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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.”

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