The 100 Point Wine Rating Scale Works

100points

For some time now I’ve lived in the camp that argues the 100 Point wine rating scale is non-sensical, reductive and counter productive. I think I’m changing teams. And here’s why:

Wine Drinkers Like it.

No, it hasn’t taken me 20 years to realize this. I’ve know this all along. So does everybody else. It’s just that recently I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for giving people what they want, rather than trying to give them what I think they need.

There’s no doubt that the 100 Point rating scale is non-sensical (there’s not difference between a 91 point wine and a 92 point wine that anyone can identify), reductive (it diminishes in monumental ways the nature of the product being reviewed—even if the rating is accompanied by 75 words), and it’s counter productive (particularly if the goal is to explain what makes this wine different from that wine). But damn it, they like it.

What I’ve come to appreciate is that wine, at least the way wine is presented in the market place, is a pretty complex thing. We aren’t talking soap here. Consumers can look at the 10 or 15 kinds of soap flavors and understand right off the bat if they want to smear lavender, sandalwood or lemon verbena on their body. But with with wine the are confronted not just with numerous varietals, but also different vintages, appellations, vineyard designations and even special designations. It’s complex.

Now add to this complexity that very few people who actually like the taste of wine have really any idea what these different factors that go into defining a wine actually mean.

Add to this the pressure to serve or present a wine that’s not crap.

If only these consumers had a quick way of going through the 1000s of wines at their disposal and finding one an expert deems just fine, or really good, or great, and not having to learn a new language or take classes to appreciate what the expert is trying to say.

Voila…The 100 Point Rating Scale.

This form of ranking and rating wines is so convenient and so perfectly matches the needs of most wine consumers that to ignore its utility is to dismiss the needs of the customer.

It’s quite possible that the 100-point wine rating scale is among the most important advances in wine marketing in the last 100 years. It’s because it works.


67 Responses

  1. Phil - September 25, 2009

    The story of the 100 point scale is really the story of how wine is sold in stores, and you’re absolutely right Tom, shelf-talkers with point totals work. Everything flows from this: customers put pressure on retailers to either by very involved in customer interactions in their store (thus somewhat negating the need for shelf talkers) or give easy sign posts to follow, retailers put pressure on distributors and importers to provide them with wines that will sell (i.e. have high point scores they can put on shelf talkers), and the distribution tier puts pressure on producers to create wines that will garner high scores.
    And unfortunately (because I agree with you about points, particularly the large scales in use), I don’t see anything changing, the economic pressures are all pushing in the wrong way.

  2. Charlie Olken - September 25, 2009

    I guess it must have been time to kick this old chestnut around again. As a user of the 100-point system, somewhat against my better judgment, but for reasons mentioned, in part in the article and in the comment above, it is now pretty much de rigeur that we all use the system or some variant of it.
    I need to add this however. Some form of symbolic notation that denotes perceived quality/enjoyment accompanies almost every form of critical endeavor.
    Whether it is two thumbs up or the SF Chron’s famous theater man or three stars or five stars or ten chopsticks, the words of description alone have seemed to want further elaboration. The 100-point system is nothing more than another form of symbolic notation–a shorthand that helps categorize the rest of the critique.
    To rail against the 100-point system, when some form of symbolic notation (scoring/rating) has been in existence for longer than any of us can remember is a bit of self-indulgence in silliness in my opinion.
    And while the comment that even a 75 word description does not help bring sense to the 100-point system or any system seems to me to miss the point entirely, that comment is not nearly so off the mark in my view as the notion that there is no difference between an 91 point ranking and a 92 point ranking.
    There is a very specific difference. A ranking of 92 when I use it or anyone else uses it means simply that I prefer that wine by a small margin over a 91 point wine at the time I tasted those two wines.
    It means nothing more than that, but it does mean exactly that.
    There is a lot more to be said on this subject, but it has all been said before so I will leave it until and unless the topic heats up.
    Needless to say, I agree wholeheartedly that anything the consumer, the retailers and the wineries all find worthwhile has to have value at some level rather than no value at all.

  3. M. Smith - September 25, 2009

    This topic sorta reminds me of Bernays’ “manufacturing of consent”:
    http://www.nndb.com/people/802/000113463/

  4. Thomas Pellechia - September 25, 2009

    Consumers, as Bernay pointed out, can be sold anything in any way, as long as it’s done well enough to make them believe in its efficacy. And so, the point system or the descriptive system or the star system or whatever system if promoted properly and with enough smoke and mirrors surely will make it into the culture.
    Although I don’t understand why we need other people to tell us what they like in order for us to determine what we like, my concern is over the manner in which any rating system is employed and by whom.
    Still, I consider myself neither the average wine consumer nor the average wine geek, so none of it really matters, and it didn’t matter when I ran a wine shop–which may be why I don’t run a wine shop.

  5. Mark - September 25, 2009

    I give your post an 85.

  6. Chelsea - September 25, 2009

    The 100 point system is always appropriate. It’s the best way to rate for sure. The reviewer on that new site uses it sometimes (click my name to get to it).
    If you aren’t using the 100 point scale, you’re being left behind!
    Chelsea

  7. St. Vini - September 25, 2009

    Of course it works. How else can the consumer evaluate the 6,000 plus options currently in distribution every vintage? By reading esoteric lists of descriptors? Hell no, they need something simple and a numeric scale is simple. Whining about the 100 point scale is just a way for bloggers to fill up pixels and add new “content”.

  8. Dylan - September 25, 2009

    Tom, the argument in your post doesn’t merely justify the 100 point scale, but any scale. Under your argument the consumer would respond to a system where 5 thumbs up means great, but 1 thumbs up means poor.

  9. Tom Wark - September 25, 2009

    Mark: I’ll take 85 points. Hell, that’s better than average in my book…depending on the description.

  10. Tom Wark - September 25, 2009

    Dylan,
    The thing is, most people are accustommed to the 100 point scale, making it more accessible and understandable than others.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - September 25, 2009

    “Mark: I’ll take 85 points. Hell, that’s better than average in my book…depending on the description.”
    Obviously, Tom, you are way out of touch. Anything below 90 isn’t even worth talking about.

