The 100-point wine rating system has become the Rosetta stone of the wine world – translating wine into quality and value terms that consumers around the world can easily understand. While the system may be helpful and certainly succeeds in driving wine sales, it does have a number of pitfalls that wine lovers need to be aware of if they hope to make smart buying decisions.
Wine ratings weren’t always the industry standard that they are today. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Robert Parker, arguably the most influential wine critic alive, decided to change the industry forever. Parker established the 100-point system that translated elusory wine descriptors into a precious scientific ranking.
But just how infallible is this new age twist on wine tastings? Generally speaking, two factors are under evaluation during professional wine tastings: production quality and tasting experience. The first has to do with whether the wine is correctly made – whether it’s flawed, has defects, is cloudy, corked, or otherwise indicative that something went awry during production.
The second item under evaluation involves the characteristics of specific components of the wine. This is where subjectivity throws everything for a loop. Differing opinions, preferences, and palates cause huge discrepancies in how wine critics rank wine. For example, some critics believe a wine should be the quintessential expression of the grape variety, or should showcase the growing region from which it came. Others favor wines with great complexity, intense aromas, gripping tannins, or long-term aging potential, etc. Critics value different attributes and certain attributes more than others. That is what makes ratings so frustratingly unscientific and personal to each person’s palate.
Certainly, wine critics are the heavyweight competitors when it comes to the senses. Their palates are fine-tuned, their noses can sniff out and identify even the rarest aromas, and they have a spectacular ability to translate sensory experience into words. But each wine critic, at his or her core, is a wine drinker no different than the average consumer who picks a bottle off the shelf and hopes to enjoy what’s inside. A wine may be correctly made and still not aligned with a drinker’s preferences. That doesn’t make it a bad wine; in fact, it’s probably a great wine – one that’s simply meant for a different kind of consumer. Wine consumers must remember that ratings are not shorthand for universal likability.
Novice wine drinkers are particularly susceptible to being seduced by wine ratings, and they are the group who should resist the temptation more than anyone else. Why? Because new wine drinkers are the least assured about what wine styles they enjoy and which styles they flat-out dislike. Buying into a 98-point wine only to discover that it hits all the wrong notes can murder a novice’s confidence and be phenomenally frustrating. He or she stares despondently at the bottle thinking, “I’m supposed to like this! This is a great wine!,” when in reality it simply doesn’t match his or her definition of what makes a wine great.
The wine rating plague is certainly a powerful industry influencer and one that likely stemmed from a desire to help consumers find the good stuff on the shelf. However, this tool is often misused, and in order to set things straight, you’ll have to choose one of two solutions.
Solution #1: Buddy up with a wine critic
Because each wine critic brings to the table a different set of preferences, the only way to use wine ratings successfully is to follow the critics who have similar tastes as you. This requires a bit of research and tasting around. Look up critics’ reviews, read their commentaries, and notice when you agree or disagree with a critic’s rating of a particular wine. Then, when you’ve found a critic whose palette is on the same wavelength as yours, use his or her ratings to guide you to more wine you’re likely to love.
Solution #2: Replace ratings with wine styles
Rather than navigating off of point-value ratings doled out by prestigious strangers, the best action wine consumers can take is to identify and articulate the wine styles that most suit their unique preferences. Successfully doing so comes down to one thing: acquiring wine vocabulary. Wine descriptions are notorious for saying a lot and meaning very little. Put all the fluff aside and focus on the core descriptors that will help you identify and select the wines that you most enjoy. Here are some helpful descriptors to get you started:
At the end of the day, no rating can perfectly predict whether you will enjoy sipping on a particular wine. So the next time you see a point value hanging from the shelf, take it at face value: a suggestion from a professional critic, and a reason to approach wine with confidence, curiosity, and a willingness to find out more about what you enjoy drinking.
Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant currently working for Etching Expressions as Official Wine Commentator & Reviewer. She has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.