Wine Rating Systems: A Graphic Comparison


What’s the difference between a wine that is alternately rated 4 of 5-Stars, 16 of 20 points and 88 of 100 points?

The answer is: many things.

I bring this up after spending time with the Ratings Conversion Chart created by The World of Fine Wine Magazine, a British Quarterly Publication that take on wine in a high brow, intelligent, in-depth manner and has gone out and recruited what is certainly one of the most impressive collection of mainly European wine writers the wine publishing world has ever seen.

Among other things, they rate wines. They do so on a 20-point scale, a ratings scale rarely seen today, but which was once well-thought of here in the U.S. and which has always appeared to be a reasonable way among Old World tasters to rank the relative quality of a wine.

The World of Fine Wine Magazine ratings conversion chart shown above allows readers to convert a TWFWM score into the equivalent of a 5-Star rating or a 100-point scale rating. This is a useful tool. But more importantly, it graphically demonstrates the difference in philosophy that each of these three wine rating systems adheres too.

Consider the difference between a wine rated 5-stars and 88 points, the equivalent portrayed in TWFWM’s comparison chart.  One rating is saying, “this wine falls into a broad qualitative category.” The other rating says “this wines falls into a very precise qualitative category. Both are measurements. The validity of any measuring system is whether or not you’ll get the same reading if you repeat the measurement process.

Now, for any trained wine palate it seems likely that if you taste that previously rated 4-star wine again under the same circumstances there’s a very good chance the same palate will again give it 4 stars. But will the very exacting 88 point rating be repeatable? If not, then I think there is a flaw somewhere in the measurement system because the wine did not change.

Now, enter the 20-point rating system: more precise than the five star system bur far less precise than the 100 point rating system.  I like that.

But what strikes me further is that embedded within the 100 point rating system is a kind of confidence, even hubris, applied to the ability of a taster to be so high functioning, even robot-like, in their ability to measure the quality and characteristics of a wine. Compare that with the 5-star system. I think you can argue that while the 5-star system pays attention to the fact that wine is not a mathematical equation in a glass, it doesn’t’t take into account the kind of precision that is desired by those relying on wine reviewers to do their triage of wines for them.

So again, back to the 20 point rating system. It’s elegant isn’t it? It allows for the far more likely possibility that a trained palate can taste the same wine twice and give it 17 points twice. And, it acknowledges that there is an imprecise nature to rating wine.

The comparison chart above make just this point. The chart on the one hand is a graphic description of the levels of hubris that you find among wine reviewers. On the other hand it is a graphic description of wine as a product that is imbued with characteristics, rather than a precise set of equations.

The one thing the 20 point scale does not have that both the 5-star and the 100 point scale possess is the ability to communicate efficiently to the average wine drinker, as opposed to the wine enthusiast. The average wine drinker understands intuitively the difference between 85 points and 95 points. As well, they get the difference between 1-stare and 4-stars. But what’s the difference between 16 points and 18 points?

The World of Fine Wine Magazine is for those who understand intuitively what that difference is. Its content, the seriousness with which it treats wine and even the quality of its prose all indicate this. The fact that they include a comparison chart for rating systems is their acknowledgment that those somewhat less enthusiastic about wine might pick up their magazine.


5 Responses

  1. tom merle - October 3, 2006

    Their 20 point system is really a 10 point system with .5 allowances, which, is the equivalent of a 20 point system. They rarely “award” less than 10 points to “fine” wine (which makes their graphic comparing their programs to others inaccurate). Many 5 star systems also use half stars (though not Decanter).
    For me, 10 categories–full and half stars or glasses or whatever–strike the best balance, with each mark spanning three 100 pt system numbers. If three stars equates to 85 to 89 (4 stars 90-94, 5 stars 95+) then 3 1/2 stars equates to 87-89. And, unlike the overly precise 100 pt. system, I think this can be replicated in a later tasting by the (sophisticated) taster.
    Also you seem to have a typo in the beginning of your excellent piece. Five stars is not the equivalent of 88.
    Napa Tom

  2. Ken Payton - October 3, 2006

    Very well written analysis of differing rating systems. Good work.

  3. jeff - October 4, 2006

    I just came across an implementation of the 20 point scale over on the winehiker blog – here is a link to the PDF (3 pages):
    I like that it is broken into several criteria with values assigned to each, and guidance given within criterion. While we can argue about whether taste should be 4 points and finish only 2, something like this can be a big help for people who want to learn to taste more thoughtfully by breaking a rating down into more manageable chunks. (Unlike that last sentence.) – j

  4. winehiker - October 9, 2006

    Thank you, Jeff! I had a lot of help from my wine-tasting friends developing that scoring sheet. We’ve found that a 20-point system is definitely more manageable than a 100-point system, which I won’t even attempt. A 5-star system, I’ve found, is just too simple, and doesn’t offer any real educational value, especially to those new to tasting who want to learn why they like a wine (or why they don’t).
    I use this wine scoring sheet frequently as I host tastings at my home. Most of my guests are new tasters, many of whom return for follow-up tastings. That’s a vote of confidence, indicating that they derive value from this scoring system.
    BTW: Hello to Tom Merle! Some of us are missing you at the Linkup wine events.

  5. meshmarketer - June 23, 2009

    There’s always been a lot of confusion about 20-point v. 100-point, but when I look around, I think I’m in a 100-point world. So I developed my own. I developed this because I was offering in-home winetastings and I wanted my audience to be able to remember what they liked and why. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply