Wine Ratings: The Pros and Cons

A wine rating is a summary of the appraisal of a wine by one or more critics, most notoriously Robert Parker, who assigns ‘Parker points’ on a scale of 0 to 100—although the lowest possible score is 50, scores of less than 70 are rare, and scores of less than 80 are uncommon. Since the 1970s, the practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale has proliferated. Other scales, including 0-to-20 and 0-to-5 (sometimes featuring stars in lieu of numbers), are also in use. Certain websites enable consumers to emulate critics by contributing to ‘community’ notes and scores. In competitions, wines are generally tasted blind by a panel of critics, usually alongside other wines from the same appellation or region. In theory, a rating is merely intended to supplement a tasting note; in practice, the tasting note—if it even exists—is often ignored or omitted, with the wine reduced to nothing more than a headline number.

Wine ratings convey information quickly and simply, guiding the purchasing decisions of novices in particular. Assuming strict single-blind conditions at the time of tasting, they reflect performance rather than price or pedigree. Scores can easily be compared, which encourages producers to compete and improve their offerings, and rewards them for doing so. Wines with 90-plus points are much more likely to shift, and those with scores in the high 90s can develop cult followings.

However, wine ratings can be criticized on the triple grounds of concept, procedure, and consequences. While a numerical score can come across as all scientific, it merely reflects the personal preferences and prejudices of one or several critics, and it may be that grading wines is as misguided as ranking people in a beauty pageant. For what is beauty, and can it be measured on a stage? Like the contestants in the pageant, the wines are often very young, and scores cannot fully account for the delights and disappointments that they are yet to reveal. In any case, the most beautiful girl or boy is probably not on stage, but sitting at home buried in War and Peace. Many hallowed producers shun competitions, partly on ideological grounds, but mostly because they have little to gain and much to lose.

Scores are influenced not only by personal preferences and prejudices, but also by the context and conditions of the tasting, and, in a panel, by the group dynamics, with junior judges exquisitely sensitive to every ‘um’ and ‘aah’ of the distinguished panel chair. The number that comes out of this process might be of existential import to the producer, who has toiled for a year, indeed, several years, to make his or her wine, but reflects no more than a few seconds of tasting with no or very little time for discussion and debate.

As for consequences, wines with the highest scores fall prey to speculators and are traded like financial commodities, effectively removing them from the marketplace. More gravely, ratings tend to favour the sort of wines that are able to stand out on a fatigued, tannin-coated palate, at the expense of more delicate wines, which are likely to be more elegant, more interesting, more faithful to terroir, and better suited to the table. This phenomenon has contributed in no small measure to the homogenization, or ‘Parkerization’, of wine styles as producers vie to obtain the highest scores.

Wine ratings have played an important role in the rise of wine culture, but their grip seems to be loosening (if not fading) as consumers become ever more experienced and educated. To me, a score of 98 can also function as a signal for caution.