Scoring Wine

While some have suggested that scoring is not well suited to a beverage that has been romantically extolled for centuries, wine is no different from any consumer product.

Robert Parker Jr., The Wine Advocate

We don’t do ratings because they’re the opposite of empowerment. Ratings say that you can’t trust your own palate.

Alan Kropf, Mutineer Magazine

Everywhere you look these days people are being asked to rate a wide variety of experiences, vacation rentals, purchases, accommodations, entertainment choices, and of course the wines they drink. In the current rating economy having positive ratings on highly trafficked websites like Amazon or TripAdvisor can increase sales and improve a businesses’ status and profile. In fact, it’s hard to purchase anything these days without getting a follow-up request to take a survey or respond to some questions about your experiences. 

Whether it comes to the hotels you have stayed in, the sneakers you bought, or the restaurants you have dined in, an important question to ask is, “Can you trust the general public’s opinion of these commodities or experiences or should you defer to noted experts for guidance?” And furthermore, can numbers (numerical ratings) really offer relevant information to the ratings and commentaries that might help your purchasing decisions? Before we take a look at online rating services, a few fundamental ideas about scores and ratings are worth discussing.

Assessment vs. Evaluation

An important distinction to make at the outset of this chapter is the difference between the process of assessing and evaluating. Assessment is the gathering of information about a particular subject, event, phenomenon, concept, or in this case, a particular wine. Evaluation is the placing of value upon the information gathered. These are fundamentally different processes, entailing different procedures, and requiring different attitudes about the information collected. Assessment is about understanding, evaluation is about judgment and inherent quality.

The root word of evaluation is value, which refers to the placing of value upon that which is being experienced and assessed. In the wine world, it is the quality of a particular style of wine that is usually being assessed and evaluated, although wineries, vineyards, importers, and negociants are often evaluated as well. The difference between assessment and evaluation is the difference between wine criticism as a process of education and trying to better understand something or as a process of passing judgment. 

When it comes to wine, critics are required to do both; gather information about a wine through the use of one’s senses and prior experiences and research, and pass judgment about a wine’s quality. This white wine is a crisp wine, with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle, or this red wine is dominated by the aromas of green bell pepper, pencil shavings, cigar box, and eucalyptus. These are the words used to describe, or represent, the sensory experiences associated with a particular wine. It is about putting into words the sensory experiences of a taster. Gathering information about a vineyard, the weather patterns during a particular growing season, the brix levels at harvest, or a wine’s acidity levels can all be accomplished without evaluating whether the wine is of a certain quality. Tasting sheets offered by wineries about wines they are selling contains lots of this kind of information. 

Judging a wine is quite different from describing or assessing a wine though these terms are often conflated. “This is a crappy white wine,” is a judgment, an evaluation that is in need of much more information to be valuable to anyone. To be able to effectively, or accurately, evaluate a particular wine, wine tasters or critics need a sensitive palate, extensive prior experiences with the type of wine being tasted, the writing skills to communicate the results of their analyses and the social skills to render these judgments.

Robert Parker and the 100 Point Scale

The world renown (it says so on his website) wine critic Robert Parker Jr (RPJ) has been providing scores for thousands of wines each year for a few decades now. The sheer numbers of wines he and his hand-selected employees have scored would boggle the mind. However, a quick assessment of his whole scoring enterprise, broken down by the numbers of wines scored and days in a year would suggest that he scores (or drinks) lots of wine every day. Since RPJ is considered one of the most influential wine critics in the United States, we will take a closer look at some of the information provided on his website. From the opening pages of

Scoring wines is simply taking a professional's opinion and applying some sort of numerical system to it on a consistent basis. Scoring permits rapid communication of information to expert and novice alike.” He states his ratings, “reflect an independent, critical look at the wines. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize, and there are benchmark wines against which others can be judged.”

Independent is an interesting word in this context. Independent of external influences, like wine retailers and wine makers? Independent of his own personal biases? A window into an independent reality simply being reported objectively? Independent of any context whatsoever? Parker continues…

“Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic's overall qualitative placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peer group. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine's style, personality, and potential. No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional's judgment.However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”

What I was hoping to read on his website was a statement outlining Parker’s personal wine preferences. Maybe something like I, Robert Parker Jr. being of sound (and excellent) tasting capabilities, declare I really like high alcohol, bold, fruit-forward wines over subtle, more austere ones. This statement would help us to better know where he stands, to better understand what he prefers. I think the best thing to do is find a wine critic that likes the same kinds of wines you like and follow their advice. 

For any given wine, it is important to note the scores offered by an assortment of critics, including Parker, can vary from 1 to 5 points from critic to critic. A wine rated as 93 by one critic might score a 89 by another. This is a drastic difference. Because of these variations, do we have to now evaluate which one of the scores is correct and which of the other scores are misleading? Is there even such a thing as a correct score? If a purely objective score is possible, then only one score can be the right one. But, how do we know which score is the correct one? If twenty critics all score a wine above 92 points, I would assume it is a good wine. But what if only three critics gave it a score of over 92, or only one?

