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How I Rate and Review Wine

It's been some time since I talked about the way I review and write about wine, and there are new visitors all the time who may not go digging back into past archives to see some of my earliest posts in which I define my methods and approach to reviewing wine.

So I thought I'd do a little post about it.

Before I get into the details of scoring and tasting notes, and all the mechanical stuff about reviewing a wine, its important to talk about how and why my wine reviews are different from most of what's out there in the wine world. With the exception of very large tasting events where I am scoring sometimes hundreds of wines in a single setting, I never, ever, review a wine without telling its story in some way. A score and a tasting note are useful to wine consumers at a certain level, but infinitely more useful in my opinion, is the story behind the wine. Wine is a product of human passion, of a particular place, and of a particular history of relationship between the ground, the vine, and humankind. Even though I do give scores to wines, and write little descriptions of how they taste, I firmly believe that wine cannot be reduced to these brief words. In order to truly understand and appreciate a wine, I believe you need to know who made it, where it comes from, what the history of that place is, the history of the person who crafted it, how their family relates to wine, etc. etc. A wine is more meaningful to me, and I believe to anyone, when we know something of these elements. I enjoy a wine a lot more when I know it is named after the winemakers dog. It doesn't make it a better wine, but it makes the experience of drinking it more meaningful.

A lot of people object to the scoring of wine in general, and I sympathize with the point of view of folks who bristle at the idea of single number being a significant or meaningful evaluation of a wine. However, I taste a lot of wine, and part of what I strive to do is help my readers understand my relative like or dislike for a wine. That is to say, I want my readers to understand how much I like a wine compared to everything else I've had in the past. It is impossible to convey this sense of relative merit without some sort of scoring system. Of course, like all scoring systems, it is completely subjective. Like other scoring systems It is also meaningless unless my readers actually try some of the wines that I recommend and see whether their palates are similar to mine or not. If my readers find themselves liking the wines that I like pretty consistently, then it becomes very meaningful to know which wines I score high, and which wines I score low.

I rate wine on a scale of 1 to 10, which is basically the numerical equivalent of the letter grading system here in the United States -- 10 is an A+, 9 is an A-, 8.5 is a B, 5 is a failing grade, etc. I have chosen to use this scale because I believe it is simpler and less exact than the 20 point or the 100 point rating scales which are dominant in the wine world right now. To put a finer point on it, I find the distinction between an 89 and a 90 point wine, or a 93 and a 94 point wine a useless one. I do however use half-points (e.g. a 9.5).

I also sometimes express a score as 8.5/9. This is NOT a sneaky way of saying the wine's score is an 8.75. When I give a wine a score like this, I am saying that the wine could be scored somewhere, anywhere, in-between those two scores -- better than some wines that I have scored as an 8.5, not as tasty as most wines I have scored as a 9.

I rarely bother to review wines that score below a 7.5 or an 8 on my scale. Why? These are just average wines, while there might be some benefit to my readers of "warning them off" certain wines, I quickly realized that I could spend and awful lot of time writing negative reviews if I wanted to, and that I would be serving my readers much better by just pointing out the good stuff.

I offer tasting notes for all of the wines that I review in controlled situations. Like most critics, I prefer you to pay attention to these much more than you do to the numerical score that I give a wine. I try to be succint and descriptive in these notes, and I always provide information about the following characteristics of the wine: the color, the nose/aroma, the feel in the mouth, the balance of acidity and sugar, the main flavors of the wine, the tannic structure (if appropriate), and the finish. When appropriate I also comment on the wine's need for age.

There is only one type of situation in which I provide only a score and not a tasting note for wine, and that is at very large tastings where I am tasting through sometimes hundreds of wines. On these occasions I only provide scores. This is for two primary reasons. First, it is extremely impractical to record tasting notes on every wine, as that hampers my ability to taste a significant amount of wine. I take time to write my tasting notes, and I'm very careful and deliberate about it. Spending a minute or two doing so for each wine at a major tasting would be ridiculous when the goal of such tastings is to survey a broad range of wines and identify some of the better ones.

Secondly, these tastings are fairly hard on the palate, which means that it becomes more difficult to pick out some of the finer nuances of a wine after you've tasted 80 of them, and it certainly becomes harder to write a unique tasting note describing the flavors of your 50th pinot noir of the day -- there are only so many adjectives for Pinot Noir's flavor. Despite palate fatigue, It IS possible, however, to be able to place wines relative to each other on a scale of enjoyment or quality, and this is another place where numeric scores come in handy. While I would probably miss some things if I wrote a tasting note for the 70th Cabernet I taste in a day, my sense memory is good enough that I can easily make a decision about whether it is better than the 8th Cab I had that day.

I love them. I do them whenever I get the opportunity. But I'm not a professional wine critic (I have a day job) so I can't spend the time and the effort required to do all of my wine tasting blind. Consequently many of the reviews I do here are not from blind tastings in comparison with other similar wines, but are evaluations of individual bottles. In many cases, especially when I am tasting wines that I have received as samples, I am tasting "price-blind" which is to say that I don't know the price of the wine that I am tasting.

