Two former Palate Press Editors, W. R. Tish and W. Blake Gray take different sides in the Scorevolution manifesto and the 100-point scale debate.

In Defiance—Not Defense—of the 100-Point Scale

by W. R. Tish

A group of wine lovers—Scorevolution— decide to create a digital “manifesto” decrying the current-day failings of the 100-point wine-rating scale. They encourage wine lovers, both individuals and organizations, to sign on in cyberspace. Sounds like digital democracy in action.

I signed the manifesto to support the concept rather than to endorse the specific text. The manifesto itself is purposely aggrandized, more campy than compelling, and tellingly short. Its brevity implies an awareness that this is not an end-all statement, but rather a conversation starter. Fine by me. I think that any concerted effort to raise awareness of the dysfunction of 100-point ratings in general is a good thing.

What is there to defend about the 100-point scale, really? Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the scale itself has no standardization whatsoever. Let’s set aside that the scale is nearly always employed in a context, namely blind tasting without food, that is diametrically opposed to the real-world usage of wine. Let’s back-burner the widely accepted notion that one’s perception of a wine changes when, where and how it is sampled, thereby rendering static ratings hard to apply in real life. And let’s set aside the simple fact that numerical ratings are subjective—that is to say taste preference, not objective judgment of quality—and cannot be replicated with any statistical reliability.

The general problem with the 100-point scale is that it has outlived its utility. Back in the 20th century, it made some sense—as a format to provide consumer guidance in several specific print media outlets. Unfortunately, the scale’s use by consumers to buy wine set in motion a long slide toward its current state in the 21st century, where it has clearly become public fodder, a victim of its own success.

If wine critics were to simply share their rated reviews with subscribers in their particular publications, there would be no problem with the scale. I have nothing against the critics themselves, who earnestly toil to taste dozens of wines weekly. They are not corrupt; but their system has been corrupted.

The 100-pt scale has been shrunk (scores now effectively populate a 10-point range, from 85 to 94 points). It has been inflated (with so many wines and so many ratings getting churned out, nowadays a wine is 90…or it’s not worth anything). It has been diluted (by dozens of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator wannabes). Most important of all, it has been abused (by marketers and retailers, who cherry-pick and strip the ratings away from descriptive text).

To paraphrase a comment from one of my manifesto-signing colleagues, Wine Harlots, point scores today are not so much tools as weapons. Whatever authority the 100-point scale had is now muddled at best. And at worst, the scale has spun out of control. No matter how much the scale’s defenders whine about every rating also having a tasting note, the reality is that numbers themselves have become the point of using 100 points to rate wine.

After a press release and Twitter attention brought more eyeballs to the Scorevolution manifesto, extreme reactions ensued. Steve Heimoff apparently felt so threatened by the grass-roots effort that he went scurrying up his blogger’s pedestal to scream bloody murder: “Defending point scores—again!

Problem is, he did not so much defend the 100-point scale as he did launch a McCarthyesque assault on the manifesto messengers and the minions who signed on to support it. In short, Heimoff comes across as a bully. If he truly wanted to defend the 100-point scale, the proper target of his wrath should be people who willfully game the system for mercenary purposes and thereby devalue the whole idea of ratings.

In fact, perhaps he should start with his own employer (full disclosure: I edited the magazine from 1988-’98 and left on very positive terms). Wine Enthusiast’s so-called Buying Guide is no more than a marketing vehicle in which 85-and-up scores are used to sell label-ads that masquerade as editorial (in violation of journalistic standards). Meanwhile, next door to the magazine, the company’s wine retail division, which for several years cooked up its own ratings, now cherry-picks WS and RP scores just like other lazy retailers (90+ WE scores, too, if RP/WS ones are not high enough).

The whole point of wine media is to share information about wine. I think an anti-points manifesto is a welcome addition to the conversation. Maybe Scorevolution is just what everyone needs to shake things up and push wine lovers to re-evaluate the very notion of wine reviewing. New formats are taking shape in the Digital Age, including bloggers’ badges and the single daily reviews seen on several online publications.

People will always want guidance. And experts will always aim to deliver it. But the means need not be an antiquated scale that outgrew its utility. It’s time to put the 100-point scale where it belongs: in the noble scrap heap of history.

We are waking up from two decades of being brainwashed into thinking that the ratings doled out by middle-aged men tasting 25 wines at a pop without food makes for a logical system of wine guidance. It’s time to grow up and embrace wine for what it is: a complex, multifarious beverage that can actually be better appreciated when elevated with words rather than reduced to numbers.

Shooting Points in Wine

By W. Blake Gray

My occasional friend Christophe Hedges of Washington’s Hedges Wine Estate grabbed some attention this week from the wine blogosphere by creating an online petition stating that wine should not be rated.

Talk about playing to the base! Telling the wine blogosphere that is like standing before a Tea Party convention, preaching that taxes are too high. And the response is just about as sensible.

Why has Palate Press brought me in to be the bad guy? The Washington Wine Commission flew me to Seattle to play the same role this spring: Because the really important wine critics who use the 100-point scale don’t care about your petition.