  12. Joe Gargiulo - September 25, 2009

    I commented on this story this morning via Facebook, but I see this is where the welterweights are slugging it out. … The existing 100-pt system — like most winespeak — only works for enophiles, not normal human beings. It is seriously flawed because it’s compressed between 85-100, does not translate to other 100-pt scales (like academia), and only exacerbates the widespread pomp associated with the wine industry. … 87 points is great for a 5th grader, but not for a winemaker. … Surely we can do better than that!

  13. palateprint - September 25, 2009

    I am glad to hear you move to the other side. The fact of the matter is, going to the store to buy wine is just to complicated for most people. They do not have the time to research wine before buying it.
    When it comes right down to it, for most people wine is just a drink. And who has time to research that? Some people, sure, think of wine as much more than that. And they correct.
    But the masses are correct too. It is just a drink.
    Steve
    http://winescorecard.com

  14. Thomas Pellechia - September 25, 2009

    Steve,
    I’m lost. To support the 100-point system, first you say: “They (most people) do not have the time to research wine before buying it.”
    Then you say: “But the masses are correct too. It is just a drink.”
    Do these people who consider wine just a drink that do not have the time to research it need point ratings to select a cola, a bag of potato chips, a steak, a hamburger, a fried chicken?
    I don’t understand what you are saying.

  15. The Wine Mule - September 25, 2009

    “…my concern is over the manner in which any rating system is employed and by whom.”
    Right on, Thomas. The Devil, as always, is in the details.
    As for myself, the 100 point system is so firmly entrenched, I figure fighting it is pissing in the wind. So I play both ends against the middle. If the wine gets a high score and I also like it, I tell customers “Parker gave it 93!” If the wine gets an 84 and I like it, I tell customers “Parker is a fat old lawyer from Maryland, who cares what he thinks!”
    Works for me.

  16. Tish - September 25, 2009

    Wait, did you say “The 100 Point Wine Raing Scale Warks”?
    Just a little levity. Seriously, I am at least pleased to see this topic still getting blog attention.
    The evidence of the 100 point scale crumbling are all around. All you have to do is look. Oversaturation of sheer numbers; ratings constantly snipped away from their tasting notes; and scores under 90 practically nonexistent… I could go on.
    What is happening away from trade circles, I would argue, is that American consumers are maturing — and wising up to the 100-point shenanigans. It is happening in places and ways most marketeers can’t see yet, mainly because nothing has stepped up to take the scale’s place, but it is happening: people are realizing that the numbers are abused and overdone.
    This is the first step to ratings eventually being, yes, over and done. The scale may never disappear, but it will once CellarTracker takes Parker’s place, it will have become a truly democratic device, not a tool of propoganda by self-appointed authorities

  17. Ned - September 26, 2009

    Works for who? Parker started out marketing himself as a consumer advocate and introduced the scale. Over time though, it has been totally co-opted by the trade and is now a marketing tool.
    For me, scoring or rating wines has lost the plot. It dominates wine media. It is an exercise in self indulgence by all these critics and purports to do much more than it can really deliver. The fleeting snapshot of score causes more problems than it solves. One must “calibrate” their palate to the scorer, who is only human, not an instrument, for an essentially perishable and changing product.
    What is needed is an assessment if the wine succeeded in meeting it’s goals based on what it is and where it’s from, and then how best to enjoy it.
    The false precision of the single number and attempts to exactly describe the taste are well meant fallacies. Let’s get away from what serves the trade towards what would help make enjoyment of wine on the table with a fine meal what matters most.

  18. Charlie Olken - September 26, 2009

    Both Ned and Tish miss the point. The score is nothing more than a shorthand helper. It is not the tasting note. It is not the critique of the wine.
    Tish says Cellar Tracker will replace individual reviewers. That is itself is a nothing more than a different way to score. That it does not have 100-points from one publication attached to it does not change the fact that it, in toto, provides comparative analysis.
    Ned says tasting notes in and of themselves are fallacies. Well, Ned, if so, then you basically are proposing that wines not be examined critically and reviewed. Shall we also stop reviews of plays and movies, restaurants and cars, airlines and exercise machines? Instead of informing the consumer with comparative reviews across a broad spectrum of the available product universe, we should inform the consumer with stories?
    Ned, have you bothered to check with the millions of readers of such reviews as to what they want?

  19. Randy - September 26, 2009

    The 100-point system works for the beginner who hasn’t learned that THEY are the judges. The concept that some keyboard connoisseur (parker, spectater, Wine Enthusiast, etc) who hasn’t spent a single day at the crushpad and certainly hasn’t worked a day in the vineyards, yet we’re supposed to hang on their words like they’re wine gods?!? This is crazy. Why a winery should put most of their preverbal eggs in a raters basket is insane. If I were a bank, I’d never ever loan a cent to someone who walks in touting some ridiculous number. For those who quote the raters on your marketing materials and in your tasting rooms, you look silly doing it.
    Think about it.

  20. Thomas Pellechia - September 26, 2009

    To Charlie:
    “Shall we also stop reviews of plays and movies, restaurants and cars, airlines and exercise machines?”
    Yes. We should shoot all the critics (and lawyers) at once.
    Seriously, it would be nice if all critics and reviewers of things aesthetic had some background in the production and manufacture of the thing that they review…you know, theater critics having studied theater, maybe acted or written for it; restaurant critics having either been chefs or have been food learned. I still wouldn’t listen to them, but they would carry more into their profession.
    Things not aesthetic, mechanical performance, etc. are measurable based on production goals.

  21. Charlie Olken - September 26, 2009

    Keyboard connoisseur? Nice concept. Silly, uninformed, but cute.
    Are you suggesting that only winemakers have any expertise in tasting wine? Do you know how silly that makes you look?
    Are you suggesting that the rest of us have no background, no learning, no capability to recognize balance, varietal character, wines that reflect the areas where they were grown, wines that are flawed? Frankly, not only is this assertion silly, it is the height of arrogant pomposity.
    Secondly, anyone who reviews wine only gets acceptance if his or her reviews ultimately are helpful to the reader. Since there are millions of readers of such publications, you are now accusing all of those readers of being beginners or sheep or worse. Add that to the arrogant pomposity list.
    I do not know a single wine reviewer, and, sir, I know quite a few of them, who sets himself or himself up as a wine god or goddess. Care to name one–with proof? On the other hand, your post that disses writers, readers of wine writers, other wineries in words like crazy, insane, ridiculous and silly has all the ring of a person who claims to know the truth. Now that is arrogant pomposity number three–and you are out.

