Wine Scores: What’s The Point?
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
Customer: What score did this wine get?
Me: Off the top of my head I don’t know, but I’ve had this wine recently and I would easily give it a 90.
Customer: Yeah, but I only buy wines that actually GET a 90.
Me: From who?
Customer: It doesn’t matter, as long as it gets a 90.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get asked about (or see) a wine score. Given the thousands of bottles available for purchase it is the quickest way to give an opinion about the quality of the wine. But who’s opinion, and why would you trust the opinion of someone you have never met? Think of it this way; If your brother-in-law recommended a movie that you then saw and hated, odds are you wouldn’t ask for your brother-in-law’s movie opinion again. So how did we get to this, ahem, “point” in wine?
There were certainly writers who critiqued wines prior to 1982 but that was the year the wine world changed. One writer from a small town in Maryland said the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was “stunning” and urged the readers of his self-published newsletter to buy the wines. It wasn’t just that his opinion differed from others, it was how he “scored” the wine which was so influential.
Robert McDowell Parker Jr. was visiting his high school sweetheart at the University of Strasbourg, when he had his wine epiphany. Returning home he wrote his opinions of the wines he had tasted and published them a newsletter for his friends. Taking his cue from Ralph Nader’s popular magazine The Consumer Advocate he called his modest effort The Wine Advocate. Instead of giving 1 to 5 stars traditionally used for movies, or the 20 point scale used in Britain, he used the 100 point marking system that was understood by every American student. He had no idea, however that anything under 90 would be considered sub-par, but that became the benchmark. He also thought a wine receiving a score in the 80 to 85 range was perfectly fine (see score explanations below). I dare say you will never see a shelf talker touting an 82 score today!
Never was the insanity of scoring vs. sales more evident than in the case of “Two Buck Chuck”, where a bottle of Charles Shaw wine costing $1.99 was given a high score and went on to sell as if it was a first growth Bordeaux.
(Millennials and GenXers are showing less reliance on scores in general, but that’s not to say Instagram pics and Facebook Likes are any different.)
Now I’m not against wine scores – they definitely serve a purpose. But I think you should take note as to who gave the score and whether their palate matches your own after having tried a few of their recommendations. Whether you use Wine Spectator, Advocate or Enthusiast for a score, or even Wine-Searcher which calculates the average, relying solely on anyone’s palate other than your own is risky and may deprive you from exploring a grape or region that didn’t get a 90+ score.
But that’s just MY opinion.
100 Score Explanation
95–100 Classic: a great wine
90–94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85–89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
80–84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
75–79 Mediocre: drinkable but may have minor flaws
50–74 Not recommended