The omnipresent wine score has long intrigued me, and as such I’ve sought to understand why critics have given certain wines certain scores. I’ve had many mixed feelings about these numbers, so I needed to write this to get it off of my chest.
I still can’t get over Wine Spectator’s #1 wine of 2009: the Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. That decision made me lose faith in the scoring system entirely and it hasn’t been restored as of yet. However, despite my reservations about the reviewers and their reviews, I do believe that scores are a good thing. You just need to remember that a high score alone does not mean that you personally will love the wine.
Here’s an explanation of the 100-point scale that most reviewers use today. This is Wine Spectator’s score card, which will give you an idea of what the reviewers mean with their scores.
|95–100||Classic, a great wine.|
|90–94||Outstanding, a wine of superior character and style.|
|80–89||Good to very good, a wine with special qualities.|
|70–79||Average, a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws.|
|60–69||Below average, drinkable but not recommended.|
|50–59||Poor, undrinkable, not recommended.|
If a wine receives a score of 88 points or higher, the winery will begin to claim bragging rights; below that score you won’t see it mentioned. In Chicago’s retail wine industry a wine that scored over 90 points was an easy sell. A high score makes a consumer feel warm and fuzzy—especially if the wine ends up costing less then $20—but it’s no guarantee that the consumer will actually enjoy the wine. A large segment of the wine-drinking population will get intimidated by a high-scoring beverage and won’t trust their own palate, deferring instead to what the critics think. I do feel that scores are a great tool, but I come across more and more of these 90 point wines and I just ask myself: “Who tasted this wine and scored it as Outstanding?”
I tasted a Carneros Chardonnay in Sonoma Square yesterday and the man pouring his wine was bragging about the 90-point score they received from The Wine Enthusiast. Always interested in tasting good wine (and curious about scores), I gave a swirl, a sniff…and a grimace. The nose was pure oak, vanilla, and butterscotch with just hints of banana, guava, and apple. The palate confirmed the nose, while adding softened margarine to the mix. Most of these tasting notes are a result of what the winemaker did to manipulate the wine; the varietal expression came second. When you encounter wines like this (whether you love oaked and buttered wines or not), the wine is very much out of balance. How could this be labeled a 90 pointer?
Because I do think that this type of rating is not the norm—although I am coming across it more frequently—I still love a good score. You should always defer to your own palate. Just because Tom Collichio likes his steak cooked rare (and so do I), it doesn’t mean that you’ll like it the same way. You should have faith in what you love in wine just as you have in your favorite foods, restaurants, clothing, etc. My advice to you is to put a wine’s region of origin into your memory bank. This can guide you to more wines you may like.
It’s also a good idea to keep track of descriptors: do you like or dislike spice (pepper, cinnamon, allspice, etc.)? Do you like wines that are jammy, or more subtle? Do you like earthy wines? Do you like red fruits, black fruits, oak, herbs or floral notes? All these adjectives can help you identify what you like or what you don’t like and help you narrow down what you will like again. I always jot down the names of wines in my phone with a couple of tasting notes and the region it hails from. This way, I can always access it at a restaurant or wherever I may be, and a good sommelier or retailer can take my notes and point me in the right direction.
My wine ratings are as follows for my customers. I wouldn’t sell anything I didn’t deem as good quality, so my ratings start at:
- Mood altering, life changing, transcendent, unforgettable (unfortunately, this typically costs the most)
Wine writer Maggie Bernat Smith contributes to the Strongbox blog each Friday.