  22. palateprint - September 26, 2009

    Thomas – no they do not need a point system for a hamburger or chips. Or maybe some do. They are often rated in Zagat’s. Or they get suggestions from critics in the local paper, or from friends. But either way, many consumers stick to McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Frito-Lay. Why? Because they know what to expect, where to find it, and they cannot be bothered to hunt the world over for the best of the best. And, in general, fried chicken is cheaper than wine, and less complicated in deciphering the recipe or description.

  23. Steven Mirassou - September 26, 2009

    I don’t have to like the 100-pt scale (or any other symbolic comparative system) to understand and appreciate its effectiveness (mostly in a marketing sense).
    But the reality is that the scale is only relevant for a tiny segment of wines and wine drinkers. Outside of the cult wines and those perceived by the critics to be the “must-haves”, exponentially more wines are bought on price, accessibility (costco, supermarkets), label, and varietal than on score.
    The scale will always be around (especially, as Americans love a winner), but its import will always be confined to that (relatively) small group of people (to which all on this board belong) for whom wine is more than just something nice to drink.

  24. Ned - September 26, 2009

    Charlie Olken
    “Miss the point”?(no pun intended) It’s the insidious premise that the “shorthand”
    exists on firm solid objective accuracy that is the problem. Notes and their “scores”
    are usually quickly separated. The trade likes to accentuate the positive and eliminate any negative. I understand why there is scoring, the problem is there
    is now too much of it, the focus on it is too narrow, the numbers have lost much of what meaning they had, coming from so many sources.
    While understandable, urges to describe wines as specifically as possible fall far short, just as attempts to describe photo images or paintings. Yet numerous media outlets churn out steady streams of notes and scores to readers that have been seduced by adept marketing to believe in them. No note has ever effectively communicated the the actual tasting experience to me. The shorthand of the score quickly becomes set in stone, and as I said, and which you did not address, it is fraught with so many variables and qualifications that it has far less value and accuracy especially over time then the sellers of scores and the sellers of wine based on scores would ever concede. The sellers of scores have reputations and careers to further and protect. Interests not in line with consumers’ interest. Sellers of wine are hoping to sell as much and for as high a price as possible, again not an interest in line with consumers.
    I want facts, the site, the cepage, the vintage conditions, the problems,
    the goals and intent of the winemaker, the methods of farming and production,
    I want mostly reporting, fact based journalism. Lastly a simple assessment of
    success in reaching the goals. Who said anything about stories?

  25. Tim - September 27, 2009

    The 100 point scale is really the only way to judge wine. I am not sure if you have ever come across the ‘Gold Book’ from Australia, but it works on a scale of 1-7, 1 being crap and 7 being spankingly good. The problem, however, is that the winemakers are the ones compiling the score – there are not many 2,3 or 4 scores but lots of 6 and 7; not very objective!

  26. 1WineDude - September 27, 2009

    I like Thomas’ point – those reviewing should seek to understand all aspects of what it takes to create the thing upon which they’re passing judgment. That’s one of the bedrocks underpinning the approach that I take to my blog.
    You won’t find any points on my blog, though.
    But you would if I wanted to promote the deconstruction of wine into a soulless commodity.
    Which I don’t.
    The 100 point system oversimplifies things for the consumer. It gives the impression of ‘working’ for the consumer. In reality, it has driven the market to make some very bad decisions that are not anywhere near a consumer’s best interest.
    It’s the functional equivalent of rating paintings – whether they be a Picasso or a Joe Blogs who submitted a reproduction of the barn in his backyard to a county fair.

  27. Thomas Pellechia - September 27, 2009

    WineDude,
    Exactly.
    Rating aesthetics is a useless activity, but bamboozling the unsuspecting is the wheel of commerce.
    The only valuable evaluation is the one that deals with measurables, and to make that evaluation a person actually has to study the subject, not just have a passion for it.

  28. Randy - September 27, 2009

    TO Charlie,
    I’m simply stating a fact that many of these reviewers don’t have a single once of knowledge about balance. Balance in the vineyards (not allowing the fruit to shrivel on the vine), balance at the crushpad (ease of new oak, racking schedule, longer barrel aging, etc). It’s gone wayyyyy beyond preference or personal taste. Reviewers (mainly through the 100-point system) are awarding and ultimately rewarding those who neglect the very fruit they claim to respect and love! Pinot Noir and Cab sauv over 14% alc for example. The fruit is left on the vine until most of the berries are totally shriveled, they’re harvested with huge sugars ( 25 brix at crush = 27 brix post sugar up), loow looow acid, spinning out a few points of alc (allowing the glycrine of a 16% alc wine to remain) and many many reviewsers think that’s GREAT! Not sure if YOU Charlie fall into this bigger-is-better rating catagory, however many many raters do indeed score these engineered wines very high because they register high on their (often cooked) pallats.
    So please don’t sit there behind your keyboard and tell the real winefolk (growers and winemakers) were wrong because we’re the one’s on the front line. It’s easy to make assertions when you’re on the sidelines. I think ALL reviewers should spend a summer in the vineyard pulling leaves, dropping fruit, etc and certainly a season at the crushpad where the real action is.
    An example of success in the rating world? Dan Berger. He doesn’t use the point system because it isn’t an accurate reflection of wine review. He’ll talk about the wines he likes, gives examples of possible food pairings based on facts like acid/ph, alc, oak profiles. I believe dan also enjoys a very solid following too.
    California wines are out of balance thanks much to a few Keyboard connoisseurs and the 100-point rating system. (yes, I’m trademarking this name;)
    Hitting the “huge score” is the easy way out of marketing one’s wines.

