Wine Ratings: What's the Point and Should You Pay Attention?

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Yes. You should.

Although a lot of recent articles say you shouldn’t, most of these seem to be about attention-grabbing headlines like “Why You Should Ignore Wine Ratings,” rather than offering readers good information.

Whether you call them ratings, scores, or points, wine "grading" isn't going away any time soon. But you can, and should, use the information to your benefit. In Part 1 of my two-part series, I'll explain why rating systems were created, how various types of publications approach tastings differently and why reviewers don’t always agree with each other.

Wine ratings were created to more effectively and consistently communicate a wine’s overall quality level.

Until the mid-1970’s, most wine reviews were written by wine sellers. Much of the writing was quite good, but it left people wondering whether or not the seller provided a truly objective opinion.

Inspired by Consumer Reports, Robert Parker tried to remedy that by starting a wholly independent newsletter focused on evaluating, but not selling, wine. Like Consumer Reports, he included wine scores to communicate relative quality more effectively than can be done with words alone.

It’s true. Numerical ratings or scores can’t communicate very much about a wine, but neither do words like “good,” “best,” and “great.” Scores were never intended to tell you everything you need to know. They are nearly always accompanied by a paragraph (or several) offering a tasting note, context and detail.

Wine ratings are no more, nor less, valid than ratings for many other types of products.

Perhaps because wine professionals, collectors, and general wine consumers have become dependent on ratings, the concept has come under more scrutiny and criticism than reviews for other products. People don’t complain much about ratings given to movies, whether they are rated with “stars,” “thumbs" or other systems.

On the other hand, a lot of people expect wine reviews to be consistent from one reviewer to the next, and to be identical for a given wine each time the same reviewer tastes it.

Like movie reviews, wine reviews are subjective in many ways. The tasting/viewing experience varies depending on where and when it happens, the reviewer’s background, point-of-view and even the mood of the reviewer during the evaluation.

Professional wine critics do their best to minimize subjectivity and to use consistent tasting methods. But there are always variables and, in the end, wine reviews involve the human senses. There is no computer (yet) that can even begin to evaluate the subtle nuances of wine in a way that would be helpful to consumers.

Why wine ratings differ between reviewers

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were widely considered excellent, expert movie reviewers. Week after week, year after year, they watched new releases and argued about them on TV. Siskel and Ebert disagreed all the time. Their audience enjoyed and learned from their discussions.

So why do we get our corks in a bunch when wine reviewers disagree?

Professional wine reviewers are usually highly skilled with a wealth of experience. But, just like everyone, they are people with unique palates, experiences, points of view and preferences.

Often there is a general consensus between reviewers on any given wine, but there will always be some difference of opinion. Sometimes even from the exact same reviewer. Unlike blenders, power drills, cars and most other products, wine changes with time—often dramatically. It can also taste different depending on variations in temperature, humidity, etc.

When critics taste barrel samples, the wines aren’t finished. Critics make an educated estimate of how the wine will develop in coming months. Once in bottle, wine continues to develop. Tannins soften and integrate. Fruit emerges and recedes. Complexity increases and decreases. For the most part, if a reviewer changes his or her rating on a wine, it’s because the wine has changed.

Professional Wine Review Methodologies

Individual reviewers may have their own tasting “routine”, but typically they adhere to a core set of professional standards and best practices. These standards can vary a bit, depending on where the wine review will be published.

Reviewers for magazines, such as Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast, almost always taste wines for review without knowing the identity of the wines. A very general price range—i.e. above or below $15—the variety of the wine, and the region are often the only information provided. This is called “tasting blind.”

Tasting wine blind is thought to be more objective since it removes the bias of familiarity with specific labels, relationships with producers, and price points. It’s a good way to find bargains and to see how $150 wines stack up against $80 wines. Since magazines take advertising, blind tasting also helps consumers (and producers) have more confidence that ratings are based on wine quality, not advertising dollars.

Newsletter/website reviewers, such as those at Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and Antonio Galloni’s Vinous Media may or may not taste blind. They will even taste with the winemaker. That’s because these reviewers are looking to provide more than a short review and a score.

These types of publications don’t serve casual wine buyers. The readers are serious collectors who want to know details about how each wine from a given producer varies and why, how this vintage is different from the last vintage, etc. To provide all that context, it helps to know what the wine is and be able to ask questions while tasting. The writers expect you to read the whole article, not just their score.

You can see Wine Advocate tasting policies and scoring guide here. Antonio Galloni explains his scoring and tasting methods for Vinous Media here. Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits Magazine have their tasting policies online too.

*Note: I am a wine reviewer myself and also participate in Wine & Spirits tasting panels.

Why should I listen to critics instead of my go-to wine guy or gal?

 There are a lot of reasons to rely on your wine seller, who can typically offer you information and guidance that wine critics cannot. The main benefits are:

  • They are (or should be) very knowledgeable about the particular wines in their selection.
  • They can ask questions to help you find the type or style of wine you’re looking for.
  • They get valuable feedback on wines directly from the people buying and drinking them.
  • They taste a lot of really great wine never submitted for critical review.

 Having those discussions and building a relationship with someone who can guide you, such as your Wine Specialist at JJ Buckley, is extremely valuable. Used in conjunction with ratings and information from reviewers, who spend a significant amount of time tasting and visiting their regions of specialty (often over decades), gives you a more complete picture.

Be sure to check out Part 2 - Wine Ratings: What Do They Mean and How Do I Use Them?

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.