My Musings on Wine Scores

Hello all! First of all let me apologize for going AWOL the last two months.  Work, Home, and MW studies have all been crazy busy as it is for anyone during the holidays.  I hope in this new year I will be able to put up more weekly posts.

As always if you have any suggestions as to what to write about I’d love to hear them!

For my first post of the new year I’d like to make a comment on a subject that is equally loved and hated by most winemakers… Wine Scores.

I’m not going to be one of those people that says the scores don’t matter.  They absolutely do.  They matter because consumers place so much emphasis on them.  I think the conversation becomes confusing when people begin to blame the critics (most of all Robert Parker) rather than the consumers themselves for their importance.  Scores don’t have power because Parker or Laube or some other critic says they do.  Scores have power because the consumers purchasing wine have given them power.

Let’s face it, we all know how grades worked in school.  The higher the grade, the better you were doing.  It was something that we’ve all grown up with here in the US and I’d be willing to assume that other countries have the same or similar structures as well.  It’s a simple system because we all knew that 100 is the best and anything below that was flawed at some level.  All Parker did when he developed the 100 pt scale was to capitalize on this already ingrained scale that exists in all of our minds.

For wine, the scale was an easy to understand way to simplify quality for the consumer.  “Quality” is open to debate as it tends to be the highest quality in the mind of that particular critic.  It seems for the most part that scores below 92 or 93 are relatively objective.  Most people can probably tell the quality difference between an 85 and a 91 point wine.  However, once the score goes above 93 or 94 it becomes more subjective to the environment, wines surrounding it, and the whims of the reviewer.  The feelings of the moment if you will.

This is where the debate enters.  It seems that this subjectivity is the biggest objection to the wine score system.  The problem is that the score is an opinion.  This is precisely what the consumers are asking the critic to give; their opinion.  Movie reviewers, food writers, and art critics are all asked for the same thing however it seems that the opinions of wine critics for some reason are more hotly debated. Maybe I’m just not privy to the other industries’s debates but I know I’ve gone to see movies that the critics were less than kind to and I’ve been thoroughly entertained.  I didn’t think less of the critic but just assumed that the movie was not to their taste.  Therefore, the question must be asked, why are wine industry folks so hard on wine critics just because the critic’s opinion may differ from their own?

As to the 100 point scale, wine consumers have chosen how they prefer to have these opinions delivered and like it or not that vehicle is currently the 100 point scale.   As I said before, it’s easy to understand.  With a product like wine, which has been shrouded in mystery and elitism for so long, easy was probably extremely refreshing for people who just wanted to find some good wine.  Robert Parker is successful not only because he had an opinion but because he delivered that opinion in such a way that wine consumers could understand it.  Thus, the 100 point scale is here to stay.  Debating it’s merits may prove entertaining for writers and avid wine lovers alike adding fuel to fires and burning up blogs. However, since the average wine drinker likes it, the debate is ultimately futile because the masses have spoken.

Like most winemakers I know, I am alternately elated and dismayed at wine scores.  It’s the most fantastic feeling to have one’s hard work recognized by a good or even great score.  I am still struggling with the fact that I can toil tirelessly, through harvest, aging, blending, and endless hours of worry over what will make the best wines only to have all that work distilled down to a two digit number at the end.  It’s a love/hate relationship. I’m willing to go along with it because the consumers want it and because there is a delicious sense of anticipation from the moment you know your wine has been sent off to the moment that you receive your score.  It’s the possibilities that are exciting.  The chance to possibly, one day turn that two digit number into the coveted three.

6 thoughts on “My Musings on Wine Scores

  1. Judging anything by what the public responds to is dangerous. Look at the Jersey Shore? Just because people responded to the 100 point system does not mean it does not need updating. First and for most scores from single tasters should never have any merit. There are too many variables that effect a person to say that their assessment of a wine was accurate on that day. Scores should be used only by a tasting panel. This would eliminate a person having a bad day or a preconceived notions of a region or varietal. The credibility of the system itself is questioned because of questionable ethical behavior by well known critics who handed out 90 point scores like tic tacs. I own a store and I do not use scores at all because it takes away from my authority. Customers have to trust me not a critic. I have taken the first test in the master sommelier series I have worked in both retail and wholesale of the wine business. I understand that the 100 point system is a useful marketing tool, but it is fundamentally flawed and needs to be tweaked.

  2. Nova,
    I asked myself and others why one persons opinon so important? Why aren’t medals equally important? When we see a gold medal for a particular wine we scoff at times, especially if the medal comes from an un-prestigious competition and from an unprestigious viticultural area. How come Parker or Heimoff ratings have more weight than say yours?
    I know it is an ego boost and a grade on how the winery/winemaker is doing, but shouldn’t sales and, possibly more importantly, long-term wine club member retention a better way to rate the quality of a wine/winery/vintage? If you are in Napa, and you are selling Cabernet Sauvignon made from the same vineyard, made essentially the same way using the same methods as the guy acrosds the street on Hwy 29, and you are outselling him/her 2:1, shouldn’t that be the benchmark?

  3. Hi Robert,
    Thanks for your comment. I understand your thought that past precedence and current sales would be a better way to sell wine. Sales numbers are often not a good way to estimate quality. Being the #1 selling Chardonnay in the Country doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best Chardonnay. Referencing your Napa example, a fellow colleague of mine has a favorite quote saying “once you’re playing in the ball park everything else is just better marketing”. So yes, you could be in Napa, making Cabernet the same way a neighbor down the street is and outselling them 2:1 and not get as much respect from the critics especially if you’re being out marketed. Are they selling less because they are more exclusive than you are? Are they selling for a higher price? Unfortunately, consumers turn to critics to determine estimated quality, not who out sells whom.

  4. Hi Gregg,
    I don’t disagree with any of your points. I personally can’t stand the Jersey Shore (the show. The actual place is quite nice!). I am not the target audience for that show but somehow it has high enough ratings that it stays on television, draws in advertising, and continues it’s reign of embarrassment to the great state of NJ. Someone is watching it. Enough people, in fact that they have given the show cultural relevance (a scary thought but true). The same can be said of the 100 point system. You may not like it. You may think it’s wrong on so many levels but since consumers want it’s simplicity, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I love the fact that you don’t use scores in your shop. That’s fantastic! It’s good to see a retailer get so involved in the day to day choices of their customers. It seems there are many times that retailers let the scores do the selling for them. This part of why consumers are so reliant on the scores to begin with. I’d much rather a retailer describe the wine to me and know my tastes than have to rely on a score but that is not always the case. Props to you for changing that!

    As to the credibility of the system, I wouldn’t judge an entire group of critics based on the alleged ethical missteps of one or even a few. Each critic should be measured on their own merits. I think this is a separate issue than if the 100 point scoring system is the correct way to be determining wine quality.

    Thanks for your comments! Great stuff!

  5. Hi Nova, I give you 100 points for an effort that will never end the debate, but you put forth a well thought out perspective.
    I think scoring wine may depend on circumstances, presumptions, and intent; not to get into adding or subtracting from what you have said, I think the idea behind making a “good” wine is to be true to the “ART” of the winemaker, and let the “chips” or dust fall where they may; good music, painting, or wine may not get the scores (right away) but the quality and character of the wine will come through, and the “art” itself will find away to the people, if not via a score, then by word of mouth, or dare I say the blog-o-sphere. If a winemaker is looking to getting a big score, she/he maybe sacrificing her/his art, and if the concern is money only, then she/he gets what they deserve.
    From a Newbie wine taster,
    Dennis

  6. Thanks Dennis! Great point. Hopefully the end quality will shine through in the wines regardless of the score.

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