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What’s Up with the Scores?

Robert Parker, Jr.’s 100-point wine scoring system, which became popular in 1983 in his publication, The Wine Advocate, and adopted by the Wine Spectator in 1985, has been a homing beacon for consumers seeking to buy good wine and a marketing tool for producers touting their successes. Currently, every major United States-based wine critic, magazine, and internet wine review site uses the 100-point rating scale. This includes Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, the Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Allen Meadows‘ Burghound newsletter, and The Pinot Report. In the international scene, the respected English wine publication, Decanter, with half its readership outside the UK, re-launched their Buying Guide in 2012 to include a 100-point scale for the first time, dropping their old five-star system.

There are a number of misgivings about the 100-point system other than it is highly subjective, including the fact that there is no measurable difference in say, a rating of 90 versus 91. Also, scoring a wine may only matter to the person doing the scoring as we all have different tastes.

The reality is that the wine drinking public has come to rely on scores in choosing wines of quality and have become somewhat dependent on others to tell them what they might or should like. Consumers often pay little attention to the description of the wine which requires the most effort from the reviewer, instead focusing directly on the wine’s score.

A recent experience of mine confirms the current focus on scores that direct consumers’ wine purchasing decisions. My spouse and I were invited to a neighbor’s house for dinner recently. One of the hosts said she was serving a Tempranillo from Spain that she bought that day while shopping at Costco, and since it had received a score of 92, she thought it would be a good wine. When I asked her who had scored the wine, she had no clue. We know that women buy the most wine in this country and their decisions are often influenced by a posted score. She didn’t particularly like the wine, but I did, and therein lies the rub when it comes to scoring wine. That said, scores drive the marketplace and give the uninformed consumer some guidance in making purchasing choices.

The PinotFile has always been unique in that numerical scoring has been avoided. The emphasis has been on short, relevant tasting descriptions intended to guide the reader to styles of Pinot Noir they might enjoy. Exceptional wines were indicated by a Pinot Geek Icon, Very Good wines were considered distinctive and well-crafted, Good wines were solid, and Decent wines were undistinguished, but very drinkable. The same system was used for Chardonnay with a Gold Geek Icon substituting for the Pinot Geek Icon.

Beginning with this issue, I have decided to add the 100-point scoring system to my wine reviews. I have thought about making this transition for years, but only now feel I have enough experience to make my scoring judgments valid. Another consideration has been that wines that I have considered extraordinary and were awarded the Pinot Geek Icon did not receive the recognition they deserved. Wineries, distributors, retailers and others had no way to use the Pinot Geek Icon to signify the excellence of these wines. Finally, the scores will bring relevance to the PinotFile newsletter in the current scheme of critical and professional wine evaluation and education.

My new scoring guidelines are as follows: Extraordinary 94-100 (I have yet to have a 99 or perfect 100 point North American Pinot Noir and do not believe the perfect Pinot Noir has been made), Outstanding 90-93, Very Good 86-89, Good 80-85, and Decent 75-79. I do not publish scores for wines that are unsatisfactory or for wines that score less than 75 points since I cannot recommend them. I will continue to use the Pinot Geek Icon or Golden Geek Icon for wines rated as Extraordinary, and the Pinot Noir Value Icon and Chardonnay Value Icon for wines that offer an exceptional price/quality ratio. Generally, this will be a wine priced at or under $35 that offers the drinker varietal correctness as well as appealing aromatics, flavors and enough complexity to signify a bargain at the wine’s retail price. These wines often make very good daily drinkers. Occasionally, both the Pinot Geek Icon and Pinot Value icon will be awarded to a Pinot Noir that represents both an extraordinary drinking experience and a very good value.

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