For some time now I have been trying to decide how I feel about the 100-point wine rating system. Is it good, bad, useful or even beneficial to wine consumers?
Explanation of the 100-Point Wine Rating Scale
A wine rating (50 to 100 points) is a score given to a particular wine by one or more wine critics after the critics have tasted the wine. It is a summary of the wine critic’s evaluation of the wine. The 100-point wine rating system was developed by Robert Parker, an influential critic of wines from around the world. Other notable critics who use 100-point systems are Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Antonio Galloni of Vinous, and Wine-Searcher.com.
The 100-point system has pretty much dominated the discussion of wine since it was first developed and popularized by Robert Parker in the 1970s. There are other systems, such as the 20-point scale, used by some in the U.S., but mostly in Europe (particularly in Britain). The 100-point system has become, by far, the industry standard.
Let’s examine Robert Parker’s 100-point quality scale:
An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase and consume.
An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character…In short, these are terrific wines.
A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character, with no noticeable flaws.
An average wine with little distinction except that it is soundly made…In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
A wine deemed to be unacceptable.
… and here is what Parker has to say about the system, taken from his website, “the numerical ratings are utilized only to enhance and complement the thorough tasting notes, which are my primary means of communicating my judgements to you.”
I have no doubt that back in the early years of the numerical point system it was, and still is to a degree today, beneficial. Today I believe the system is flawed but it is so ingrained into the wine industry it is impossible to change it. Certainly everyone involved in the industry talks about their scores or the scores of others. One of the downsides to scoring is that high scores drive (in many cases) wine pricing up to high levels. If you are a wine producer you don’t have much choice but to get your wines rated by critics. The bigger the critic and the higher the score the better off you are.
I remember running into the scoring issue when I first started in the wine business in 2010. I was producing three wines at the time and had our 2008 Tiedemann Signature Series Red, 2008 Glenwood Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and our 2008 Glenwood Cellars Sauvignon Blanc bottled and was trying to get distributors to handle my wines throughout the Midwest. I was trying to get any distributor I could in Chicago just try my wines or put them on their list after they tasted them. I called 25 plus distributors in the Chicago-land market more or less begging them to either try my wines or if they had tried them, to distribute them for me.
I remember two instances where I ran up against the scoring system in that effort. In today’s wine world many distributors will not consider handling wine by small producers (such as Tiedemann Wines). If you don’t produce 10,000 cases (or more) of wine annually they figure you can’t bring economy of scale (low pricing) or brand awareness to them. I remember finally getting a distributor to speak to me on the phone and about the second question he asked me was “are your wines rated?” When I replied “no they weren’t” his response was “Oh, we only consider rated wines for distribution.” It was a polite way to get me off the phone.
The second situation where something like this happened I had finally gotten a distributor to agree to taste my wines. I sent my wines off to them in Chicago and eagerly awaited a response. Nothing came, so after several weeks I phoned the person I had been speaking with and to my annoyance he replied, “Oh yes we tasted your wines at our Friday morning group tasting and frankly weren’t impressed.” He went on to tell me that they thought the Tiedemann Red was what they referred to as a “donut wine.” I had never heard the term before and asked for an explanation. He went on to say it was a wine that had no mid-palate flavor and they didn’t think the wine would sell.
After finishing the phone call I called a good friend and winemaker for our 2008 Tiedemann, Sean Larkin. I explained what the distributor had said about the wine being a donut wine. He explained to me in very specific terms what I should tell the distributor to do and then reminded me that we had made the wine and split it. I had bottled some for the Tiedemann Label and Larkin had bottled the balance under his Grand Label. Sean sent his wine to Robert Parker and it was rated 94 points…Hardly a “donut wine” with a 94-point score from Parker.
I phoned the distributor back and explained the situation and conversation with Sean Larkin and the 94-point rating from Parker. There was a moment of silence on the phone before I said we certainly wouldn’t want him to handle any “donut wines” and wouldn’t be interested in their company handling our wines. These are two examples of how wine ratings can be used to manipulate situations.
We did finally create a relationship with a distributor in the Chicago market: Weinbauer Distributing, a family-owned company that puts the taste of wine and your relationship before wine scores. We now have our wines rated by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Over the past five years we’ve been receiving scores ranging from 87 to 91 points on all of our wines.
