[WARNING: This piece is rated MA, for Mildly Amusing; at Wine For All we consider wine ratings to be a serious topic, ripe for satire that goes beyond simple yucks. It is also for Mature Audiences, who understand the vicious cycle it has created: the more wine-traders lazily rely on 90+ ratings to move cases, the more inclined wineries are to design wines for points rather than their own vision. We believe that this prosaically challenged period in American wine history has run its course, and the first step toward numbers-free wine sanity is to make mincemeat out of the mess these marketeers have created.]
Ah, where would we be without wine ratings? Probably sitting around a table on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean with a carafe of rosé and the catch of the day—and not a care in the world as to the wine’s rating. But now is not the time to look back and wonder what might have been, had not Robert Parker started passing out grades like a stern teacher back in the 1980s. It was what it was.
Problem is: ratings ain’t what they used to be. Copycats and recyclers have churned out so much 90-point propaganda that our shelves and ads and catalogs and web sites are awash in scores. These stark naked numbers—which remain no more or less than a single human being’s opinion—are imbued with guru-esque significance and tattoo-like permanence. Magazines, positioning themselves as judge and jury for a presumed-hapless public, pile up the reviews by the hundreds, with dramatic exclamations—1,500 wines rated!, 300 Cabernets 90+! and so on—as if volume of tasting notes has anything to do with the reality of distribution...and as if middle-aged men sitting in back rooms with 25 glasses and no food have anything to do with the reality of how wine is enjoyed.
The Ratings Game has devolved to the point where there are now only two functional wine scores: 90 or not. People are more informed than ever, and wines are more plentiful and better-made than ever—rendering ratings high and low more useless than ever. But still, the numbers keep multiplying... like Energizer bunnies without birth control.
It’s time to shed the 90-point shackles of the past. With no further ado, here is the inaugural class of the 100-Point Hall of Shame. Each honoree in some unique way has contributed to the stinking garbage heap that these scores have become. By bringing them to the light of day here, it is our hope that we all laugh at their collective folly, and move forward, toward the 95-point light...
-69 Wine Publications that Ought to Know Better. From the Tough Love department, here is a sampling of misbegotten 100-point-scalers.
Wine Review Online. I think WRO’s contributors, as a team, belong at the top of the wine-journalism totem...plenty of strong, competent voices. Which is exactly what makes the fact that their wine reviews are all translated to a common 100-point scale so disappointing. It’s like putting different cuts of steak through the same meat grinder. (winereviewonline.com)
Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine. Once upon a time (starting back in 1974), wineries proudly proclaimed that they got one, two or three “puffs” from Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs’ Guide. Alas, puffs now gather dust in the attic of wine history, as CG went all modern and point-y. What ever happened to the courage of true connoisseurship? (cgcw.com)
Pinot Report. Pinot Noir is a wine whose mission on Earth is to tease, tantalize and intermittently reward its avid fans. How numbers add value in this context, I do not get. (pinotreport.com)
Patterson’s The Tasting Panel Magazine (aka Anthony Dias Blue’s new roost). Andy, wha’ happened, bro? No mo’ Bon App, okay, we understand. But what sort of injection did Patterson’s Journal give you to toss aside your respected panel-driven modus operandi and trade it in for common 100-point-scale trappings? Now that you’ve gone solo, you’re just another numbers cruncher...and losing street cred with each invisible online issue... (tastingpanelmag.com)
Vintrust’s SOMM Selections. Talk about wasted potential, this ambitious project is the print flagship of a broad-based, deep-thinking Vintrust program. Current releases selected by 35 high-profile sommeliers are profiled and offered to members for purchase and/or storage. Too bad these ready-to-soar bottlings are tethered by 100-point-scale ratings made even sillier and less humane by virtue of being broken down by subsets of aroma (15 points), flavor (15 points), structure (15 points), length (15 points), finish (15 points) and balance (40 points). These sommeliers would never break down wines into numbers when working tableside, so why make them do it on paper? (vintrust.com)
