Wine rating: It’s all in a number, or is it really? | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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Wine rating: It’s all in a number, or is it really?

Pouring red wine in glass goblet isolated on white

In March, I expressed my less-than-flattering opinion of the usefulness – or not – of wine ratings, specifically Wine Spectator. My opinion – all my articles include my opinions – was not well-received in New York. Perhaps I should have explained that I feel the same way about most wine reviews and ratings, not just theirs. The 100-point rating system really bugs me for a number of reasons we will explore together.

Let’s consider a wine rated 89 points as opposed to 90. That one-point difference can place that wine in a dimmer light in the minds of some consumers. Many stores and restaurants only post ratings in the 90s. And let’s face it, when you read a little further on how these ratings are done, you’ll ask yourself, “What’s the margin of error here?” It’s an approximately $13 billion industry where a one-point difference in a rating from a magazine with a global reach of more than 3 million readers can translate to an approximately 7 percent difference in sales. That’s an expensive – or profitable – one point.

Obviously, I am not the first to criticize wine ratings and I won’t be the last. The point system is under fire from a number of directions, and the editors are nervous. How wines are chosen to how they are submitted and tasted to the huge glossy full-page ads for highly rated wines found in wine publications all give me a little unease when looking at that number staring back at me from a liquor-store shelf.

Given all this, I decided to go behind the scenes to better defend my position, both to my critics and, more importantly, to myself. After a good deal of research on the controversial subject, I opted for a two-part article. My goal is to for you to pause and think when you see an unrated wine or one that isn’t rated quite as high as others. I would like my readers to explore other options for choosing new bottles in their wine explorations. I believe consumers need to trust their own senses and be a little more knowledgeable about what lies behind the curtain in the world of wine ratings.

There’s a whole bevy of guides, magazines, blogs and websites that rate and review wine. For my purposes, I’ve focused on two American magazines and two Italian wine guides: Wine Spectator, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Slow Wine and Gambero Rosso. Everyone is familiar with the former two American publications, but unless you’re an Italian wine lover such as me, the “red shrimp” guide is a mystery. Slow Wine is an entirely new guide and new approach to rating I find intriguing.

Until recently, Gambero Rosso and Slow Food were one. After the “divorce,” Slow Food produced its own publication – the Slow Wine guide – focusing on an emerging field that it helped to foster: “ecogastronomy,” the social, political and ethical issues surrounding the production of food. Slow Wine “looks beyond what is in the glass” and focuses on the overall quality of the producer, the winemaking and growing philosophy and the wine itself. This approach is a natural progression of the Slow Food philosophy. The wines are reviewed based on site visits to more than 2,000 Italian cellars and vineyards and from extensive interviews with winemakers and growers. Sounds much more informative than a number and a few of Parker’s 120-plus words to describe wines.

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In addition to the published and online guides, there are prestigious wine competitions where medals can translate into skyrocketing sales. But for the moment, let’s focus on these guides.

In support of the point system, editors claim their ratings are necessary to help consumers make good choices from the thousands of wines produced each year. That makes a good deal of sense if the rating is used as a starting point, not the criteria for buying. With more than 350 “authorized” varieties of grapes in 20 regions in Italy, a little help from a guide might be a good starting point. In the United States alone, there are more than 5,400 wineries. But far too often the absence of a listing in a guide is interpreted as a sign of poor quality. Far from it. It just means that from the tens of thousands of wines available, the journalists and experts have only tasted a fraction.

Wine Spectator, for example, employs a team of 15 to taste approximately 15,000 wines from across the globe each year. Gambero Rosso conducts three different tastings of 20,000 Italian wines, with each step weeding out wines. So much depends, too, on the winery’s importer, distributor or promoter to get their wines noticed. Small wineries have less to spend on marketing, particularly those in Italy where Euro subsidies have vanished and the double whammy of the high euro and poor economy has bitten hard into the bottom line. Because of their small productions, they struggle to be noticed in the market.

What do high school grades and wine-rating scales have in common? The 100-point system used to grade high school students was the inspiration for Robert Parker’s 100-point scale in the late 1970s. Parker, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a version of this scale. James Suckling, the former Tuscany-based European editor for Wine Spectator, rates 6,000 to 10,000 wines each year in blind tastings. He uses the 100-point scale but arrives at his number a little differently.

Suckling’s system was born while he lived in Paris. He took his inspiration from the 20-point system used by his friends at Willi’s Wine Bar. Instead of declaring “this is a 95” as he tastes it, he gives a maximum number of points for four parameters: color (15), aromas (25), body (25), overall impression (35). Add the numbers up, and that’s the score. Unlike Slow Wine, none of these systems consider more than what the eyes, nose and mouth discern from a glass of wine.

Gambero Rosso takes a different approach by awarding not a score but a number of glasses, or bicchieri. From a pool of 30,000 wines, 20,000 are chosen for round one. These wines are blind tasted locally by category against comparable wines. From these are chosen wines for regional tastings. Here’s where it starts to get interesting. A panel of six judges – three from the region, three “independents” from outside – select wines for the final round in Rome. All vineyard roads lead to Rome, or so the producers hope. For it is in Rome where the final round of judging occurs. The judges’ panel consists of the editors of Gambero Rosso’s wine division, Vini d’Italia and a representative of each of the 20 wine regions who will award the highest-ranked wines the prestigious – and extremely lucrative – “Tre Bicchieri” rating. There are no 95s or 100s. Just a modest number of glasses to classify the best wines Italy has to offer, at least by the “red shrimp’s” standards.

Next week, I will delve more into the subjectivity of what the eyes, nose and mouth detect. How the human mind processes the information given to it by these three senses determines the point score that mean success or failure for wine producers. In the meantime, “Salute!”

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.