Jamie Goode: How soon does wine scoring become defunct?

By , 1 March 2024



Where the trouble all began.

Something made me realise wine might be interesting when I was 21. I’d just begun my PhD and was spending quite a bit of time with a group of friends in Wallington, in Surrey. On Sunday evenings we’d sometimes gather and an older friend who knew about wine would share a couple of interesting bottles. This was a revelation because until then all I’d experienced had been cheap supermarket wines which, frankly speaking, didn’t taste very good. These wines were different.

My interest piqued, I found a wine book at my friend Mike’s house – I think it might have been in the upstairs toilet. It was the first edition of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, and I started browsing it. Each of the wines he tasted were scored with a mark out of 100, and a letter from A-F indicating its price range. I found this interesting, even though most of the wines were really hard or impossible to find. The sweet spot for us at the time were the wines scoring in the high 80s that weren’t expensive. An 86A was worth seeking out. 86 was a decent score then.

Fast forward to today, and the world of wine criticism has expanded massively. There are now a number of teams of critics, all scoring on the 100 point scale. There’s also Jancis Robinson and her crew, but while they taste a lot of wines they’ve resolutely stuck to a 20 point scale so this is a sort of parallel universe. But just about everyone else uses the 100 point scale allotting points more-or-less in the sort of range that Parker used, but with one main difference. Parker in his heyday used quite a broad range of scores, albeit starting at around 85 for decent wine. Now the scale has shifted significantly, and scoring is in a much narrower range.

The thing is, if you are the only critic in town and you dosh out scores, if the winery is happy with your score then you are the one cited. The wine ecosystem does a lot of marketing for you for free. Each retail outlet will put your name on the bottle, or maybe you can sell stickers with your name and a score on them to wineries (another revenue stream), and then you will be advertised to everyone who buys the wine. Your business is promoted for free.

But what if there are a few critics in town? Assuming you aren’t a complete nobody, if you score a little more generously, you will be the one who the wineries choose to cite, and yours will be the stickers that make it onto the bottle. The pressure on the competing critic publications to be a little more generous is huge, even though I think they are all honest and doing the best job that they can. And this underlying pressure is seen in the way that scores have got ever higher.

In the past, you’d have to make a decent wine to score 85. Now, if you piss in a bucket you’d probably get 85 from some critics. And 90 scores used to be a cause of celebration for a winemaker, whereas now it feels a bit like a fail. 95 is the new 90, some are saying. The problem is that this upward trend in scoring is leaving us a very compressed scale to work with. And now it seems that 100 points is a score that is being used as a sort of marketing tool for critics: here is my 100-point score! We are dealing with a tiny scale for anything fine, to the point that you can predict most of the en primeur scores by knowing the reputation of the winery, and the overall quality of the vintage. For the first growths in a good vintage at en primeur in Bordeaux, who is going to score one of them lower than 98? So is this now a 3 point range?

I feel like the consumer is the one forgotten here. How useful are all these critic publications when most of the wines aren’t available to buy for normal people, and the scoring scale has lost any differentiative power. And when will wineries realise that the 94 points they were just scored is of little value when all their neighbours have scored the same or higher? It’s like the school disco – you go home on Saturday night ecstatic because the girl you fancied gave you a snog, only to turn up to school on Monday to find out she snogged five other guys the same evening.

I suspect many critics have moved their sights from being an independent voice for their readers, guiding them to the wines they’ll enjoy most, to being trade focused, looking to make money from wineries. They taste for free but charge wineries to use scores, to buy stickers, to buy tables at their events. I can’t see a prolonged future for this activity. Of course, wineries need a way to spend their marketing budgets, but wine media as it stands today is a little broken, and may not be the most effective spend.

For the majority of consumers, I suspect 100 point scores are no longer that interesting. The explosion of critic numbers, the rather mixed-ability wine scoring that is taking place, and the ridiculous bunching of scores at the top end of the scale is weakening the appeal of numerical ratings. Is there any way that wine scoring can be saved? It’s a tough one, and would rely on the sort of honesty, restraint and long-term vision that haven’t been absolute highlights of many aspects of wine media of late.

And I say this as someone who scores wines. Initially, when I started wineanorak as an amateur, I used a verbal scale: good, very good, very good/excellent, excellent. Then later I moved to scores. As a newcomer, I had to try to be in the same band as the established critics. Of late, I feel my scores have had to move up a little to keep in step – I very rarely gave 95 or above for any wine. And I’ve still never given 100 points for a wine. But from the inside, I realise we have a problem here, which is why I’m writing such a blunt piece as this one. When I saw Torres Viña Esmerelda getting 96/100 from Decanter a few years back, I realised this 100 point scale hasn’t got long for this life.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.