-73 Wine Legacy. This modest operation, about as consequential as a cocktail wiener on a nude beach, goes about selling primarily $9-$15 bottlings, most of which can usually be found at any large store. How to distinguish these mainstream wines?...why give them in-house ratings, obviously, with the net effect being a ridiculous preponderance of 90s and 91s, with a few 89ers and 92ers tossed in for appearance of objectivity. It’s as if these wines have been pigeonholed into their own little purgatory, bound on one side by expectations based on price and on another the now ubiquitous notion that 90 is the baseline for perceived quality. (winelegacy.com)
-77 Wine Blue Book. The truly score-addicted no longer have to subscribe to multiple publications, scour various websites and surround themselves with copious scraps of paper. The folks at Wine Blue Book have done it all for you. Not only have they collected ratings of wines by the “major critics,” but also they have listed them with prices and done some calculations to show you, the math-challenged wine shopper, the wines’ official Quality Price Ratio, expressed, ironically, in words, such as “outstanding value,” “great value” or just plain “value.” Hey, nothing wrong with aggregating scores to allow consumers to compare critics’ critiques—that is, if you know who the critics are. This site reveals nothing about the origin of the actual scores that comprise the averages, which discounts the merit of the whole premise. For a free, more transparent score-aggregating site, visit nirvino.com. (winebluebook.com)
-80 Robert M. Parker Jr. The grandpère of the 100-point scale... patron saint of hedonistic cherry-pickers... Keeper of the Golden Palate. Contrary to expectations, Bob Parker is not in the Hall of Shame for creating the scale in its modern form. Rather, he is here for failing to protect it. Just imagine, if Parker, a lawyer by training, had established some legal fencework around his particular take on wine grading. Or if he had had at least put up a stink when Wine Spectator all but hijacked his carefully devised system. Perhaps the Spectator and others would still have bulled ahead.
But why did Parker discontinue his own policy, which used to be spelled out on the bottom of the front page of every issue of his newsletter, stating that any use of the wine ratings be accompanied by precise reference to the Wine Advocate date and/or issue number? Obvously this policy was intended to keep the scores from getting replicated will-nilly by retailers and other score whores. But the fact remains: misuse of Advocate scores is rampant. Robert Parker has plenty to gain—more in terms of clout than subscribers— from “RP” or “WA” scores becoming household jargon; that, I suspect, is why the attorney-cum-critic let ratings-reproduction abuse slide. Had this policy been backed up with some teeth by Parker, he might well be the only one using it today. Now, the cat’s way out of the bag. Or, as the cat lady said, “Make that cats.”
-84 Just Wine Points. In the history of fermentation, there has never been a more inane exercise in erstwhile wine criticism than justwinepoints, wherein castoff tasters from a defunct, hipper-than-thou magazine suddenly decided that their professional mission was to bestow definitive wine ratings without the distracting hassle of words. When this absurd web-only venture first emerged from the wreckage of WineX, I thought for sure it was a joke. Sadly, it is not. It’s just wines (mostly North Coast Californians) and points (only 90 and up, natch). Hmmm, is that all you got? The 100-point scale has never known such abject shallowness. (justwinepoints.com)
-89 Wine Spectator Magazine. The 800-pound gorilla of wine media, Wine Spectator falls just shy of the coveted -90 score. Consider this poetic justice, given the magazine’s history of egregious point flagellation. Wine Spec’sgreatest hits:
1) Throwing 80-pointers under the bus. Look at the Spectator’s own definition of what their numbers mean.... a wine rated 80-84 points is “good: a solid, well-made wine.” Problem is, there are apparently too many solid, well-made wines out there to merit the investment of ink and paper. And with more wines getting made and marketed every year, there are more 90-point wines every year, making those “solid, well-made” 80-something wines that much less important... so much so that we WS had no trouble a few years back dropping tasting notes for wines rated 85 or below. Nice job, guys! In one fell swoop you certified grade inflation and protected innocent readers from 80-point cooties.
2) Making 90 points the official threshold of quality. The Spectator’s so-called Wine Experience is a cattle call of purported point greatness. At the so-called Grand Tasting, wineries obediently pour only bottles that Wine Spectator editors approve. And what do the eds approve? Why, 90 points and up, mais oui (except in rare cases where certain advertisers producers are permitted to pour sub-90 swill). And what is the net-net of this Grand Tasting policy? Why, an evening top-heavy in ultra-ripe, high-alcohol, oak-smacked Cabernets. Yawn.
