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Gary V. is right about the 100 point system

19 comments

“Yes,” Gary Vaynerchuk replied to Tom Wark yesterday, when Tom asked him “Is the 100-point wine rating scale a good thing?” on the Fermentation blog.

Finally something GeeVee and I can agree on! Yes, the 100 point scale is a good thing, and here’s why. If you see that a wine got 100 points from a reputable critic, it will get your attention. I don’t care who you are or what your views are on the 100 point system. It’s going to make you think about that wine. You will remember that wine. I still remember the first wine I ever heard about that Parker gave 100 points to. It was Groth Reserve, from (I think) 1985. I never even tasted that wine. But it was memorable.

Now, another critic who doesn’t use the 100 point system might give a wine his highest rating: 4 puffs, or 20 points, or 5 stars, or whatever. But you will not remember that wine because these things are not iconic enough to penetrate the mass of information we take in each day. But 100 points is. I can’t quite explain why, but there’s something so strong about 100 points that it just goes into the eyeball, hits the brain and lights up the mind like a pinball machine.

Now, if 100 points can have that impact on consciousness, I would argue so does every other number below 100 points. If you see 99 points, you’ll think, “Wow, that was almost 100 points.” You’ll wonder what it was that made the critic deduct that final point of perfection. You might find yourself reading the review to learn why. You might even Google the wine to see what other critics said about it. Same with 98 points, or 88 points, or whatever. Every point score, from a critic who uses the 100 point system, is measured against the 100 points the wine theoretically could have scored. When the reader sees the score, he or she automatically begins an internal evaluation process. It may not be fully conscious, but it occurs on some level: the 100 point system allows any wine to click into place on the quality spectrum, which is very easy for readers to comprehend.

People often ask me how I can justify any particular point score. Why 88, they’ll say. Why not 87, or 89? I’ve replied before that an 88 could easily be an 87 one day or an 89 the next day, maybe a 90 the day after that. I admit it. Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time. The more reliable the critic, the more trustworthy you may assume his reaction to be. But obviously a point score is not meant to be taken as a mathematical certainty. This is what the haters of the 100 point system always fail to appreciate. They’re the ones who insist it purports to be a mathematical certainty–not the actual critics who use it. This is a straw man argument: opponents of the 100 point system claim something for it that not even its proponents do, in order to attack the thing claimed. It’s like one of my karate teachers, George, used to do. He’d go to a bar, get drunk, then walk up to some perfect stranger and accuse him of flirting with his girlfriend. In reality, the stranger hadn’t done anything, but George just loved pushing it to the point where he could beat the living daylights out of the poor shlep. This was a nasty, mean and probably insane thing for George to do (the truth is, George was a little crazy), but it’s like what the 100 point bashers do. They impute something to somebody that’s not true, and then they beat the guy up for it.

Anyway, Gary V. is right on when he says the 100 point system is a good thing. It is. It’s the best, most precise and comprehensible wine rating system ever invented. I add only that people should also read the accompanying text, not look only at the number.

  1. I don’t think that one tasting scale is necessarily better than any other. But when one rating system gets broadly accepted by the world, then it is, a priori, better for those who accept it. And when they number in the millions, then it is “case closed”.

    I would much rather have stayed with the three-star, no star, downturned glass system at Connoisseurs’ Guide, but the “world” simply did not share my preference.

    One hundred points, for better or for worse, and there are a lot of arguments on the “for worse” side as well as on the “for better” side, has become the lingua franca of wine reviews. If a critic uses some other system, that critic may have followers but will have a hard time getting recognized beyond that limtited circle.

    It happens in all walks of life. You don’t see many bright yellow cars despite an attempt a couple of years ago to establish that color. It did not take and now manufacturers have abandoned it.

    The point is that the public chooses which color or which rating system or which tipple it prefers. It is neither for the critics nor for the Score Destructionists to tell the public that is cannot have what it wants.

    I am happy to see Gary V endorse the 100-point system, but it would have been just as fine if he did not. The 100-point system is stronger than you or me or Gary V because it is the overwhelming choice of millions of wine drinkers.

  2. It is, for gosh sakes, easy to understand a 100 points system.

  3. For 15+ years most of us were, ourselves, graded on the 100 pt. system in school. I think that may be where the public draw comes from. Perhaps too, that is where the the detractors get their motivation.