Robert Parker thinks you’re all a bunch of jealous juveniles; he won’t address the topic. Wine Spectator will, if called by a journalist, give a long and detailed interview about its rigorous system, in which James Laube gets to give Pinot Noir that tastes like blueberry syrup 94 points. I’ve made that call; executive editor Thomas Matthews has answered my questions. But the Spectator won’t send anybody to have the discussion in person at a seminar because it’s not about to change.

Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff will occasionally rouse himself to defend the 100-point system. I have never seen Josh Greene of Wine & Spirits, perhaps the most thoughtful of the second-tier 100-point users, address the issue. Maybe he’s embarrassed.

Or maybe he’s just realistic. If Wine & Spirits quit using the 100-point scale tomorrow, readership wouldn’t go up: the opposite would happen. A huge audience for these magazines is the wineries they rate. If a winery gets a 93 from any of them, the owner wants five copies, the winemaker wants three, and if you visit the tasting room, the article is framed. You don’t see that reverence for articles without ratings.

It was tempting for me to sign the petition, just as a lark. Headline: W. Blake Gray, one of several critics who used the 100-point scale at Wine Review Online as well as on his own blog, has joined Hedges’ Score Revolution!

If I thought I’d get headlines, I’d do it. Media is a business like any other, and I gotta do what’s best for me just as Robert Parker and Marvin Shanken do.

But all I would get would be a few nice emails from petition signers I know personally like Deborah Parker Wong, Raj Parr, Randall Grahm and two previous Palate Press managing editors, Meg Houston Maker and W.R. Tish. It might be worth it if Kermit Lynch, a petition signer, had me back over to pull some old wines from his cellar. Man, that was a good time.

But when I got home, here’s my reality: I wouldn’t be writing for Wine Review Online anymore. When I write for publications like the Los Angeles Times or Palate Press or Food & Wine, I don’t use ratings anyway, so it’s not like I’d get more assignments. I’d be shooting myself in the foot. And that’s just lil’ me.

Why would Parker or Shanken or Heimoff or Greene sign your petition? Be serious folks: You’re asking these people to give up the power they have. Who’s going to do that?

I’ve been in media long enough to remember when newspapers in particular were embarrassed by the idea that they were businesses. Not anymore. Wine media is an extremely competitive, and tiny, playing field. Every time the Wine Advocate gives somebody 95 points, that score serves as a free ad for the publication in wine stores all over the world. I was invited to a millionaires’ private club in Luxembourg earlier this year that had Robert Parker’s point scores listed for its wines.

Palate Press is like many of the bloggers who hate scores: this publication runs many wonderful wine reviews, with useful and precise tasting notes. But millionaires in Luxembourg, or Dallas, couldn’t care less. Nobody sells $150 Cabernets based on tasting notes. You simply cannot find adjectives tantalizing enough to outweigh a “96.”

And that’s another thing this petition, signed by just 341 individuals and 72 organizations as of Saturday, completely ignores. Yippee, you got 341 signatures! In the time it took me to type this far, about 3400 bottles of wine were sold at Costco and Beverages & More to consumers who haven’t heard your complaints, don’t care about them, and just want to know which bottle of Pinot Grigio is best.

You’re selfish, you know: You want to make things harder for them. They don’t want to read reviews. They want a short, easily understood recommendation. You’re telling them, “You can’t buy wine until you study terroir.” Wow, that’s fun.

I’ve been writing about food more than wine this summer, and it’s fascinating watching the way non-wine-geeky food experts relate to wine. They have good palates, and they generally agree with most of the issues that drive us wine bloggers: they want lower alcohol, they like minerality, they like acidity. But even people who eat for a living can’t generally tell you what grape goes into Chinon, much less keep track of which producers or vineyards are best. And y’all are essentially saying every schoolteacher and accountant and electrician in America who wants wine with their supper should know that stuff. Good luck with that!

So go ahead and have your petition fun, and keep on grumbling about the scores. You know, I’m rooting for you. Use some sort of blackmail and get Parker and Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits to stop rating wines on the 100-point scale. I will crack open a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs if you succeed.

Then I’ll give it 92 points, and I’ll instantly be the world’s most important wine critic.

W. R. Tish, the founding editor of Palate Press, develops custom wine events via Wine For All http://wineforall.com/ and recently launched New York Wine Salon, devoted to the culture of wine in New York City.

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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  • http://www.1winedude.com 1WineDude

    I really enjoyed this tete-a-tete!

    Hey Tish – “Wine Enthusiast’s so-called Buying Guide is no more than a marketing vehicle in which 85-and-up scores are used to sell label-ads that masquerade as editorial (in violation of journalistic standards).” – Not saying you’re wrong, or that you’re right, but that statement is made without anything really offered to back it up. So… where’s the data beef in this sandwich, bro?

    • http://www.nywinesalon.com/ Tish

      Dude,

      Happy to provide a little more depth there. I covered “Deception and the {Subtle} Art of Label Reproduction” here:
      http://www.wineforall.com/blog/?p=109
      and here:
      http://www.wineforall.com/blog/?p=119

      I also wrote a two-parter for Wines & Vines back in 2006 which remains surprisingly fresh. You can find “Glossy Buying Guides: Smoke & Mirrors” and “Dare We Critique the Critics” here:
      http://www.wineforall.com/writing.html (click on each title in the list)

      By the way, lest anyone think my criticism of the 100-point scale is limited to the glossies, there is also the “100 Point Hall of Shame,” here:
      http://www.thewineskewer.com/2008shame.html

      If you need more, just ask…

      • http://www.1winedude.com 1WineDude

        Thanks, Tish!!

