to address that.