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If point scores give you reassurance, go ahead and trust them…



…no matter how many articles like this one you read that tell you to ignore them.

Now, the first thing I’m going to tell you is that the author of the article, MJ Skegg—a good writer–got all nine of his bullet points correct! MJ is the wine writer for the Portland, Oregon, Mercury, and yes, he’s right, for the most part, when he makes his accusations against scores:

  1. It’s all subjective
  2. Wine critics are human
  3. The wines start to look the same
  4. Experts are inconsistent
  5. They ignore context
  6. They inflate prices
  7. The scores keep getting bigger
  8. The system is (allegedly) corrupt
  9. They’re prescriptive

I might dispute some of his points a little, and I will in a second; but by and large he’s correct (although he’s not really breaking any new ground. Other writers and bloggers have made the same points for years). So how come I say that, for all the correctitude of his points, they still are not (as the lawyers say) dispositive?

Because you could say the same things about any system of wine reviewing! Go down the list and substitute any system you want; each of them is capable of being critiqued for all nine of MJ’s reasons. So that means no system is better or worse than any other. You might as well pick and choose the one that works for you. That any system of judgment created by humans is fallible is obvious; that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Besides, we all know that, of all the reviewing systems in the world, the 100-point system is the most popular. Like the old saying goes, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Therefore, if you’re using it (and I do, when I’m looking for a wine), you shouldn’t feel guilty.

I will admit, as I have before, that MJ’s point (e), “scores ignore context,” is true. It’s hard to pack context into a number! However, every point score I’ve ever seen, including my own, also had a text review attached, which is where you’ll find the context. Granted, a 40-word text review isn’t very capacious, and I always found myself wishing I could write 100 words, or even more, for my reviews; one could write a book on some wines. But you have to draw the line someplace. In one of his articles, MJ’s reviews sound just like they came from Wine Enthusiast, only without the number! Not much context there. I also don’t quite “get” the accusation that scores inflate prices. Not sure how that works. Wine prices have been going up (like prices for everything else) since, like, forever. Take a peek at Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux” to track classified growth Bordeaux prices over centuries. Robert Parker did not create the demand for the First Growths; it’s been there since before America was a country.

So I would tell consumers, Hell, yeah, MJ’s brief concerning scores is spot-on. But rather than undermining scores, he actually makes the case for them, and for the wine critics who use them. Critics are human, just as MJ points out. They are fallible; they have their foibles; neither are they consistent. But don’t you want a human giving you their take? They, like you, me and MJ, are just out there, doing their jobs. If you find a critic you can relate to, at least you know whom you’re dealing with, as opposed to crowd-sourced-type reviewing platforms, which are a mobocracy. If Steve Tanzer or Paul Gregutt floats your boat—if you know them (or feel as if you do) through their writings—if you trust them—if you understand that, as MJ implies, point scores are figurative rather than literal, and you know how to use them as part (but not the whole part) of your buying decision—if you feel that you can use all the help you can get in making that buying decision (and don’t we all?)—then go right ahead, use point scores. Like I said, when I’m exploring a wine or region I’m not that familiar with, I always turn to my trusted bevy of 100 point-based critics, and I’ve not often been disappointed.

* * *

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I’m in Oregon. These travel days don’t leave a lot of extra time for creative writing, and I don’t want to put up crap.


  1. redmond barry says:

    Fredric Koeppel does the best tasting notes , in part because he keeps wine in the context of what you’re drinking it with. This doesn’t preclude aperitif and cocktail wines, but does put them in their proper, ahistorical perspective.Otherwise tasting is a beauty contest, and point scales over 20 are largely arbitrary.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    1) “It’s all subjective.”

    That’s the opinion of Ali Amidi, a neuroscientist from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, as quoted by Decanter wine columnist Andrew Jefford.

    “Jefford on Monday: A Label Drinker Comes Out”


    2) “Wine critics are human.” — and — 4) “Experts are inconsistent.”

    That’s the opinion of Caltech probability professor Leonard Mlodinow.

    “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion”


    5) “They ignore context.”

    That’s the opinion of Decanter wine columnist Andrew Jefford, who defends not tasting wines “blind” and swallowing (not simply rinsing and spitting) tastes.

    “Jefford on Monday: Thinking about Tasting”


    6) “They inflate prices.”

    Wineries and their importers/distributors/brokers establish prices. Wine reviews come after the wine has been priced and shipped to the retail market.

    Consumer demand for high scoring scarce wines push up (“inflate”) prices in the aftermarket (e.g., wine auctions).

    Selective California “cult” Cab and Cab-blend wineries — seeking their mailing list patrons exploiting the arbitrage between release price and aftermarket price by “flipping” them for a tidy profit — sought to “claw back” some of those profits by “inflating” their mailing list prices (thereby narrowing the arbitrage).

    Historical footnote: The inaugural 1992 release Screaming Eagle sold for around $40 on the mailing list. Today, the current release sells for around $850. That incredibly lucrative DTC mailing list program was what motivated Stan Kroenke and Charles Banks to pay purportedly $50 million to buy the winery from founder Jean Philips.

    Consider: William Langewiesche in his The Atlantic [December 2000] profile of Robert Parker asserted: “The truth is that even the best wines cost only about $10 a bottle to produce, and they are not inherently rare.”

    “The Million-Dollar Nose”


    7) “The scores keep getting bigger [i.e., higher].”

    Steve’s blog and W. Blake Gray’s blog (and no doubt others) have addressed “grade inflation” in wines over the past decade.

    One exception: Stephen Tanzer, who has awarded only one “100 point” score to a wine. That being 2010 Egon Muller-Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, (Mosel, Germany).

    8) “The system is (allegedly) corrupt.”

    I don’t what that means. Is MJ Skegg suggesting “pay for play” among the wine reviewers?

    9) “They’re prescriptive.”

    I don’t know what the term means.

    (Closing comment. “Robert Parker did not create the demand for the First Growths; it’s been there since before America was a country.” No doubt this sentence was meant more as hyperbole rather than history. First Growths weren’t established until the 1855 Classification . . . “a few” years after the founding of our country.

    Link: )

  3. I especially agree that finding a wine critic that you can trust is essential. Wine critics do not rate all wines the same, but if you find yourself frequently in agreement with a particular critic you can’t help but respect their scores.

    Overall, the best way to judge a wine is by drinking it yourself!

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