The 100-point scale has dominated the critical discussion of wine since it was first popularized by Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate in the 1970s. Previously, UC-Davis, the premier school in the United States for wine education and research, had previously introduced a 20-point scale, which was also used in Britain. But Parker saw that a system modeled after the standardized testing in American high schools could connect with more people—it was easy to understand that a 95-point wine was, in theory, “better” than a 75-point wine, which probably translated to a C-grade product. Suddenly, the complete wine novice could find common ground with the snobby wine aficionado. (In reality, it is a 50-point scale—wines receive a score of 50 points just for being wine; the next 50 points are awarded for quality, character, and the potential for aging.)
For buyers and sellers, a higher score means the potential to charge more money for a superior wine. The methodology has become so entrenched that the term Parkerization gained currency in wine lexicon. A wine hoping to receive a high score might have been “Parkerized”—in other words, produced in the riper, fuller, richer style that dominates the upper echelons of the rankings, in the hopes of avoiding a lower score and the possible demise of the brand due to lack of sales.
While the 100-point scale has become an industry standard, it’s not without its detractors, many of whom bemoan the tyrannical hold that it has over sales. But what’s actually more telling than the chorus of naysayers is the fact that an increasing number of people don’t care at all—in fact, for many drinkers, it is completely irrelevant and bares no consequence on the choices they make to purchase wine.
Wine industry professionals and critics are so entrenched in the insular world of their work that they’ve forgotten just how many people exist outside the industry, and what it is like to experience a wine without a wealth of knowledge about it.
For many drinkers, particularly younger ones, the 100-point system bares no consequence on the choices they make when purchasing wine.
Tasting a wine is like taking in a piece of art—it is an entirely subjective experience. However, few people object to a little guidance, or idea of what complexities might exist in the wine—just as they don’t object to learning about symbolism that exists in a piece of art. Turning to someone with more knowledge and authority on the subject can help shed light on why the wine tastes the way it does—with the expectation that the information provided is objective, allowing people to draw their own conclusions. And this is where the 100-point scale falls short—it cannot provide objectivity. It is a scale, employed by a multitude of critics, each with his or her own unique education, palate preferences, and vocabulary. What comes across as a “red cherry” aroma to one reviewer might register as “blackberry” to another. And again, without getting into the specifics of the argument, a vast amount of people simply do not care.
If the 100-point scale has, in a sense, ceased to exist for so many people, what has caused this shift and what will take its place, nudging the masses toward one wine or another? The answers are surprisingly simple: friends and self-determination.
A new era in wine
The wine landscape has evolved greatly since Parker first started using the system. Styles change as producers engage in new practices of cultivating grapes or upgrade their production facilities. Mistakes can also lead to major shifts (it was allegedly an intern’s critical error of opening the wrong valve of a tank that lead to the creation of Pink Zinfandel). Moreover, the deluge of information and open communication brought on by the digital age has created a definitive rift: young drinkers on a budget versus older drinkers with deep pockets.
Efforts to captivate the younger crowd have led sommeliers and retail storeowners to produce quirkier, more personal wine lists and inventory these days. The market is slowly becoming more democratic, and there is an effort to cut through the stereotypical stodginess of wine—best represented, of course, by such a strict grading system. A lot of passionate wine enthusiasts are pursuing their interests free from the tyranny of scores—many oblivious to it altogether. They seek out the advice of friends or a trusted store owner, or rely entirely on their gut, judging a wine by a label, by the price tag, or by the grape.
Making wine more personal
Eric Asimov, the wine critic for the New York Times, touches upon another crucial factor in the judgment of wine in his new book, How To Love Wine: “Nothing matters more to how we perceive wine than the context in which it is consumed.” I would add that if a wine has been recommended by a friend or trusted acquaintance in the context of a happy occasion, the positive perception of that wine is increased tenfold—regardless of the score, even if the score is somehow revealed.
A lot of passionate wine enthusiasts are pursuing their interests free from the tyranny of scores.
The best example I can share to illustrate this phenomenon is a personal experience. In the fall of 2012, at an intimate gathering in Los Angeles, I was introduced to the newest members of my wife’s dance company. The Artistic Director of the company, who was hosting, graciously opened some exquisite California and French wines. There was no mention of producer, let alone scores—only satisfied oohs and ahhs that reverberated around the courtyard as we sipped and got to know one another.