    • Bryan

      Joe I’m not sure what the specific policies of Wine Enthusiast are but I’ve seen the way WE discloses it’s scores to submitting wineries with the offer of publishing a photo of the label next to their review for a good chunk of change. It was a wake up call when I learned how some wineries get such prominent placement in their buying guide.

    • Sarah

      Actually, most niche-interest magazines sell ads this way. My husband has worked in various roles at magazines in the music, outdoor, and new age industries. All of them made it standard practice to contact companies whose products would receive favorable reviews in the next issue to encourage them to maximize the impact of that review by buying an ad. It’s just the way things are done. Why should wine magazines be any different?

      • http://www.nywinesalon.com/ Tish

        Sarah, of course niche-interest mags have always used editorial coverage as a springboard for pursuing advertising. The difference here is the placement and (lack of) notation of the ads. Do you know of any other niche where an advertiser are able to pay for a product photo to run adjacent to a positive review without being clearly denoted as an ad? I am not saying this is illegal, but it is deceptive. And it brings us back to the point that the critics are not corrupt, but the 100-point scale has been corrupted.

  • http://www.scorevolution.com Boo Walker

    Blake, I don’t think this means every average man and woman in the US needs to study terroir. They just need to be aware that the scores they see on a shelf or elsewhere are one person’s opinion, and that person’s opinion is no more important than anyone else’s. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of these people and I can tell you for a fact that most consider a number by some of the big critics to be much more of a law than a humble opinion. That’s what needs to change. Let’s not have dictators.

    • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

      Boo: I don’t think you can blame the critics for the way their criticism is used or received.
      Is this phenomenon unique to wine? Oprah could flog a book, and sales would skyrocket. But I don’t remember anyone calling her a dictator.

      • http://www.nywinesalon.com/ Tish

        Not a good analogy, Blake. The book universe is large, but Oprah flogs a mere handful per year. How many wines do WS and RP review (and rate)? The vast wine universe, coupled with WS’s and RP’s volume-based sense of authority, created a situation where they have become de-facto dictators.

        This phenomenon is in fact unique to wine. If the 100-point scale is so good, why has it not been applied in any other field except for in education, where the 100-point grading scale is tied in to more precise criteria.

        • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

          Can “dictator” be plural for the same population, if they’re not an oligarchy, which they’re clearly not since they’re rivals?

  • Ron McFarland

    Consumers will always support multiple vendors for their food and wine choices. Some will never stray from well established patterns with industrial grocery stores – there is another group that will go out of their way to seek and discover what is available in the local farmers market. This is a much smaller group of consumers, I suspect there is an emerging group of wine consumers who think like a farmers market consumer when it comes to wine. This is the consumer who will spend dollars based on other criteria – recommendation’s of retailers and friends – desire to enjoy small production wines or support wineries where the owners have callouses on their hands. None of this makes the wine better or worse – just different.

    Both writers are right – just positioning for different consumers.

    Question to 1WineDude – have you asked any publications about how ads are placed, what the costs are or the methods how labels in up in buying guides?

    • http://www.1winedude.com 1WineDude

      Hey Ron – no, I’ve never done an investigative-style piece into that. I totally agree on your “farmers market” comparison, by the way!

  • Tone Kellyt

    One thing to consider around the score/not score debate. Everyone seems to assume that if I write a review in words, that someone else who then tastes the wine will identify these same identifiers in my review with the wine. A number of studies have shown that this is mostly bunk. I have run American Wine Society tastings with this concept and most people couldn’t identify which wine went with which reviewers comments. A number of professional tasting studies show the same thing.

    Also relative to points, true the 100 point scale is really just 15. But the 20 point scale is only about 5 or 6 points. And Decanter is only about 3-4 points.

    I personally have moved on beyond JUST using the score. The words matter more to me. But I don’t want to go back to the 60’s and 70’s when we only had flowery descriptors and you could tell if the wine was any good.

    • Sarah

      One thing that I think is interesting, which sort of follows along with what Ron was saying is that wine descriptors have gotten more “out there” in the past 10 years or so. It seems to me that with more critics out there than ever before, each is trying to outdo the other and come up with the most creative descriptors possible. These have been a few of my favorites over the years: dirt, sea kelp, purple flannel, seaweed, iodine, salt, compost, oozes with class, sandpaper grit, cheddar aromas, architectural tension, light shadings of polished stone, creamy and fun sort of like a milkshake, Huh? would you ever buy a wine with descriptions of the above, probably not. Would you buy it if it had 96 points or above. Scores make critics feel safe, it’s sort of an insurance for their worded reviews and that is why they don’t want them to go away

    • http://www.americanwinegirl.com Leslie

      Totally agree, and it comes back to consumers always wanting to know what other people think of wines. They are interested in both descriptions and some sort of comparative rating.

