There comes a point in every wine drinker’s life when they stumble across a bottle with a number on it. These numerals can appear on a sticker or in the wine’s description. Maybe it’s the number 89 or 94 or 100. It’s not the price of the wine, so why is it there? And why does it appear on some bottles and not others?
The number in question is a wine score — a numerical rating of a wine given by critics based on a 100-point scale meant to signal the wine’s overall quality.
“A score can give a customer some insight into the perceived quality level of wine. Essentially, the higher the score, the more complex the wine is in regards to its tasting profile,” says Gillian Sciaretta, a corporate wine buyer at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace and a former critic for Wine Spectator.
What is a score and who awards it?
In the 1980s, renowned wine critic Robert Parker, creator of the Wine Advocate, popularized the 100-point system. Scores gave consumers a quick, easy way to compare the quality and value of wines on the shelves.
Despite the fact many critics found scores an abomination, akin to trying to score a work of art out of 100, the system proved popular with consumers, and its use spread. Many critics and publications, among them Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits magazine, still use the 100-point scale today to communicate wine to industry insiders and drinkers. And plenty of retailers — online and brick-and-mortar — showcase scores.
Scores from Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Vinous are some of the most trusted, according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal article, as are Wine Enthusiast, individual critics like James Suckling and his team, and Jeb Dunnuck.
Various factors are at play in wine scoring, like price, overall quality, and the wine’s typicity, or the level at which the wine displays the typical characteristics associated with its variety and region. Wines scored 80 and above are generally perceived as commercially acceptable, or otherwise fault-free, with wines scored 95 to 100 considered exceptional quality.
Rarely does a shopper come across a bottle scored lower than 80 points. Anything under that marker is unlikely to get past the gatekeepers who are responsible for choosing which wines to stock.
However, a missing score does not necessarily mean a wine has been poorly rated — most bottles of wine on the shelf don’t receive scores.
The problem with wine scores
“Let’s be very clear, wine ratings do not necessarily indicate the wine is outstanding or classic,” says Bill Hayes, wine buyer at BevMo!. “When wines are scored based on value, production, and varietal or appellation, this could lead to some critics having one opinion on a wine and another critic having a different opinion.”
Wine tasting is subjective. Where one critic may value ripeness and power, another may value elegance and acidity. Some critics are also more knowledgeable than others; the top publications train their critics rigorously.
“During my time at Wine Spectator, I — and all critics there — reviewed wines blind. The wines were bagged up, and we didn’t know the price or the producer of the wines being reviewed. This is done to give as objective of a review as possible. Though some context was given like where the wine was from and what grapes were used to make the wine because some context is needed to properly evaluate the wine,” says Sciaretta.
Then there’s the fact that there are more wines that never receive scores than wines that do. Many critics spend day-in and day-out tasting wines, but still only taste a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of bottles released each year. Many wineries don’t submit their wines to be scored, for a variety of reasons, from being able to sell out their stock without help, to not needing or wanting the validation.
There’s also the issue of low-rated wines, of which scores usually aren’t publicized or displayed in retail shops. Hayes says BevMo! only shows scores once they get to 90 points.
Some retail shops, like New York City’s Astor Wines & Spirits, don’t showcase wine scores at all — high or low — because they don’t value them. In SevenFifty Daily’s 2017 Viewpoints series, Lorena Ascencios, a wine buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits, suggested wine scores were “simplistic and insults this arduous process” of winemaking. “We will always sell wine based on the attributes that our customers desire,” she noted.
Finally, not everybody uses the 100-point scale. Critics at JancisRobinson.com use the 20-point scale to score wine. The folks at Decanter formerly used a 20-point scale but switched over to a 100-point system a few years ago. However, oenophiles may still come across an older bottle on Decanter’s website with a 20-point rating when searching reviews.
What does a score mean to the wine drinker?
Many retailers find 100-point ratings are still helpful for customers, especially those new to wine or looking for a special bottle as a gift.
“We see a lot of first-time customers looking for guidance when picking out a wine. Having national critics, or even a local wine competition like San Francisco Chronicle, give a favorable score or a gold medal to a specific wine adds a kind of quality guarantee for first-time customers,” explains Hayes.
The days of bargain hunters searching for 87-point wines as a sign of value are mostly over. Today, shoppers look for scores of 90 and above.
“Scores can be important for Gary’s Wine shoppers, especially 90 points or higher,” says Sciaretta. “High scores are important for brand new wines that we bring from off-the-beaten-path wine regions as well as well-known, higher-end wines that appeal to collectors who want the latest vintage for their cellars.”
Scores can also help drinkers broaden their knowledge and palate. Trying new wines, keeping track of the scores, and determining whether or not you agree with the rating helps drinkers discover which critics have tastes similar to their own. That can prove to be helpful when they’re looking for good wine to buy in a pinch.
However, Sciaretta still advises customers to pay attention to any tasting notes that may be available as well because they may have flavor descriptors that help customers determine if the wine is something they would actually like to drink.
“What’s most important is that you enjoy the wine, regardless of what the score is!” says Sciaretta.