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The Wine Rating Scale Debate

The Wine Rating Scale Debate

by Tim Elliott on January 14, 2006

Tom over at FERMENTATION posted the other day about the San Francisco Chronicle’s recent addition of a four star rating system and how it a slap against the 100 point system used by most industry publications and newsletters. Jerry at Winewaves picked this issue up with an impassioned defense of the 100 point system and why he will continue to use it.

Since reading the excellent book Emperor of Wine, I have been debating making a change for my ratings. And, no, it’s not what you probably would guess… I am thinking of dropping all numerical ratings and go back to the more subjective scale inspired by the WSJ’s Tastings column. Who cares if a delicious wine is a 9.5 or 9; both are really excellent and deserve your attention. While I haven’t made a final decision, I am leaning in the direction of few numbers and more words in my tasting notes. What do you think? Do the numerical ratings really help you find beter wines?

  • Tim,

    I for one am in favor of the numerical system. I currently maintain a wine database which contains my entire cellar (currently, about 320 bottles), purchase history and tasting notes on all the wines I’ve tasted over the last 10 or so years. That comes to approximately 1,200 records. I deduced very early on that I would require a numerical system simply because the verbiage I would use to describe the wines would at some point become very repetitive and my notes would eventually become pedestrian. I am perusing my tasting notes as I write you this, and I can see that I’ve used the word “amazing” almost a dozen times in the last three months. These wines that garnered an amazing description however, ranged in numerical score from 93-98. For me at least, the numerical system allows me to be more precise with my overall impression of a wine.

    Another reason I use the numerical system also deals with volume. If I am having a dinner party and I’d like to serve a very nice Shiraz for example, it’s much easier for me to scroll through my numerical scores within the Shiraz listings rather than click on each tasting note and make a judgement as to whether or not this wine would be a good one to serve.

    My two cents.

    Best of luck.

  • Tim

    Good points in favor of the numerical system, Tony. I do see how it makes it much easier to sort and find wines within a certain range on computers. What troubles me about the 100 point scale, is I believe the precision of a 89 vs. a 91 is almost totally subjective, but it appears to be very precise as if some sort of instrument was used. In such a case on my 20 point scale, both wines would garner a “delicious” 9 out of 10. I think this lack of precision, coupled with a numerical value for use in sorting lists might be the right balance, so I am inclined to stay the course.

    It will be interesting to hear other views on this, as well, as I am still open to change…

  • Stacy Doran

    As a newer wine drinker who isn’t really sure how all of the adjectives apply to the wines that I like (for example, I’m not really sure whether I prefer “fruity” to “dry” or a “plush finish” to “high tannins”) I just really enjoy experimenting. I have limited funds and can’t afford a hit-or-miss approach to finding new wines that I like. I want to know which wines are the “favorites” and the numerical system works well for that. Maybe I will change my mind as I learn more about wine and began to get a real understanding about what all the adjectives mean, but for now I just want you to tell me what wine to try next…


  • Tim

    Thanks, Stacy, for your point of view on the issue. OK, now I’m leaning in the direction of keeping my 20 point scale but would like to hear from other listeners and readers.

  • I find that the 100 point scale is useful for my own records such as my cellartracker account. As far as a public wine review, I enjoy assigning the grade school A+ through F grade system. Cheers!

  • I think the problem isn’t with the 100 point scale, but rather than we don’t use all of it.

    I think vinegar would rate a 65 by some reviewers.

    Even on your “20 point” scale, we end up with a lot of ratings between 7 and 9.5, Tim 😉

    20 deliniations seems like plenty, and not suggesting that you should start buying lesser quality wine, but there isn’t any reference established for what would garner a 2 or a 3. If you did a review and gave something a 3, and then I went out and bought it (since it should be very cheap!) and tried it, then we’d both have a common reference for how good a 7 is.

    I guess I’m in favor of a hybrid scale: the “official scale” should have the ratings from 6 to 10 in half-point increments, but anything below 5 should just be an “F” as it doesn’t matter how bad it is at that point.

  • Doug Smith

    Ratings systems are used by everyone in the wine industry, so I felt that McCoy’s attacks on the 100-point system were either totally off-base or just plain hypocritical. Whether you use “stars”, Excellent/Very Good/Good/Bad, 1-5, 1-20, 1-40, 50-100 really doesn’t matter: they are all mathematically identical, the only difference being one of precision. If you feel that you can get precise enough to make (roughly) 50 fine distinctions between the worst vinegar and the finest Bordeaux, etc., then Parker’s 50 point scale is fine. (Also as Brian notes, it’s used in places like CellarTracker). If you think you can only make five basic distinctions then use another. Every such system is always going to be somewhat subjective … but I don’t think that’s anything we can ever get away from. Even tasting notes are subjective.

    But whatever the case, *some* sort of grading system is necessary or wine criticism and review becomes useless. After reading the tasting note, we also want to know how *good* the reviewer thinks the wine is … and there’s no other way than some rating system that is at least implicitly numeric.

    I agree that many times it doesn’t seem people use much of the ratings scale … but OTOH a lot of that is because more “geeky” wine drinkers already are smart enough to stay away from a lot of the “plonk” out there …


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  • I sometimes wish wine rating systems never existed, however they are essential. Unfortunately the consumer market demands a way in which people can select wine with reasonable 'insight'. Me? I like… what I like 🙂


    Brandon Marc

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