  29. Charlie Olken - September 27, 2009

    Tom–
    To be an expert an anything requires a hell of a lot of learning. No one would argue that point except a few newcomers to winewriting who want instant recognition because they have hung their shingles out.
    But, you lose me when you say that the only valuable evaluation is one that deals with measurables. You, in essence, are saying that no critical evaluation of plays, movies, art, wine, design of any sort is possible. Sorry, old buddy, but that is just not right. People may like or dislike the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry, but each is subject to analysis as a work of art. Wine beauty is not measure in TA, pH, months in oak, the absence of VA and Brett. It is measured in character, depth, adherance to certain standards (learned standards that are not subject to objective definition), balance (which in not measured through numbers but through palatal impacts).
    It matters not that a number may be applied to such subjective analysis because the number is not the rating. The words are the rating. The number is just short hand for the rating. The words are a best reflection of the experience found in drinking the wine.
    I don’t get Joe’s point either. How does applying a ranking of any sort to a critical review negate the fact that a good review requires an understanding of the thing being reviewed. If one understands the potential of Tempernillo, both as itself and in relation to other wines in the world, then a critique of a Temperanillo comes with the required understanding. It does not require, however, a complete explication of soils, elevation, exposure, trellising systems, water applications, growing strategies, yeast choices, barrel maker or fining or filtering choices in order to describe a wine in terms to which a consumer can relate.
    And one final word. In order to succeed in this business, and I think you will and have said so elsewhere, one needs to find a voice that the larger public will relate to. I care not if that voice includes numbers or stars or gold sovereigns but it had better not be so abstruse, so loaded down with insider details that you lose the focus on the beauty of the wine.

  30. Tom Wark - September 27, 2009

    Randy:
    While I appreciate your passion and while I most certainly respect your preference for “balanced” wine, we should acknowledge that it is a preference, not the definition of fine, good or high quality wine.
    What can we make of the fact that consumers appear not just to buy, but apparently enjoy, Cabs and pinots that break the 14% alcohol mark? Are their palates deceiving them? I don’t think so.
    And what can we make of the fact that consumers use the 100 point scale to compare many wines they can neither taste nor know much about before buying? Are they lazy, or just consumers?
    And I’m curious, what could be wrong with using an easy method to market one’s wines if it works and if it helps sell your wines?

  31. Tom Wark - September 27, 2009

    Joe wrote:
    “The 100 point system oversimplifies things for the consumer. It gives the impression of ‘working’ for the consumer. In reality, it has driven the market to make some very bad decisions that are not anywhere near a consumer’s best interest. ”
    What are these decisions?

  32. Thomas Pellechia - September 27, 2009

    “You, in essence, are saying that no critical evaluation of plays, movies, art, wine, design of any sort is possible. Sorry, old buddy, but that is just not right.”
    Charlie,
    You are putting words into my mouth. Theater and art critics often invoke the technicals in their reviews–the lighting, the acting, the editing–measurables.
    It’s when a critic gets into the aesthetics–how it makes him or her feel-where I couldn’t give rat’s ass to know. I don’t want to know how I’m expected to feel about something–that’s my job.
    The problem with rating wine is that it is simply how someone else feels based on some sort of arbitrary compilation of numbers that in itself isn’t even real (100 points begins at 50–really! When did that mathematical feat happen?). To me, this is not useful information.
    It is useful when someone with knowledge says something like–this wine was produced from over ripe grapes; that perks my interest in the critic and in his words. It also says that the critic might have some knowledge to impart rather than a set of personal likes and dislikes. Useless, useless, useless.

  33. Thomas Pellechia - September 27, 2009

    Charlie,
    You have to understand one thing about my position: I don’t have much use for the concept of aesthetic criticism. It is nebulous at best.

  34. Charlie Olken - September 27, 2009

    Tom P–
    There is nothing technical in judging the quality of the acting or the lighting or even the editing of a play or movie. Those are all subjective judgments. They are not measurable by any objective criteria except maybe–was there enough light to see the play. Of course, if someone wants to set parts of Othello in the dark, then even that “measurable” will disqualify any production that tries that trick.
    In any event, Tom, wine is not about measurables for the consumer. It is about enjoyment. It is my job to tell my readers what the wine tastes like and to give some sort of usage information–sometimes general, sometimes very specific.
    Now, if you do not personally want that information, I can respect that, but it makes little sense to me to lambast wine criticism across the board because it offers no help to you in finding interesting wines among the tens of thousands that get reviewed every year. Fortunately for those of us in the wine evaluation field, there are enough consumers around who do value that kind of information.
    One final point. Unless scores appear without words, the extent of grape ripeness does dictate how wines are described. Now, if you find a reviewer who thinks ripeness and overripeness intersect at some level different from your palate, then that too is OK for you and everyone else who ever reads a review because everyone can decide if my view of ripeness or Dan Berger’s or Parker’s or anyone else’s is close enough to your own/their own to make any of those reviewers worth listening to.
    The wine reviewing world is not monolithic. It consists of the paid newsletters of which there are many ranging from Burghound to CGCW. It consists of books like Gambero Rosso. It consists of newspaper columnists from New York to San Francisco. And each one comes with his or her own palate–just as you do.
    What in the world makes you think that these people do not understand wine? What makes you think that their efforts are worthless? If it is because you do not think wine should be described ever for its character, for how it behaves on the palate, then almost all consumer-based winewriting is of no use to you. Fine.
    But, I cannot see how you can denigrate all consumer-oriented reviews as “useless, useless, useless” on that standard because it is a standard that has no bearing in the wider world.

  35. Charlie Olken - September 27, 2009

    Randy–
    Dan Berger uses a several tier rating system. His descriptions are good, but they are no better or worse than any other qualified reviewer of which there are many. His descriptions are uniquely his. They comport pretty well to his own stated standards and that would make him a good choice for those who like his standards and understand them.
    But before you get too far down the tracks with Dan as the person most likely to damn any wine over 14% alcohol, I would ask you to read his latest newsletter in which he recommends many North Coast Pinot Noirs, almost all of which are well over 14% alcohol.
    You have stated that most reviewers do not have a single “once” (surely, you meant ounce) of knowledge about balance. Do you really mean that? Care to mention which ones?
    One more thing. You have written that I am sitting behind my keyboard telling the real winefolks (growers and winemakers) that they are wrong. Unfortunately, you have missed the real meaning of my comments. I have not said they are wrong. I have said that my opinion is that you are wrong. You, my friend, are not all winemakers. The folks I mention below make some of the finest Pinot Noir in CA, which means in the world. If I you are right, they are wrong. Sorry, but I don’t think so.
    Got any idea what percentage of Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs are over 14% alcohol? Are Bob Cabral, Paul Hobbs, Gary Farrell, Greg LaFollette, Jeff Gaffner, Merry Edwards and dozens and dozens of others all wrong? If they are, then all wine reviewers, including Dan Berger, are all wrong.

