Are Wine Scores Obsolete?

Some of the industry's sharpest wits hope to dull the power of the 100-point rating system

by Paul Franson
no score revolution
Benton City, Wash.—Wine producers and writers have grumbled about numerical wine scores ever since they were first promoted by leading wine critics—Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Now a group supported by 100,000-case Hedges Family Estate in Benton City, Wash., is trying to generate grassroots support to break the stranglehold that numbers have on wine.

Supporters have published a manifesto at scorevolution.com and encourage all who agree to sign up.

Names on the list include influential wine importer and seller Kermit Lynch of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant; iconoclastic Randall Grahm of 20,000-case Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz, Calif.; Rajat Parr, head of wine for Michael Mina’s restaurant group; Jonathan Nossiter, director of the controversial film “Mondevino” and author of Liquid Memory; wine satirist W. R. Tish, author Rod Smith and food and wine columnist Jeff Cox. A number of small wineries have also signed up, including Oregon’s 3,500-case Cameron Winery.

Although the effort to dethrone scores may seem quixotic, the proponents make many good points.

Revolutionary manifesto
The manifesto states: “If we rely on the biased palates of a select few—and no palate can ever be unbiased, as the process of tasting is supremely personal—to tell us what is good, great and perfect, then haven’t we sacrificed our own personal understanding of the wine, and as such, what would be the point of drinking it?

“The 100-point rating system is a clumsy and useless tool for examining wine. If wine is, as we believe, a subjective, subtle and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable. Wine scores are merely a static symbol, an absolute definition based on a singular contact with a wine, and thus completely ineffective when applied to a dynamic, evolving and multifaceted produce.

“To discuss a wine’s tannins, acid, balance, structure, fruit, etc, is essential. To share our thoughts and experiences with other humans is arguably one of the most important parts of drinking wine. To introduce a score to this process is condescending, overly simplistic and often largely inaccurate.”

Scorevolution admits that the world of wine is extremely complicated, and the scoring system became one way to help consumers choose a wine, but says it’s time to move on.

Carlo Petrini, founder of the International Slow Food Movement says, “Everyone is better off today without scores.”

The group argues that assigning a number to the taste of a wine should be regarded as one person’s opinion—but usually isn’t.

The movement also asserts that winemakers are pushed to make a more international style wine, changing their farming and winemaking techniques to achieve a higher score. “We believe this is wrong,” members say.

Signers of the Scorevolution manifesto agree that scores should not be used to buy or sell wine. “Our goal is to create transparency among buyers and sellers and to encourage people to find wines based on writings and by word of mouth. The power of scores is limiting the discovery of numerous grower wines, encouraging formula wines and even influencing the creation of brand icons and inflated pricing scenarios,” according to the manifesto.
Randall Grahm says he signed as an individual: “Wine scores are pernicious. Wine points are pernicious.” He believes points simply capture one person’s perceptions at one moment in time. “They don’t talk about how wine changes over time. Point scopes don’t respect the wine,” he tells Wines & Vines.

One of the writers who signed the manifesto is T.R. Tish (nywinesalon.com), a writer and former editor with the Wine Enthusiast. He says, “I signed it for the concept more than for the actual text, which I found delightfully campy, and love the fact that individuals and businesses are encouraged to join. I don’t draw any direct links between the 100-point scale and terroir or lack thereof, but I do think that any conscious effort to raise awareness of the utter dysfunction of 100-point rating in general is a good thing.

“The 100-point scale, once a useful tool for consumers, has clearly become shrunken (scores effectively populate a 10-point range); inflated (it’s 90 or it’s not, nowadays); diluted (by scores of RP and WS wannabes) and abused (by marketers and retailers, who cherry-pick and strip the numbers).

“The scale has devolved to the point where it is useful to rally common-sense arguments against it. If the manifesto draws more people into a public display of disapproval, that will be progress. Sure, people will always want guidance. And experts will always aim to deliver it, but the means need not be an antiquated scale that simply outgrew its utility.”
Christophe Hedges, who spearheaded the movement, says it arose after his experience selling wine. His family’s winery paid for the website, but the movement isn’t part of Hedges. He also assures writers that he has nothing against them and in fact wants more writing about wine—just no scores. He feels that scores tend to reduce writing about wine and even make it become invisible as consumers look for shortcuts.

“We must look at wine from a geographical context, and not a comparative context,” Hedges says. “Wine is about place and about preserving authenticity of original historical styles. It can’t be zipped up into a number any more than a painting by Cezanne can. Wine is about romance and individuality.”

Defenders of the system
Among those who defend scores is Steve Heimhof of the Wine Enthusiast, who refers to himself as SuperScore Man in his blog. “I’m not saying that the 100-point system was handed down by God to Moses, who then gave it to (Robert) Parker. No. Every system of wine reviewing and writing has its limitations. But the scoring system—whether it’s 10, 20, 100 points or puffs or icons…is here to stay, for the simplest of reasons: It performs a useful function.”

A respected retailer in Napa agrees. “I think scores sell wines for wineries,” says Daniel Dawson, owner of Back Room Wines. “Only if the scores are 96 or higher from respected critics do they sell for me. It depends on price too, of course.”
He adds, “I use Wine Advocate and International Wine Cellar often to help make buying decisions if I don’t have the opportunity to taste a wine first. On pre-sells, and any time the winery/broker/distributor doesn’t have to invest the time and samples to sell a wine, critical reviews (from respected critics) are very helpful.”
Does Christophe Hedges really expect to eliminate scores? He demures: “What we hope is to create a discussion—that discussion is the revolution,” he maintains.

He adds that the effort is really aimed at the trade—not consumers—at this point. “We hope it will morph into something more.”

Randall Grahm suggests, “The Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe aliens will come to save us from our folly.”

And maybe wine scores will lose their impact.

Posted on 08.03.2011 - 11:55:27 PST
The winemakers who oppose the 100-point scale should stop submitting their wine to writers who use it. I would respect them more if they did, in fact.
Venice, CA USA

Posted on 08.04.2011 - 13:31:16 PST
Ratings are more helpful. Words can perfectly describe a wine but that's no guarantee someone will enjoy it. It could have all the flavors you like and still disappoint. Here's a WS example. Say you love currant, cassis and blackberry as your primary flavors. Both these wines should appeal to you and both sound terrific. However, I love the 1st and hate the 2nd.

Wine #1: "a firm, ripe, muscular wine that's tight, deep, structured, intense and concentrated, serving up a mix of ripe currant, cassis, plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit that's clean, pure, complex and layered, with touches of anise, cedar and black licorice. Ends with chewy tannins."

Wine #2: "Ripe and generous, delivering pure, ripe blackberry, cassis, currant and a touch of pepper and spice. Full-bodied, turning elegant and ending with a juicy berry aftertaste"

#1: 07 Caymus Special Selection (WS96)
#2: 07 Treana Paso Robles (WS89)
Commish JW
Dallas, TX USA

Posted on 08.08.2011 - 09:24:43 PST
The current system is really ridiculous. You are stuck trying to calibrate your palate to the top wine reviewers and hope that gets you close most of the time. The 100 pt. system could be modified and still be valuable. Perhaps, rate each wine against several profiles instead of just an over-all evaluation, such as: nose, flavor, structure and texture. There should also be some sort of standardized preparation guideline, i.e. all reds rated after a one hour decant(?), instead of the current inconsistent approach.
Tempe, AZ USA