Wine Ratings: Who Loves Them…Who Doesn’t?

Anyone who doubts the power of numerical wine ratings, particularly the 100 Point system, just isn’t living in the same world as me. Let me explain what I, a wine marketer, see when I look at numerical ratings:

1. The opportunity to become an overnight success with a single rating from the right reviewer

2. The opportunity to have my entire brand dismissed with a single wrathing from the wrong reviewer.

3. The chance to sell out 1000s of cases of wine on the back of one good rating and little marketing.

4. An enormous incentive to make a wine that mimics those that get high ratings.

5. The most powerful sales tool in the history of winemaking, more important even than the quality of the wine.

In our recent "Tough Wine Questions" survey here at Fermentation I asked three questions about numerical wine rating. In the first question I wanted to know what people thought of the utility of wine ratings in terms of choosing a wine. The responses were split down the middle with 51% saying they are helpful in choosing a wine and 49% saying they are of no use.


What’s really interesting is what happens when we examine those who thought them useless. These people are 1) far more likely to believe numerical ratings are HURTING the wine industry, more likely to believe numerical ratings promote "sameness" in wine styles and…importantly…much more likely to work in or around the wine industry.

It may be that by being in the wine industry you are more likely to have been affected in some way by a bad review and this taints your view of the utility and effect of numerical wine ratings. But I think there might be more to it than that.

First, it’s likely that if you are in the industry or around wine a lot or drink a lot of wine you simply don’t need reviews to help you find a wine. Maybe you even resent their ubiquity. I also am convinced there is a genuine concern that numerical wine ratings are promoting greater sameness of style among wines from various terroirs and varietals. When we asked if numerical wine ratings promote "sameness" in wine 78% of respondents said yes. Of those who find ratings of no use in choosing a wine, 85% said it promotes sameness. It’s no surprise that those who said ratings promote sameness in wine styles were more likely to say the wine industry was hurt by ratings.

As with the issue of high alcohols in wine there appears to be a concern INSIDE the wine industry over the utility and effect of numerical wine ratings. Of those who identified themselves as not being in the wine industry, they were much more likely to think ratings were helpful in choosing a wine and that ratings made wine more accessible.

I don’t think there is any question that numerical wine ratings make wine more accessible to more people. Folks that just want a good wine stare up at a shelf of over 50 cabernets, 50 chards and hundreds of other wines all on the same shelf. Which to buy? That 90 point Pinot must be good.

Will the skepticism of the industry filter down to the buying public? Not in my lifetime. What’s more, I’ll continue to use numerical wine ratings to help promote the wines of Wark Communications clients, even though I’m one of those folks who think they hurt the creativity and diversity in the wine industry. Not using these scores would simply be letting my clients down given their huge potential to gain customers from them.

7 Responses

  1. johng - November 29, 2006

    Of course you’ll use them, Tom. All of us who promote wines will use them – up until that first 88 point Spectator review of our client’s $60 wine comes along. Then the numbers cease to exist.

  2. Mike Duffy - November 29, 2006

    OK, I’ll chime in here.
    I think 100 points is too granular (and I speak as the creator of a 100-point rating scale for winery Web sites, which frankly has the same issue – a 10-point range is too big for 1 point to be meaningful). Can you truly taste the difference between X and X+1 points? Aren’t a 94-point wine and a 95-point wine each pretty drinkable? How about 89 and 90 (same distance apart)?
    So, you get people who buy by the numbers, and then wineries who make wine by the numbers, and the whole point (enjoying a glass of wine, being able to tell if you’ll enjoy a particular wine by reading a review) somehow gets lost.
    To me, a good review tells me if I would enjoy the wine enough to buy it. A review is a surrogate for tasting the wine (and sometimes for visiting the winery and meeting the people who make the wine and having an experience). Sometimes a review just makes me curious. A number alone does very little of that.
    PS – My favorite wine reviews are those in the Wall St. Journal, which have 5 non-numeric groupings (Delicious! to Yucky!). Now I’ve destroyed my credibility altogether. (grin)

  3. Christian Miller - November 30, 2006

    All good points, both the original posting and the responses. But bear in mind folks, there are millions of core high end wine drinkers who pay little attention to critical ratings. There are numerous wineries that sell successfully without 90+ reviews. In the big picture, they make less of an impact on the industry than we think they do.
    My personal problem with ratings (in particular 100 point systems from lone critics) is that they give an illusion of accuracy and reliability. There is simply no good evidence that a single person’s palate judgement is a reliable indicator of how a majority of people will react to a wine, nor that the scores can be replicated under different conditions.
    Christian Miller
    Full Glass Research

  4. Ken - November 30, 2006

    With respect to ratings and the 100 pt. scale one of the greatest problems with them is that they have no educational value. Ratings most often function as a safety net for consumers: one needn’t cultivate a palate if one can fall back on the rating of a particular wine as the guarantee of value. One can learn to taste but, like achieving success at anything in this world, it takes time and patience. Mr. Parker has hit upon a general formula to spare many drinkers the trouble: more often than not high alcohol fruit bombs. I am reminded of Oz Clarke’s observation on the fortunes of Merlot in the US, “[] if the man on the telly tells you you must knock back a couple of glasses of red a day – suddenly millions of Americans who have never drunk wine before are queing up for their daily dose. But these were novice drinkers. They didn’t necessarily like the flavour of red wine very much – and what they needed was something that was soft, easy and mild, and yet discernibly, undeniably red – and one grape fitted the bill perfectly – Merlot. Suddenly Merlot’s perceived weaknesses were its unique selling point.”
    Substitute the idea of the ‘100 pt. system’ for Merlot. And so I wonder if Parker’s palate might not be leading consumers to a different but no less uniform flavor profile.

  5. Wine Boy! - November 30, 2006

    My wines and winery at the point where handsell is the operative word. The highest rating that our wines have recieved is an 84 from New Mexico. My question to anyone out there is “Is there a handicap for wines outside of California or other non-recognized regions?”

  6. Paul - December 4, 2006

    I’ve never used Parker’s ratings….
    I’ve recently got into the wine club. I’ve been a musician for 26 years and the wine takes the place of the things I used to do.
    To me: the fun of being a wino is sharing new unique wines with friends and my local wine shops. It’s fun to try to find the best bottle of wine under 15$. I’ve tasted so many diferent wines that way.
    I imagine some of the wine that’s on rating system is very good. But the prices seem to be way out of line though. From what I’ve been told and read, anything over 30$ a bottle, in a shop, is crazy.
    I don’t know if I’m in the minority..(spend 200$ a month on wine) I never make a choice because of a rating from Parker / Wine Spectator.

  7. joani - May 13, 2007

    I don’t follow the ratings much since I’ve found that my palate is different from those the ratings seem to cater to. I cut my teeth on Haut Brion and D’Yquiem before the CA trend hit in the mid-70’s. I have a “European palate”, I guess. I cannot believe that I even tolerate CA wines like Sutter Home’s 2003(?)Shiraz and 2002 Pinot Noir. Even now, those seem very acidic, and Beringer’s Stone Cellar Pinot is becoming my table wine of choice for a little while, at least. Iron Horse Vineyards is still one of my favorite CA vineyards, but too pricey at this time. I have fun w/some of Oregon’s Pinots as well, but I find Washington state’s and Australia’s too heavy and fruity. I have found some interesting Malbecs from Argentina, but since I have little disposable income at this time, I must look for “fun” for less than $8/bottle…and I’m finding it outside of CA, which for the most part I cannot drink because they are not enjoyable for me.
    Virginia has a vineyard owned and operated by some very knowledgeable Italians, and though the name escapes me, their Pinot is excellent. Even their Chardonnay is something.
    Anyone familiar w/vintages from Sonoma Co.(CA- 2001/Pinot Noir)& Bordeaux (St.Emilion-2000)? I want to enrich my taste buds, then “invest” in my future and buy more!

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