  36. Thomas Pellechia - September 27, 2009

    Charlie,
    I won’t go into the theater stuff–too arcane for the wine discussion. But, I do take exception to this notion:
    “It is my job to tell my readers what the wine tastes like…”
    That’s eaxctly the problem.
    You can tell the readers only what it tastes like to you–unless you have some magical powers, you cannot tell others what it tastes like to them.
    Why should anyone care what it tastes like to you or to me or to anyone else?
    Now, if you told me that the wine has an identifiable, measurable flaw, and because of that it isn’t worth the money charged for it, I might think twice about buying it, provided I have a way to evaluate your knowledge and talent to detect the flaw.
    As I’ve said, my problem is with the aesthetics. It is blatantly ridiculous to subscribe to the notion that someone else’s aesthetics have bearing on my aesthetics. The very notion of aesthetics is personal, not universal.
    When the aesthetics tries to legitimize itself through a numbered rating system, I find it laughable.

  37. Charlie Olken - September 27, 2009

    Tom-
    Putting numbers aside for the moment, the answer to your first point lies in your comment “provided that I have a way to evaluate your knowledge and talent”.
    The way one gets to make the judgment you call for is to read what I or any other critic writes. If you find a reasonable facsimile of my descriptions in the wines you taste, then you may decide to give me a longer chance–and send me some money. People have been doing that now for me for over three decades.
    The notion that my description of an apple would not be understandable to someone who knows what an apple is just does not hold water. At a personal level, all of us do exactly that or something like it all the time.
    My wife made ratatouille today. We discussed it. We used our experience with ratatouille to talk about texture, depth of flavor, range of flavor, balance of elements, level of spice, adherance to our expectations. That discussion was no different from our conversations about wine or my conversations with my readers about wine. That is why there are millions of readers of wine evaluations–because those readers believe to some level that such evaluations have validity.

  38. Thomas Pellechia - September 28, 2009

    Charlie,
    A conversation about wine (or ratatouille) is not an evaluation judgment, it is a conversation and a sharing of views, and that I applaud. But what if I told you that I don’t like ratatouille because of its texture? What does that say about all the glowing words you might give it as opposed to the slights that I might throw its way?
    Re, the apple: Have you done tastings with the public–or sensory classes? You’d be surprised how many variants there are concerning what an apple can smell and taste like to a variety of people.
    It’s not the discussion that bothers me, it’s the arbiter stance that I object to, the illusion that the critic has some extra power to tell us what we should like or not like by using the critic’s sense of smell and taste as a guide–often enough and untrained sensory guidance.
    Still, if I had to choose between the two ways of having someone dictate to me what I’m supposed to find in or about a wine, I’d take the words over the numbers–at least one can get a sense of what the critic MIGHT be talking about. And I suspect that is why you have been successful. You are presenting the information as a conversation, not as a dictate. You are not the usual critic–you may not even be a critic.
    Having said all this, and all my earlier posts, I do completely understand the power of those 100 points that are really 50 or maybe 20 these days. I spent a few years on the street selling wine to retailers and restaurants–I saw what numbers can do for a product and what the lack of them can do to a product. Maybe that’s when I started getting annoyed with the system–because many solid and even wonderful were being by-passed by the sheep because the numbers didn’t add up.

  39. Ron McFarland - September 28, 2009

    Vinyl LP’s used to work, cassette tapes too, CD’s were a giant step forward and now iTunes makes everything seem pretty old.
    All things evolve – the processes of continuous improvement works its magic. The new flow of wine information will yield something that, looking back makes all this seem old school.
    Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food and friends, I wonder if the methods of wine reviewers is like fondling a new music CD, reading the liner notes and then rating the music without listening?

  40. Christian Miller - September 28, 2009

    One fundamental problem with most rating scales is that they doesn’t actually rank wines by flavors that most consumers use to sort them as shown by sensory analysis – tannic vs. smooth, sweet vs. dry, oaky vs not, tangy/tart vs. smooth/flat, green/veggie/herbal vs. jammy/fruity, whatever. We have no idea how many people taste 95 point wines and like them much less than an 85 point wine, because no one is looking out for them. And what do they do with that learning – shrug their shoulders and keep buying wines? Assume the raters don’t know what they’re talking about? Decide they just don’t understand wine? Become too embarrassed to further engage in the category?

  41. Morton Leslie - September 28, 2009

    The 100 point system works because the people who use it are ignorant. Imagine an art gallery where all the paintings were covered with a black drape and the buyer was asked to make a buying decision based on a small card that told him the painter, the subject matter, and four or five descriptive words (often random and conflicting) and a score on the 100 point scale. We would say the art critic, the gallery owner, and anyone who would buy a painting on such a basis were idiots. Eventually Americans will see how stupid they are behaving.

  42. Charlie Olken - September 28, 2009

    Tom P–
    100 Points is 20 points plus or minus. Agreed. So what?The number is nothing more than an adjunct to the words.
    And most reviewers, Morton’s cheap shot notwithstanding, do not write four or five words. They write enough for the average punter to get a sense of what the wine is like. Reading the words of critics, Tom, does not make a person into a mindless follower. You and Morton think too little of people.
    Tom, I am a critic. And for better or for worse, my rag describes wine the way we think it tastes–and happily enough people appreciate those words to keep me in business. I would be happy to send you my October reviews of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay so you can see for yourself. Drop me a line at chasolken@aol.com.
    I do vehemently object to your calling my readers “sheep. Reading the views of others does not make one a sheep. Once again, I say, you and Morton think too little of people.
    Ron, the technology of music presentation has changed. The music is still music, and the appreciation, understanding and evaluation of the music has not and will not.
    Christian, read the words that accompany the wine review. The points are not a review. The points are a score. I will be happy to let you read my words to see for yourself.
    Morton, Americans are behaving “stupid”? Oh, my.