  • Donn Rutkoff

    The public uses scores and the public buys magazines. Those of us in the industry, who see the shortcomings of a number score, are not going to outnumber the general public. So scores will continue. Magazines will continue. And some people will continue to migrate from scores to advice from their available wine retailers. I just wish that the magazine writers or publishers would be more open about their preferences and styles. Just come right out and say that you prefer xyz and you don’t like lmn, and tell us what wines are xyz style and which are lmn style and let the public know that. I do not like Spectator because the editorial style is designed to convince the reader to buy only those wines that are in the magazine and that there are no other worthwhile wines. That does not serve the industry or the public, it is self-serving.

  • sybaritewino

    what about the 20 point scale applied by a certain someone across the pond? what about medals? it’s all about pushing a product. wish it weren’t.

  • http://wineharlots.com/ Wine Harlots

    Nice work guys!

    The pro’s for scoring is that it makes it easy — everyone knows a 91 is an A- and 89 is a B+, but have retailers tell you how easy it is move an 89. And if you lined up the 89 and 91 blind, would you be able to replicate the scores?

    And part of the issue for me is the whole ego game that is played with scores. As Blake mentioned with the millionaires, were they really enjoying the wine or searching out the most delicious bottles in the world or are they just self-involved in the “My bottle is bigger than yours” syndrome?

    Like all philosophical questions in life, there are no easy answers, but simply having the discussion is what matters.

    Cheers!

    Nannette Eaton

    • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

      Nannette: I do have some regret that millionaires have taken top Bordeaux beyond our reach. I’ll never pay my own money for a first-growth Bordeaux again.

      But otherwise, let’s face it: if they want the wines Parker likes most, that’s a marriage made in heaven, and I’m perfectly content with the high-acid whites and character-laden, balanced reds that he doesn’t. If Parker loved Falanghina and Malagousia and cool-climate Pinot Noir and I couldn’t afford it anymore, then I’d really be bummed.

  • http://www.bottledj.com bottleDJ Steve Shanahan

    I was recently browsing at a store that sells top end wines. This joker of a client was down to two 400$+ bottles that interested him. He asked the clerk how Parker scored them…. and made his decision based on that opinion. I wanted to kick his eff’ing butt. I went to the other section of store that sells everyday wines and left with something more humble.

    By virtue of that story, points not obsolete.

    Down with the Point System, but somebody please bring my Expos back!

    Steve

  • Wes

    It seems like the complaints about the 100 point system aren’t about using some sort of ranking, per se, but about how it is used and perceived. Certainly many retailers and some critics benefit from the perception that a rating is objective, but really, what it represents is one person’s view of a wine, in one setting, at one point in time. It’s language. At a time that we are seeing a great democratization of wine criticism, this isn’t a time to make individual opinion less clear, it’s time to take these ratings off their pedestals and look at them critically ourselves. If a given critic’s methodology or palate or whatever doesn’t accurately communicate if you’ll like a wine or not, find one who does.

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  • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

    Tish:

    In response…

    1. What rating scale has any “standardization” when all reactions to any wine or set of wines is subjective?

    2. Nearly all professional ratings and rankings are done in at least a single blind setting and don’t involve food. (how would you include all possible food matches? And not all wine, by a long shot, is drunk with food)

    3. If the perception of wine changes based on the setting it is tasted in then every and all tastings, ratings and rankings are marred by this circumstance, not just a 100 Point scale rating.

    4. 100 Point ratings CAN be duplicate with reality as long as you suggest that, say, two points in any direction equates to reliability.

    5. Both philosophically and logically, a proliferation of uses of any scale can not diminish or increase it inherent utility.

    6. That the descriptions that almost always come with the 100 point rating are stripped by people is not a criticism of the 100 point scale. It’s a criticism of the strippers and the consumers who use the ratings alone.

    7. The notion that numbers have become the point of using the 100 point scale is not a criticism of the utility of the scale. It is a criticism of the users of the scale.

    8. I don’t understand who is gaming the 100 point system nor what their “mercenary” goals are.

    9. The Wine Enthusiasts commercial use of their ratings is not an indictment nor a criticism of the utility of the 100 point rating system.

    10. I don’t see how the 100 point scale is antiquated. It still provides the means for delivering an opinion on a wine when delivered in conjunction with a written description. If a person finds their palate is satisfied by following the Spectator’s, Enthusiast’s, Parker’s or Wine and Spirit’s 100 point scale, then it clearly isn’t antiquated. Subscription numbers suggest many people are using these publication’s 100 point reviews along with their descriptions.

    11. If you can’t taste 25 wines in a sitting while indulging in simple palate cleansers then you have no business telling anyone what to drink.

    12. Finally, I need to see a compelling argument that use of the 100 point scale over the past 30 years hasn’t identified outstanding, good, average and poor wines.

    • http://www.bottledj.com bottleDJ Steve Shanahan

      Well thought out. If my counterpoint can touch on a subject that you didn’t mention: The point system has had an udeniable effect of making wines more uniform in style and flavour. And that is a bad thing.

      And to take this conversation on a tangent: I think that the point system pushers have created a parallel problem: the reliance on varietal based wines as opposed to blends that are potentially more interesting.

