what those scores really mean

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Many of you who check this blog know that I am also the designated Northwest reviewer for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. In fact, as the wine industry in this region has grown exponentially, my tasting responsibilities for the magazine have occupied more and more of my working week. Given that this is the only publication for which I score wines, as well as review them, I take the responsibility very seriously.

In challenging economic times, I know how a positive score can help, and a negative score can hurt. I balance that against the knowledge that no critic who wants to be taken seriously can be 100% positive all the time. I am often perceived as a cheerleader for the wines of Washington and Oregon, and to some degree that is true. But I am also a critic, and I hold these wines to a very high standard, because they have earned that respect.

Once I submit my reviews and scores to tasting director Joe Czerwinski, the magazine contacts each winery and alerts them to the scores their wines have received. They are given the opportunity to purchase a label graphic to go with the published review, but in no way does a purchase or non-purchase have any impact on the review or score.

Inevitably, once the wineries have received their scores, I start to get notes, which usually fall into one of two camps. There are the thank you for the great score notes (always appreciated!) and the I can't believe you gave us such a low score notes. The latter are entirely understandable. But it may help to put the numbers in a little different context.

First of all, if you are a winery, please realize that there is a written review that goes along with the scores. I do my best in those brief reviews to explain what I tasted and where I felt that the wine may have fallen short. In addition, the magazine publishes specific guidelines as to what the numerical categories mean. Here are those official guidelines:

About the Scores

Ratings reflect what our editors felt about a particular wine. Beyond the rating, we encourage you to read the accompanying tasting note to learn about a wine’s special characteristics.

Classic 98-100: The pinnacle of quality.
Superb 94-97: Highly recommended.
Excellent 90–93: Highly recommended.
Very Good 87–89: Often good value; well recommended.
Good 83–86: Suitable for everyday consumption; often good value.
Acceptable 80–82: Can be employed in casual, less-critical circumstances.

Wines receiving a rating below 80 are not reviewed.

So, what conclusions can be drawn here? I think it is important to understand that the recommended wines extend down to the 87 point-ers; and the good value wines go all the way down to 83 (if the price is right). Even the lowest published scores designate wines that are reasonably sound and drinkable; usually simple and sometimes a bit pricey for the quality, but fine for every day.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
Great post today. I also feel some context would be valuable as well. For example, out of x number of wines tasted/reviewed, x number were below 80, 80+. 90+ and so on. Your thoughts?

MagnumGourmet said...

I respect your idealism...
However, I would say that the title of this post realistically should have been "What those score really SHOULD mean". I believe that most consumers utilize the 10 point scale to the detriment of those wines in the 85-89 range.

Larry Olson said...


Maybe it is just the cynic in me, but for the last long while, I have taken scores at face value in the major wine press. Maybe it is simply ignorance on my part with regards to the process of tasting and scoring. I'm not sure. But once I had the experience with the Speculator and Twomey a number of years back and it received like an 82 or some dang thing after previously receiving a 90-something the previous vintage, I have taken them all with a grain of salt. Mind you, I didn't experience the vintage fall off that was apparent to the taster, but not myself or other palates I trust.

O do, however, think that, if nothing else, they can be useful for new wine drinkers. Just for benchmarking wines that aren't complete plonk. If there is a consensus of 88-91 points on a wine by numerous publications, you can be fairly certain that the wine is at the very least drinkable. Your palate may disagree once open and sipping, but it should be a well made wine in any case. Value and the like is a completely different topic in my mind.

I tend to ignore scores at this point as I have dialed in many of the consistent producers that I enjoy and have a number of trustworthy friends and palates to recommend new and different producers to expand my horizons with.

Like I said, I'm cynical. =)

PaulG said...

Anon – I appreciate your thinking, but not being a number cruncher I don't have the headroom (or time) to do the math. On a gut level, very few wines are below 80 (not rated); most are 85 - 88; a fair number are 90 - 92; and after that it really thins out. Magnum – you are absolutely right. Maybe I'll just change it! Larry – I don't think you are a cynic. The wide range in scores can be the result of many unpredictables: different reviewers, different bottles, different time, etc. etc. It ain't rocket science!!!!!

Anonymous said...


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