Some Thoughts on the 100-Point System
- Tasting a wine is like looking at a piece of art. It is entirely a subjective experience. Wine critics all have different palates, as we all do, and may prefer different styles of wine. Some may like wines that are big and bold, or perhaps dry and chewy. Others may prefer wines that are more subtle and smoother. These preferences may influence their scoring. If you purchase wines on ratings alone, it is good to consider the rating source. Do a little research on how the critics typically rate wines. Some of my Napa Valley friends say that Parker has a tendency to rate too high while Wine Spectator rates to low. The actual score probably falls in the middle. In the end the true score comes from our personal tasting – do we like the wine and how well do we rate it personally?
- The same types of wine have a tendency to taste differently from different regions or countries, but they may be scored the same. For example, a 90-point Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is going to taste differently than a 90-point Sauvignon Blanc from the Sonoma region in California. In my opinion New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s tend to have more acidity than the California wines. You’ll have to judge which 90-point Sauvignon Blanc you like best.
- Winery marketing folks often have a tendency to push a wine’s score rather that its tasting notes. It is OK to know a wine score but, if possible, I want to read the tasting notes so I can get a feel for the wine’s flavor profile…especially if there are a number of wines that I am considering with the same score.
- It is also good to remember that not all wines are rated. It is estimated that over 75% of the wines produced aren’t rated. So a review of a wine’s tasting notes might be useful in making a decision on which wine to purchase. We also need to remember that wineries usually don’t publish, or never publish, their low rating results.
- Rating systems aren’t all the same and for me that is a problem. There are different scales used by different people and publications.
Let’s compare some of the top wine rating scales to see how they compare or are different:
Robert Parker – Wine Advocate
80-89 Barely above average
85-89 Very good
87-89 Very good
Antonio Galloni – Vinous
As you compare the rating systems, you can see there are some with more categories (Wine Enthusiast) which provide for a wider range of scoring. While other scoring ranges are much tighter. Let’s look at the 80- to 89-point range to use as an example. As you can see by examining the four different scales, Parker rates wines in the 80-89 range as “Barely above average” while Wine Spectator rates wines in that range as “Very good” and “Good.” Wine Enthusiast says the wines in this range are “Very good,” “Good” and “Acceptable.” Finally, Antonio Galloni says that wines in this range are “Excellent to Average.” So we go from “Barely above average” to “Excellent” in one category. Again it is good to remember that wine scores are just the critic’s opinion on the wine. Our opinion of the wine is the most important.
- As I mentioned earlier, it is estimated that 75% of all wines produced aren’t rated. Since there are thousands upon thousands of wines for us to choose from, having the 100-point rating system is a good reference guide to get us started in our selection of wines in the 25% that are rated. It is good to remember that there are some great wines in the 75% that aren’t rated…it might just take a little more effort to find them. I hate to keep harping on this but remember: we all need to also consider the wine’s tasting notes and origin. Those two items will tell us a lot about the wine’s flavor profile.
- The rating system also gives you a history of a wine or wine’s performance over a period of time, assuming that it has past vintages that have been rated. Consistent scores in a certain range might suggest a particular quality level. But you’ll only know that by tasting the wine. You may also want to compare several critics’ scores of the wine you are considering to see how closely their opinions match. I find the review of several years’ scores helpful when I am purchasing wine to put in my wine collection to age for future consumption.
- Even with its flaws the 100-point system makes choosing wine less daunting for the average wine consumer.
For now I think the current 100-point rating system, regardless of the categories, is here to stay until something better comes along. Yes, it has some flaws. But if you recognize them and take them into account when you are selecting your wines it should work out fine.
If you have noticed that the rating system starts at 50 and goes to 100. You might be asking yourself what happened to the other 50 points? The first 50 points are just added…in order to make the system a hundred points.
Let’s take a quick look at how Robert Parker allocates scores to the different parts of a wine’s flavor profile. When he is done he simply adds the points together to get his overall a score.
- 5 Points for First Impression or Color
- 15 Points for Aroma or Bouquet
- 10 Points for Flavor
- 10 Points for Finish
- 10 Points for Aging Potential
Using this scale as a guideline perhaps you can develop your own 100-point rating scale. I do have several friends who have come up with their own rating system to score wines. In the end the only way to truly judge a wine is to taste it and think about it. Your palate is the most important one of all, regardless of the critic’s score.
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Until next week,
Calendar of Upcoming Events:
August 1 – Albariño Day
August 14 – International Rosé Day
August 18 – Pinot Noir Day
August 31 – International Cabernet Day (Thursday before Labor Day)
September 15 – International Grenache Day (3rd Friday in September)