How do Critics Come Up with Wine Scores?
This is one of the most debated topics in the wine industry, especially in social media, including blogs, where the mysteries of wine reviewing are a constant source of interest and, sometimes, rebuke. So I thought I’d give a little background, after more than 20 years as a critic — and within the context of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay recently getting the highest score (91 points) it has ever received from Wine Enthusiast Magazine, for the 2013 vintage.
The concept of the 100-point wine scoring system was invented by the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker, for his newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Following its widespread success, the system was adopted by other publications, including Wine Spectator, Wine and Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast. I used it during my years at Enthusiast, which ended in March, 2014, when I came to Jackson Family Wines.
Most publications using the 100-point system publish their guidelines for its use, explaining what it is, and what it is not. At Wine Enthusiast, for example, we never rated anything lower than 80 points. If a wine scored lower than that, it was consigned to the depths of our database, where the public would never see it. It seemed like a matter of basic fairness, not to publish a score so horrible, it could damage the winery’s reputation.
Wines that were acceptable, we scored between 80-82 points. If they were a step above that — good — they got between 83-86 points. If they were very good, they scored between 87-89 points. Wines that were excellent got between 90-93 points. If they were superb, we scored them between 94-97 points. And, at the pinnacle, if they were classic, they earned between 98-100 points. Of course, we defined those terms, in the Buying Guide of the magazine. I always wrote that the best way to taste and review wines was in blind tastings, the larger the better, but only up to a point; in my last years as a critic, I chose not to taste more than 25 or 30 wines at a single sitting, in order not to tire my palate.
The precise methodology will differ at different publications, of course, but in general, each wine critic works more or less the same way. They look at the wine, sniff it, swirl it, sip it and evaluate, gradually forming lasting impressions in their minds. At some point, the evaluation process ceases, and then they do two things: determine a permanent score, and write the review. Wine critics try very hard to make the relationship between score and review logically consistent. It would be odd, for instance, to read that a wine was stupendously good and then see it get 83 points. Likewise, it would be strange for the wine to be described as a decent everyday sipper and then get 98 points!
Although every system of wine reviewing has its advantages and disadvantages, the 100-point system resonates with the American public. That’s why it’s not going away anytime soon. What do you think of it? We’d love to hear your opinions or questions.
Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.
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