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The score as shortcut



Richard Hemming MW had a provocative posting last week on Jancis’s Purple Pages. The header says it all: Excoriating Scoring. It was in fact a commentary, fairly scathing at times albeit with some fine and amusing phrases, on “nonsensical rating systems masquerading as obdurate fact,” and compared the writers of such scoring systems to “a doomed army… marching blithely onward with…deluded confidence…”.

Ouch! That sounds like something 1WineDude might have written seven years ago. Wait a minute, he did.

Bashing point scores in 2008 was already jumping the shark, but it could at least be understood in the context of blogging being a young sport, and bloggers who couldn’t get paid were perhaps understandably eager to upset a few Big Critic apple carts and vie for the majors. I got it then; I get it now; it’s the way things go.

But at this point in the history of wine writing and reviewing, do we really have to bash this, that or the other rating system? I mean, we’re all in this together; why be partisan about it? We can all get along if we just try, because each system, each approach has its pluses and minuses.

Richard Hemming MW himself concedes that scores do possess a certain usefulness. Good thing, since apparently he uses a 20-point system. I can trust that I’ll like whatever I score above 17 more than anything I score below 16,” he says. I actually said almost the same thing last Wednesday, when I was holding a tasting for young sommeliers on the beautiful Maya Riviera. One of them asked if my personal taste comes into play when I score a wine. “No,” I said. But, I added, “it’s much more likely that I would want to drink a wine I give 95 to than one I give 84.”

Nobody ever said that point scores are the perfect solution for anything. Like democracy itself, they’re messy—but as Richard Hemming MW writes, “there is simply no better alternative” to the point system. I myself have long been uneasy with point scores, as I am about many things, but I have become reconciled to the fact that the world is not a neat place in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit tidily together. This is a frenzied globe we inhabit. We do our best with the muddle in which we find ourselves. That includes ways to taste, review, write and talk about wine. A part of me wishes I had been born in the mid-1800s, in England, into the cadre of British dons who gloried in the Golden Age of Bordeaux and wrote about it in prose that may strike some as purple, but that nonetheless outshines in literacy anything you’re likely to find today. Alas, my fate, for better or worse, was to be born a Baby Boomer, riding the crest of the wave that brought wine from an infinitesimal and rather obscure element in America to the behemoth it is today, with somms the new rock stars and companies from airlines to newspaper conglomerates peddling their wine clubs. Part of that crest was the 100-point system, a bit of flotsam Baby Boomers, reared on school exams, understood in their bones. Maybe you had to be there, thirty years ago and more, to appreciate how radical and revolutionary, how wonderful and beautiful those scores were to those of us who subscribed to Parker, or, as I did, to Wine Spectator when it was still a tabloid published in San Francisco. Maybe I am just wistful for the lost days of youth, gazing through the misty veil of nostalgia at a past that will never be again. Still, it was really something.

I suppose there is a legitimate school of thought that says all things must pass; what worked 30 years ago does not work today. But, really, is that true? You can argue for or against anything, but it does help to understand History before brandishing contempt for things whose roots go deep into time. Parker’s invention of the 100-point system was actually designed to help budding wine drinkers—a noble goal, and one that demonstrably succeeded. He did not wish to dominate wine drinkers, or to cater to “our collective human desperation to impose order on things” (Richard Hemming MW), as if there were something wrong with the human desire to make sense out of chaos.

At any rate, it’s my belief that people—consumers—want visual, not just written, guidance concerning the things they spend their money on. Here in San Francisco our movie reviewer uses The Little Man


who may or may not be jumping out of his seat. The Chron’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, uses stars (including half stars), as does, of course, Michelin. A score, even a 100-point score, is nothing more than a visual icon, plain and simple. Scores may be shortcuts, but we all like to take the quicker route sometimes, don’t we?

  1. “… as Richard Hemming MW writes, ‘there is simply no better alternative’ to the point system.”

    As trial lawyers might say: “Facts not in evidence.”

