Wine Scores: Misleading or Helpful to Consumers?

Feb20th

Introduction

It’s unbelievable to consider that there’s a huge industry of specialists dedicating their lives to wine in the form of writers, sommeliers and critics. Why has wine inspired us in a way no other food or drink does?

In this episode, I explore the questions around why we score wine in the first place, whether they really matter and if you should trust them.

 

Highlights

  • Can you really trust a score from someone who has just been drinking?
  • Why do we rate wine in the first place?
  • How does the Australian show system compare to wine scoring systems in the U.S. and U.K.?
  • What is my approach to scoring wines?
  • How do you balance the ease of reference of wine scores with their inherent subjectivity?
  • What’s the most important thing to remember about wine scores?
  • Can wine scores negatively impact the industry?

 

Resources

 

Wine Reviews

 

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Transcript & Takeaways

Welcome to Episode 12! Wine scores: do they matter? Should you trust them? Why do we even score wine? Those are the questions I’m going to explore with you today.

My main beef with wine scores is that they’re given by someone who has just been drinking.

Sure, the professionals are tasting, not drinking because they’re spitting or expectorating. But when you evaluate 30 to 50 wines at a time, some of that wine gets absorbed through the soft tissue in the mouth, and then there are the great wines where you need to see if the finish is long or short … that means swallowing.

Even the accompanying tasting notes often aren’t that helpful. The prose can be as purple as a young Argentinean wine: “A spirited little filly that shows all the right breeding. Rich nose of barnyard and sweaty saddles. I’d give it four stars out of five.”

Other than the high rating, who’s to know if the critic likes this wine? One person’s sweaty saddle is another’s unwashed leather.

More maddeningly, though, scores evaluate the obvious: how a wine tastes. What really matters is how interesting the wine makes your dining companion.

Now that would be worth rating.

Indeed, you have to wonder why we rate wine in the first place. After all, it is just a drink.

We certainly don’t have orange juice critics or syndicated cabbage columnists talking about how the September rainfall affected the leaf set.

Perhaps this scrutiny is a testament to the way we feel about wine — so strongly that we need to both quantify and qualify the feeling.

Robert Parker Jr., a former American lawyer and now a revered wine critic for more than 40 years, is credited with developing the 100-point scale, or at least, relentlessly promoting to evaluate thousands of wines in his publication The Wine Advocate, a consumer’s report of wine.

A number of Australian critics use variations on the theme, such as a 20-point scale, and often, those based on five points, stars, glasses or bottles.

But saying that one scale is better than another seems to me like quibbling over which is worth more: 50 cents, two quarters or five dimes.

The bigger difference between Australia and the U.S. and U.K. is the importance of the show system, which awards medals that become the gold, silver and bronze stickers decorating many Australian wine labels.

Although advocates claim that the shows offer the same benefits of wine scores, shows also have some unique weaknesses: only those wines that are entered can be judged, as opposed to the full spectrum of wine available on the market.

As well, in some competitions, most, if not all the wines walk away with medals, which cheapens the award. And finally, some winemakers don’t specify the competition for which their wine won the medal, or for what category, which can be misleading.

Nonetheless, the allure of ratings is their simplicity and apparent objectivity. I recall from my school days that more than 90 points is an A, 80-89 a B, 70-79 a C, between 50-69 D or E and below 50 is a failure (even though it seems wines are never rated below 70).

For the first few years that I wrote about wine, I didn’t score them as I didn’t have the confidence to do it. I just wrote tasting notes.

However, my readers kept asking for scores as they really wanted this short-hand for their shopping lists. Some wanted to do a quality-price ratio analysis or QPR, using my score for quality against the price of the wine like the way they evaluate shares of a company with earnings per share or EPS.

So to be of service, I started rating wines. However, I still don’t score wines below 80 as I don’t think they’re worth your time or attention. Who wants to remember a long list of wines you shouldn’t buy?

However, this easily-understood shorthand for quality is also the most difficult to pin down. Is an 85 good, very good or great? Is there a difference between wines rated 91 and 92?

I got in a rut of rating most wines between 87 and 89, again due to lack of confidence to use a wider range and make more definitive numeric judgements.

Plus, I used to think that if the world’s greatest wines say like a $700 bottle of Chateau Margaux, deserve a score in the high 90s, how can I possibly rate any wine below $20 in the 90s.

But most of us don’t live in a world where Chateau Margaux is a Saturday night wine. So, again thinking of my readers, I used a wider scoring spectrum based on the wines they and I were drinking, generally in the $15 to $35 range.

Even the English language, a more telling tool than our numeric system, has its inadequacies when it comes to precision: Is brilliant better than outstanding? Is zesty better than refreshing?

Many of us want something that is far less precise, something that will tell us if the wine is good or bad, its style and what food will go well with it.

So what should we do with wine ratings? Recognize them for what they are: one person’s opinion of a particular wine at a particular time.

Most critics don’t rate and run, realizing that the scores they give today can be checked in the future, making them accountable to consumers over time.