  43. Randy - September 28, 2009

    Sir, the names of the wines you mentioned from the RRV are NOT balanced wines. These are the very abominations I was attempting to describe without actually naming names, but thank you for doing it for me.
    Having seen the gross condition of the clusters that these high scoring Pinots still hanging on the vine as the stems brown (carbs no longer making it to the cluster), then begin to practically fall off the spur into their nets, I have NO RESPECT for these producers’ choice to neglect the fruit as they seek out “mature flavor profiles”. It’s a joke and any reviewer who rates these viscous, engineered wines high will be on the wrong side of history. This I promise. Many of these wines cave in on them selves after a few short years anyways. People want balance. I witness it daily in my tasting room with 12.5% Pinots, 13% Cabs, 11.5% dry whites. Wines with natural acid, skins that arrived at the crush pad with their structure still in tact.
    As far as the 14% line of demarcation. We all know if it’ 14.1%, then it’s probably 14.8. I am taking personal issue with people rating high score on fruit that was over 70 shriveled! Let’s talk about the “sugar up” fact. Wines picked at 25 brix (typical cab and pinot #’s) will sugar up to a 16.5% or higher alc wine with out water. They don’t need to add water if they pick their goddamn fruit on time. Let’s open discussions of the number of grams/liter of citric and tartaric acids found in these high sugar wines. Let’s talk about the “hydration” that occurs at the crush pad after the grower leaves with his/her weightag that should be 15-22% higher but water from the spigot is much cheaper than pre-scale water in the grape.
    I mentioned Dan’s approach more due to the fact he’s a fan of naturally higher acids and less on the booze levels.
    Growers!!! If you’re still getting paid by the pound and not the acre, you’re getting screwed!!! Whether the wineries do it for financial reasons (2 -3 weeks longer on the vine = 20% less weight = $600 back in the winery pocket based on $3,000/ton fruit). Worse yet, some wineries leave the fruit on the vine to shrivel in order to make wines the big reviewers happy.
    These are NOT wines to cherish and hold up as wines to respect! I will begin showing in my tasting room photos of typical condition of grapes picked for “cult” programs. Through honest open conversations can we bring some balance back to California wines.
    My philosophy on grape growing and winemaking is not the contemporary style, rather the traditional way that’s been done for generations. It’s my father’s generation of winemaker’s who’s seeking the smashmouth, boombastic bigger-is-better profiles.
    I thank Mr. Wark for hosting such an honest and frank venue.

  44. Tom Wark - September 28, 2009

    Randy said:
    “Having seen the gross condition of the clusters that these high scoring Pinots still hanging on the vine as the stems brown (carbs no longer making it to the cluster), then begin to practically fall off the spur into their nets, I have NO RESPECT for these producers’ choice to neglect the fruit as they seek out “mature flavor profiles”. It’s a joke and any reviewer who rates these viscous, engineered wines high will be on the wrong side of history. This I promise. ”
    Randy, don’t you mean to say that these wines will be on the wrong side of your palate”?
    I love a good opinion. But in the end, you, like Charlie Olken, Robert Parker, Dan Berger, and the Wine Spectator Tasting Panel, are simply offering an opinion. And informed opinion, yes. But an opinion nonetheless.

  45. Steven Mirassou - September 28, 2009

    The valid relationship between the critic and the consumer should be the same as between two friends, one asking the other, which restaurant she likes best.
    The relationship takes time to develop and only comes about when the consumer takes up the critic on a recommendation and finds it to her liking…then does it again.
    I’d put the blame on the producers (of which I am one), brokers, distributors, and retailers for giving too much authority and power to the score. We’ve ceded our knowledge and passion to a couple of digits.

  46. Phil - September 28, 2009

    The problem with any scale as large as the 100 point scale (which starts at 50 or 70 or 80 depending on who you’re looking at) is ironically mathematical.
    Mathematics is an exact language, the difference between 90 and 91 is the same as the difference between 91 and 92. So any rater using a scale like this is providing a level of exactitude that is simply not possible for a subjective thing like wine. Let’s say you’ve tasted and rated 5,000 wines (over the course of time, obviously). Your scale purports to have these wines relatively ranked, which on the face of things is already pretty tough although you will have lots of ties, and relatively ranked in an exact mathematical lineup. I don’t think you need me to tell you that whatever outcome you have on your 5,000 wines in unreproducible. So you’ve got some error built-in to your scores and thus your rankings. Therefore your exact rankings based on exact numerical scores are actually almost useless. Is wine 2,520 really better than wine 4,875? Your scores may say 94 vs. 92, but I would say you actually can’t tell me unless you retaste both (and maybe not even then, you might decide differently depending on your mood, time of day, what you’ve eaten, etc.)
    But your scores and ranking are designed and used (to the public) as exact with no error, the public doesn’t see a number to be taken with a grain of salt, they see THE NUMBER which tells them how good this wine is compared to everything else. And we haven’t even started with nearly arbitrary cut-offs in many people’s minds (89 points vs. 90 is a BIG DEAL, much bigger than it should be). So yeah, I think big point scales are flawed. But if you’ve decided you want to assign a grade or score to a wine, then you probably can’t do any better unless you have a small scale (which many would argue is too small to be meaningful). And certainly you are making things more difficult for yourself economically by not playing the points game, so I have to disagree with Tish, points aren’t going anywhere.

  47. Steven Mirassou - September 28, 2009

    Randy, love the passion. I’d say, though, that your preference for lower alcohol wines of “balance” reflect your personal “truth” and not some larger, more correct paradigm.
    I’ve had unbalanced, hot wines at 13.5 alc and their converse at 15.5.

  48. Charlie Olken - September 28, 2009

    Randy–
    If the wines of Williams-Selyem and Gary Farrell, whether at his own eponymous winery or in his new efforts at Alysian do not suit you and are abominations, then you are certainly entitled to your opinion. Most of us do not share that opinion, including Dan Berger who has recently reviewed many of those wines very positively.
    But, this is a discussion of points, not wine styles, and however Dan applies his judgments, or I do or anybody else does, those judgments inherently must examine wine style as part of the judgment. Dan’s preferred style is different from mine–as you would instantly know if you ever saw Dan and me sitting together and talking loudly. And mine are different from Laube’s whose are again different from Parker’s.
    But all of our numerical or categorical rankings of wine are based on the judgments we make taking all of the factors of the wine into consideration. And we all publish enough words, Tom P’s and Morton’s contentions notwithstanding, for our readers to know what we have liked and not liked about the wine and what its character is like.
    That is how I know that Bob Parkers’ preferences for wines are not like mine and that Dan’s choices do and do not agree with mine. I read their words and I decide. Your chosen style is your chosen style. If Berger likes it, that does not make it better than Jeff Gaffner’s style or Gary Farrell’s style. It makes it better for you, but not necessarily better for Dan, by the way, if one reads his latest review.