    Various 100 point scales assign qualitative descriptors to wines – such as: “Poor/Below Average.” “Fair/Average.” “Good.” “Very Good.” “Excellent.” “Outstanding.”

    Each descriptor typically covers a 5 point range.

    If a wine garners an “Outstanding” evaluation, does it really matter if the number is 96 or 98 . . . given that such specific scores cannot be consistently replicated by wine critics?

    Quoting Steve Heimoff (circa 2011):

    “(When wines are 3 or 4 points apart, their relative standings can easily switch, given the vagaries of time and bottle variation.)”


    Quoting Robert Parker (circa 1997):

    “The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

    — and –

    Quoting Robert Parker (circa 2002):

    “… Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.”

    Quoting Caltech professor Leonard Mlodinow (circa 2009) on the research of retired Humboldt State University statistic professor-turned-vintner Robert Hodgson:

    “The [California State Fair Wine Competition] judges’ wine ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next.”

    The wine industry has built a pyramid of logic on the fallacious notion that wine scores are exactingly arrived at and repeatable.

    “Facts not in evidence.”

  2. Blast from the past!

    Numerical shortcuts are, in my view, a bit more dangerous than most other versions, based on how most humans use numbers:

    1) They imply a degree of precision that we have serious evidence to suggest doesn’t exist (the degree level, that is, not the precision overall), and

    2) Numbers are fungible, so our human brains almost immediately want to move into comparison-mode when we use them (which is not a safe thing to do when it comes to wine).

    Otherwise, numerical shortcuts/ratings share the same shortcomings as all other rating systems; I just think that the numerical versions have more shortcomings than the non-numeric. Of course, we also have to consider the source; I might trust a numeric score from you, Steve, more than a non-numeric one from many other sources, but once we get into the same band/level of capability of the critics, then things get a lot murkier and those shortcomings probably come into play for most people.

  3. Joe, my adopted internet son, you disappoint me. I thought you had learned better than this from me.

    Your alphabet rankings are no more objective, correct, useful, defensible than any other system whether one-hundred points or ten chopsticks. Either you accept that rating systems are a useful adjunct to word descriptions (and we won’t even begin to discuss your form of descriptions)or you do not, but it cannot be both ways.

    Hemmings uses 20 points, as do most English reviewers, and most of them add breakdowns in tenths of points, thus winding up with 200 possible ranking points.

    Steve is being kind in his comments about how silly this discussion has become.

  4. I drink a lot of wine — not taste — drink. Probably too much, but at my age, so what if I shuffle off this mortal coil at 85 rather than 90. I would much rather go at 85 with a smile on my face than at 90 having never partaken in those things that are said to shorten lives but have delivered great joy.

    I use my own 100 point scale and assign a rating to most bottles I drink (based on my own preferences). My scores are important to me, if no one else, because they tell me whether I should re-up on PNO from winery X or try a bottle from another producer instead. They also give me some assurance that my preferences are fairly consistent. It’s always reassuring to see that I rated a specific wine 94 and six months later when I have another bottle of the same wine (with no memory of the first bottle — age can do that) and enter the score in my database I find I have given it a score within the same range.

    So, long live scoring. It works for me.

  5. I have to say that I find it very difficult to believe that personal taste does not come into play when judging a wine, even for a pro.

  6. Papa Olken, I don’t want to disappoint you! Are you trying to send me to therapy because of paternal rejection??? 🙂

    Regarding this:

    “Your alphabet rankings are no more objective, correct, useful, defensible than any other system whether one-hundred points or ten chopsticks.”

    I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth on this, and I am not saying that my system is more objective / etc. I am only saying that I personally am more comfortable offering a quality range within which I believe the wine falls, rather than a numerical version that, in my view, has a couple more issues with it than my system. In the grand scheme of things, all versions of those systems are much more alike than they are different; I just don’t like the additional baggage that I think comes with the numerical versions.