  4. I very much appreciate seeing Charlie’s sentiments re the Star System. I salute him. Now let’s compare winemaking and bullfighting. The latter has no scores, the former does. In the latter, people constantly discuss who is the best at any given moment, responding to various schools of thought about how a matador should go about his business. (Or her business; there have been a couple of females) Bullfighting resembles winemaking; there are various schools of thought about how to go about it (for each grape even), and people should discuss the merits of each. But instead, our retail environment is dumbed-down with spam ads and “shelf-talkers” which spout an over-simplification of somebody’s “score.” That’s the problem with the 100-point system: It’s overused and it over-simplifies things.

  5. I’m pretty sure Gary V has used the 100-point system since the early days of WineLibrary.TV, which launched, something like FIVE years ago……not sure how current this news is.

  6. Patrick – that is a good analogy. It seems like everything is set up these days to appeal to the fat part of the bell-curve.

  7. Gregg Burke says:

    “I’ve replied before that an 88 could easily be an 87 one day or an 89 the next day, maybe a 90 the day after that. I admit it. Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time.”
    I have never seen a critic give a description of his state of being at the moment when he/she tasted a wine. Kind of a problem wouldn’t you say?

    “It’s the best, most precise and comprehensible wine rating system ever invented.”

    Look at the above statement. This system is grossly flawed when things such as how a person is feeling, temperature, or time of day being the deciding factor of an 87 and a 90. This glaring flaw make the most precise and best system appear to be the equivalent to declaring someone is the world’s tallest midget.

    I have more faith in tasting panels when it comes to the 100 point system. Because with all the possible variants in mood and body chemistry the outcome is based on an aggregate score Individual critics no matter how skilled or knowledgeable come with their own sets of likes and dislikes, then throw in the multitude of other variables and you have what amounts to some deep flaws in the 100 point system.
    And Just because Gary said it is good means nothing. Keep in mind he made a fortune promoting and using the 100 point system. What did you think he would say? That is no slag on Gary I think the world of him but it is a fact.

  8. Siskel and Ebert didn’t need 100 thumbs to make their point. they did just fine with one thumb each.

  9. The 100 point system is what we are ingrained with throughout our educational system, so it obviously resonates with a large audience.

    For those who hate on it, come up with something better and try to convert, but get off the soap box already, it is tiring. Apple bitched and spent countless millions in court trying to prove their GUI was stolen by Microsoft. When they went out and leveraged their ability to make technology cool in other areas, they went into the stratosphere. So, if you’ve got a better system, go for it and see if you can convert people.

    Another example where the system is used is video games, only they use a 10 point scale with decimals, so it essentially works out the same. 94 or 9.4 are equals.

    One of the things I do like and would love to see in the wine reviewing arena are multiple opinions. You’ll often see 3 reviews of a game versus the standard 1. Perhaps this is impractical for wine publications based on the vaster volume, but even if they did it for just a select group of wines in every publication, it would still be interesting to see. I’d also want all those opinions conducted on simultaneous tastings, since otherwise you’d have more potential variation.

    The points debate reminds me a lot of politics. A lot of discussion with no change to the status quo.

  10. “I can’t quite explain why, but there’s something so strong about 100 points that it just goes into the eyeball, hits the brain and lights up the mind like a pinball machine.” Easy to explain – all through school we have been taught to get 100 on every test quiz and paper to get the best grade. Explains it clearly to me.

  11. Gregg Burke, every rating system is flawed. The other critics won’t tell you that but I will. The others pretend that there’s something mathematical and repeatable about their scores but there isn’t. The best a critic can hope for is consistency. Consumers need to understand that.

  12. Charlies’s comments are right on! The more a winemaker fights it, resists it or ignores it their problems just get bigger. Is there some educating to do with consumers, yes! An 88 is not a bad score and if priced right, could be a must buy!

    I learned a valuable lesson this past week from a Chef. And I think it’s a little like wine. He told me I don’t make food so people can say “that’s interesting” because interesting doesn’t mean I love it or it’s awesome or I’ll come back and eat here again. You know in wine many wine makers tout theirs wines as “interesting” or “different than others” but the fact is, that doesn’t always mean good or great! It sometimes comes down to wine styles for a winemaker and the fact is some styles just have problems selling no matter what score you give them.

