Are Wine Ratings for Suckers?

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Two thumbs up for this movie.
Four stars for that hotel.
The twirl of an Olympic ice skater, our approval of the President; even the red-orange-yellow of our national security level.
We do love the shorthand of rating systems.

Few things are rated as extensively as wine, and few ratings wield the influence of the 100-point scale for wine. And none is more controversial.

It’s easy to see the mass appeal of the 100-point scale.

Wine ratings are easy, accessible, and convenient. The 100-point scale is immediately familiar as a replication of the grading system used in American schools. It’s approachable and egalitarian, breaking with the traditional reverence for prestige labels, and helping wine consumers—especially novices—navigate a complex and often intimidating marketplace.

A single, objective measure: its greatest strength is also its principal flaw.

The single score is of such great utility because it answers the question Is this wine better than that one? It even quantifies by how much. Proponents point to specific standards of quality and particular ‘benchmark’ wines that others can be judged against. Within discrete point ranges, the assigned score has specific meaning. You can know that any score over 80 will get you a solid, well-made bottle, and that finesse and specialness will rise along with the score.

But tasting wine is not like grading a math quiz. It is a subjective, highly personal pleasure, and even the most trusted wine critics admit to their preferences for certain styles and varietals. Critics of the system call the use of numerical scoring reductive for the ways in which it diminishes much of wine’s true character and magic. It sees the wine at a single point in time—a mere nanosecond in the life cycle of some vintages— and ignores terroir, the expression of place of origin which some feel is the true measure of any wine. They worry that the rating system discourages distinctive character and diversity in wine, encouraging winemakers to chase high scores with legions of me-too knock-offs of last year’s winners.

It’s crowded at the top.

In theory, there are 100 points available. The reality is that only the top 10 or 15 points matter to anyone. Almost no bottles are rated below 70, and a very small number earn less than 80 (The Wine Spectator goes there around 3% of the time). Winemakers are even more narrowly focused, believing that any score below 90 (representing about one-fourth to one-third of a given vintage) is of no value, and can even hurt them in the marketplace. And of course consumers are convinced that a winery is only as good as its last score.

What score do we give the rating system?

Advocates might say it’s unpretentious and goes down easily, vastly appealing in its elegance and simplicity.
Detractors might call it crude and bloated, lacking in character and finesse.
Whatever score it merits, we can say that it’s not to everyone’s taste.


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One Response to Are Wine Ratings for Suckers?

  1. G Martin says:

    It’s all subjective. Yes, a rating my be a good indicator, but ultimately what matters to me is whether or not it’s pleases my pallet.

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