selling the score

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The eagerly-awaited annual review of Washington wines in the Wine Advocate has arrived, and the blizzard of tweets and Facebook posts indicates a lot of very positive scores. I am going to take a day or two to digest the full report, before weighing in with my own comments. But I couldn’t help but notice that, despite years and years of hearing protests from folks in the wine industry about how consumers rely upon scores to make purchasing decisions, when they should trust their palates, it is those in the industry who trumpet the scores first, longest and loudest. Very few of these posts even mention the verbiage; it’s all about the numbers.

I have described at great length my own feelings about the 100 point scale. In the first edition of my book (Washington Wines & Wineries – the Essential Guide) I even went so far as to re-design the scale along broader, more complex parameters. Based on the feedback I got, I decided to abandon that somewhat quixotic effort in the new, revised edition of the book, which is officially out today. This new book goes to a simpler, star-based formula, while retaining the critical guidelines used before. But the 100 point scale, for all of its limits, flaws, and detractors, seems to have acquired a life and power all its own. And yes, I have scored thousands and thousands of wines for the Wine Enthusiast, and will happily continue to do so. The magazine gives me (and all its tasting panel reviewers) absolute autonomy and fully respects our capabilities and conclusions. There is never, and never has been, any pressure whatsoever to change or re-consider a review or a score.

I have found, over the years, that the system offers consumers and the trade a lot of plusses. I work very hard – perhaps too hard – on the words that go along with my numbers. Many publications use formulaic templates to crank out their reviews. Wine Enthusiast does not, and each reviewer has his or her own regions of specialization and style of writing.

An interesting sidenote: a press release from the Naples (Florida) Winter Wine Festival brought this lot to my attention:

“A lot called Perfection that consists of 100 different bottles of wine rated by wine experts at 100 points (the highest rating possible) will be a first-of-its-kind lot ever to be auctioned. Among the extraordinary bottles in the lot are a 1955 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion and a 1989 Chateau Pétrus. A 1985 DRC Romanée-Conti, considered by wine experts to be the best Burgundy ever made, is included and valued at more than $11,000. The vast majority of the wines in the Perfection Lot received 100-point ratings from noted wine expert Robert M. Parker Jr.’s The Wine Advocate, with the remainder given 100 points by Wine Spectator. A list of the 100 bottles in the Perfection Lot and details about each auction lot will be available on the festival’s website beginning in October.”

I surmise that my 100-pointer, the Royal City Syrah from Charles Smith, isn’t included, since the organizers have chosen to use only Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator ratings. Still, an interesting auction item, and one that will put a relevant price tag on such esoteric wines.


Anonymous said...

points, eh? Still there? Wake me when there's no more scores to be found and writers start using their words to describe the wines they taste... yawn.

Rick TYler said...

I give this blog entry a 90...

DFW WA Wine Fan said...

As someone who was new to wine appreciation, but highly interested in Washington wines, I found your initial scoring system especially helpful in allowing me to focus on wineries that you identified as having strengths of style and value. Eagerly anticipating your new edition!

Anonymous said...

On waking up when there are no wine score, Anonymous = Rip Van Winkle? :)

- douggator

Todd Hansen said...


Wine Enthusiast's Joe Czerwinski had a fascinating post earlier this year after you wrote your "Dreaded 89" post.

Now, I'm not a statistician (especially when it comes to wine) but this bell curve had me thinking .... should the reviewers post their bell curves? Does WE ever provide you with statistics on your reviews compared to other reviewers? How would, e.g., your bell curve compare to the competing publications and reviewers? It would be doubly interesting to compare reviews of different varietals/regions to those of peers - does one reviewer really like cabernet while another shows bias for syrah? Does one reviewer typically rate Chardonnays lower than another?

Granted the ratings are those of the individual reviewers, but if we're turning it into a numbers game, lets have more tools to help us understand those numbers!

Also, I have a question. I'm curious about revisiting scores - for example if all your peers give a wine a score in the mid-90s and you arrive at an 88, would you re-taste to see if you had an off bottle? I note that sometimes the reviewers indicate "Tasted twice with similar results" or some such phrasing (and I seem to notice this when the wine performs above or below my expectations). Do some established wineries ever request a re-taste?

PaulG said...

Todd, Joe C keeps a lot of stats, but I have not seen the sort of breakout you propose. I agree it would be very interesting, and I will pass the suggestion on to him. My own year-end wrap (PG Top 100 published in the Seattle Times) seems to show a "bias" toward WA Syrahs – they score disproportionately high relative to other wines. I am not sure why this is. On a personal level, I don't drink as much Syrah as I drink Cabs, Merlots, Chiantis and blended reds. But I sure like the way they show when I'm reviewing. On occasion I'll pop a second bottle (if it's available) but only if there is some sort of flaw in the first bottle. Re-taste requests come in, but the most illuminating re-tastes come about naturally, as when I'm invited to do a vertical. Then I can go back a revisit wines after a significant amount of time has passed, and see what my original notes/scores were. I've posted such notes here on this blog from time to time.

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