3) Wrapping up retailers. By feeding scores ahead of publication to those retailers who sell the magazine in their stores, Wine Spectator both guarantees distribution and sets the stage for its clout in the market. Retailers are happy: advance scores put them in a position to buy the magazine’s “highly rated” wines. Consumers are happy: they get to buy the magazine’s “highly rated” wines. Wine Spec is happy: they are worshiped as the arbiters of “highly rated” wine, and most every wine shop in America sells its magazine. Bully for the bullies! (winespectator.com)
-90 Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Having mirrored the Spectator through the years in virtually every aspect of publishing except circulation, the Enthusiast (where, full disclosure, I reddened my wine teeth from 1988-1998) had to show something pretty special to leapfrog over Wine Spec and break the -90-point barrier. Well, that special virtue is WE’s well-greased machinery designed to lift ratings-fueled hidden advertising to new heights. Here is how it works: Wineries and importers submit samples; samples get tasted and reviewed; marketers who submitted said wines are then contacted, informed of the wines’ ratings, and offered the chance to enhance reviews by purchasing a full-color reproduction of each wine’s label. Moreover, said reviews are actually published twice—once in the normal flow of the “buying guide” and once in the front of the guide where the label-accompanied reviews are showcased on full pages. Noticeably absent on said pages are the initials of the individual tasters as well as any indication of the labels’ being paid promotions (for that, you have to check the fine print at the end of the buying guide’s informational box), thus implying that the labels represent editorial endorsement. Slick!
And let’s not forget the Enthusiast’s peculiar contribution to grade inflation. As detailed in a piece penned for Wines & Vines in 2006, according to the Enthusiast’s buying guide, “wines receiving a rating below 80 are not reviewed.” Well, based on the rarity of wines rated below 83 points in the magazine (you’ll find more liberals at a Mike Huckabee rally than you will 80s, 81s and 82s in the WE buying guide), logic suggests that such wines must be really, REALLY bad—as well as statistically negligible. In turn, it means basically that 85 is the new 80 in WE’s oddly scaled universe, and just about every wine that struts through the door is a label-repro ad waiting to happen. Ka-ching! (winemag.com).
-95 Wine Express. As has been occasionally documented in the Rants archives of wineforall.com, Wine Express goes where few websites dare poke their 92-point necks. For years this web-only “exclusive wine shop partner” of The Wine Enthusiast Catalog tried to cloak its catalog and magazine connection, even to the point of creating a fictional executive director. And why not?—the conflict of interest inherent in a publishing company also owning a retail business that sells products its magazine reviews is ripe for business-ethics debates in middle school.
Given this flagrant foul, perhaps it is not the least bit shocking that Wine Express—which sells mostly obscure private-label and direct-import wines—proffers its own “WEX” ratings, which start at 90. And perhaps it’s not surprising that when selling some bottlings, Wine Express actually references Spectator and Advocate vintage ratings! But what truly shocks—shocks—the average observer is that when WEX customers are encouraged to post their own reviews online, they are relegated to using a measly five-star system. Apparently, the common man is not capable of handling such 100-point-scale power. How insulting. (wineexpress com)
-98 Retailers. There are many of you out there, and you know who you are. You have sold your souls and abandoned your own sense of authority. Rather than seek out, stock and stand up for wines that reflect your own standards of quality, you are content to let RP and WS and ST and so forth do the heavy sales lifting for you. Regurgitating ratings via ads, emails, catalogs, web sites, shelf takers and plain old cheap talk has reached the saturation point. And, oh, the sneaky tactics! Keeping the old score on a shelf talker after a new vintage arrives... showing only the highest number(s) when promoting a wine... inventing your own scale when none of the critics’ ratings provide the hype you really need....
For point’s sake, enough is enough already! Please, merchants, nobody is expecting sommelier-style snobbery, but is it asking too much to hope that you sell wine based on merits and style, not on the numerical droppings of over-worked, food-deprived wine critics? Besides, you have tasted enough wines to know the Truth: the pseudo-scientific methods behind the 100-point scale not only bear no resemblance to actual wine use, but they also can not yield replicable results.
Ratings are the wine world’s equivalent of tabloid pablum... the very opposite of intelligent discourse... the obsolete relic of last century’s coming-of-age wine market. Free America’s wine shoppers from 90-point mania. Return table wine to its rightful place (it’s called the table). Please, sell wine, not scores.