95-point Chardonnay! 97-point Pinot Noir! 100-point Cabernet Sauvignon! Where did this whole rating system come from and when did it become a thing?
Beginning with Robert Parker
Robert Parker, an incredibly influential wine writer, brought this rating system to fame in his publication known as, "The Wine Advocate". His 100-pt scale gives wines a score from 50 to 100 depending on everything from the color of the wine to the finish.
Robert Parker was so influential with his scores and his publications 20+ years ago that many producers were purposefully adjusting their picking dates for their grapes, extraction techniques, and oak programs in the winery. They wanted to get higher scores as Robert Parker was known for giving higher scores to riper, dark, and full-bodied wines. This became known as the "Parkerization" of wines and helped set wine prices and demand in Bordeaux, Rhône and California. Although consumer’s palates have been changing, his influence still has a lasting controversial effect to this day and has created many famous cult wineries in the process.
The Wine Advocate is no longer just Robert Parker. Like many other publications, he has appointed specific writers with expertise in certain regions. A review of a Tempranillo from Rioja will most likely come from someone different than that of a Russian River Valley Chardonnay.
Who else provides wine ratings?
The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Antonio Galloni's Vinous, Jeb Dunnuck, Wine & Spirits, and James Suckling all use the 100-pt scale and all have a great history of producing content for the global wine industry. They are great sources to follow not only for scores and tasting notes, but also for current stories on different wine regions, wineries and how each vintage has been. Jancis Robinson (author of the Oxford Companion to Wine) uses a 20-pt scale.
A high rating from any of these publications will be proudly displayed on a winery's marketing program or social media platform.
Today you may even see people using apps on their phones for community-based reviews where you can add a review right after you taste the wine. Apps like Cellartracker, Vivino and Delectable are great for this as well to manage your inventory of wine without looking through your cellar!
Why don't I see every wine from my local winery reviewed?
Most wines in the market are not reviewed. It takes the wineries extra work and extra money for this. Wineries often have to send multiple bottles to reviewers. They will have to pay for shipping and for the wine to get reviewed. For Garagiste wineries, and wineries that make small amounts, this may not be feasible for an experimental batch of Grenache. They need to make some of that money back! They may also only want to send wines out that they are truly proud of and have confidence in after multiple years of working with that fruit.
As I mentioned before, wineries may also be particular about who they send their wines to. If you send a delicate Pinot Noir to a reviewer who typically rates full-bodied Cabernets highly, then they may be wasting their money and time. Winemakers have to be calculated with the way they market their wines. Ratings happen to be one of the ways. If your wine gets 95-pts and is highlighted in a wine publication, you may be expecting a barrage of new customers and wider exposure.
How should I use wine ratings?
Use those tasting notes to your advantage
Although wine ratings may be the first thing that draws you in, tasting notes tell you more of the story. If you love a wine that smells of blueberries and plums, then look for these descriptors in their tasting notes. If you like a variety that often shows tasting notes of black pepper and smoked meats, then hey, look, you may have just learned something new! Maybe you also enjoy Syrah!
How does the publication/wine reviewer's palate match up with mine?
There are certain reviewers who love Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while other reviewers love Cabernet and Bordeaux Blends. It is easy to notice this after going through the history of their ratings or where their reviews typically come from. This is perfectly fine. Wine is subjective. The way I try to use this is by observing if my palate matches up with the reviewer. That way I may trust their reviews more if I am going for a certain variety or region.
Remember not to get discouraged if your favorites wines don't see 100-pts. I rarely see a Rosé or many white wines that have high scores from any of those publications mentioned. That doesn't mean they aren't worth seeking out though. Some of those white wines are some of the most complex wines I have ever encountered.
In the end, it is very difficult to put a score on wine. What if it gets reviewed when it is only 1 or 2 years old? There is still plenty of evolution for that wine to go through. It could be a 93-point today and a 96-point in 2 years. These wines are also tasted by themselves and the score could change when tasted with the perfect dish by its side.
If you do happen to start using them, always trust your own palate first!
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Author Bio: Brian is an Enology and Viticulture student in Walla Walla, WA. He is currently working towards a certification as a Certified Specialist of Wine and will be doing his 3rd harvest this Fall in the Willamette Valley. He hopes for wine to continue to be more inclusive and less pretentious and is always on the hunt for his next Ah-Ha bottle.