  49. Gregg Burke - September 28, 2009

    Hey Tom,
    Most of those buying high octane wines are following reviewers who favor that style. It is no secret that the WA loves that overblown style, and people love WA. Yes, most people are lazy when it comes to choosing wines. I can not blame them, we all have work stresses, family stresses, and we want something to make our lives easier. They are consumers, god bless their money spending little hearts, and the 100 point system exploits their laziness. The problem has been pointed out earlier that the system now is 90 and up. Most people will not touch a 87 if they see 90 on another shelftalker even if the 87 is from a reputable source and the 90 is from Big Dick McGhee’s wine blog. Points have become more about point snad less about quality.

  50. Charlie Olken - September 28, 2009

    Randy–
    I agree with you wholeheartedly about thanking Tom Wark for allowing us to let our passions flow and flow and flow and flow and …….
    Charlie

  51. Thomas Pellechia - September 28, 2009

    Charlie,
    Stop putting words in my mouth–I did not specifically call your readers sheep; I called those who follow the ratings sheep.
    Whenever this subject comes up, which is frequent, to be sure, I am reminded of the HL Mencken quote: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
    Anyway, Tom is a libertarian when it comes to allowing passions to soar on his blog. I give him 98 points for that!
    I give all of us 98 points, too, for not stooping to name calling–mostly. These passions can run deep.
    In my case, I’ve stated it plainly: I am no fan of aesthetic criticism, which, as Tom points out, is just an opinion. Must be my journalism at play when I seek mainly the facts…there are some of us left in this world ;)

  52. Eric - September 28, 2009

    That does it, I’m registering a label with TTB for two wines:
    98 Points Parker Red and 99 Points Laube White
    This is a great discussion- thanks for getting it started Mr. Wark.

  53. Charlie Olken - September 28, 2009

    Tom says “Stop putting words in my mouth–I did not specifically call your readers sheep; I called those who follow the ratings sheep.”
    Now, Tom, it may be incredibly egotistical of me to think that my readers follow my ratings, but I happen to think that many of them do. Sure, some of them read me so they have fodder to throw darts at, and others thought they were subscribing to Connoisseurs’ Guide to Apples and Theatrical Reviews, but there must also be a reader or three or several thousand who actually think that the Connoisseurs’ Guide ratings have more meaning than getting wine-buying advice from their mothers-in-law. And, heaven help me, Tom, but I do not think that those who follow my ratings for guidance are sheep. They are thoughtful, intelligent, perceptive, inquisitive people. They are the salt of the earth.
    Maybe you were talking about those who follow all those other critics. That’s OK then.

  54. Thomas Pellechia - September 28, 2009

    Now you’ve got it, Charlie.
    I was in fact thinking of the shelf talkers supplied by the distributors to retailers that quote the numbers of the big shepherd of them all…
    Check your email.

  55. 1WineDude - September 28, 2009

    Tom W. – the decisions that I see as bad for the wine consumer (relating to the 100 pt. rating scale) are… well, it’s a long list potentially!
    How about this one – it’s broad enough to cover lots of small detailed examples, I think:
    Deciding to make a commodity of both fine AND bargain wine. Both more often than not play to points rather than to an expression of a variety, place, etc.

  56. Catie - September 28, 2009

    The 100 point system works for now (or am I suppose to say it “warks” for now?)But in the mean time, from my own experience of working wine retail, all I’ve noticed is the 100pt system has turned some wine consumers into trophy hunting posers.
    Working at wine tasting rooms, I have been amazed at the trophy hunters who swagger into the room asking which wines received a 93 or above from – – anybody or anywhere. And far too many times, they are not even interested in a comped tasting of the wine they have purchased. Do they really think their palate is equal to Parker, Steiman, Laube et al? It seems to me they do not trust their own palate and/or looking for wines to merely fill the slots in their wine cellars for bragging rights later.
    And then there are those who will not enter a tasting room unless the winery offers wines with high 90 points. Talk about the 100 point system being abused. In the mean time, those who live that rule are missing out on some potential great wines and possibly wines that are worthy of such points but for the time being, great values.
    Yeah, the 100 point system can work, but unfortunately far too many wine consumers have taken it beyond its original intent. Bob has turned many a wine consumer into consumers who do not trust their own palates, let alone the real beauty and art of wine.

  57. Catie - September 28, 2009

    Oh and FWIW – – I give this post an 89.

  58. Tom Wark - September 28, 2009

    Catie:
    I’ll take an 89 any day!
    But to put a cap on it, the fundamental necessity of any successful rating system is the consumers’ trust of those doing the rating. Consumers clearly trust the 100 point scale. More importantly, they and many in the trade seem to trust those prominent publications and writers using it.

  59. Erol Senel - October 1, 2009

    Tom, loved the piece. I actually wrote a similar entry in my column a couple months back “What exactly do wine ratings mean and are they accurate?”
    A couple people here have said that it is essential to know who is reviewing and I could not agree more. The second part of that is knowing your palate. Simply put, know what you like.
    I have come across a ton of people who do not like the big, burley wines that Robert Parker loves. I think for those who appreciate a more delecate palate the likes of Jim Laube (Wine Spectator) and Steve Tanzer (International Wine Cellar) are terrific reference points.
    And that is what the ratings should be, simply a guiding beacon to lead you away from gifting or consuming swill.
    Cheers everyone!