In fact, some publications revisit ratings and follow the wine to maturity as does Robert Parker and critics who write for his publication.

While ratings can give new wine drinkers confidence to take that precipitous leap from bladder box swill to bottled poetry, what qualifies these critics to be arbiters of vinous taste?

Most admit to never having run a winery, let alone worked on one. Some critics claim working for a winery would bias them to a particular style and region of wine, resulting in the career-fatal condition known as the over-conditioned cellar palette.

Others argue that you don’t need to be an arsonist to write about house fires, nor would you want to be one.

Even so, many critics taste thousands of wines each year; Parker estimates that he tastes 80 wines on a good day, or about 10,000 annually.

Most of us don’t have the time, money or Teflon tastebuds to drink this many wines or even to read wine magazines, so the critics perform the humanitarian service of screening our wine.

However, can anyone evaluate hundreds of wines based on a 20-second swirl and spit without the benefit of swallowing the wine or of enjoying it with food? As British wine writer Andrew Simon said, there are no great wines, only great bottles.

With wine, context matters. Your most memorable bottles are likely those that were suffused with the warm light of good friends and fine food.

More importantly, can critics quantify something so elusive, ethereal and subjective as wine? Can an emotional response be captured in a number?

The numeric system lends a spurious precision and scientific accuracy to what is simply someone’s opinion. And what about the critics’ off days, blind spots, inconsistencies, prejudices or palette differences?

These weaknesses come to the fore when brawny “TEC” wines that use technology, extraction and colour get high marks. TEC wines include over-oaked chardonnay and high-alcohol shiraz, among others.

But formula-weary wines chasing after the high scores gravitate towards a homogenous international style made with a food processing mentality. It’s the dumbing down wine with all style and no substance.

Scores can also negatively affect the wine industry when they’re awarded while the wine is still in its oak cradle. Many publications publish their scores for the harvest only months after the wine goes into the barrel.

Wine changes significantly in its early years, particularly great wine that may not yet be integrated. Critics say they can detect the structure that gives fine wines their longevity, and ultimately, their finesse.

However, early ratings can encourage winemakers to sculpt their wines to taste great in the barrel rather than allowing the natural evolution to occur.

Scores and medals do have some redeeming qualities for the wine industry. When judiciously applied, they can recognize excellence in winemaking and weed out faulty, weak wines.

In an industry increasingly dominated by several mega-corporations, ratings are often the only way for smaller wineries to get recognition. However, the smallest wineries can suffer because critics want to rate wines that are widely available to their readers to buy.

Scores and medals can also be helpful in liquor stores, particularly in New World countries that don’t have the same history of expert merchants as do Britain and France.

Even when the staff is highly trained though, some consumers don’t know which questions to ask them. Shelf slips with the wine ratings and tasting notes help make quick decisions.

The downside is that most retailers will search for the highest score awarded to the wine in order to sell it. That means that many wines on the shelves have high scores, so how do you choose from a sea of 90s?

You find a critic whose palate you trust, who recommends wines you love, and follow those scores rather than all the rest.

Other retailers misuse this information by using the same shelf slips for wines of different vintages, or more egregiously, for different wines. Some use high scores to justify increasing the price.

That’s why I launched mobile apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices. You can take any bottle and scan the front label or back barcode to access my scores, tasting notes and food pairings.

The app will also tell you, based on real-time inventory updates and GPS location satellite services, which 10 red or white wines I like best in the store where you’re standing based on my highest scores, and which are the best value, those under-priced gems.

You can download the app for free at nataliemaclean.com/mobileapp.

Perhaps the most useful scale would be to rate the critics: five stars for those who recommended a bottle my boss liked, four stars for those whose suggested bottles that went up in value, three stars for wines that were tolerable at a refrigerator-cool temperature, and so on.

Those critics who are rated below two and a half stars would have to drink a vat of their misjudged wines before publishing a score again.

How about you? Do you rely on wine scores to buy wine? Have you ever been disappointed by a wine scored 90 or above? Have you ever discovered a wine that didn’t get a high rating and you were pleasantly surprised?

Share that with me, please! You can tag me on Twitter or Facebook @nataliemaclean, on Instagram I’m @nataliemacleanwine or use the hashtag #unreservedwinetalk.

You’ll find links to the wines I’ve rated 90 and above in the show notes, at nataliemaclean.com/12. I’ve also included links to my best value wines, those that are under $20 but still scored 90 points or higher.

Next week, we’ll chat with Forbes Wine Columnist Cathy Huyghe about women and wine in the lead up to International Women’s Day.

If you liked this episode, you can share it easily with a friend: tap on the purple box that says Unreserved Wine Talk and in the bottom right corner of your phone, you’ll see three dots. Click on them and there’s your option to Share this.

It’ll fill in everything for you, including the title of this episode and the link to it, in an email or text, to the friend (or distribution list) of your choice.

I can’t wait to share more personal wine stories with you. Thank-you for taking the time to listen to this. I hope something great is in your glass this week!

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