Uncorked—Wine Scores: The Truth Behind the Numbers

Plus: Great Wines Under $20

Retailers and websites that sell wine often tout a wine’s score to capture your interest. Although ratings can be valuable guides, not all experts agree on their usefulness.

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In 2015, U.S. consumers drank 913 million gallons of wine, according to Wine Institute. To help them to choose what wine to drink, consumers often are guided by numerical ratings that are found online or plastered on the shelves of their local wine store or big-box retailer.

However, the emergence of social media and blogs about wine—no one with whom we spoke could say how many such reviewers now weigh in—means that more ratings exist than ever before. What do wine ratings mean?

That depends on the source, says Elin McCoy, who is the wine critic for Bloomberg News, a columnist for Decanter magazine and an international wine judge and book author. “A lot of people who are writing about wine are bloggers,” she says. That doesn’t make them wrong necessarily, she says, but they don’t have reputations as wine raters—at least not yet.

Consequently, regardless of whether their scores are perceptive, you won’t find those ratings at your local wine store or big-box retailer. Retailers don’t use so-called amateur scores, McCoy says. Instead, retailers will go with “wider known sources,” she says. “That carries more weight.”

Adam Teeter, who operates vinepair.com, which reviews wine and claims 2 million readers per month, agrees. “Only a few people move the market or influence the market, although there are a lot of people trying to do ratings,” he says. Teeter says wineries find it “cheaper to send out 50 bottles of wine” to reviewers in hopes of getting a high rating rather than invest in a marketing campaign. The wineries then can tout a good rating, but it’s left up to you to determine how much weight that the rating carries.

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Whole Foods’ annual survey of wine shoppers found that wine ratings are the third-highest-rated method for choosing wine, after personal recommendations and in-store guidance. Doug Bell, who is the senior beverage coordinator for Whole Foods Market stores, says Whole Foods highlights wines that score at least a 90. (Wine typically is rated on a 100-point scale. We haven’t found a store that touts a wine that has a score of less than 86.)

“We do have that shopper that does look at ratings, that generation that grew up drinking wine and reading Wine Spectator, those 48- to 65-year-olds, like me,” Bell says. “If we like it, we put it on the shelf.” If noted critic Robert M. Parker Jr. gave the wine 90 points, then that’s even better, Bell adds.

“Wine is incredibly intimidating, so the scores serve a purpose,” says sommelier Nate Norfolk of Ray’s Wine and Spirits. Norfolk says the scores are “shorthand” in that they supply a quick assessment for consumers who either are casual wine drinkers or don’t want to spend time conducting their own research. If a wine has “great press,” Norfolk says he’ll pass along the information to consumers. “I like that [the wine] is validated by a third party,” Norfolk says. The rating system isn’t perfect, “but nobody’s come up with a better system.”

Chris Adams, who is the CEO of retailer Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, agrees with Norfolk. For consumers who don’t want to bury themselves in wine magazines, ratings are a simple way to get perspective on what’s in the bottle, Adams says. “Certainly, when a wine is deemed 90 points or higher, there’s a clear signal that it should be something special.”

However, even reputable ratings demand context, experts tell us. “What you have is a collection of critics who have different taste buds,” McCoy says. “This is why the best bet is to find wines that everyone likes, to take an average of a consistent score.”

The expansion in the number of state-of-the-art wineries that use the latest technology to produce consistently good wines, which once was rare, means that ratings aren’t the necessity that they once were, says Madeline Puckette, who is the founder and sommelier at WineFolly.com, which is a wine-education website. “Most wines are consistent,” McCoy says, “It used to be vintage differences were huge.”

Even those who purport to dislike ratings don’t ignore them: One winery CEO whom we interviewed called ratings “ridiculous”—but we found that the press section of his winery’s website included ratings of its highly rated wines. In other words, if the scores are good, then they will be publicized. It seems clear that wine ratings are here to stay.

UNRATED GEMS. Although experts with whom we spoke acknowledge that a wine rating of 90 denotes a special wine, that number isn’t necessary to find a great-tasting wine, they say. Because 130,000–150,000 wine labels are accepted by Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the United States and relatively few are scored, many unrated gems exist, Puckette says.

Lauren Buzzeo, who is the tasting coordinator at wine reviewer Wine Enthusiast, says her magazine awards wine that scores 90–100 accolades such as “highly recommended,” “a great achievement” or “the pinnacle of quality.” However, a score that’s below 90 doesn’t mean that a wine should be spurned, Buzzeo says. “Unfortunately, that view is omitting a lot of delicious, enjoyable and accessible wines from the mix,” she says. Many wines fall between 87 and 89 (“often good value; well recommended”) or 83 and 86 (“suitable for everyday consumption”).

The downside to high scores, Puckette says, is that “once a wine gets a high score, the price goes up,” although that doesn’t mean prices will rise dramatically. “What is affordable is subjective,” says McCoy, who believes that the “sweet spot” for wine retailers is $12–$20.

Norfolk says some wine varietals always will score higher than will others. “The system is flawed in that nobody’s ever going to give a $15 sauvignon blanc 96 points, but to many people, that wine would give them just as much pleasure as a trophy red wine that got 96 points,” he says.

Ratings are really good for collectors, who look for a wine that they believe will increase in value, Teeter says, but the ratings should be viewed only as a guide for those who just want to find a wine that they like. “You should look at ratings and say, ‘This does say that someone likes it,’” he says. Then what? Remember that a rating is just one factor. Teeter and McCoy suggest that you find a critic whose tastes jibe with yours. Then, Teeter says, find a wine shop that you can trust—a store of which you can can say, “Nine times out of 10, they gave me what I like.”

Kristine Hansen has reported on wine for 12 years. She is the wine editor for FSR magazine and has reported on wine for CNN.com and Wine Enthusiast magazine.

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