"100 Point" Wine Ratings Have Lost Their Meaning
Wine ratings have to a large degree become diminished in their meaning and usefulness to the wine drinking world. Originally created to replicate American schools' 100 point grading system, and thus, be as readily understood to Americans as the 20 point wine ratings system was for the Europeans that preceded them, the system served us well for quite some time but has lost its meaning for a number of reasons. First of all, it doesn't take a great deal of research to begin to get the idea that the scores given by lots of wine critics are arbitrary. If you were to ask these folks how they arrived at their score you would very likely get a meandering sort of answer at best, or worse still, they might be evasive altogether. Secondly, with the nature of the world online today, people have a real desire to be interactive with wine – to participate. People like Gary Vaynerchuk using catch phrases on their podcasts such as "you… with a little bit of me – we're changing the wine world" have their hearts in the right place by encouraging people to have fun with wine, but in reality it's more like "mostly me, not much of you," at least in terms of arriving at a well-formed opinion of a wine (no offense intended, Gary.) The reason is because people just don't have any real tools they can personally use to score wines themselves and are left to always trust a professional reviewer or blogger or wing it and do what so many "professionals" are doing and give it a meaningless "89+ points." It's really arbitrary, isn't it? Thirdly, there are way too many wine reviewers that have conflicts of interest. Most publications have to sell advertising and they have to sell advertising specifically to large, mass-producing winemakers who make mediocre (or worse) products but can afford to pay for expensive, full-color magazine ads. The magazines simply can't afford to alienate themselves from every winemaker in the business with critical reviews, particularly with wines the way they are – the vast majority of them are unremarkable table wines and many are downright undrinkable. Even professional reviewers writing for non-advertising-based publications have some level of conflict of interest or credibility problems, such as when they are given bottles from the winemakers to review rather than via retail purchase, because of a) the need to disclose that it was given to them and b) the rare but real potential to have the wine misrepresented in the bottle by the manufacturer (even we will do reviews of wines given to us, but will always - without fail - be unbiased in our reviews, even if it ends up alienating us from the winemaker, and we will disclose when the bottles we tested were not acquired through a retail purchase.) Last but certainly not least of all, the primary reason a major change's time has come in wine ratings is the lack of variety of scores. In fact, it's the same reason that Robert Parker says on his website that he began using a 50 point scale in the first place (yes, his and most major North American wine scales are currently 50 point scales – they go from 50 to 100.)
Greater Variation in Wine Ratings is Essential
Before the Robert Parker wine ratings innovation, the Europeans had used their 20 point scale and that was the international standard. Parker rightly points out how limiting this scale can be. A 20 point system has too little variation – 1 point is equivalent to about 5 in a 100 point scale, meaning wines in the 95-100 point range at the top end of the scale would all be given a 20, or perhaps a 19, although there are hugely important differences between those wines – greater variation is needed to accurately communicate a wine's quality. So now that we have a 50 point wine rating scale with much better variation - what's the problem, you ask? Our 50 point scale is broken. The range of the scale is not used. Many factors, including but not limited to the human businesses of wine reviewing and winemaking being tied so closely together have caused wine ratings to remain unnaturally (wrongly) balanced toward the high end of the scale, which only plays into another human instinct - to shun substandard quality. See, in school, we all were taught that A's are best and what we want. In fact, A's in school are best and that's what we should always seek to attain in class. We can study and with a little work we can make an excellent grade. If you think of wines being tasted as though they are taking a test like students in school, you naturally hope that they do well so that they make A's. If they are a B students, well, maybe study harder next year. C students aren't even mentioned, really, because people's interests are really only in A grades. The very tool intended to make wine ratings more intuitive to the public becomes - particularly in America - problematic because of its relationship to the American school grading system. (In France grades on their 20 point scale are more flexible - a 10 would be passing, and a 12-14 considered a good grade. 18-20 are very rare grades in school, and so they use more of the range of their respective wine scale, as well.) The problem is that even in the top echelon of wines there is a wide variety of quality and aging potential and yet you see so many 89, 90, 91, 90, 90, 88, 91, 90 scores, over and over again. Wine critics are continuously giving wines ratings in the same range. That's just ridiculous. We want wines that "make good grades," and because of the frequency that reviewers are dishing out scores that are supposed to go to exceptional wines ("B" and "C" category wines are not intended to be substandard like B or C grades in school,) it is reinforced to us the idea that scores in the 80's range are not for us. We all want to drink good wines after all… right? If you read the definition of wine scores from various publications like Wine Spectator, Robert Parker's "The Wine Advocate," and many others, you might be shocked to find that scores much lower than you thought are actually supposed to be really good wines. What's worse, if you were to try a wine rated around an 80, you might find that it's not very good at all, even though according to their own definitions it should be – it happens all the time. All of this confusion around a variation in wine scores has created an environment for the local wine retailers where people don't want to purchase wines in the 80 point range, oftentimes. So what of variety? What am I getting at? Well, if 90-100 is "good" nowadays and less than 89 is "maybe okay," guess what? We're back to using a 20 point scale, essentially. That highly desirable variation in wine ratings, due to a complicated number of factors, has been eliminated. The current wine rating system is broken. And most importantly, because no one ever even attempts to tell you how they arrived at their score, in the end, the scores are meaningless.
