How We Rate Wines (and Other Things)

How We Rate Wines (and Other Things)

how we rate wines


Note: the bulk of this article is an accompanying chart that compares the major scoring systems now used, from 3 stars to 100 point scales (see it online here).

If you watched the movie Mondovino, you may have come away with the impression that the 100 point rating wine rating system is the root of all evil. But what about all the other wine rating systems? Are they evil as well? Of course they’re evil! But more of a necessary evil than a vast dark conspiracy. With a few prominent exceptions – Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Robin Garr come to mind – all wine writers use them in one form or another. Take a look and judge for yourself.

I'm a recent convert to the 5 star system from the 100 point system. Why? I swear it has nothing to do with a recent move from the US to the UK (so I don’t want to hear any “dude, why do you hate your country?” comments). Instead, it's because I found myself spending too much time dwelling on meaningless distinctions such as: "is it an 88 or an 89, etc." I then swore off ratings altogether aside from putting one star or two stars on notes of wines I found exceptional. After doing this for a few years, the Eureka moment struck: “why not just use a 5 star system?” I like the 5 star scale because of its simplicity but don’t feel strongly enough about it to fiercely defend it.

It just seems that debates over wine rating systems resemble PC vs. Mac arguments: they just don’t go anywhere. The choice of a rating scale is just as personal as the act of rating wines; at the end of the day they’re simply useful tools and not declarations of political affiliation.

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  • I think the question of ratings revolves not so much around the system as it does the intent of the person making the rating and the perception of the person reading (and perhaps heeding) that rating.

    I object (as do many other wine lovers I have spoken with through the years) to the idea that ratings are somehow scientific and capable of being repeated time after time by the same rater or group of raters. This is why I object in principle to Parker and The Spectator ratings — they purport to be objective and not subjective, and I believe that concept to be theoretically and practically impossible. Our noses, mouths, and brains are not laboratory instruments. Absolute numbers (95/100) tend to convey the thought that these scores are as objective as our medical numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, or PSA — and even these will fluctuate according to the circumstances!

    I have no objection to writers and others who make ratings that are clearly stated to be recommendations based on their preferences and palates. “My name is John Doe, and according to what I like and how I taste, I rate this wine as three out of four stars.”

    As a wine writer who contributes to Saveur, Drinks, Sommelier News, Beverage Media and other publications, my personal objective is to get readers interested in or intrigued by whatever my topic happens to be. I want them to share an experience or perhaps reflect on a different concept or a new approach or to be amused for a few moments. Sometimes, I will write sidebars with recommendations and descriptions, but not ratings.

    As a judge at wine competitions, I do use whatever rating system presented me, but I know that these ratings will not be published and that they will be blended in with those of other judges. With these ratings, we are in essence saying, “A group of people who drink a lot of wine and have some experience in tasting liked this wine or these wines best.” That’s not absolute or scientific, but in may be helpful in guiding people to try what we liked and then decide whether they like it and how much or how little.

    Roger Morris

    Roger Morris on
  • steve,
    really liked your view on judging and rating systems.
    taking it to the next level; i now use the cranky ol guy system…..
    do i like it———————if yes, go on…..

    would i use my own money to buy it————————— if yes, tasting is over! if no, back to the beginning with the next wine!
    frank stone on
  • I have tried to be practical about wine tasting notes and the inevitable wine rating system that goes with it. I have ended up with five categories, hence, I guess I am in the Broadbent-Decanter-WSJ grouping.

    First, a note about terminology: I used the word “inevitable” just now because, once you have acquired a big pile of TNs, it is irresistable to try to categorize and make some kind of order out of them.

    Onward: I think certain categories are natural for consumables, including wines. Those are:

    1. items that are spoiled, rotten, or unutterably foul in some way
    2. items that are perfectly sound but boring
    3. items that are fun to consume
    4. items that are exciting to consume

    The sharp-eyed observer will note that the latter three categories are based upon my pleasure/interest in the wine, not any claim of universality or objectivity.

    The fifth category is based on money: Alas, but I have a limited wine budget, and I look to my big ol’ heap of TNs to guide me in maximizing the amount of pleasure I can get for my $$$. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not going to buy anything that is ‘spoiled’ or ‘boring’. It is equally clear that I would consider re-buying everything that is ‘exciting’. But the vast number of ‘fun’ wines needs to be trimmed… some were more fun than others… some were good values and make me feel like a Super Shopper or a Legendary Palate-Picker…. So, the fifth category comes from dividing #3 into two parts:

    3a. wines that are fun to drink
    3b. wines that are fun to drink and I would like to buy again


    Jeff Grossman on
  • Thanks, Fred. Perhaps the most disingenuous thing about the 100 point system is that it isn’t done completely blind. Before a sip is taken, the basic lineup of the tasting is pretty much known to the taster or tasters ( ie. Classed Bordeaux, Super Chateauneufs, Blockbuster California Cab. Sauvs, etc). Rest assured that no one is recreating the famous 1976 Paris Tasting every week. Or as Michael Broadbent likes to say, looking at a label can make anyone an expert.

    Steve De Long on
  • Yo Steve, I’ve been out of town on business and now that I’m back and checking email, I see that you’ve started something new with your “moments.”

    nice job; I myself haven’t really used a point or star or any type of system, I just say that I like it or I say that I don’t and then other times I say it’s okay. So, I guess that’s my point system. Good article on the Sauvignon Blanc. SB is one of my Summer favorites and I was amused by the article by the other writer. I guess we who enjoy SB can give him “the finger.”

    Regards to the familia and my date says hello.


    Pedro Rosario on
  • Thanks, Eric.

    It’s strange how many people in the financial world – who are major consumers of expensive wines – get seriously caught up in the ratings. Especially since they know the dubiousness of ratings in their own field. It’s really a conveinent fiction most that people buy into even if it’s not healthy to their wallet. The big reviewers aren’t blind to this fact either (just listen to Suckling in Mondovino!) That’s exactly why I would prefer it if more people would adopt less precise systems to help devalue the currency of the 100 pointers.

    Steve De Long on
  • Steve,

    You’ve really developed a lot of traffic and interest here. Congratulations!

    Ratings are of so much interest because of their effect on producers, markets and consumers. The turnover and availability of a $ 45 New World Pinot Noir will vary greatly on whether it receives an 89 or a 92. Yet there are only three points between the scores. That is the effect of the 100 point scale. Minute differences in scores move the market, increasing/decreasing price and availability. High scores are critical to financial success for wine producers. Thus the entire wine world from the vine to bottle has modified their practices to garner better scores. When we talk about systems based on stars, etc. basically we are suggesting systems that are less precise and will thus have less of a dramatic impact on the market either way.

    My guess is that most of us have gotten caught up in the hype of scores at one time or another and have regretted it. When we talk about scoring systems I think we need to be honest and admit that more than having a philosophical discussion we are really having a political and economic one that affects us personally as wine consumers.

    Eric Lecours on
  • Hi Pedro,
    Thumbs up or down is definitely the most efficient system and one I’ve used many times!

    Steve De Long on
  • Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for sharing your very well-explained system. However, on a technical note, 5 star systems have 6 categories as “no stars” is the lowest level. Splitting a level also seems to be the birth of a bond-rating style system. I’ll definitely need to do another expanded rating system comparison sheet.

    Steve De Long on
  • Hi Eric,
    Thanks for that — a very practical system!

    Steve De Long on

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