Wine Ratings: A Big Bunch of Readers


There is nothing more controversial in the world of wine, particularly among members of the trade and wine enthusiasts, than the 100 Point Rating System. Nothing else comes close to the controversy, discussion, vitriol, defense and words that the mention of this system for ranking wine can engender.

Since Gary Rivlin’s well done New York Times piece on wine ratings, their impact and their use was published last Sunday I’ve had links to it forwarded to me by 13 different people. I get stories e-mailed to me on a regular basis. But this is a lot.

Clearly, the piece made an impact.

The most interesting discussion of the article I’ve seen occurs (and is probably still occurring) at the wine discussion forum at eRobert Parker. In fact, between the robust defense of the 100 point scale and a number of critiques of the article, Mr. Parker and Mr. Rivlin had the chance to address each on the matter of the motives of the NY Times, the fact checking of the NY Times and the amount of wine Robert Parker buys versus gets sent to him.

It was all a bit off topic. However, that discussion and the buzz the article caused in this industry suggests that that many people have a great deal invested one way or another in this ubiquitous ratings system.

There are a few things about the 100 Point Scale Rating System that can’t be argued with:

1. 90 Points or above sells wine in a way 89 Points does not

2. The system works for most people because they intuitively understand the system

3. The points by themselves and without descriptions tell you nothing about the character of the wine

4. Point rankings are an essential tool for distributor salespeople without which they would have to re-learn the practice of selling wine

5. The near universal adoption of the 100 Point scale is in no way the fault of Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. That responsibility must be laid at the steps of retailers and marketing types who have convinced consumers it is the best way to choose from among many wines.

One reason Rivlin’s article has stirred up so much controversy and discussion is the venue in publication in which it ran: The New York Times. Say what you will about the New York Times but it remains the most influential newspaper in the world. With a Sunday Circulation of 1.6 Million readers, not to mention the Internet readers, it’s easy to understand its influence. But you also have to consider WHO reads the NY Times. It’s one of those publications that people in authority must read and be familiar with because other people in authority are reading it.

Consider also that as of today, this article was the 7th most emailed article from the NY times over the past 7 days.

This means that it is likely that those who read this article on the 100 Point wine rating scale was noticed by the staff of the White House, the executives at the largest wine companies in the world, the top management at Microsoft and GM, the vast majority of those in the business of drilling for oil and the intelligentsia of America.

That’s why this was an important article. The matter of the 100 Point wine rating system just went global and went in front of people who make decisions.

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8 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - August 18, 2006

    The incredible domination of the 100-point rating system for wine (and I understand that it’s not Parker’s or the WS’s fault) makes it tough on the few of us that don’t use that system, those of us who believe in the power of words as intellectual and emotional indicators. Try persuading wine store people to use a review on a shelf-talker if it doesn’t have a number to display.

  2. JHR - August 19, 2006

    I am the wine buyer for a small liquor chain in central TX(Austin)….not to be cocky , but I have been exposed to far more than your typical commercial wine buyer(vintage(1982/86/61/90) Mouton , Petrus , Le Pin…etc etc). My feelings on the 100 point scale are that they are basically tied to ad revenue , and frankly I could care less about them. Most of the time when I use them , it is to confirm my own selection as THEY(Parker/Spectator et al) are usually behind the curve IMO , and not as a selling point for wine(my tasting notes do quite well). I have a very sophisticated clientele that includes local celebrities such as Lance Armstrong who can cipher through BS….Trust is everything in my end of the business , and what good is tasting 50 to 75 different wines a week if you can’t share the info.

  3. tom - August 19, 2006

    I’ve heard a lot of people try to argue that ratings, particularly the Wine Spectator’s, are tied to advertising. Yet I’ve never seen any proof of this claim. Think about it. If you were a winery and you could by a 94 point rating from the Spectator, then that magazine would have 400 pages of advertising in every single issue.
    Furthermore, there is only one thing that could destroy the Wine Spectator’s reputation: the act you accuse them of.
    No, niether the Wine Spectator, nor any other publication, sells ratings.

  4. JHR - August 20, 2006

    Technically ,
    I have never actually seen any physical evidence that this occurs. I have heard second hand from 3 different vintners the same story about being contacted for advertising by the magazine just after their wine was reviewed and given a score in the mid to low 70’s. The vintner complaining about the score , and the score gets ‘revised’. Think about how they generate their revenue. I like the wine spectator for what I feel it’s good for. News briefs and updates from parts of the world I am not able to follow or keep up with. Wines are rated by too many different people at the mag , and it is difficult to align one’s palate which such a moving target. Not even to mention the fact the difference between one persons score of 86 , may be anothers 91.
    In closing I feel that wine buying done solely on the basis of ratings from anyone , but especially the WS is sheer folly.
    regards from hot TX

  5. Tish - August 21, 2006

    Glad to see you posted on the NY Times piece, and I agree that it is a very important article. Obviously I was very pleased to be quoted, and happy to see the ripple-impact. One thing I’d adjust in your post however, is the notion of “near universal adoption” of the 100-point scale. You, like many in the wine trade, may have this impression because you swim primarily in trade waters. My distinct, twofold impression is this: 1) the vast majority of sensible wine writers do NOT use 100 points. The bulk of 100-point wielders are magazines who are in a position to benefit from the recycling of their ratings. Solo critics (a la Fredric) know it’s a load of crap. When I attended the first Wine Writer’s symposium two years ago, out of 50 professional wine scribes, guess how many prefessed (confessed?) to adhering to a 100-point scale… two. So, Fredric is actually part of what I call the sensible majority. The problem, as he and you both note, is that the numbers are easily and readily trumpeted; this gives the impression of a widespread embrace. 2) Being more of a speaker than a writer, I get to rub elboes with a wide swath of wine drinkers. I sense a real weariness among regular (non-geeky) people who enjoy wine. These folks are looking for wines they like, at prices they feel comfortable with, and they are thrilled when they find retailers like JHR in Texas. We need more retailers who have the sense of conviction to avoid the faux simplicty of ratings and accept the enduring subjectivity and complexity of wine.

  6. St.Vini - August 22, 2006

    Gallo is a major advertiser of WS (just look in the lower left-hand corner of WS’ website – “Wine Today” and in any issue), yet their Sonoma wines were blasted for TCA contamination recently. I criticize WS for many things, but I’m not convinced that their ratings are for sale. Now their “Sips & Tips” and other suggestions…..I’m not so sure.

  7. Barrld - August 22, 2006

    The 100 point system is like the designated hitter in the AL, everyone grumbles about it but it’s here to stay. The cure is to largely ignore the ratings (trying reading Parker’s tasting notes while not looking at his chart of points) and rely on the advice or passionate retailers like JHR and sommeliers Like Eduardo at Grace in LA.

  8. jimmy - September 14, 2006

    could there be a more democratic rating system? it would be more meaningful in the eyes of the consumer and producer

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