  60. LeDom du Vin - October 1, 2009

    Hi Tom,
    In response to your post about the 100 point score system, here is my opinion.
    I’ve been a Sommelier, Wine Director and more especially wine buyer for the past 17 years for restaurants, wine retail store and private customers, and all I can say is that customers like this system because it guides them and give them easy direction regarding which wines to buy or not to buy, but I personally do not care about it.
    Where I used to work before as a wine buyer, it used to be our only focus: buying wines with score above 90 at all cost. It was very important for my ex-boss who believes in the score system, but I didn’t really care. Of course it helped us selling a vast amount of bottles, but I didn’t necessarily always agree with the scores. In fact, in many cases, I didn’t agree at all, and was even wondering how good was the palate of the person who gave certain ratings and scores, depending on the magazine.
    Now, I work as the wine buyer in a store where my boss is like me, he doesn’t care about the scores. Our main focus is to taste everyday, and dissect, evaluate and analyze each wine that we taste to be able to offer the best, most interesting and most intriguing, most varietaly correct wines from smaller, less marketed and more Terroir oriented producers from all around the world.
    You’re a blogger and you like wine, so you’ll know what I’m talk about. Descriptions are very important yet they only correspond to one palate that shouldn’t be trusted blindly. And scores only correspond to a personal yet approximative estimation of the quality of the wine (that also depends of the mood you were in and the conditions of the tasting that day). Moreover, we all know that wine tasting is very subjective.
    Even moreover, we can all agree that sometimes it is very difficult, when reading the (ultra) short wine descriptions in certain magazines (that I will not named), to differentiate why they give an 85pts to one wine and a 90pts (or more) to a similar wine from the same region and grape varietal, when the descriptions aren’t so different after all and don’t say much about the difference between the two (or really why the 2nd one is better than the 1st one)….
    For me, this is bullshit! Unless you really try to compare both wines and define why they are different and more especially explain clearly why one deserves a better score than the other one, it is bullshit! Most magazines just describe the overall taste in a few vague sentences that, in most cases, aren’t sufficient enough to really have a complete overview of the described wine.
    There are three schools of wine people in the market: people who only read the numbers (whether it is the price or the score, or both); people who read the description but don’t really care about numbers or pay less attention to them; and people who diversify their source of information and are interested to learn more about wine and prefer experiencing themselves rather than follow blindly and be too influenced by the wine press.
    After all, everyone can do as they please, that is their choice. I just think that sometime, 100pts score system is a bit unfair and somewhat dated.
    In the 70s and the 80s up to the mid-90s, it was surely the best way to discover and learn about a wine without having to try it or spend the money for it (except for the magazine itself). People were less educated about wine than we are now. There were less wine schools, programs and tastings. And if we talk about the American market, there were much less wines to choose from and certain brands were the benchmarks of their appellation and nobody questioned it, because nobody knew better.
    In 2009, the world have changed. There are much more wines, producers, wineries, wine schools, wine programs, wine blogs and websites dedicated to wines than ever before. And people are much more educated about the subject than they ever were before. The wine information networks via the internet. It is free, full of info and descriptions about most of the wines from all around the world. Wine bloggers and wine websites, like you and me, have flourished and blossomed on the net over the last 5-10 years, and more and more people are writing about wine (and food, etc). Giving their opinions and guidance about which wines they liked (or disliked), where to buy it, at what price, from which importer or distributor, where and when they tasted it.
    In short, these people (including me) do exactly what people like Robert Parker Jr., Wine Spectator, Decanter, La Revue du Vin de France, Stephen Tanzer, (etc..) used to do and continue to do…but with more conviction and somewhat less influences (IMO).
    Customers don’t have to follow the voice of only one or two persons, they can choose what they want to read and make their own judgment about the described and desired wine from hundreds of websites (including the winery websites in many cases). More over, winery websites, Bloggers, Facebookers, Twitters, and other articles (press or not) are usually more thorough and less critical than the wine magazines and press in general (certainly due to the fact that most websites and blogs (etc..) mainly write about the wines they liked and barely not about the wines they disliked).
    Somehow, it is true, how can we and what gives us the right to score a wine which took months to achieve, many people time, stress, passion and skill (and money), to just destroy it with a ridiculous score that will hurt not only the image and reputation of the winemaker, the producer and the winery, but will also affect the current and future sales of the wines.
    In my opinion, wine tasting is very subjective, so if you don’t like a wine, do not write about it or do not score it. There is enough misery and bad things in this world, and as the grand-son of a winemaker I truly think that wine is a culture, an “Art de vivre” and a pleasure in life, like food and …(you get the picture). It is happiness in a bottle that shouldn’t suffer from mediocre revues and scores.
    At the end of the day, a good winemaker will always be good no matter what, good year – bad year, as a good wine buyer with a good palate will always be a good wine buyer. Only your palate should be the judge of the quality of the wines you taste, buy and drink. Descriptions should help you and guide you, not influence you or impose you an opinion (especially if it is a bad one), and remember, as I said earlier, that a score (good more especially bad) only reflects the personal yet approximative estimation of the quality of the wine (that also depends of the mood you were in and the conditions of the tasting that day).
    LeDom du Vin
    http://www.LeDomduVin.com

  61. Caveman - October 2, 2009

    Tom,
    The big problem with feigning this much precision is that tasting wine is not a science. I’ll bet you a case of St. Vini’s best that we could take 20 tasters, including Bob P., Laube and the rest of them, and serve them the same wine blind over three days hidden amongst different flights, as these tastings are often done, and the wine would end up with different scores, let alone changing the service temp slightly or carafing it for an hour. What’s missing behind these numerical judgments is context, and that’s why the tasting notes are so important. It is an intellectually dishonest system and it is unfair to the winemakers, who have a lot riding on getting certain numbers.
    I was having lunch with a Washington State winemaker recently and asked him why his wines were so torqued.. His response was “you try selling a wine over $30 that doesn’t have a 90 attached to it, and this is what gets you over the hump.” Style questions aside, lets hope that they get the tasters at the right moment, eh?

  62. Mike Petriella - October 3, 2009

    You guys all need to check out pardonthatvine.com. It is the least arrogant website that I have seen on the internet but at the came time teaches you a ton about wine. It is worth your while. Cheers!!

  63. Ayhan YILMAZ - October 5, 2009

    Plastic Crates for wineries. Gurtan Plastik. http://www.gurtanplastik.com
    ayhanyilmaz@gurtanplastik.com

  64. John Henry - October 5, 2009

    I just watched pardonthatvine.com…..you are right Mike it is great. BEst video reveiw forum that I have ever seen.

  65. Kate - October 7, 2009

    Thank you
    Kate

  66. Rob - October 23, 2009

    I completely agree with your post. And it only took me a month to get around to reading it.

  67. kocaeli - April 9, 2013

    Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass’ favor.


Leave a Reply


+ one = nine