The Dialog Wines Blog

“Mr. 90 Points”

 Published on: Monday, October 31, 2011

So What’s the Deal with Wine Scores and Critics?

I have to admit that I really enjoy canvasing the shelves in any and all wine stores. I love to see what is new, which wines are selling well and I love finding the occasional hidden gem or diamond in the rough. I like to chat with the staff and ask which wine they are taking home to enjoy at the end of their work day. There is just so much good wine these days, I don’t want to miss out!

Just the other day, I was visiting my neighborhood wine store when I noticed a guy who would pick up a bottle, then type something on his phone. He did this with about six or seven bottles before a member of the staff asked him if he needed any help making a selection. “No thanks, I have all the help I need right here,” he said, proudly holding up his phone to show off the application that would feed him a wine score and review for each wine he typed into its search engine. “I won’t touch a wine unless it has at least 90 points,” he stated firmly as if it was something to be proud of.

Not that I’ve been losing sleep over how this guy makes his buying decisions but it has had me thinking a little bit lately. What’s the deal with wine scores? Why do wine buyers and consumers put so much stock in them? I don’t think everyone is as precise as “Mr. 90 Points” was in the wine store that day, but clearly, most of us have been influenced by these scores, ratings and reviews at some point. I guess I understand why, as it is often nice to have some point of reference, especially when you are trying to decide between so many different offerings. And I will freely admit, that when it comes to selling wine, I am the first to advertise a great score given by Robert Parker or Wine Spectator, as a good score often yields great results in my business.

Now, that being said, I’d like to play a little devil’s advocate and take a closer look at this whole wine score and wine review business and try to convince you if you’re like my friend “Mr. 90 Points,” and you live and die by these scores, you could be missing out on some really great wines that you just might enjoy as much or more than anything that has scored highly from these “wine experts.” Before you decide that these critics are the best and most reliable source to tell you what to drink, consider these points:

1) Who are these people awarding scores and advising you on what to buy?
Robert Parker, Tim Fish, Steve Tanzer, James Suckling, Bruce Sanderson, Jancis Robinson… Do you know who these people are? Lets assume for a moment that you do (they are some of the better known wine critics in the industry, just in case you didn’t know). Do you know them personally? I would say that quite likely, you do not. If you don’t know them and what their tendencies as critics are, then surely, they don’t know your tendencies, likes and dislikes as consumers, so why do people take their scores and reviews as the written word?

There is a theory in the Wine Industry that Robert Parker aka the Wine Advocate, applies very high scores and ratings to wines that are big, full bodied, jammy and often high in alcohol. Is this a fact? I’m not sure but there is certainly evidence to support the theory.

Now, if Mr. Parker enjoys this style of wine and in his opinion, this style makes a great wine, then by all means, I have no issue with him awarding high scores. But that doesn’t mean that you have to like what he likes. Maybe that big blockbuster wine is overwhelming for your palate and you enjoy something that is soft, light in tannin and has great finesse. The lesson; if you feel more comfortable buying a wine that has a high score attached to it, make sure that the score is coming from a writer that you trust and you have confidence that your writer enjoys a similar style of wine as you.

Personally, I trust the palate of those that I know. I’ve done plenty of tastings with a lot of people that are wine knowledgable and have very good palates. I’ll take the opinion and recommendation of these people over a random stranger who assigns a number or star to a wine based solely on their own supposed unbiased opinion. Speaking of biased….

2) Are wine critics biased?
This is a pretty big accusation to make as these critics swear that they are not swayed or hold any kind of allegiance to any winery. After all, their reputation as a critic depends on their neutrality. I’m not saying all critics are biased but… if you were a critic and a winery is spending $500,000 for the back page advertisement of your magazine, it would be pretty difficult to give one of its wines a bad score wouldn’t it? Or what if you as a critic had a great experience while being wined and dined at one winery and then perhaps had a mediocre experience at a winery across the street on the same day, would this not impact your scoring of the wines even just a little bit? We are all human after all and it is possible to sway us with a bit of flattery and ass kissing isn’t it?

3) Considering the process…
What if I told you that many of these critics are tasting 200+ wines in an afternoon of tasting and are assigning scores during this time? Do you believe that they could accurately define and describe every nuance of the wine as they claim to do? No? Well then, I am telling you that critics taste 200+ wines in a session of tasting and claim to accurately define and describe every nuance of the wine. Perhaps all these critics have super palates that never fatigue and even though they likely spit every drop of wine that is tasted, they are able to prevent any alcohol whatsoever from entering their bloodstream, ultimately diminishing their senses, so that they can give a fair and accurate review of all 200+ wines. Yes, that last sentence was full of sarcasm and skepticism.

4) Why would I buy this 88 point wine over this 91 point wine?
Jumping back to my friend at the wine store, “Mr. 90 Points,” I have to point out that if he really is true to his belief that anything under 90 is not worthy of this shopping cart, then think of all the great wine he is going to miss out on. Scores of 85-89 are nothing to be ashamed of from most critics and honestly, on a 100 point scale, can any of us really tell the difference between these scores. I’ve tasted enough in group settings to realize that an 87 for one person is a 91 for another person. What I call a 92 point wine could easily be a 96 or an 88 from another person. The same goes for the “experts.” They differ on opinions, so who should you trust?

5) I can’t find a rating or score for this wine!
If you can’t find a score for a wine from Wine Spectator, Decanter, The Wine Advocate or Jancis Robinson, then clearly, the wine is terrible and has no business ever sitting on anyone’e kitchen counter or table top. Quite likely, the wine was tasted and it scored a ZERO! Right? Well, not exactly…

You probably can’t find a rating because the wine wasn’t reviewed and there are many reasons why wineries and wine producers do not submit their wines to be reviewed and scored by the well known critics and publications, some of which I outlined in previous paragraphs. I can certainly understand why producers are skeptical of critics, their biases and their expertise.

Perhaps the winemaker has not given in to the “Parkerization” of the wine industry and has produced a wine that is soft and elegant instead of lush and bold and perhaps not to Mr. Parker’s taste. While confident in the quality of the wine, the winemaker is not confident that Mr. Parker (or some other critic) will give a review or a score that reflects the quality of the wine but rather a review that says whether or not he liked the wine and there is a difference between the two. As a result, many great wine producers take a pass on submitting their wines to critics. After all, how would you feel if your life’s work was all for nothing just because one person decided that they thought your product was only “so-so” and scored it only 83 points? In just one quick taste and few strokes of their pen, a wine critic with a large following can make or break a winery. Is that fair? Its sad to think that you could be missing out on what could be a fantastic wine experience, just because you can’t find a score from a critic. Believe me, there is a good reason for it.

Once again, I will admit that I will use a “Wine Spectator, 93 Points” or a “Robert Parker, 95 Points” to help sell a wine. I should also add that I don’t believe all critics are biased and I am not arguing that their reviews and scores are inaccurate… but if it were up to me, wine scores would come with a disclaimer:

WARNING: All this score does is show that one person tasted this wine and at that particular moment in time, they thought it was very good. It doesn’t mean that you will agree or even that you should agree with the opinion of the critic who rated this wine!


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