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02.09.2006

Numerical Wine Ratings: Consumer Friend or Spawn of Devil?

Numerical ratings for wine are one of the the wine world's favorite all-night-debate topics. Nothing seems to polarize a crowd of wine lovers or engender such impassioned debate as the seemingly innocent question, "So just how useful is it to score wines, anyway?" Some people think these scoring systems (dominated by the 100 point method developed by Robert M. Parker, Jr.) are really useful tools for the consumer. Others think they're one of the worst things that's ever happened to the wine world.

It's probably not hard for you to guess where I come down on the issue. After all, I provide scores along with my reviews. But I've decided to use a 10 point scale instead of 100 because, in part, I have issues with the degree of specificity of the 100 point system (I can't tell the difference between a 96 and a 97 point wine). But I do think numerical ratings are a good thing and I'll show you why:

"Light garnet in color, this wine has a beautiful nose of tobacco, dried cranberries, violets, cedar and a light hint of oak. In the mouth it is very smooth, with classic cool-climate Pinot Noir flavors of cranberry and raspberry with a little tart pomegranate and lovely earthy, black tea flavors that taper into a substantial finish."

OR

"This wine is blood colored with a pleasing nose of cinnamon, leather, redcurrants and tobacco leaves. On the palate it is bright and light with primary flavors of redcurrant and sour plum and a light spice as the wine finishes clean without much tannic structure. This is one to drink early and often"

Now tell me. Which one of these wines did I think was better? If you're reading my blog to find out about wines you might like, just a tasting note isn't going to give you enough information RELATIVE to the rest of the wines that you've seen me review here. Knowing that the first wine scored somewhere between an 8.5 and 9 on my scale, while the second one scored between 8 and 8.5 helps you at least judge which one I liked more., and if you're familiar with my palate (a key point here) then those scores are actually really helpful.

Having said all that, there are definitely issues with numerical ratings for wine that have serious implications in the business. Here's an article I came across the other day that captures many of them eloquently and with some brevity.

So I thought I'd raise the issue and ask you: helpful numbers or wicked beast?

Comments (35)

Mithrandir wrote:
02.10.06 at 10:18 AM

Numbers are very helpful, for exactly the reasons you've illustrated.

My biggest problem with the 100 point scale, (and your 20 half-point scale as well) is that too much of the scale seems reserved for total crap. Wines below 75 (or 7.5) are apparently not worth talking about, and yet take up 3/4 of the dynamic range of these scales.

Also, to make a numeric scale truely useful, one has to be able to calibrate one's palate to the reviewer's. It would be nice if a reviewer would publish and maintain a list of maybe four easy to find wines at different points on that scale, so as to allow one to buy that set of wines, form one's own opinions, and decide how well one's own preferences match those of the reviewer.

Tyler wrote:
02.10.06 at 10:52 AM

Obviously numbers are very popular but Tish makes lots of good points (non-numerical of course) in that article--and he has more thought-proking postings on his web site.

If you buy a 94 point wine, how do you know whether or not it will go with your pasta tonight? That's where words are helpful.

The TN examples in this posting were written in conjunction with numerical scores so it's not entirely fair to rip them apart from the numbers and then have to guess which is better--the numbers ran alongside the text and performed that rank ordering. But ranking can also be achieved just with words, as in "best in tasting" or "I'd serve this to distinguished guests," or "middling" or "cooking wine." If a truncated range of numbers is used, how is that different from, say, stars or letter grades? While the differences between an 87 and an 88 do seem like splitting hairs, what then is the rating of a 9/9.5?

Clearly, these are tough issues that all wine writers--nay, wine consumers!--must grapple with.

Alder wrote:
02.10.06 at 10:59 AM

Tyler,

Thanks for the comments. When I rate a wine 9/9.5 I'm saying it falls somewhere between a 9 and a 9.5 on my scale, which I think is the opposite of splitting hairs.

