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Rating Wines: Is a 94-Point Wine Better Than an 88-Point Wine?
By Michael Apstein
Sep 22, 2015
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I hate the 100-point scale for rating wines. Of course, I use it, like the vast majority of wine writers, because it has become the standard scale and because many consumers expect and embrace it.  My dislike is really not with 100-point scale itself, but rather the way many consumers use it, which goes something like this:  Plug in the name of the latest 90+ point wine on wine-searcher.com and find the cheapest place in the country who allegedly is selling it. If you live in most states--Bingo!--the wine will appear on your doorstep in a matter of days.  It’s all very appealing.   But let’s drill a little deeper.

Looking at all those retail “shelf-talkers” prominently proclaiming this wine’s or that wine’s score, you’d be excused if you thought the “number” was the only information you needed when selecting a wine.  But what does the point score really mean?  Is a 94-point wine “better” than an 88-point wine?  Well, as in most things about wine, it depends. 

The Applause Meter

Robert Whitley, my friend and colleague here at WRO and someone who has the requisite decades of experience tasting and evaluating wines, has the best definition of the 100-point scale.  To him, and to those of us who believe he’s absolutely correct, the scale represents an applause meter.  It’s how much, for whatever reason, he likes the wine.  But to interpret that kind of scoring, the consumer needs to know the context of the wine--is it a fabulously enjoyable Beaujolais or a serious young Bordeaux?  So when I score a Beaujolais 90+ points, it’s because I think it’s a wonderful expression and example of Beaujolais.  I am definitely not comparing it to a 90+ point Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa Valley Cabernet, all of which will have a tougher time reaching that number because they come from more prestigious terroir.  I’m clapping loudly because that Beaujolais--for what it is--represents a noteworthy wine that consumers will love.  It would be a rare Beaujolais that I’d give more than 95 points to because in my view, truly outstanding wines need the ability the evolve and develop with bottle age, something Beaujolais rarely accomplishes.

The plethora of 2010 Barolos or Brunellos that I’ve been scoring at 90 plus points are truly great wines that deserve to be in the cellar of everyone who loves and appreciates great Italian wine.  But note, I said “in the cellar,” because none of them are ready to drink now--but, boy, are they fabulous young wines.  There’s the context--young wines.  Pull the cork now on one of those 95-point wines and your dinner guests will be sorely disappointed.  Your guests will get more enjoyment from a Barolo from a less revered vintage, perhaps even made by a less talented producer--a 87-point wine when it was released--that is mature and whose tannins have melted away.

Absolute Scale

Other critics use the scale--or say they do--as some kind of an absolute ruler.  With that interpretation a 95-point Beaujolais would be as noteworthy as a 95-point Burgundy, if such a Beaujolais existed.  With their scale, my 90-point Beaujolais might register only 85 points.  Which is a better wine?  That 95-point Burgundy or the 85-point Beaujolais?  Well, that’s another instance in which…“it depends.”  If the temperature and humidity were fighting each other to reach into the 90s, I would say that the Beaujolais, which I can plunge into an ice bucket for 30 minutes, is the “better” wine, especially if I’m devouring hamburgers or grilling chicken with a touch of barbeque sauce.  So in this case, the context, not the point score, determines which wine is “better.”  The number becomes far less significant.  Similarly, with whom you are drinking the wine modulates your perception of the quality.  That rosé on a terrace overlooking the beach with your spouse or significant other might just be the “best” 83-point wine in the world. 

The Setting is Key

Another “detail” rarely mentioned with the numerical rating is the setting in which the critic evaluated the wine.  Was the wine tasted in a marathon session in which 100+ wines were evaluated over a couple of hours?  In such a setting, wines with subtlety often get overlooked and tightly wound wines that need time to blossom are at a disadvantage.  This point was dramatically driven home to me a couple of years ago when I was judging on the Burgundy panel for the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.  One of the reasons this competition is so highly regarded is that the judges assess only 60-70 wines over the course of a day, which means that the judges can give young wines from prestigious appellations the time they deserve.  When we were presented with a flight of a dozen or so Grand Cru Chablis from the excellent 2012 vintage, they were closed and unexpressive.  But, as expected of young Grand Cru white Burgundy, these wines opened and evolved with time.  Our assessment of the wines was dramatically different comparing notes and scores from our initial impression to those after we studied the flight for about an hour. 

Critic Variation

If the setting in which wines were evaluated is rarely reported, the mood of the critic is never revealed.  Did he or she just have a fight with his or her spouse before tasting a flight of wines?  On occasion, I’ll taste a flight of wines, none of which seem appealing, and wonder whether the wines are lacking or whether I’m failing to appreciate them.  One of the reasons Robert Parker’s reviews were so credible is that he often reported how many times he had tasted a particular wine and whether his notes were consistent.  “Bottle variation”--two bottles of the same wine that taste different--is a well-known variable in wine appreciation.  “Critic variation” is rarely acknowledged.

Don’t Be a Slave to a Number

One solution to the wine-rating problem is to find a retailer who doesn’t sell by the numbers.  Their ranks are certainly smaller in this numbers-based Internet economy than 20 years ago, but believe me, they still exist.  These are people who taste wines all the time, visit producers and spend time in wine producing areas.  They can put the wines they taste into a context.  They know what Sancerre, Chablis, or Napa Cabernet should taste like. 
From growing up outside of Washington, DC, living in Boston and spending considerable time in New York, I know wine retailers in those cities best.  Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston, Phil Minervino’s team at Lower Falls Wine Company, Robert Harkey at Harkey’s Fine Wine, or Marty’s (all located just outside of Boston) are retailers who consistently give good advice. In New York City, Martin Granne at Garnet Wine and Spirits has a superb palate and rarely recommends a dud.  Astor Wine and Spirits or Chambers Street Wines, both in lower Manhattan, and Zachys Wine and Liquor in Westchester have knowledgeable staffs that rarely lead you astray. In Washington, DC, Mark Wessels and his team at MacArthur Beverages and the team at Calvert Woodley Wine & Spirits unfailingly give superb recommendations.  In San Francisco, David Netzer at the Wine House and the team at K & L Wine Merchants always give spot-on advice. And, of course, Kermit Lynch, also in the Bay area, is renowned for his advice. 

Polling colleagues here at WRO, I came up with other retailers around the country who recommendations focus on their own assessments rather than just following point scores: In San Diego, Robert Whitley was quick to suggest The WineSeller & Brasserie, The Wine Bank, and the 3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro. Paul Lukacs praised Baltimore’s The Wine Source, while Rebecca Murphy suggested Garagiste and McCarthy & Schiering as gems in Seattle.  Since she spent many years in Portland, Oregon and Dallas, she advised consumers there to head to Liner & Elsen Wine Merchants and E&R Wine Shop (both located in Portland, Oregon) and Pogo’s Wine & Spirits in Dallas for thoughtful suggestions.

Another solution is to follow the recommendations of a critic you trust or whose tastes are parallel to yours.  Just remember to look past the number and read the review.  The point score is a good starting point, but advice from a reliable retailer or a trusted critic is better.

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September 23, 2015

E-mail me your thoughts about rating wines or your favorite retailer at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein