Who Needs the 100 Point Scale?

Robert Parker was the first one to use the 100 point scale for evaluating wines in the early 70’s introducing it into his publication “The Wine Advocate”. It took 10 years for Marvin Shanken from the Wine Spectator to follow suit and ten years later in the mid 90’s the two remaining wine magazines Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits finally adopted this system. These magazines that review thousands of wines every month send their scores to retail stores ahead of time giving them an opportunity to purchase the highest scoring wines so that they have them in their stores before the publication goes out.   The wines that receive the high scores are promoted on the shelf by pinning a “shelf talker” under the bottle that announces the score along with a description of the wine. This becomes a strong advocate for selling these wines and not only rewarding the winery and the store but also the publication that rated the wine.

I have always been critical of the 100 point scale system for rating wines. I find this rating system flawed, deceiving and misrepresenting for the following reasons:

  1. It misrepresents the subjective nature of our gustatory and olfactory senses. It presumes that the judges are olfactory prodigies with an ability to objectify these senses.
  2. It acts as a driving force for creating wines that are uniform in style. It discourages diversity and creativity preferring cookie-cutter wines that please the reviewers.
  3. The system is skewed in favor of the stronger wines higher in alcohol, tannins and oak versus the more elegant and subtle wines truer to their varietal identity.
  4. By giving the wine a rating in the form of a specific number it creates the illusion that this number was scientifically measured and is absolute while in reality these ratings are totally arbitrary. A wine judged by one wine critic at 90 points may be judged 89 by another, making a world of difference on the sales of the wine.
  5. Unfairly it creates a strong market for the higher rating wines driving volumes and prices for certain wines higher while making other wines difficult to sell.
  6. It forces winemakers to make wines that are designed for the higher ratings abandoning their passion or their emotional connection for these wines.

Don’t get me wrong I am not against wine writers or wine critiques. I believe they are a very important part of this industry and make a valuable contribution to its growth and prosperity. I would like to see the 100 point system replaced by scoring the wines either with “stars”, from one to five stars, or assigning adjectives such as “excellent”, “very good”, “good”, “average” and “below average”.

While I don’t anticipate the 100 point scale wine rating system will go away, I believe that as the consumer in the US is becoming more educated about wines and gaining more self-confidence not to rely on a third party to make the decision as to what wine they should drink.   Also, I believe that with the advent of the social media the influence that the 100 point system has on the buying public will gradually diminish. People will pay more attention what their pears are saying when making buying decisions. Is this too optimistic?