02.10.06 at 11:29 AM

Tish and I see eye to eye on this one (actually, on many of his issues with the wine business), as Alder knows. Parker (who, incidentally Mithrandir, really only uses a 50-point scale), and you, and everyone who defends scores, says "it's the tasting note that's important." So why include the score, then? Consumers are drawn to it rather than the note, never mind that your 8-8.5 point wine from above might be a better choice than the 8.5-9 for the food or ambience at the dinner table.

Also, to expand on Tyler's point, wine scores are a crutch for wine writers. They allow us to be lazy, and not focus on writing a tasting note that really conveys a wine's strength and weaknesses. I notice myself writing a different style of tasting note when I'm forced to do scores for a wine pub. I know that, in the end, I can dust everything under the carpet of the score.

Terry Hughes wrote:
02.10.06 at 11:53 AM

Nobody asked, but I'll weigh in and say that I generally agree with Tyler on this one. Numeric scoring systems may not be the spawn of the devil but they aren't a force for good either. I think they do tend to make people lazy, and by people I mean not only wine writers or retailers. ("But after all / it was me and you").

Telling what a wine is good with, or not, is to be a much more useful and revealing way to "rate" it. And let's not forget the old price/quality relationship, which makes any pretense of "absolute" scoring systems pretty useless, IMHO.

Alder wrote:
02.10.06 at 11:57 AM

Derrick,

Yes, we've talked about this many times, and I can't help but think that your argument doesn't reflect the realities of actually grappling with a big audience of people that are looking for guidance on what to try. Did you see the absolutely overwhelming positive response when the Chronicle FINALLY started putting star ratings on their wine reviews? People were thrilled. I'm sure you remember how useless their tasting note lineups were before now -- but they were totally not helpful to consumers, who, no matter what anyone might wish to the contrary, are most often looking for some quick guidance on what to put in their shopping cart the next time they're at the store.

To write a tasting note that conveys as much information on the relative quality of a wine as one can with a simple score, it would have to include sentences like this one:

"This wine is a medium bodied pinot noir that has classic Sonoma Coast characteristics -- it's better than the 2001 Deloach OFS Pinot Noir I had last week and not quite as good as the 2003 Halleck 'Three Sons' Pinot that I had a few months ago."

This sort of thing is ridiculous for any number of reasons:

1. It forces readers to read other reviews (which is fine and dandy on a blog where it's all archived, but impossible for newspaper and magazine readers).

2. It explicitly plays wines off against each other which I hope you agree does no one any good, and certainly doesn't make for good relationships with the industry.

3. Its inherently limited in what it can express by the actual number of wines you include in the comparison.

And the answer is not to simply stop comparing wines against each other -- without comparison you cannot establish any reliable scale of what is good and what is not, which is the ultimate value that someone who reviews wine, or restaurants, or movies, provides to the public (in addition to general educational/critical writings on the subject).

There's a reason why all of these types of reviews have some sort of numerical scoring system or its equivalent. People need them.

Alder wrote:
02.10.06 at 12:08 PM

Terry,

Thanks for the comments. People were lazy before wine scores ever came into the picture. Why is it even possible for people to make a living being a critic? We don't have the time, energy, interest, or expertise to taste all the wines that a critic does. We're lazy and we want someone who knows more than us to help us out.

I agree that talking about what sort of foods wine is good with is important, which is why I've always done food pairings with my wine reviews, but I have to disagree with you on the price value point. Or at least what I think is your implication that the QPR (quality/price ratio) should influence the score of a wine.

Value is a completely subjective, personal issue which each consumer can and does figure out on their own, independent of score. In my opinion there is absolutely no need for the critic to say anything about the price. It will be expensive to some people and cheap to others, and those people know that FAR better than the reviewer.

Now the word "absolute" which you use is a tricky one, and I don’t think there is such a thing as an absolute scoring system, if only because I don't believe that there is no single "objective" standard for what is a "good wine." Wine will always be evaluated relative to other wines (perhaps of the same varietal, or region, or to the "great wines" if they exist for that varietal) but I don’t think anyone can agree on the exact values of the measuring stick for all wines.

