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Wine Scores – Do they help or hurt?

I read an article a couple of weeks ago by Stephen Meuse about the impact of wine ratings on the industry. I hadn’t really thought about some of the points, but I did know that I have questioned some of the “scores” I have seen on wines.

I have subscribed to Wine Spectator for a number of years as I have been trying to learn more about different wines, areas that produce wines and wineries since I am part of the food and beverage industry. I have clients that often ask about wine parings and what wines go with what. I hadn’t given much thought about the impact of the “100 point range” on myself and the industry.

I received my current issue of Wine Spectator (Jan 31-Feb 28, 2015) and towards the back was “The Year in Wine, 2014 in Review.” What caught me off guard when I looked at the article was the truth that Mr. Meuse stated about the 100 point scale not really being a 100 point scale.

Let me explain. Wine Spectator shows that for 2014, they tasted and scored 17,643 wines. Of these, less than 1% scored 50-79 (They didn’t even list less than 50) and 1% scored 95-100 or their “classic” range. This means that 98% of what scored ended up between 80 and 94 points, representing a 15 point range in reality. (The distribution was 31% @ 91-94, 57% @ 85-89 and 10% @ 80-84). While individual regions differed from this overall range, it is glaring that 88% of the wines score in a 10 point range, meaning a 1% change is a lot more significant that appears on the surface with the 100 point scale. (An Outstanding 94 points vs. Classic 95?) No individual region had over 1% in the less than 80 category a few regions had more than 1% in the classic range, most notably Portugal with 11% scoring 95-100 including the 2014 wine of the year.

In the Government Contracting world, a “Best Value Evaluation” allows some tradeoff in rating proposals. Likewise, I tend to use a Best Value when I look at new wines or wineries to try and if I can get a higher scoring wine for about the same price, I will tend towards the higher scoring wine. When I shop with someone who’s advice I trust (Locally for me, that’s the staff at the Wine Cellar or friends), I may not pay nearly as much attention to the scores. The real question is, knowing the expectations of the reviewers and their biases, are wine makers altering their wine making with a view to where a wine will score. Let’s face it, there are many people out there that won’t buy a wine unless it scores at least 90 points – and I would say that they are missing some really fabulous wines.

Our tastes in wine have changed over the years as we’ve had the opportunity to taste a lot of different wines and visit a lot of wineries. When you are out in Napa and Sonoma, you can visit the “big boys,” but I much prefer to find the smaller places – many of which you will not find in retail in Alabama because they don’t make enough to distribute. Sometimes, I’ve seen reviews of the wines we really like from California and WS scores them in the high 80’s and the wines from a winery just down the street above 90. Having tasted both of those at the wineries, I don’t always agree as I liked the lower scoring wine and thought it was better. Lori doesn’t like wines that are tannic – so a “classic” Napa Cab with big tannins will taste terrible to her – doesn’t make it a bad one, just one she doesn’t like.

As another example – one of the wines we featured in the “What Wine to Serve at Christmas” was the Kung Fu Girl Riesling. This wine has been well received and well reviewed. I bought some for myself to try. As Rieslings go, it was a very good one – it just so happened that I didn’t really like it. Does that mean it should be a low scoring wine? No – just one that I didn’t like.

The bottom line is that taste in wine and what people like are very personal and dynamic. Wines that taste great with food, might disappoint by themselves. Likewise, the professional tasters have their own personal likes and dislikes. My take away from all of this is that I can use the wine scores as a data point, but that alone is no way to select wines to try and enjoy.

What is your experience with wines and scores? What have you found that you like? I would love to hear your thought – simply comment below.

The picture includes some bottles from my cellar – a variety of big high scoring to some of our favorites.  One is a $12 bottle with a big 92 point tag on it – wines are now marketed by their scores in some cases….

Here are some sample reviews of “classic” wines from the current Wine Spectator Issue:

95 – “Showing an impressive backbone of acidity, this is dense and powerful, yet harmonious overall. The fine, creamy mousse swathes the statuesque frame in a silky texture, with honeysuckle, graphite and hazelnut notes lending fragrant accents to the rich palate of baked white peach, toasted brioche, lemon confit and smoke.”

98 – “Seductive, silky and supple, this red layers its gorgeous currant, plum, blueberry and spice flavors on a lithe frame, coming together harmoniously on the long expressive finish.”

97 – “Fragrant, with incense and sandalwood notes framing the core of cherry, accented by hints of leather, tobacco and tea. Exhibits purity and density despite the formidable tannins. The finish is long and complex, revealing fruit and spice elements.”

To be fair, Wine Spectator does highlight “Smart Buys” and “Best Values.” Often, these highlighted wines do have scores less than 90 points.

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