It would be short-sighted to talk about wine scores without mentioning the role that RPJ’s scores has played on the world of wine. In the 1980’s, RPJ, a lawyer by trade, began scoring vintages and individual wines through his newsletter The Wine Advocate. He has stated that the 100 point scoring system, rather than England’s 20 point system, or other scores would relate well to Americans because of their familiarity with the 100 point scale used on many school tests. These scores should be used by other critics, consumers and wholesale buyers to guide their purchases. In fact, at Total Wine and Costco, two of the largest retailers of wine in the United States, many wine labels contain scores from RPJ and other wine critics.

In 2000, Robert Parker wrote in an article in The Atlantic magazine, “… the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable. They should be based on extensive experience and on a trained sensibility for whatever is being reviewed.” He was a staunch advocate for the importance of the role of critic in the wine profession. He believed wine critics should pay their own expenses and not accept “payola” like the music industry did at one time, that judgments should be made solely on the basis of the product in the bottle, to establish “memory points” for the world’s greatest wines, and, “to taste extensively across the field of play to identify the benchmark reference points and to learn winemaking standards throughout the world.”

The biggest challenge isn’t whether we score wines on a 20 point or 100 point scale but how much influence should a wine critic have on the world of wine. Many wine writers have talked about the overdue influence that Parker’s wine scores have had on particular wine sales and production trends. Some have even gone as far as to describe this influences as the Parkerization of Wine. There was a time where if Parker scores a wine with high marks it could have tremendous effects of how that wine sold, pushing some wines to prominence, and others to the shadows. With Parker’s retirement and failing health, his personal involvement in scoring wines has faded. However, his protégé that has taken over The New Advocate, Lisa Perrotti-Brown continues the tradition of scoring wines on a 100-point scale and continues its influence on the world of wines.

Matt Kramer believes the 100-point system provides a hierarchy of quality – for example, a wine scoring 91 points has more quality than a wine scoring 89 points. The same holds true for England’s 20 - point scale only on a different, well scale. Unfortunately, there are so many variables that affect how one tastes or appreciates a particular wine. Where one is, what one is doing, what one is eating, who one is drinking with all have more to do with how much a wine is enjoyed than what is in the bottle at times.

The biggest challenges with any rating system is both a practical one and a mathematical one. Most of the wines scored and advertised in Wine Spectator and other wine publications consistently range from 87-100, with the majority falling in the 90-93 range. This poses a more limited range of evaluations than a 100 point scale would suggest. For example, I have never seen a score given below 85 on any wine in any of the publications I have read these past few years. Now, of course this could be because the crappy wines are not being reported but that may not be the case. The 100 point scale really looks like a 20 point scale in use.

So a better question than how to score wines, is how to control the effects of wine scores and how much should consumers rely on these scores? My suggestion would be that consumers should rely on them as little as possible. Find a critic or two that like the kinds of wine you like or a wine store employee that helps you find the kinds of wines you like at prices you are willing to pay. Take the scores you see in large wine stores with a grain of salt and follow your own senses and tastes.

So What?

In my humble opinion, wine enthusiasts should not allow wine scores to have an overdue influence on their preferences and tasting standards. Develop your own palette. Find the wines that you prefer with your favorite meals and occasions. Wine scores simply do not provide enough information for them to be really useful. The context in which one drinks a wine will have more influence in how it is perceived than any scores posted on the bottle.

With these cautions in mind, I still want to offer my own interpretation of the 100 point scale:

•    85-88: affordable crappy wine, small chance of finding something interesting or shareable unless you share with people that don’t know anything about wine.

•    89-91: pretty good wine, something, if affordable, you would drink on Monday through Thursday evening at home, alone or with people you are not trying to impress. After finishing the wine, no one would have great things to say about it, but no real complaints either.

•    92-94: really good wine, but probably too expensive for most people to open during the week. A wine for special occasions or Friday and Saturday nights.

•    95-97: rare, expensive, probably not a wine you can afford, let alone find anywhere in your favorite retail store. This is saved for an appreciative boss, a new girlfriend that knows a lot about wine or your sommelier friends, hoping they will reciprocate.

•    98-100: Forget it. Unless you are rich, or hang out with rich people who have inside connections you won’t find, let alone drink many of these wines. If you do, it’s probably your 25th anniversary, doctoral graduation, or wedding night.

The only thing I can say for sure about really expensive wines is they cost more than cheaper wines. Like many other modest wine enthusiasts, I may never get to try one of the great Bordeaux or a bottle of DRC. I don’t know what Petrus or Chateau Le Pin tastes like, and possibly won’t ever get to find out unless I hit the lottery. Even if I did get the chance, I am afraid that my blunt palate would not cry out with joy the way so many wine writers do in their recounting of the experience of drinking these iconic wines of the world. I would never turn one down, but I am not saving my pennies to buy a bottle of Petrus for over $5,000.00 either. It is unfortunate that these wines are unavailable to people of modest incomes. I wish access to these rare and exceptional wines was based on different standards, like IQ or educational achievements for example, than social status or accumulated bank assets. I might stand a chance at tasting one.