  13. Greg B makes the most compelling argument for turning to panels, whether they be at four person state fair competitions, oftentimes with larger panels for “Best of ” categories, or the de facto panel compilation of movie reviews boiled down to Roger E’s thumbs up/thumbs down on http://www.RottenTomatoes.com, which also tabulates consumer reactions using a five point system. You can arrive at a 100 point system with any of these broader categories. On Rotten Tomatoes the summing and dividing of pros and cons results in a percentage score. The movie ‘Contagion’, for example, gets a 83% (=83 points) approval rating by the nation’s leading critics and 67% from 20,000+ regular people (hard to “spam review” this at such a number which happens too often on Trip Advisor or Yelp).

    The RT ratings are not completely comparable since a wine 100 pt methodology is really a 30 pt system, and Rotten Tomatoes uses all 100 points. Nonetheless, movie goers turn to RottenTomatoes.com to see which flicks are in the 90s just as wine drinkers do with the channels they use. Some even read the reviews.

    As discussed in the past but should always be mentioned when this topic comes up, CellarTracker.com accommodates all the statistical “noise” mentioned by Steve and underscored by Greg–variables that interfere with a single tasting by a single reviewer. Barbara Drady’s exhaustive but not exhausting “Shoot Out” competition also bears mentioning. In the last Pinot Noir Shootout, the ratings–arrived at over three months–of 40 professionals in panels are used to narrow the selection for the wine enthusiasts’ varietal “Summit” evalutation among 32 finalists tasted blind and randomly. She also breaks down the ratings by gender.

    So the problem is not with the 100 points, IMHO, but how the points were generated.

  14. Gary V is in the business of selling wine, not rating wine. Cinderella Wine is based entirely upon the 100 point system. Why is anybody surprised a wine merchant who sells with points likes a points-based system?

    Is it accurate? No.

    Is it easy to understand? Yes.

    Does it appear to offer precision? Yes.

    Does it offer precision? No.

    Does the fact that it’s easy to understand, appears to be precise, yet is almost perfectly arbitrary mean it is doing a disservice to the consumer? Yes. And that is not a straw man.

    Steve, your karate teacher was an ass, but he is not a good example for this argument. Nothing below is a straw man.

    I suggest that the 100 point system is grossly flawed, and ultimately lies to the consumer, for precisely the reasons you note in the essay – if a wine can vary from 87 to 90, depending upon your mood, the temperature, what you had for breakfast, whether your dog threw up in the car, and whether you drink it before or after listening to Michelle Bachmann argue that the HPV vaccine causes retardation in young girls, then it is flawed. Why? Because when you say “89,” you are promising that the wine did not reach the 90 point mark. You are also saying that it is superior to the wine for the same price next to it, which you only scored an 87. In other words, you are misleading the consumer. If, on the other hand, you would “highly recommend” all three, or all three would earn four stars, or even a thumbs up, with each rating you have delivered a review within the promised level of precision.

    The problem with the 100 point scale is not that it isn’t easy to understand.

    The problem with the 100 point scale is that it is a lie.

  15. “This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time.”

    False

    “Don’t even think of drinking it before 2014, and it should evolve in the bottle for a good 10 years after that. — S.H. (5/1/2011) — 99″

    How can you say that a wine that is not ready to open now is 1 point away from perfection right now? Is that 99 points you gave this wine based on the wine’s current state or its potential?

    How can Parker and Suckling give 100-pt scores to wines in barrels when they are not even finished. If these two ‘experts’ say the wine is perfect now, why doesn’t the winery bottle it at that very moment? Why do consumers wait 20 years to open a 100-pt wine when it is perfect even before it is labeled? Snapshot, I think not. Guess at a wines potential, yes.

  16. Ditto Colorado Wine Press.

  17. Gregg Burke says:

    Steve I applaud your honesty. The critics who try to pretend that there is a science behind what they do have bought into thier own bs. I would like to see a revision of the system, not an abandoning of it. I do not really have a dog in the fight because I will never use scores in my shop, but I think all the row over the 100 point system should point out to most that there needs to be some changes made. It has been bastardized to a point where many consumers do not even read the tasting notes if it is not 90 points and that is a real shame. I think we can agree that the system is flawed. It is not good or bad but it could use some revision.

  18. There will always be some level of subjectivity in being a critic of anything. I believe it is safe to assume that even though Steve made the photograph comment, he meant that he is making every effort at the moment he is attempting to taste, evaluate, and score a wine to be as objective and fair (in his own mind) when he writes his review, but he is still human. No two umpires in MLB call the same strike zone, and on any given night there could be 16 critics calling balls and strikes behind home plate in 16 different venues. As a player, you do not get to choose your umpire crew, but you have to have faith that they are making the fairest calls possible.

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