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Wine rating systems: time for a change


I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    I absolutely refuse to be the first comment here.

    (Oh snap, I just was!)

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Recalling Bill Murray’s movie . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (March 14, 2013, Page D4?):

    “Lost in Translation: The Lingo for Tasting Wine”


    By Jason Chow
    Staff Reporter

    Accompanying sidebar exhibit:

    Many Western wine flavors make no sense to the Chinese, says Christie’s Simon Tam.

    “You Say Cherries, I Say Chiuchow Master Stock”

    How do you describe flavors that are geographically and culturally foreign? Below, two separate sets of tasting notes for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Grands-Echezeaux 2002 by Simon Tam . . . head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house. One write-up is for a Western audience, the other, for a Chinese one.

    Tasting Notes in English

    “There are sweet, pure and classic pinot fruit aromas enhanced by subtle nuances of floral flower notes, damp earth, crushed cherries and fleshy raspberry, even a hint of aged game meat. The palate is muscular and reserved but somewhat backward. It is a very concentrated wine, but will need time to bring out its best.”

    Tasting Notes, Chinese translation:

    “There are fragrant aromas of dates, Chinese herbal medicine and Chiuchow master stock [an aromatic, heavily flavored soy-based liquid used to poach meats], enhanced by sweet, fruity and lasting tastes, with even a hint of the sweetness of dang gui [a traditional Chinese herbal medicine]. This can be drunk now for its fruity flavor, or aged for another 20-30 years. Best to pair with crispy barbecue pork.”

  3. Csaba Szakál says:

    Steve, I enjoy reading your reviews a lot more since you retired purely because you are not limited by 40 words or whatever the limitations were by the space allotment in the magazine. Your reviews have given me great insights and informative feedback. With that said I also tend to just use the scores for wine promotions most of the time in the tasting room. People understand it very easily and even if I have to explain the system it can be done in a short time. Luckily in the tasting room we have the advantage of the consumer having first hand experience as well as opposed to trying to sell a bottle in a shop. Numbers are easy and effective and surprisingly informative in both of those situations.

  4. Thanks Csaba. Nice of you to weigh in!

  5. Steve:

    The 100-point scale as a communication tool is underwhelming but helpful. While I would rather dig into the meat of where and why and how with any wine, the sheer number of new wine offerings every month makes it impossible to “know” even a small fraction of them. If you trust the reviewer, it is relatively easy to gauge, by the number, whether you are going to enjoy the wine.

    Nothing will ever replace the enjoyment to be found in talking with a passionate wine lover about one of my wines in my tasting room, to be sure, but if the goal is to “communicate” with as large a group as possible at one time, a reputable reviewer and his/her scores are necessary substitutes.

    Steven Mirassou

  6. Steven, you’re right. If the 100-point system wasn’t helpful to a lot of different audiences, it wouldn’t have stayed around for so long.

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