A Meaningful Wine Scoring Method
No wine rating scale is perfect but there is a lot of room for improvement. On Las Vegas Critics I have adopted a 50 point scale that begins with 1 and goes to 50 and those wine ratings are arrived at based on three primary factors in the wine. All ratings are ultimately somewhat arbitrary, but breaking the score down into components gives more meaning to the final rating for three reasons: 1) you can see how the score was arrived at and understand how those numbers might relate to your own preferences in wine a little better, and 2) breaking down the total score into several parts allows for slightly less human error, as you will likely have days where things just don't smell or taste and look quite right to you, but you're probably much less likely to be very far off of your normal wine tasting assessments in all of those categories at once, lending some balance to your overall score over time and 3) most importantly, it removes the disgusting, aloof sense of arbitrary scoring that is rampant throughout the wine world and offers a common sense approach to rating wines that is interactive with the rest of the wine drinking world – you can easily use it yourself, share, compare, and contrast your wine ratings with us and with your friends and we will all understand how and why you gave the wine the rating you did.
Here's how we rate wines we taste:
- Color: 10 points
- Smell: 20 points
- Taste: 20 points
(The graphic on the right is an example of what a wine score might look like on our site).
Color (this component includes color and the overall visual inspection of the wine) is given a score from 1 to 10 and both smell and taste are rated between 1 and 20. The cumulative total of the three segments of the tasting give us a possible total of 50 out of 50 points. We might say that a particular wine received a 27. That would be 27 out of a possible 50 points, to be clear.
You might be thinking "why does smell – the nose – get the same weighting as taste?" It's understandable to question this. In fact, our sense of taste can not exist without smell. The opposite is not true, however. Try it out – take a drink of something while pinching your nose. If you taste anything at all it's because some air got up in your soft palate. When we taste wine, we often introduce air into our mouths where it moves up our palates and on into our noses so that we get the full effect of the aromas and flavors. For many people, smelling – deeply breathing in wine's aromatic nuances - even with their eyes closed at times - is a huge part of wine tasting. The nose of wine definitely adds immense pleasure to this wonderfully hedonistic passion of ours… wine. While on the subject of apologetics for our wine rating system, you might have noticed we do not include a component for aging potential in the total score. We made this choice for two reasons. First, for practical reasons, giving a fifty point score that's composed of more than three components begins to become just too cumbersome to use for quick mental calculations in regular conversation (or on our podcast) and could start to become more arbitrary. The second reason is that determing aging potential is largely to do with tasting the structure in the wine, and long-lasting, classic wines tend to reflect their aging potential through the tasting component, regardless.
Some More Thoughts On Our Wine Ratings System
Let me share some more thoughts with you about our scale. If you noticed, in the three components of our wine scoring system there are an even number of possible numbers, which means there is not an exact midpoint in the scale: you will choose either 5 or 6 or 10 or 11 for each segment. This is important and will cause you to "get off the fence" with your rating and not choose a number that is dead in the middle of each individual scale, giving more meaning to your scores. For the total (and most important) score the midpoint of the scale is 25 or 26, for a perfectly acceptable, perfectly average wine. Slightly below that level would probably be okay for table wine purposes with some minor flaws. Also, if you notice, to get a score below 20, say, 4, 8, and 7, for a total of 19 out of 50, the wine would be leaning in the direction of less than half the possible score in each category from the total wine score. That would indicate that you're tending to not care for the wine's qualities and that, of course, is reflected in the final wine rating, which is somewhat below average, but still not rancid or undrinkable – a wine score that low would be very low, indeed.
Here are a few more thoughts on this wine rating scale… You'll notice that since there are three segments that make up the total wine rating that is comprised of 50 possible points, each component in the scale begins with 1, not zero. This means that the minimum score a wine could in theory have is 3. Since a score of 1 or 2 are not possible, that means there are 48 different possible wine ratings in the system, but that does not skew the numbers because it is inherently balanced by the fact that the topmost numbers will be very difficult – but not impossible – to attain, as the wine would have to been given a perfect score in all three components to get a perfect rating of 50. We expect that the scale allows for much more variation and we encourage users of the wine ratings scale to "calibrate" their use of the scale from the middle of each component outward in either direction from 5 or 6 or 10 or 11, and be comfortable with the idea of middling scores in the 20's range. Always keep in mind, too, that when you feel one rating component is "average," choose either a 5 or 6 or 10 or 11, remembering that you need to "get off the fence" because one is leaning very slightly in the "dislike" direction and the other is leaning very slightly in the "like" direction of the scale.
Let Go of the Old, Embrace the New
One last note about our new 50-point wine rating scale… We're sure that some people would like to have an idea of the "equivalent" of our score on a 100 point scale. You could add 50 points to the scale to try to get in the ballpark of a 100 point rating equivalent (don't multiply by 2, that's completely inaccurate) but you are defeating the real point of moving away from the "100 point" scale, and that is to regain more variety and an acceptance of a range of scores, and our scale, if 50 were added to it, would tend to make a very good wine feel more "average" or worse yet, might cause you to assume you should not seek it out, which is just wrong, because remember, the people rating wine are often not even rating by their own rules and definitions. The point is to have meaning in the wine ratings system's numbers and not to just come up with some arbitrary, inexplicable rating that you don't know how to use in a meaningful way yourself. This scale changes all that.