What the Ratings Really Mean

Go into any liquor store or supermarket and you’ll see “shelf talkers” proclaiming that such and such a publication has awarded a certain wine 90 points, the implication being that this wine is worth buying and better than other wines not so highly rated. For years I’ve been meaning to address this subject to explain how one arrives at a point score in the subjective world of wine judging, and what value those ratings have for both the consumer and the producer. Since we at EPICUREAN TASTING ROOM employ a point system, I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain.

First, why do we rate wines at all? Why not just describe them? I’ve spent 25 years trying to describe flavors for a living, critically evaluating over 100,000 wines, and I know that the English language is not adequate to the task of conveying the nuances in a glass of wine. Relying on description alone is not sufficient to relate the qualitative differences between wines. I use my power of description to give a sense of the style. I give a point score to give a sense of the quality.

A minority of my colleagues are against point scores, arguing that wine tasting is not a horse race. Instead they favor a “recommended” or “highly recommended” system, or a five star system. Frankly, what’s the difference? It all comes down to making a critical judgement that is presented in an easily understood format.

Viognier grapes

Viognier grapes

Scoring has changed over the years. Today the industry standard is the 100-point scale. However, it’s really not a true hundred points. A commercially unacceptable, grossly flawed wine may receive 60 points. In general, the vast majority of wines fall into the 75 to 100-point range, and those rated 95 and above are rare.

Considering that wine judging is so subjective, I find it amazing that my point scores and those from various other critics fall within a point or two of each other. I assume we’re approaching the wines from a similar point of view.

Each time I taste a wine a little meter runs in my head, tallying up its strengths and weaknesses, arriving in the end with a score. Before I describe this process I’d like to say that THE HIGHEST RATED WINE ISN’T NECESSARILY THE BEST WINE TO HAVE WITH YOUR MEAL. That may seem counter-intuitive, but points are awarded based on aroma, flavors, balance, texture, complexity, finesse and length. The most complex and perfectly balanced wine may be wasted if paired with food. Some wines are meant to be sipped and savored without any other distractions. They may be great wines, but they’re not the wines I’d usually pick to serve with dinner. My favorite “food wines” usually fall in the 85 to 87 range (well made, showing some complexity, smooth and not overpowering).

Now, as to that little meter in my head, here’s how it works:

  • 75 points: A pleasant wine without typicity (varietal or regional character) or flaws.
  • 80 points: A wine that shows its typicity. It may or may not be in balance. It usually does not display much intensity.
  • 80 – 84 points: Here there is a building of both balance and intensity. A wine that receives 84 points is a well balanced, smooth wine with good typicity but little, if any, complexity. Can be one-dimensional and short.
  • 85 points: Beginning to show some complexity.
  • 86 points: Showing some complexity and a smooth texture.
  • 87 points: Add a little intensity and length. Emphatic typicity.
  • 88 points: A step above in both complexity and intensity, though sometimes a bit angular (the complexity at this point can throw the wine out of balance).
  • 89 points: Showing as much complexity, but better balanced.
  • 90 points: Both complex and well balanced, nicely textured and long.
  • 90-94 points: A continuum in which an excellent wine becomes outstanding by adding finesse, that nebulous characteristic of refinement, delicacy and subtlety, coupled with persistent intensity.
  • 95-100 points: Unbelievably satisfying in every respect. Rare.

Another way to put it would be:
75 points – adequate
80 points – good
85 points – very good
90 points – excellent
95 points – outstanding

Some winery owners and winemakers may chafe at point scores if their wines don’t compare favorably with their competitors’. However, I’ve never seen a winery shy away from using positive scores to promote their wines. The same can be said for Gold Medals awarded at wine competitions, which by and large are judged by the same wine critics who point the wines in their columns, newsletters and magazines.

For the consumer, it’s important to read the descriptions as well as note the points awarded. One critic may like a full-bodied Chardonnay with bold oak flavors, while another critic may find the same wine over-oaked and lacking in refinement. It’s up to you, the consumer, to find the critic that most closely matches your taste. The critic exists to guide you, but in the end the ultimate arbiter is you.

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