GregP wrote:
02.10.06 at 1:05 PM

The key to numerical scores is aligning your palate to that of the reviewer. If the tasting note emphasizes vanilla or other oak character in the wine and then still gives it a high numerical oak, I simply know to avoid the wine since I am not a huge fan of too much oak. Or say, emphasis on black fruits in Pinot where I prefer red fruit would make the wine unapealing to me regardless of the score.

I think it is an art these days to corellate the text of the tasting note to that of its final numerical score and the better you get at it for a particular reviewer, the better off your buying habits will be (and less expensive since you won't need to pour wine out).

Also, particular reviewers "get" some wines better than others.

Using words as a rating system is a much better way to convey your preference or dislike for a wine, IMO. Here's mine:

Mortgage the house to buy this wine, buy every bottle you find
Skip on grocery this month to buy this wine, by the case purchase
Pretty good, I'd serve it to my friends and relatives
Nice, good for drinking or cooking with
Cooking wine
Wouldn't sell this to my enemy

Something similar to the above will easily convey your stance on a wine, after all, are YOU willing to spend YOUR money on this or not, its a simple test.

Points only mean something if YOUR palate is an EXACT match to that of a reviewer.

St.Vini wrote:
02.10.06 at 1:52 PM

There are far too many wines out there. How does one distinguish between a half-dozen California Zins unless something, be it a number or some other designator, gives it a rank? If nothing else, it removes clutter for people - buying wine is complicated enough.

Alder, corkage, additives and now scoring? Are you trying to create controversy? Next a screwcaps vs. cork debate....?

Vini

02.10.06 at 2:52 PM

I'd argue that consumers want scores because they've been trained to accept them; I don't agree that just because consumers want it doesn't mean they're a good thing.

I believe that, among their other faults, scores keep wine consumers ignorant (and, not coincidentally, dependent on the critics who create the scores).

They impose an artificial equivalence--I don't think any of us would argue that a 90-point German Riesling has anything in common with a 90-point California Cabernet Sauvignon. That's an extreme example, but what about a 90-point Sangiovese vs. a 90-point pinot noir? Well, what areas/wine making styles were used? They might still be pretty different wines. How is a consumer served by knowing the score? They don't learn anything, and they remain ignorant of the factors they might care about.

Scores prevent consumers from learning. We resist learning, as a rule, because we have so many other things going on in our lives. I don't feel the need to help that along, though.

And I maintain that they prevent us (critics) from thinking outside the box about the best way to communicate something about a wine.

I'm sure you're familiar with the Ferry Plaza's ranking system. For those who aren't, they rank each wine along five axes--dryness, amount of oak, body, etc. So if you know you like dry, oaky, heavy-bodied wines, you can find the ones in the store that meet your needs. There aren't any scores. They just give you the basic parameters of a wine which strikes me as vastly more informative than a single number picked by an often unnamed critic whose tastes may or may align with mine. It's also much better for categorizing wines: The 90-point German Riesling and 90-point Napa Cab will have very different classifications by the FP system.

I'd argue that they came up with that scale precisely because they wanted to avoid scores. So they took a step back, and came up with something "outside the box" that educates their consumers and gives actual, useful information. That's what I mean when I say scores are a crutch that prevents us from thinking of new/better ways to communicate something.

02.10.06 at 3:34 PM

"I don't agree that just because consumers want it doesn't mean they're a good thing."

Actually, I don't agree that consumer demand _means_ it's a good thing :)

Brett wrote:
02.10.06 at 6:41 PM

I'm of the wine-scores-are-the-spawn-of-the-devil school. My problem with scoring wines (and wine competitions) is twofold. First, when many wines are tasted side-by-side, one after another, the biggest, most highly concentrated wines tend to dominate, regardless of the category.