Since that first gathering, two of the dancers have taken to texting me, often while sitting at a wine bar, asking me for a recommendation, with a courtesy shot of the wine list. Of course, I’m flattered by this, but I realize there is something telling about this ceremony. The dancers don’t ask the bartender for help, and they certainly don’t pull out the Wine Spectator app or Google Robert Parker’s thoughts on the wines on the list—instead, they seek the advice of a friend. At the end of the day, a score doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a friend’s praise or disapproval of a wine, especially as younger generations of drinkers don’t even know or care about that score to begin with.
The critic has no choice but to offer an subjective opinion, and for the population of wine drinkers that do take advantage of a critic’s likes and dislikes (and it is largely people in their 50s and 60s who are financially successful and have wine cellars), it is on the grounds that they have discovered a kinship in taste with that writer. With such a huge selection of wines in the marketplace today, knowing that one’s taste preference is aligned with a critic’s is a good thing—but it is still only a part of the battle.
The only way to truly judge a wine is to taste it and to think about it. Take a sip, swirl the liquid around in your mouth, and pay attention to what is happening—what visceral reactions do you notice? Then, draw your own conclusion. And once you have, you immediately become the unofficial brand ambassador (or worst nightmare) of that wine. If you liked it, you’ll tell your friends. If you hated it, you’ll advise them not to buy it. If they choose to veto your opinion, chances are, it’s not because they know the wine’s score, but simply because they are contrarian and like to upset you.
Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay, as the wine industry still relies on it to structure the marketplace. But winemakers and retailers should be paying attention to the very real shift that’s happening in how consumers discover and buy wines. If they can figure out a new way to capture this newer, more personal way of judging wine, only then might the 100-point scale fall into oblivion, as a new monument rises to take its place.
Next page: See what some of the leading wine critics of today have to say about the 100-point scale…
Here’s a little bonus reading—some of the major critics of the day are quoted below, offering their take on the old-guard scale. I’ve included my own commentary as well.
Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator: “Granted, scores have an influence, if only because they are so instantly and intuitively understood.” I agree.
Steve Heimoff, a popular writer and blogger: “One flaw is that two critics, both of them seasoned professionals, might give the same wine different scores, resulting in cognitive dissonance for the consumer.” And: “I can envision a future (and you can, too) in which consumers are so smart about wine that they don’t need help from anyone.” Heimoff recently prophesized that as curious wine enthusiasts age from their 30s into their 40s and 50s, and become more picky about the wines they drop their hard-earned cash on, they will look to the guidance of a critic, and that critic will employ the 100-point scale. On this observation, I agree wholeheartedly, and doubt that I will live to see the day when the 100-point scale is scraped for a new system.
Alder Yarrow of Vinography: “We look to critics not just to analyze, but to make aesthetic judgments, and their assessments are necessarily born of the human condition: we have both perceptions and emotions, and we can no more divorce the two than we can give up our humanity. The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?” And to that question, Alder, the answer is one we both know: friends. We trust our friends.
Eric Asimov, New York Times wine critic: “Wine scares people, and the chain of critics, scores, tasting notes, and all that goes with them is a way of alleviating those fears, of making an anxiety-ridden situation tolerable. But it also fosters dependency.” Yes, Eric, wine terrifies many people. The myriad bottles of inky black juice, ageing within dark green glass, perched on the shelves of wine retail stores around the country, truly mystifies those who lack the confidence to formulate an opinion. They also haven’t had the innumerable experiences you’ve had, and perhaps have never taken a class on wine.
Jon Bonne, San Francisco Chronicle wine writer: “The 100-point system is flawed, of course, but it’s also emerged as perhaps the most effective tool to have spoken to a lot of consumers in the past three decades.”
And here’s what Robert Parker has to say (on his website): “The numerical ratings are utilized only to enhance and complement the thorough tasting notes, which are my primary means of communicating my judgments to you.” Granted, his original intentions may have been to “enhance and complement” the wines, but the numerical child he helped popularize has outgrown Parker’s naïve “just a complement” mentality. Parker is fully aware (or in full denial) that his scores have made and broken wine brands over the last three decades.