Bacchus may have been the very first wine critic, giving a thumbs-up to some sort of freshly fermented grape juice. These days, we look to numerical scores for guidance, a phenomenon that probably originated with the 20-point UC Davis scale, developed in 1959 purely for academic wine evaluation.
Wine journals, such as Decanter, came to be in the late ‘70s, but their writing focused on stories with an educational bent. Wine book authors of the time waxed philosophical about particular wines or producers, but also were more interested in educating their readers than giving them specific advice on this or that bottle.
Flash forward to 2013 and you have a very different story. The arrival of the 100-point scale in the early ‘80s, popularized by Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate newsletter, has become the de-facto method for rating wines. Today, a slew of wine critics, writers, bloggers, and retailers all dish out scores to the seemingly endless supply of wines available in the marketplace.
How did attaching a numerical score to a bottle of wine become pre-eminent and so prolific? This definition by wine-searcher.com puts it well, “A wine score is the quickest, simplest way for wine critics to communicate their opinions about the quality of a wine. Wine scores appear in newspapers, magazines, and wine guides, in print and online, and even on wine bottles. They help consumers, collectors, and investors decide which wine to buy, collect or invest in.”
Yes, a numerical score does seem like the simplest way for wine critics to communicate their opinions. But scoring wines by number, while convenient for everyone, is also controversial. Do scores really tell you all you need to know about a wine?—especially when they vary among critics, which is understandable since a numerical wine score seeks to impart an objective quality to the inherently subjective process of evaluating wine.
So, as if to strengthen the objectivity of their scores, many critics offer admonitions in their respective publications. Wine writer Jancis Robinson notes: “Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than … a source of sensual pleasure and conviviality.” And Robert Parker warns: “…scores do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information.”
Ah, read the review—now that makes more sense!
So, how much weight should you give to the score alone? Think of it as a big bold headline. It will give you the essence of the review. But you’ll need to read the commentary that accompanies it for the important information. Then, let your own palate decide.