Second, I see wine as food. Perhaps it is my bias as a professional cook, but I view wine as simply a beverage that is meant to accompany food and hopefully to enhance what you are eating. There is no point in scoring a wine outside the context of the meal. I am not alone in this opinion. This is how wine has always been viewed within the historical wine drinking societies.

I prefer the type of recommendation that Gerald Asher presents in his wine rec. column in Gourmet. He starts with a meal and then uses that as a point to begin a discussion about what wines would work well with the meal. He educates you about the style of wines from a particular region, so you actually end up learning something useful. He also recommends a selection of labels within each category.

Wine scores are an American invention. They pander to the American desire to ensure that they are drinking "the best." They do nothing to educate the consumer in the long run.

Lenn wrote:
02.11.06 at 5:53 AM

Here we go again! This is a discussion that I've had with some of you via email on numerous occasions. And, despite feeling a bitt like a waffler about the whole thing...I'm not quite sure where I come down on the argument.

On one hand, I think we can all agree that numbers without commentary are arbitrary and of little real value to consumers. But it is also true that many (most?) people who are presented with a paragraph of tasting note AND a score are going to just look at the score and make their buying choice.

But on the other, I can also see where Derrick is coming from...I don't use scores/grades in my print work and the reviews do tend to be a bit different than the ones I post on my blog with grades...

I don't, however, agree that numbers shouldn't be used because a 90 German Riesling has little in common with a 90 Napa Cab. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but if I see a 90 on a wine...I assume that it's a "90 out of 100" for that particular variety...not in the grand scheme of all wine. There may be a bit of geography in there too...doesn't WS have completely different people reviewing/scoring wines in Germany than it does Napa?

I think all we can do as wine critics/writers is present as much information as we can. Some people DO want the ratings...while others will want more descriptive reviews. Why can't we do both? Sure, we may have to work hard to not hide behind a number, but who said this was supposed to be easy.

Maybe instead of saying "95" we should spell it out "Ninety five" so people will HAVE to read the full review? ;)

Tyler wrote:
02.11.06 at 8:16 AM

Numbers are fast, easy, and can cause severe dependence (hmm, sounds like crack!). As Derrick points out, they also totally lack an education component.

Stars are probably better for rank ordering but they don't escape a similar cluster effect--nobody hands out four stars or one so then you have most wines grouped between 2 and 3.5 stars, essentially four grades.

That brings us to the WSJ couple's scale of: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious! At first I thought this was ridiculously simplistic but now I see its simple elegance.

It avoids half stars, hair-splitting between an 87 and an 88, and clunky scores like "9/9.5" It is totally intuitive--everybody's had wines that were, yech and OK and delicious!

My $0.02

02.11.06 at 9:00 AM

I personally like and use the five-star rating system, and do give 4 stars to a wine that I find delicious! We use stars to rate movies, books, and CDs, why not wines? Decanter Magazine uses stars. Between the number of stars they assign to a wine and their tasting notes, this is enough information for me to decide whether I would like the wine or not.

Quoting Dan Berger from one of his newsletters, I would say: I drink wine, not numbers!

On the other hand, I can also understand how the 100-point rating scale helps many people find the good wines of the world. It may give them the confidence to try a new wine from an obscure region of Spain or an unknown winery from Argentina.

Now, would Parker have had the same impact if he had use a five-star rating system? I personally think so.

eric wrote:
02.11.06 at 9:58 AM

Granted, I'm a rank amateur and only just getting started on my wine blogging so consider these thoughts with that in mind.

I am starting out using a letter grade scale (A-F sans E) just like most public school grading systems. A wine basically falls into one of five categories for me: I love it, I like it a lot, I like it, I don't like it, I hate it. (I use pluses and minuses for emphasis). The scores become a quick and easy reference for me to keep track of my overall reaction to a particular wine.