      The point system has allowed the conversation to become a 91 point cab or any 89 Pinot. Isn’t that boring. It removes the need to discuss your wine likes with a knowledgable sales person who can really find you something fantastic, perhaps something that is well known or obscure. When you are buying from a shelf talker and a guy who doesn’t enjoy wine, I guess the 90 point Merlot seems like a good idea.

      Talking about a great wine as simply a 89 point chenin blanc is like calling the Mona Lisa painting a 100 point oil on canvas. And if you don’t see the travesty in that…

      Musical Match: REM’s Automatic for the People.

      • Wes

        No, the uniform style we see is really a cynical, recipe-following approach designed to cater to the likes of Parker and Laube. If those critics weren’t allowed to use points, they’d still be pushing the same wines. Anyway, as I noted, Parker is turning the California wines over to Galloni, who seems to have a more normal, and quite respectable palate. If the Wine Spectator would listen to their own readers, they’d move Laube aside, too.

        What people said about the 100 point scale being a 15 point scale isn’t true. They just don’t print the lower scores, for the most part. (There would be lots of pulled advertising and lawsuits, I suspect.) The problem that perception leads to is on the consumer and amateur reviewer side.

      • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

        Steve:

        I can deny that the point system has had the effect of making wines more uniform in style and flavor. In the past 20 years, American winemakers have worked to seriously increase the number of AVAs. You could call this era that of an embrace of terroir, which suggests variety of flavor. If you want to insist there is a uniformity of style outside the most generic wines, then you might want to look at the increased use of fewer and fewer clones.

        I don’t have conversations about a 91 or 89 point cab. The conversations I have where points are concerned go like this:

        “How could this wine have gotten 93 points. It’s so simple and lacks complexity. The XYZ is a far better wine because it….”

        Or.

        “Mr. Reviewer nails this when he gives it 82 points and calls it ‘another light and insipid wine without character and too much alcohol'”

        Finally, the person who only buys on points can’t look to the reviewer to blame for their shortcutting. That’s the buyer’s fault.

        • http://www.bottledj.com bottleDJ Steve Shanahan

          Tom and Wes,

          I share your passion for wine, and would love to share some wine and conversation with you.

          I do think that perhaps, possibly maybe we disagree on a few things. You seem to blame the point system masses who blindly look at the numbers and nothing else while I tend to blame the point scoring system and it’s titans. We will agree to disagree.

          I would encourage both of you to ask a wine retailer what percentage of wines being sold before the point system became omnicient (say 30 years back) were single variety relative to blends that include grape varieties like pinau d’aunis…. Those small volume grapes that gave character to wines are disappearing and being replaced by grapes that are more familiar to consumers and easily fit on the shelf talker “91 point Cab” That is leading to a less diversified offering on the shelves, and less choice for the consumer.

          May I offer a long example from the world of food tasting which Blake is operating in…

          The Michelin Three Star rating system. Chefs who are bestowed a star are truly the best of the best, those who get two or three…. well they are walking gods of cuisine. Many of those Chefs feel uneasy about changing anything on their menu once they have been awarded those stars for fear of losing that rating. In a sense it stunts their creativity in some cases. Some great Chefs charge on and continue to improve, grow and try things, but some remain complacent. I want wine makers and chefs to keep trying things, I would rather something be less “perfect” but more original. The same thing happens to wine, the the fear of not getting good ratings stifles creative wine making, it stifles use of new grapes. Marselan is a grape hybrid that is being grown in the Languedoc and even in pockets of California. But it isn’t making it to market because it doesn’t fit the “XX points (familiar grape)”

          Anybody who enjoys gastronomy knows the Michelin 3 Star ratings, but how many people can name 10 chefs on that list? It is all a programme meant to promote Michelin first, food second. The same thing with the 100 point system.

          • Wes

            Steve, I don’t really understand why you think varietal wines and a ratings system have anything to do with each other, other than an easy to grasp appeal to novices. The move toward varietal wines in CA was a move to quality. Mission accomplished (thanks Martin Ray), and now it sometimes hinders quality.

            But the market wants familiar. CA Syrahs sell for a fraction of Napa Cabs with the same scores from the same critics. How can you blame that on the points?

            Certainly there’s a challenge in marketing the obscure, but I’ll tell you from personal experience that the last thing a retailer or restaurant is looking for is yet another Chard, Cab or Pinot. So, you’ll be happy to hear there are restaurants and retailers buying all they can get of some pretty obscure stuff from some small producers. Offering unique and rewarding experiences to your customers is a great way to create loyal regular customers and word of mouth. There are great things going on, much below the critics’ radar.

          • http://www.bottledj.com bottleDJ Steve Shanahan

            Wes, thanks for your reply. I am glad to see we agree on great wines going under the radar! As for the connection of between points and limited varietals making it to the market, I have said my piece and you can disagree.

            (the comment had too many generations of replies so I could not reply directly to you.)

            Thanks also to PP and all the readers who have contributed to this lively discussion.

            My opinion has changed on certain points, and I have been exposed to interesting points of view. Cheers!

            steve

      • Ana Vieira Pinto

        Dear Steve, how I understand your thoughts! Cheers!

    • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

      Tom: What are you trying to do, take my franchise? You watch yourself or I’ll start writing about how the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America — perhaps the leading 100-point scale advocates, coincidentally — is trying to buy enough Congressmen to keep its stranglehold over our distribution system. That’ll show you.

      • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

        Blake,

        I’m going to need an exemption from you for my Fermentation post tomorrow. I’ll trade a 100 Point Post for a distribution rant.

        Tom…

        • http://wineharlots.com/ Wine Harlots

          Let the wheeling-and-dealing begin!

    • http://www.nywinesalon.com/ Tish

      Good points, Tom. Some reactions…

      1) The 100pt scale is noteworthy for its complete lack of standardization. Compare it to the UC-Davis 20pt scale, which at least has suilt-in parameters that guide the taster’s scoring. And the 100pt scale in “school” represents concrete scores based on a series of papers/projects/test. The 100pt scale in wine reflects nothing but the taster’s preference.

      2 & 3) True. But I would say the chameleonic nature of wine simple works against consistent rating, on any numerical scale.

      4)You think that Laube, Parker, et al can replicate their scores within 2 points? Really? I simply disagree. Not humanly possible. Good luck getting a WS editor to re-test a wine blind in a public setting. RP has done so, with poor results (I don’t know the link, but drvino.com has reported on this situation).

      5) OK. In theory. In practice, when ratings get separated from their original source, however, the scale is being used as intended, and that devalues it.

      6 & 7) Of course, the stripping is numbers can and should be blamed on those other than the original raters. The fact that this happens, however, to me is a perfectly good reason to say that 100pt-scale ratings are suspect.

      8) To me, this is gaming: when a retailer uses only selective scores, tapping a wide range of sources in order to consistently use ONLY the ratings over 90. One can defend this practice, no doubt, by noting that it’s the high scores that people want. But if someone does actually find that his/her palate is in sync with one rater, then wouldn’t the practice of listing ALL the ratings for a given wine make more sense? Granted, listing all the scores from multiple critics would be messy. But it would be more honest and useful to shoppers (note: this is how it does work at Cellar Tracker). ALas, if retailers started showing sub-90 scores — especially alongside — 90+ scores, the scale itself would be exposed as too variable to be relied upon.

      9) Of course it is. When a primary agent of the scale builds hidden advertising into an entire “Buying Guide,” it shows a contempt for the system itself, as well as readers. And when they use OTHER critics’ scores to sell wine, while ignoring their own, it shows that the system is simply not a consumer aid, it’s a re-sellers aid.

      10) Taken individually, I accept the notion that each individual critic’s usage of the 100pt scale is not antiquated. Within the natural habitats of those critics. But outside the pages of the magazines, the scale is something different. Antiquated may not be the best word. But dysfunctional works for me. Indeed, WS & RP scores (at least at the 90+ end) still seem to have influence, but why is that influence not reserved for subscribers? Because the system itself has fundamentally changed.

      11) True. My point about the middle-aged-man-tasting-25-wines-at-a-pop-without-a-crumb-of-food is made not so much to say that a guy can’t judge wines in that context but also that it IS nearly always a single middle-aged guy doing the rating. When scores get clipped and attributed to a publication (WS, RP, WE, W&S, IWC, etc.) the identity of the judge is ignored. The judging context and standards are all different; but the re-publicizing of these reviews hides this reality, as if all the numbers were generated the same way, and representing an entire publication’s judgment. Again, this turns the scale into something very different in the public arena than within the private arenas of the publications.

      12) What’s the last poor wine the 100pt scale identified? THe scale has proven effective at the high end, which not coincidentally often reflects the high end of price as well. But now that the 100pt scale is such a public beast, sub-par scores have disappeared — not only from public view, but even in those publications that champion the scale. What good is a scoring system that only gives B’s and A’s? Plenty of good for those who use the numbers to sell. for those aiming to buy, not so much.

  • Ana Pinto

    Thanks for this interesting debate :)

    Numbers are the most basic thing in the world. I believe it was Aristotle who said: “mathematics are already explained in the structure of the Universe – we just have to go on and finding those explanations.”
    By opposition, wine is one of the most complex things I know. There are so many members in the equation of winemaking, we can’t deal with them all. Only with a few.
    So: resuming one of the most complex things in the universe to a mathematical scale, is doomed to give some troubles :) But scales are the most practical tools we have to compare wines, and it will be difficult to substitute them.
    I believe they should be used – with loads of reservations, and with lots of humility!
    I (re)found this interesting article from the Wall Street Journal, who only concluded something I had learned (thanks to my father) a long time before. I hope it contributes to the discussion! Cheers!
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703683804574533840282653628.html

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  • http://www.hesscollection.com Jim Caudill

    For what it’s worth, over the past two decades, sitting close to where decisions get made, I have never experienced a winemaker, executive, owner, or anybody else saying “let’s change the style of this wine to make it get a good score from Parker or Mr. Laube.” I have endlessly been part of conversations about how to produce higher quality wines that reflect either a particular house style or a real sense of place, and always, some conversation about the value of new ideas and techniques, both in the vineyard and in the winemaking process. Scores happen, and they are valuable to consumers for some guidance, but we’re foolish to believe that a great number of consumers aren’t smart enough to put them in the proper context, just as they do movie reviews, book reviews, and reviews on Match.com

  • http://www.icebucketselections.com Todd Wernstrom

    I agree with both positions. Scoring scales, whether points, letters, puffs, whatever, are subjectivity in the guise of objectivity. But don’t we already all agree on that, regardless of which side of the debate we’re on? There will always be some segment of the consuming public that wants them and/or feels they need them to navigate what are admittedly getting to be more and more crowded shelves and wine lists. And there will always be plenty of consumers who refuse to take the easy way out. And, like Blake suggests, there will always be many who just don’t give a crap one way or the other. Maybe if the polemicists (on each side) just drop the subject, it’ll go away a la the tree falling with no one around to yell timber.