  7. Patrick–Of course it does. All of us have unique perspectives, and even the most open-minded of critics, one who does not say there is only one way to make a particular variety and only one place to grow it, still will have limits on all kinds of things ranging from brett to ripeness levels to acidity–and on and on.

    The best one can hope for is consistency in opinion and a clear description of what the taster found in the wine–hopefully also with some indication of why why the wine was rated the way it was.

  8. As a winemaker, I’ve basically done a complete 180 on the subject. I used to think scores were total b.s. Now I look at it more like a grade on a test. A student who gets an 96 isn’t necessarily “smarter” than a student who gets a 91, nor is the student who gets an 85 a “bad student”. Focusing too much on grades is like forsaking wisdom for the sake of knowledge. I don’t believe that the highest scores equal the best wines.

    But if you’re getting bad grades in school, then you probably need to look inward and make some improvements. And someone who is consistently getting good grades is probably pretty smart, regardless of how their intelligence compares to other students with similar grades. While one grade doesn’t necessarily prove anything, a student (or winery) that consistently gets good grades (or scores) is probably pretty good at what they do.

    my two cents.

  9. Joe, gotcha. To each, his or her own is fine with me as the final standard of measure for writers and consumers alike.

  10. From the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section “Letters to the Editor” Subsection
    (June 22, 2007, Page Unknown):

    “Keeping Score on Ratings”



    “Re “Are ratings pointless?” (June 15): Well, gee, all this fuss (yet again) about the 100-point scale. So it doesn’t tell everything you need to know about a wine. Do four stars? Twenty points? No, you have to read the critic’s words.

    “Does it reward subtle wines? That’s up to the critic using the scale. Do subtle wines that lack drama ever get four-star ratings from the Chronicle’s team? No, they get two or 2½ stars, which pretty much corresponds to a 100-point score in the 80s.

    “The main reason I like to use the 100-point scale is that it lets me communicate more to my readers. They can tell that I liked a 90-point wine just a little better than an 89-point wine, but a 94-point wine a lot more than one rated 86. Doesn’t that say more than giving both the 90-and 94-point wines three stars and both the 89- and 86-point wines 2?


    Editor at Large, Wine Spectator”

    The article Harvey alludes to:

    “Are Ratings Pointless?;
    The highs — and lows — of the 100-point scale”


  11. It has little if anything to do with the scale one chooses and everything to do with the critic who’s opinions you to choose to trust. When one chooses to align their trust in someone to guide their purchasing power they should be choosing wisely. Whether they actually do is another thing. Wine is not cheap. If one spends $10 or $100 on a bottle to drink it is still discretionary income being spent. It takes time and effort to develop a relationship with a critic you can trust your purchasing power with.
    The average individual does not have the patience for this. Without getting into a rant about societal indifference I would say this, people who choose their friends wisely are rewarded with relationships that are everlasting and fulfilling. They require effort and patience. When someone chooses to align themselves with a particular critic one is in essence seeking guidance. This also requires patience. One must take the time to try wines a particular critic has recommended and attempt to be candid in the wines assessment. You may find that you agree with a critic on certain varietals and not with others. That’s fine. It depends on your personal preferences. This vetting process is one most do not take the time to develop. Individuals who do take the time to develop these “relationships” are rewarded in the sense that they can confidently walk into a bottle shop after researching a particular wine and purchase confidently or walk into a bottle shop and trust the shelf tag from said critic. The critic may not get it right 100% of the time. That’s fine as long as the “success rate” remains high. We are all human. Imperfection is part of the human condition.
    When Steve left Wine Enthusiast I was beside myself. I knew I could reliably buy a bottle of Cabernet, Zinfandel, or Chardonnay and trust his score and overall critique. Because of the time I took initially to develop this “relationship” it wouldn’t have mattered whether Steve rated a wine 90 points or 9 chopsticks out of 10. Based on the rating scale he chooses to use and the trust bond I had with his decision making I could purchase wines based on score when needed.
    Steve, thank you for experimenting with reviewing again. The 2013 Jackson Family Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley was not only a real winner for me but a bargain as well.


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