I don't expect my grades to mean anything to anyone who doesn't know me and my preferences. They can be used as a shorthand but only if you understand the code (ie, my tastes). Still, when choosing wine I primarily look at descriptive phrases but I would be lying if I said that a number rating doesn't sometimes influence my decision. On the other hand, I consider myself a smart consumer and I understand that all of marketing is biased and manipulative with one goal in mind: to sell the product. Hence, I view numbered ratings as only one more non-objective factor among many to consider. In that context, I'm fine with them but don't ever try to tell me the numbers have any intrinsic value in themselves.

eric wrote:
02.11.06 at 3:37 PM

I just had another thought...

I use my rating system primarily as a means to track what I like but when I see a number from a so-called expert or professional wine reviewer I expect that one of the criteria they use in rating a wine (and hopefully an important one) is how well a particular bottle compares to a classic or typical wine of that type (presuming there is such a beast). But like I said, I'm still figuring these things out so maybe that's a naive expectation.

ed Charles wrote:
02.12.06 at 9:07 AM

Scores are useful but really dumb down food and wine. I know people who check out the score and don't even bother to read the story – this goes for wine tastings and restaurant reviews. I know other people who only drink wines that score over 90 or eat in joints with the equivalent of Michelin stars. The nuances of personal taste are too difficult to score and your top score may be my mediocre one rendering the system useless, especially for the lazy reader.

Alder wrote:
02.12.06 at 7:09 PM

This has been a great discussion, but I can't help feeling that some of you are being totally unrealistic when it comes to having expectations about what wine critics need to convey to consumers.

"Some people just use scores to buy and never learn anything" or "people become blind to anything but the score" is NOT a valid, nor logical argument for doing away with them.

Also, I'm not an advocate for "least common denominator" thinking, but I would argue that because so many people DO find scores useful (again, I point you to the response to the Chronicle's change in review format) that it means that they ARE a good thing.

Critics, in addition to being educators, are in the business of helping the public make decisions, even those who do not have any desire to learn much about wine.

N.R. Carlson wrote:
02.13.06 at 12:03 PM

Love this discussion!! I have been struggling with building a quality metric for use in judging in-progress wines (I am a winemaker.)

I need a way to draw correlations between treatment and outcome in the many lots of wines that we made in the 2005 vintage. The only way to do this is to define the quality of various lots on a numeric scale.

I have built numerous quality metrics, all on a 0 to 5 scale, 0 being flawed, 5 being of highest quality. I instruct panels to taste without judgement on style, but to focus on quality instead (a distinction that is not made in Hedonic scales, such as Wine Spec, Parker, etc...) I have a column for winemaker preference scoring, as well as a consumer panel preference score, and several other quality metrics. In this way, I can see how well these various judgements of quality correlate to one another and to the treatments the wines recieved. I have also built a seperate scale that indicates what level of quality (bulk, reserve, estate, etc...) the lot was considered for or selected to become a part of.

I spoke with Sue Langstaff, lead Sensory Scientist for Vinquiry and Ascent Services. She states that a quality scale needs to be small enough to represent real steps in quality between the numbers, a maximum of 10 points for wine is realistic. Then rigourous statistical analysis should be done to determine if the panel has statistically been able to differentiate between wines in the group.

I will see how well this system works, and whether I can find some significant indications of treatments (different presses, crushers, yeasts, etc...) that increased quality as measured by my metrics, and other treatments that reduced quality by my scale.

REMEMBER: Style is a completely different issue from quality, and yet it is a huge contributor to preference! It is very difficult to seperate these two, but it is essential for good analysis of what worked and what did not, from a winemaking standpoint. (IE: two wines may be of a comparable quality tier, but I may still prefer one over the other for one reason or another, whether it is oak treatment, level of astringency, etc...)

N.R. Carlson wrote:
02.13.06 at 12:20 PM

Why do we allow critics to have so much sway over wine? I would argue that it is because wine has not yet been democratized to the same level as other entertainments. Americans do not take movie critics reviews to heart nearly in the same way they do wine; there are certain genres of film that never are reviewed well, but that sell millions of tickets at the box office and become wildly successful!

As Americans become more comfortable with wine, perhaps we will see some consumer based, 'bottom-up' judgement of wines, rather than the current, paternalistic 'top-down' system?

