Do wine scores miss the point?
by Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
3 February 2021
When I look at how I scored wines about 10 years ago, the scores were more conservative. Many more wines were rated between 88 and 92, and that was just swell. For a while, I never gave any wine 100 points, because perfection can be boring. 99 sounds more interesting, more real. And yet, how to deny the sheer exuberance of tasting, say, Cheval Blanc 2018 from bottle? From bottle mind you. I cannot really understand 100-point scores for barrel samples: the product is not even finished.
But never mind 100. I miss an era, not too long ago but sadly gone, when a wine that garnered 88 out of 100 reflected a very good grade. Indeed, for American schools, from which the 100-point scale originates in the first place, 88 out of 100 is a high B, or “B+” rating. A very good rating. It would be like obtaining over 16 points in a French school, which is a high score in the 20-point scale that was often used in France for wine scoring.
Of course A grades are superior. But these days, any wine worth considering has to be in the 90s and not the low 90s. The 100-point scale has not been reduced to the 10 points between 90 and 100, but is more like a five-point scale. These days even an “A-” (a score between 90 and 92, or even 93 and 94) would be considered less than exciting for retailers who need to get wines off shelves (in the pandemic era, off curbsides or delivered from online sales).
Several merchants have told me that you need 95 or more to get a consumer truly excited these days. Could this mean that many more great wines are being produced these days? Of course, the wine industry would tell you that. But what of valid criticism? What does the 100-point scale mean anymore?
Whatever the case may be, these days 90 can be considered rather good and nothing more; 93 quite good, 94 very good, 95 excellent and 97 outstanding, with 98-100 “nirvana zone” wines. We edge closer to Michael Broadbent’s five star ratings, with 96 one star and 100 the coveted five stars.
As for 100-point wines, they can only be those wines that have properly aged, arriving at time-earned complexity. For wines like 1982 Petrus or 1959 Latour, or 1988 Krug or 1996 Oenotheque Dom Perignon, which I have been lucky to have enjoyed, I can say “100” with more ease, not only out of sheer exuberance, but also because of intrinsic greatness from aging that brought about complexity.
In reality though, many wine writers and critics have upped their scores on the scale to reflect this new reality and so it can seem like we live in an era of point inflation.
All the more reason to read the notes of a wine critic or writer and to pay less attention to the scores. I find it more interesting to read what the writer or critic has to say about the wine rather than rely on a number, but – gee whiz – how original a thought is that? 🙄 😂 🍷🍷
There have been so many discussions about the 100 point scale, and most of them are about its deficiencies. Whether it is about score inflation, tasting conditions and the variability of wine or the shenanigans that are sometimes part of barrel tastings etc, etc. I have used 20 point and for the last thirty years the 100 point scale.
So here is my take for what it is worth. There is nothing objective about the 100 point scale. It is a personal impression of a wine at a given moment, and for that one single taster. The wine may change, the taster may change, conditions may change. I find my notes are consistent, but there is a small percentage of wines where the score is significantly higher or lower. Nature of the beast; especially when you are tasting younger wines
So if the same taster can find differences, how is it possible to take any taster as gospel and spend your hard earned cash on a bottle? Well you may say, at least try and find a critic whose palate is aligned to yours. God help you!
There are two kinds of critics. One, a critic with a very defined palate, who scores a wine according to whether he likes the wine and finds merit. John Gilman is a good example of this; he doesn’t play games, and if he doesn’t like a wine, he scores it appropriately. John’s palate often does overlap with mine but we have differed many, many times.
Then there is the second type. All things to everybody. He may not like a wine, but may be able to extrapolate that it is well made and worthy of a high points score. It is bad enough that the 100 point scoring is inherently flawed, and to be honest not very useful. Now you have got some ding dong scoring not based on his own palate, but what he thinks somebody else’s is.
I could go on and spend some time on score inflation. I will not except to say it is there of course, and we way we market wine incentivizes critics to adjust their scores ever higher.
So you have a subjective scale which is inherently flawed, judging wines that change with maturity, scored by someone who at best may give you an honest appraisal but if you choose the wrong one, you will end up getting a dishonest appraisal. I can’t see much merit in the 100 point scale.
Thank you Mark for such a detailed and useful reply. I prefer the first kind of critic you categorize, and of course John Gilman scores as he sees and tastes, well fitting into that category. Cheers!
Many wine critics indeed seem to have left any objective basis for evaluating. I use a 100 scale, broken down in up to 16 points for appearance (colour, brilliance etc), up to 24 for the nose (quality, intensity and persistence) and up to 60 for the mouth, divided into quality, intensity, persistence and overall harmony. There are descriptors to each sub-scale. If you truly look at them, you will rarely, if ever, arrive at 100 points. I had one wine 1982 Ch. Margaux – that I would have given 100. Others came close – I remember 1990 Angelus that I would have rated 98, and a 2006 DRC Grands Echezaux that would rank 96-97.
Sorry, some everyday wines still only get 84 or 85 points, and they are quite ok. “Good” requires more indeed, arriving at 88 or 89.
Thank you for explaining your logic behind the 100 point scale. I like what Mark Golodetz writes here, stressing the subjective nature of the critic, even though objective factors exist, whether it be a fault or levels of alcohol and acidity etc.