    One point for Blake: I worked at a national wine magazine for about 10 years, and I can assure you that our circulation never spiked because a bunch of winemakers bought extra copies after getting a good score! Scores don’t generate circulation, but they can generate ads. (Or they did in the good old days!)

  • Boo

    Are there cases where winemakers get bonuses if they get a high score? I’ve certainly heard about them. If so, wouldn’t this change how a winemaker does things. No one out there can tell me there is not a general recipe for getting high scores. I mean from the most popular quantifiers. Look at the software companies out there making bank by helping winemakers achieve higher scores. I feel confident that a Napa cab under 13 percent, like the 1974 Martini I recently drank, would not score well these days.

    • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

      Boo,

      If a wine gets high points, that’s nice. But if it sells well, because of those high points, isn’t that a good thing??

  • Boo

    Absolutely not. Of course it sells well if gets high points. That’s the problem. It makes it a lot harder to sell wines that dont satisfy a few particular palates. Therefore most, despite their desire to make a wine that expresses terroir, concede to making higher scoring wines. And this leads to homogeny.

    • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

      Boo,

      Why do we assume that a high scoring wine doesn’t indicate or express terroir? Do we have evidence that this is the case? I don’t see it.

      • http://www.scorevolution.com Boo Walker

        Great point and question. I could say that picking as late as some quantifiers prefer strips a wine of its terroir or that taking away a winemaker’s freedom to make what he or she wishes does the same, but these arguments are of course personal and subjective. Trying to appease the point makers can be saddening to some buyers like me, and I think too many winemakers are doing it. And I know some who are.

  • Boo

    We can say that we are not responsible for the consumer and that it’s their problem if they are suckered into buying off scores, buts I think as professionals we must be more responsible than that. They should know that it’s okay to like whatever turns them on. And in the end, it is our problem too. The consumers control the market and if the majority are buying off scores, then we are all losing choices on the shelf. Our children will not understand variety an individuality in wine.

    • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

      But Boo, as I look at the American wine marketplace I see that access to wine has increased substantially. I see more wines of varying character on the market today than ever before, be they from CA, OR, WA, NY, VA or TX. I see more writing about a variety of wines than ever before. I see more attention being paid to wines from across the globe. And I see the influx of imported wines into the U.S. and their variety increasing substantially.

      What leads you to believe that our children won’t understand variety and individuality in wine?

      • http://Scorevolution.com Christophe Hedges

        Perhaps Boo is depressed. We all are, so let us drink Rose’. Its hot out. My Children, I think, have a bright future in the wine industry. We are a young wine trade, but one that will have great importance in shaping the future. Tom/Boo: Your both geniuses.

        • http://www.fermentation.typepad.com Tom Wark

          “you’re both geniuses”

          Now I know you’ve been drinking too much rose.

          • http://www.scorevolution.com Boo Walker

            Tom, I agree things are moving in the right direction and I hope articles and discussions like this and the manifesto help it to do so. But I am surely depressed when I walk into a friends house who is not in the trade and they are drinking wines based on how it was quantified. And even more depressed when I hear that people are trying to learn to like the higher scoring wines, as if they are supposed to. I want to cut myself when I hear someone in a shop saying he likes a wine but what did so and so give it. And then that person walks out without the wine b/c his likes weren’t justified. Okay off to drink rose. Surely will not be depressed for long.

    • Wes

      But you’re talking tailing indicators. It took time for many of the new styled wines to show they don’t age well or otherwise appeal that much to people who bought them. But a lot of the high end Napa producers are sitting on huge stocks of unsold wine. They know if they put the surplus on the market the price would plummet.

      Parker and Laube are physiological non-tasters. They worked well for consumers in judging traditionally styled wines, where intensity is more commonly regarded as a mark of quality. But with the modern late-picked, lavishly oaked style, they are incapable of detecting underlying flaws that those qualities mask. Some of those winemakers make wines without flaws, but many don’t. I think that is a factor of their own palates in their quality control. Anyway, a lot of these wines don’t appeal to normal- and super-tasters on release. With age, as the big fruit fades, bitter extraction, raisin character and alcoholic heat remain constant, gaining relative prominence until the wines are unappealing to even the non-tasters.

      Anyway, that’s a way of saying the 2 major CA critics aren’t meeting the needs of the wine buying public. They are niche palates. *But* Parker has already brought in his replacement, Galloni, who is not a non-taster. And it’s only a matter of time until Laube is sent off to the glue factory. Then the mainstream mags will have mainstream palates (and the niche palates will be at niche publications).