I envision a 'Netflix' type system, whereby one logs in, scores wines that you have had recently with an appropriate number of stars, and then you can write a short note about what you liked and didn't like. Critics ratings could appear seperately in a sidebar, and the average consumer score would be posted at the top. Wines could be arranged within catagories of varietal or region, and you could even receive recommendations on wines that you might like to try based on your other reviews.

Bad posters, who rate down wines vandalistically, or score inflaters, who push up certain producers scores could be yanked off the site by the moderators, along with other bogus posts.

This could even be set up as a commercial project, with one-click ordering of wines from a que, or a wine 'club' system that would ship out a half case monthly from the top wines in my cue, or recommendations.

I love the 'Netflix' model, because it gives me a quick overview of what others think, stores my own score for the movie, and even allows access to critic's opinions. In addition, it is really interesting to see why various viewers liked or disliked a given film, in their own words- there is often a lot more information there.

Do we have any web-savvy, statistical genius type folks out there willing to give something like this a try? Or is there something like this already being used?

Alder wrote:
02.13.06 at 2:15 PM

N.R.,

There have been several attempts to do what you're talking about, each of which having met with only partial success.

Cellartracker.Com is a cellar management software in which many users make their tasting notes about wine public, and have created a de facto bottom-up communal database of ratings. This is the closest to an actually useful (though not particularly usable) solution that's out there.

WARPA on the other had is exactly what you are talking about -- an attempt to create a communal and collaborative ratings DB, and is probably the solution that has been out there the longest (there are several other attempts to do this, but none of them have gotten very far) but as you can see, is very sparsely populated. Most of my attempts to find wines that I drink yield zero results.

The problem with these sorts of efforts in general (and I speak not as a cynic, but as someone who designs complex web sites as part of his job) is that users have very little to gain by using them. Cellar tracker is the most useful because people are entering their tasting notes as part of their personal management of their cellar, and making them public is only a secondary concern. Without the cellar management functionalty the database would not be as full as it could be. Just like at Netflix, your primary task is renting movies -- you wouldn't visit the site as often if all it did was provide a place for people to rate movies.

The one exception that I know of to this phenomenon is wikipedia.org, which is a collaboratively built encyclopedia, and I think its success is built on the fact that its population of potential contributors is so massively huge (all of humanity with an internet connection and the ability to read and write). As opposed to the internet savvy component of the wine community which is miniscule by comparison and therefore could never build something equivalent.

eric wrote:
02.14.06 at 3:22 PM

Thom Elkjer at winecountry.com makes a point that resonated with me. He talks about awards as being more meaningful than numbered scores and I have to agree. When a wine has won an award or medal at an event or from a panel I assume that it was tasted blind by multiple palates and that tends to have more influence with me than a single critics opinion. Of course, one might argue that the end result is merely an indication of a wines popularity more than it's actual quality but at least we're talking about popularity amongst presumably knowledgeable and experienced oenophiles and not the ignorant masses.

Speaking to the other issue raised... I would love to see a comprehensive master database of wines with tasting notes, reviews, and price range for simple research. The ones mentioned and the few others I've seen are too sparse to be of value. I'd love something along the lines of rottentomatoes.com for wine.

Alder wrote:
02.14.06 at 7:02 PM

Eric,

I have to vehemently disagree with Thom on this one. Awards, especially those which are given out at State and County Fairs around the country are incredibly misleading and have far more problems than numerical scores.

I don't know if you've ever entered something into competition at a California fair (where most of the medals come from) a but here's my experience from entering photography, crafts, and food -- they give the gold medal to whatever item/craft/pig/wine is the best of what has been entered. That means that if only three wines enter the Sauvignon Blanc category at the Sequioa County Fair, then one of them is going to win the gold medal, no matter how badly it sucks.

I've tasted plenty of gold medal winning wines that were mediocre at best, and some of them were downright awful.