I do accept samples from wineries. I make the following simple promise to anyone who wants to send me wine: I will taste everything, and I only write about stuff that I think is good. Whenever I review a wine which I have received as a free sample, I put a disclaimer at the bottom of my review by way of full disclosure. While there is some controversy in certain circles about whether receiving samples is "ethical" I think it's mostly ridiculous. My evaluation of a wine is not swayed by the fact that it arrived unasked for in a box on my doorstep. For anyone who believes that it would be, you can simply ignore my reviews which have the press sample disclaimer.

I do not accept press junkets (free dinners, hotel stays, vacations, etc.) from individual wineries nor will I ever accept advertising from individual wineries or companies that own wineries on Vinography. If I go out for a meal with a winemaker, I always pay. My reputation as someone who is fair and objective about evaluating wine is important to me.

* * *

Anyhow, for those who are long time readers, this is nothing new. For those of you who may have become readers recently, I hope that gives you a sense of how I go about my job here at Vinography.

Comments (10)

Mariëlla wrote:
11.26.05 at 11:00 AM


I couldn't agree more with anything I have ever read on wine. Especially the first part - WHAT I THINK MAKES FOR A GOOD WINE REVIEW - is taken right from my heart. Thanks Alder, I'll keep on reading your blog.

Dave Brookes wrote:
11.27.05 at 2:16 AM

Nice on Alder...the story behind the wine is the crux....I'm very glad you wrote that.



Lenn wrote:
11.27.05 at 4:22 PM

Well done and explained.

I'd argue that you should at least TRY to do blind tastings more often. I have a day job too, but I do almost all of my reviews blind against at least one other like varietal...when possible.

I agree though that it's silly to not accept samples in our positions. I'd like to see you review the lesser wines as well...I think your readers would benefit.

Alder wrote:
11.27.05 at 5:35 PM


Thanks for the comment. Blind against one other wine isn't really blind in my book -- you know too much about the wines just by knowing that it could be "this" OR "that." Proper blind tastings require a much larger number of wines (say, 5 or more) so that there's clearly no way that you can even unconsciously narrow down the pack.

But let's get down to the real issue here -- do we believe that we can be objective tasters or not?

The only way to have blind tastings TRULY be objective and useful to journalists would be to have someone else buy (or receive) the wines, bag and number them, and then present them at the right time for tasting -- with ZERO knowledge by the journalist of what wines were present. This is the type of blind tasting I'm talking about when I say I love to do them (as part of the wine tasting group I get together with).

I hope we can agree that in the course of reviewing wines in a journalistic fashion, however, this is for all intents and purposes, impossible.

Setting up your own blind tastings, you know what the wines are, where they are from, how much they cost (though if they are press samples, sometimes you don't know that), and often what varietal they are. So even then, there is information that could theoretically "sway" your judgement.

But whose judgement are we talking about here? Not some neophyte who might feel that a wine that costs more than $50 (or comes from a "big name") surely MUST be better than one that costs $10. You and I, and more importantly other journalists who do this for a living, are _way_ past that sort of thing. I would argue that there's really no need for blind tastings unless:

1. The wineries you are tasting from are your customers -- i.e. If you are a major wine magazine that receives advertising money from a winery, then you should not be able to taste a wine from that winery in a non-blind situation. There is a CLEAR conflict of interest at work.

2. The wine is made by your mother. Or a really really really good friend. You get the picture. It is not uncommon for journalists to befriend winemakers or to know them socially before they taste their wines. I think in this case blind tasting can be helpful, but so can a simple disclaimer in a review stating the relationship.

As for the lesser wines.... Sigh. If I had all the time in the world, yes. But life's too short to review crappy wines, unless there's humor value in it, or something to be learned in the process.

Tyler wrote:
11.27.05 at 7:00 PM

Ha! This seems like a declaration of independence holiday not a thanksgiving one (The WSJ couple also reiterated their rules and regs of reviewing on Friday).

Why do you use numerical scores if you conform to letter grades from American schooling? It seems to me you need a B+ to overcome your 8.5/9 problem. Cheers,


Alder wrote:
11.27.05 at 7:16 PM


Thanks for the comment. I use numerical scores because outside of the US the letter grading system is not as well known, but the ten point scoring system "e.g. 'a perfect 10'" that used to be standard for athletic competitions, etc. is pretty easy to understand.

Dustin Platt wrote:
11.28.05 at 2:41 PM

Once again, Kudos Alder;
It's no wonder that you are one of WINE SPECTATOR's top ten bloggers. Your reviews are well rounded, balanced, and fair. Plus, it's easier to remember intimate stories than random numbers as wine lovers who know what they like can determine their tastes for a wine based on your observations.
Happy Holidays,

Dave wrote:
11.29.05 at 12:28 AM

On the blind tasting lark....if anyone is interested in great handout on the subject given to MW students ..shoot me an email.

I do quite a bit...not for reviewing of wines...just to make a fool out of myself with friends and it can be a very humbling experience


Geoff Smith wrote:
11.30.05 at 1:14 PM

92 points.

Madeira wrote:
10.11.08 at 1:21 PM

Its good that I came across this post - blind tasting sounds like a good idea. Will try this suggestion out - thanks

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