      So, if gorgeous lighter bodied, subtle, elegant wines are suddenly getting high ratings from the mags, and bitterly extractive, flabby, hot, raisiny wines are getting low ratings (and the gorgeous, silky, complex ripe wines high ratings) then is a point system still a problem?

      • http://www.scorevolution.com Boo Walker

        That, my friend, is a hell of a question. And your thoughts are quite fascinating. Thanks you.

  • http://Scorevolution.com Christophe Hedges

    Ladies and Gentlemen, (I am half French, so forgive my English writing skills – I know three languages poorly)

    Wow, what a discussion! Very impressive intellectual stimulations. Philosophy is great. I sometimes wish I could take all bloggers to Greece, dress them up in white robes, and discuss late into the night on all topics wine, food and culture. That would be much more fun than typing relentlessly on a QWERTY keyboard

    Yes, I actually agree with all your viewpoints. All of them. Because they all have context.

    Hiemoff has context, Wark has context, 1Winedude has it, Robert Parker has it, Blake has it (and admits it) so on and so on. Wonderful folks. Because of this contextualization, I can’t argue your defenses. We can only agree to disagree.

    The future of scores will be decided by the trade and the consumers. Blake made a great point: We don’t have that many signers. But its the quality of the signers that have importance, not the quantity. Their only may be 400 people who have signed, as well as 90ish companies, but how many of them can reach a mass populace? Could be a lot. We will wait and see.

    The goal is not to destroy the system…really. It is to invoke the discussion of this system. (I am saying this again, this is my context) And, by that sort of thinking, things might change. The scorevolution is just a title for the debate. I noticed that many of you are arguing about the subjective. That is not correct. The argument has nothing to do about the subjective nature of critical review. It only has to do with the symbol, objective. Do you objectify men and women too? I say this because their are many analogies with wine style and human style.

    It would be impossible for Boo, or I, or Kermit Lynch, or Rajat Parr, or Jim Clendendon, or Randal Grahm, or even all the 400+ trade people, to tear down the walls of an established, and, profitable system for judging a wines quality. We don’t expect it in the near future, but we can expect an enlightenment renaissance to take shape. I will tell you that I have no idea what or when that will happen. But the start is easy to recognize, as this is it- 60 comments on his site, 40 on that site. Impressive to say the least.

    Lastly: Remember this- It is not an attack on the critic, just the symbol (saying this again)

    I will dine with Blake Gray when I am in SF next time, and I am sure he and I will have a great time. That way, I can become more than just an “occasional” friend. You made me look like the naughty neighbor next door. huh.

    Will Hedges Family Estate forever be known as just another angry winery? No. But i can say this: we tried, because we believed. I didn’t choose this industry. I was born into it. I have much to lose. But sometimes, life needs to be really lived, and that means challenging the norm if you question that norm.

    I am not a rockstar winemaker ( I have short hair and a mustache..ok, Freddy Mercury, but that’s rare) , or some famed consultant, or even some trendy Gen X bad boy wine dude with inky juice in massive bottles. I have a vineyard with my wife and I sell the wine of my family. I am a father of two, with a wife, two cats (somewhere in the vineyard), and a couple of friends. Just a normal guy, but i don’t watch sports…my mother is French.

    I look forward to meeting some of you, and maybe, you can taste my new grower project with Jerome Legras, of Legras and Haas in Chouilly, France. We can toast to terroir, scores, no scores, but most of all, humanity.

    With Respect,
    Christophe Hedges

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  • Tone Kelly

    I have been reading the back and forth comments. The position against the 100 pt scale seems to me to be a position against ANY scale, be it 5 Star, 100 pt, 20 pt or anything else. If retailers will strip the “score” from the text, then they will do this with Decanter scores or Parker scores. So, once you buy this position, one moves on to what is really in the words. So the words of the wine review must be descriptive in terms of both characteristics of the wine and whether the reviewer likes the wine.

    One criticism of the pre-Parker 100 point scale was that consumers couldn’t tell from the reviews if the wine was good, bad, poor or excellent. Clive Coates addressed this with a summation in his actual text by saying phrases such as Very Good, Very Good +, Very Good Indeed, Fine, Fine+, etc. However, this denotes a scale and if we are going to have reviews without numbers, maybe the word scale should go as well.

    So in this brave new world of words only, the reviewer will need to be more descriptive and detailed.

    • http://www.nywinesalon.com/ Tish

      I actually have NO problem with any sort of scoring system. My problem is with the misuse of the scores themselves. Every generation will come to embrace its own critics. I am just hoping that the 21st century will see those critics being followed in the private context of their own media, not in public displays of numbers that have lost their context and therefore their true meaning.

  • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

    Writing, and reading the comments, on this post about the 100-point-scale, an ever-popular topic, inspired me to write on my own blog about a more important topic that I think we all agree on but don’t talk about nearly as often. So I did.

    http://blog.wblakegray.com/2011/08/any-wine-anywhere-to-anyone-over-21.html

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  • http://www.scorevolution.com The Author

    This is what Blake really meant to say:

    http://youtu.be/dVC1v8XTXnM

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