With fair medals (and slightly less so for the various "wine competitions" out there) it's REALLY dicey. We have no way of knowing what wines were in competition for the medal, who the judges were and whether they knew anything about wine, under what circumstances the wines were tasted, etc. Many of the best wineries in Napa and Sonoma never bother entering their wines in these competitions so it's really hard to evaluate a medal as RELATIVE to any real field of wines that exist.

I'd take a point score and a tasting note from my least favorite glossy wine magazine as more valuable than ANY gold medal anytime.

eric wrote:
02.15.06 at 2:29 AM

Ouch. Good points. It seems some of my assumptions may indeed be naive as I suggested in a previous comment. Thanks for the perspective.

mark mancinelli wrote:
04.30.06 at 7:41 PM

An 86.5....

I would like to rank the discussion numberically so we can all see how we did...it was not excellent, but it was good....perhaps a little more connection to the granularity of the real world would increase the score...

I am a parker user - but he is not my god - and I am a tanzer user, and he is not my god either...be sure, I am not a wine spectator user, having found their reviews to be very cursory and often not connected to how I review a wine...That said, I think sensible use of a numerical scale created by an experienced critic when you have a view of that critic's palate is another helpful piece of information in the puzzle - and it is a puzzle when you are trying to figure out how to spend your money on wine..

But it is a dynamic puzzle...I doubt that people use Parker, go home, try the wine, and decide they like it because Parker put 90 points on it (although I think that is the real undercurrent of a lot of criticism about numbers - ie: that it is creating a market for one palate or one style, which does not make sense at all to me)...I imagine they like it if they like it and if not, they dont. The next time they are in the shop, having not liked the previous highly rated wine, I would seriously doubt whether they are shopping based on Parker Points...eventually, enough hit and miss and they will move on.

In this regard, I do not think Parker or anyone else defines taste. It may well be that Parker has a palate which is representative of a broad swath of wines people like to drink...highly extracted, structured, fruity, with sweet tannins and balanced acidity...and aromatic to boot...and why not like this style of wine?

I think the comments on how do you compare a 90 point riesling to a california cab are not on point...of course when you are trying to figure out what to buy, you do not move from category to category, you stay in class...which means you stay in varietal and you stay in region. A more sensible comment on limitations of numerical scores would be how to evaluate 90 points in cotie rotie and 90 points in mclaren vale....

But even that is not the right idea...points are a reviewer's attempt to indicate where wine falls on the quality scale with respect to that person's palate. Who in their right mind would be so silly to say, hey, this one is 92, but this one is 93...I will take the 93...more to the idea, this one is 96-100...and according to a very accomplished critic, with his biases, he thinks this is extraordinary...or 90-95, he thinks this is outstanding....and so on...in fact, not much different from a five star system.

And believe me, it is rank silliness to distinguish between a 95 and a 96...so much so that bashing the system from that angle is kind of nutty...

I make wine at home and prior to blending I taste and record notes on each batch. In doing so, I check for color, nose, palate and structure/balance. For whatever reason, when I started doing this, I used a ten point scale. Somehow it helped me express the differences between the batches better than stars, letters or anything else I could think of. 2 points for color, 4 for nose, 4 for palate. Would you know I never had a round number...why not the hundred point scale...multiply your results by 10!

Lastly, consumers spend money. Wine buyers spend money repeatedly, not just once. I would not assume that they are blindly relying on a points system without an underlying sense of the palate of the critic and the merit of the rating given how they like the wine and how much it cost them. Repeat expenditure on 90 something point wines when you dont like the wine would be lunacy...My guess is that most repeat buyers of wine are not lunatics.

In sum, the system of points is what it should be, useful, but only part of the puzzle. A real review requires a tasting note, knowledge of the varietals, the region, and the quality of the vintage...unless of course you are spending $8.99, in which case the fact that Parker gives Vitiano 2003 a 90, and the fact that I know it is a sangiovese and it comes from Umbria is good enough for me to guess I will like it...and you know what...I do!

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.