15 comment(s)

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    Mike Froud of Top Wine SA | 21 March 2024

    If only there could be an internationally accepted, universally agreed-upon 100-point system for scoring wine…

    Dieter Gugelmann | 7 March 2024

    My motto is: I don’t drink points, I drink wine that I like. I’m currently in South Africa and tried a lot of wines that didn’t have 90 points but simply tasted great!
    And they cost under R200. Price, performance and quality are important to me. Of course I also drink higher rated wines to see if they are really that much better than 80 to 90 point wines. Often they are not. Simply marketing and not much else.
    The Chocolate Block in particular is a good example for me. A few barrels were produced from the first vintages and today there are hundreds of barrels per vintage. For me as a consumer, the wine has unfortunately lost quality even though it often receives over 90 points. Definitely overrated. There are many cheaper wines of the same style under 90 points. I classify myself as a wine connoisseur and nothing more or less!

      Kwispedoor | 7 March 2024

      I agree with you almost 100%, Dieter. Although I wouldn’t use The Chocolate Block as an example here. I think it’s a much better wine now than than in its contrived infancy years. Impressive quality at those volumes! But yes, cheers to tasting widely and trusting your own palate. Great value is to be found!

        GillesP | 9 March 2024

        I am in the trade and I certainly think Chocolate Block is over rated. It hasn’t got anything against a Rupert Classique or a Rupert Optima. Just my 2 cents of comparison with 2 other successful wines at around same price point.

      Owen Mc Donald | 8 March 2024

      Agree 100% that Chocolate Block is highly overrated

        Greg Sherwood | 9 March 2024

        The 100 point scale as pointed out in comments does not follow the standard 100 point scale most merchants have used following Robert Parker making it famous in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like the 20 point scale, which I was originally trained on, 12/20 and below represented a very poor wine if not faulty. For example, often a lightly corked wine or oxidised wine would be scored 11 or 12 and that was it, you did not go any lower. Likewise for the 100 point scale, when you reached circa 70/100 points the wine would often be of such poor quality that there was no real point to analyse and critique the wine further. So to go down to 50, 40, 30/100 etc if simply silly. Realistically, wines at those levels would be unpalateable.

        Wine scoring, like the climate, has changed over the decades. The argument is what to do about it… whilst also keeping in mind that wine quality has also changed drastically from the late 1970s or early 1980s… when there was a lot of very poor, oxidised, faulty wine being bottled. Nowadays, there would be no market for such wines so they are dumped, distilled or disposed of. There is already “too much” high quality branded wine from around the world without buyers and consumers, so the focus for all producers everywhere should be quality, quality, quality… and not quantity.

          GillesP | 9 March 2024

          Dear Greg. A question for you on wine rating. Thos week I open a 93 pts Tim Atkins Noble Hill Field Atlas 2021 I bought for about R120 a bottle. A very light every day drinking SMG variety. Nothing really wrong bit really nothing to write home either. And then you have the same wine critic giving a 93 pts to some highly reputable Bordeaux crus classes or Burgundy top names 1er cru if not Grand Cru. How does it works in that perspective?

            James Bosenberg | 9 March 2024

            @Gilles, are you assuming the Grand Cru simply has to be rated higher/taste better than a “mere” noble hill, given its status? Surely in Tim’s case, he is simply rating what is in the glass and not on the label?

              GillesP | 9 March 2024

              James, I have drunk enough Grand Cru and very prestigious wines to make the difference between great wines and an everyday wine. Hence my question on this kind of rating

    John Weaver | 4 March 2024

    One of the problems is that wine critics mostly taste top of range wines, rarely the common stuff, thus high scores. Christian Eedes wrote about this a while back.

    This is at the bottom of our two tasting groups sheets. For grounding purposes. Adapted from Platter with permission, who taste the whole range.

    ***** 95-100 18-20 pts Superlative, an SA classic
    ***** 90-94 17-171/2 pts Outstanding
    **** 86-89 16-161/2 pts Excellent
    **** 83-85 151/2 pts Very Good / promising
    *** 80-82 15 pts Good, for early drinking
    *** 77-79 141/2 pts Average with some appeal
    ** 73-76 14 pts Pleasant enough
    ** 70-72 132 pts Plain and simple
    * 65-69 12 pts Unexciting
    * 60-64 11 pts Very ordinary
    10 pts Somewhat less than ordinary

    GillesP | 2 March 2024

    96 pts for a Torres Vina Esmeralda. LOL. As much as I enjoy this wine, it’s a fokken joke.

    Jason Millar | 2 March 2024

    Food for thought Jamie. I’d like to see people using more of the scale again. I often score under 85 and over 96, and don’t have a problem with giving 100. I think not using the bottom of the scale is just as much a problem as overusing the top, and that refusing to use 100 is as problematic as refusing to use 84. Besides, neither producer nor consumer is served well in the long-term by the inflation of scores. Eventually, the chickens will come home to roost when people drink the wines and realise they are over-scored or just hyped.

    Also, to be fair to Decanter, they actively encourage panels to award extra points at DWWA for good value wines. Esmerelda is a ‘value gold’ as their article explains, but this isn’t obvious if you’re just working off scores without reading the notes.

    Kwispedoor | 1 March 2024

    It’s going to be interesting to see where this all leads in a decade or two from now. And it’s certainly lamentable that the focus of so many prominent reviewers have turned to the producers, instead of the consumers.

    And I’m sorry about that girl at the disco, Jamie – she was never right for you anyways. 😉

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