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The Problem of Wine Ratings
By Ed McCarthy
Jul 13, 2022
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All methods of personal wine ratings are imperfect.  When someone rates a particular wine bottle on that day, the rating reflects how that person felt about that bottle at that time.  When you consider variation of bottles, sometimes even from the same case, storage of various bottles, how the rater was feeling that day, what food was taken if any, and so forth, you understand the difficulties of rating wines.  At best, any wine rating should be considered a general estimate of the wine’s ability to please you.

In this column I will discuss three general methods of wine rating.  The method popularized by the wine writer Robert Parker several decades ago is the 100-point rating scale; this method is clearly the most popular one—at least in the U.S., but it is also used throughout the wine world.  In practice, however, the 100-point scale is more like a 20-point scale, or even a 15-point scale.  How often do you see a wine being rated a 77 or 78, or even an 81?  One can argue that why would a wine writer mention a wine he or she doesn’t like, since he is supposed to be recommending wines?  And perhaps the writer doesn’t want to offend the producer, for various reasons—such as the producer or distributor will stop sending him free samples.

Some writers seem to use mainly high ratings when writing about wines.  I call this type of writer “High-Ratings Harry” (or Harriet—but it seems to me that at least 90 percent of wine writers are males, at least in the U.S.—which is not necessarily a good thing).  Often, I see what I consider to be an average wine rated a 98 or 99; my reaction usually is, “What is he kidding me, giving that wine a 98??”

The bottom line is—you must trust the opinion of the person giving the wine rating.

A second method of wine rating, popularized mainly by British and other European writers, but not used so much anymore, is the 20-point rating system.  The problem with this rating method is that, in practice, it is really a 5-point rating system; just about all wines are rated between 15 to 19.  But how many wines can you rate 17 or 18 in one column?  Some writers have resorted to half-points, such as 17.5 or 18.5.  It seems kind of inappropriate to be so precise as to use half-points in wine ratings.  It is no surprise that the 20-point rating method is not so popular anymore.

The third method of wine rating is to use words rather than numbers to rate wines.  This method has been used in the past.  It seems to make more sense to me to describe wines with a word-rating rather than a precise number.  We talk and think in words, not numbers. 

The word-rating system would be something like this, from top to bottom, with the evaluative words being equivalent on a 100-point scale to the numbers that follow them:

OUTSTANDING:  98 to100
EXCELLENT:  96 to 97
VERY GOOD:  93 to 95
GOOD:  90 to 92
FAIR to GOOD:  86 to 89               
FAIR:  80 to 85
POOR:  Below 80

Practically speaking, the “Outstanding” rating would be reserved for very few wines; likewise, the “Poor” rating would seldom be used; in today’s wine world, with all the current knowledge of winemaking, very few poor wines are being produced.

I feel very comfortable about using the word-rating above.  I can discuss the reasons for my rating using words.  Although I am currently basically using a 100-point scale, I will begin to use the word-rating system, and see how my readers react to it.

The following paragraphs are an illustration of my own personal experience about the variability of wines:

In the late 1970s, I had the privilege of drinking a great red Burgundy at a friend’s wine tasting.  It was the 1966 Romanée-Conti; this wine (in just about any vintage in which it is produced), is regarded by many wine writers as the best Red Burgundy that is produced.  Its aroma was so fragrant that I could smell it from another room.  Along with a 1928 Krug Champagne that I once tasted, this was my greatest wine-tasting experience.  Several months later, I managed to purchase a 1966 Romanée-Conti.  I don’t remember the price, but it was very expensive, of course, even at that time.  I was surprised to find that the ’66 Romanée-Conti that I purchased was merely very good, but not off the charts as the 1966 that I had tasted at a friend’s house.  I learned the hard way about the variability of wine tasting, even at the very highest levels of excellence.  

By the way, in case you are considering buying a Romanée-Conti now, the current average price for one bottle of the 2019 is $42,000; the 2018 can be purchased for a mere $28,000.  The 1966, which I discussed, is going for $13,660.  Yes, ridiculous, I know—all well-beyond what I would pay for one bottle of wine.  I bet the DRC producers are in no hurry to sell their Romanée-Conti wines (the world’s most expensive wines); the price will only increase with age.  Romanée-Conti’s sister wine, La Tache, which some Burgundy enthusiasts consider as good as Romanée-Conti, has an average price of $7,000 in the 2016 vintage.

Most of the wines of Domaine de La Romanée-Conti today are only for extremely wealthy customers.  But thankfully, there are still some very good wines from all over the world available at reasonable prices.

My conclusion is that a word-rating method of describing or recommending wines makes more sense to me than a point-score method.        

More wine columns:     Ed McCarthy