My View (So What?) on Rating Wine and Point Scores

“I can certainly see that you know your wine. Most of the guests who stay here wouldn't know the difference between Bordeaux and Claret.”    …. John Cleese (as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers)

A movement to eliminate point systems in wine reviews is gaining popularity. You’re probably familiar with Parker’s system, even if you don’t know who he is.  You may have seen a card, for example, attached to the store rack just below a wine bottle. On the card is a number, maybe 89 or 91. And there may be other information describing the wine’s characteristics and its drinkable life. The number 89, for example, translate as 89 points out of a potential 100.  

The people that object to this point rating system explain (correctly) that a wine’s character develops over time.   Its taste develops in the glass as you swirl it.  An opened, unfinished and “resealed” bottle stored over night and tasted the next day may actually taste better.  Wine decanted, aerated, swirled, cellared properly – all these things and others affect taste.  But a point rating system is fixed and frozen at the time it as assigned. Given that wine changes over time, how is that fair?

I understand their concerns.  But expanding them could include other living products, like cheese. Of course, I’ve not seen numbers assigned to packages at the cheese counter. So why do we make such a big thing out of wine? I think it’s because wine can become collectable. And with anything collectable - whether it is comic books, coins or packaged toys – a slight difference in grade can make a huge difference in price. Grading is also big business. I’ve been in Bordeaux prior to the ratings being assigned and the tension awaiting such scores was palpable. A rating upgrade means an income upgrade for the vineyard. Fortunes rest on numbers, and that too is unfortunate.

To some extent, we’re numbers junkies. We rate restaurants with stars. We rate movies.  Whether its thumbs, or fork symbols, or stars we assign value to many things with symbols and numbers. Do I think a rating of 93 from Wine Enthusiast or anyone else is absolute? No, I don’t. But I think we, like white wine, need to chill a bit.  A rating of 96 simply does not translate into a grade of “C.”  It means that someone knowledgeable about wine and likely with a good palette is going on record to say the wine is very good. 

But, like art, evaluating wine can’t help but be a little subjective.  And while the knowledgeable rater is to be respected, he (or she) is not to be worshipped. So, if you see a score of 93 on a Syrah, does it matter if you don’t like Syrah? That 93 point assignment is made comparing other Syrah tasted from the same vintage. It does not mean the 93 point Syrah is better than a 91 point Riesling if Riesling is the wine of your choice. Then too, most people (I among them) can’t appreciate the difference between a 91 and a 93 point wine. I have been disappointed tasting highly rated wines, and have thought others deserved higher ratings than they were given. And I have had differences of opinion with other wine “critics” tasting wine.  In a sense, we are all critics – those of us paying for the wine have that right. And the wine that is best is that which we prefer.

Ratings are guidelines and if appreciated in that sense they can be both helpful and fun. If you see two wines of the same variety and the same vintage, why not buy them both?  Taste them side by side. Share the experience with a friend and compare notes.    
………………….  Jim
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