Friday Rant: The 100 Point Scale

I started this little blog almost three years ago to the day (my actual blogiversary is 1/16/12), I have been to a total of two Wine Bloggers Conferences, I have read and “liked” countless other blogs, and with the help of many others, we have tried to broaden the “Wine Blogging Community” (whatever that means) through the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge and the Secret Wino “programs” that we have created. But when I started doing a little research for this post…

…I had no idea…

…none whatsoever…

… of how many wine blogs there are.

Whoa.

There have been attempts to catalogue the number of wine blogs out there, the most comprehensive of which is certainly the list compiled on Vinography, where there are currently over 700 blogs “registered”, and those are just the English language blogs. There are no doubt more—I remember sending an email to Alder Yarrow, Mr. Vinography, a couple of years ago to get this blog included on the list.

Why do I care?

Good question.

10636355-large

Philly legend Wilt Chamberlain’s ranking of this blog….

A few weeks ago, I exchanged a few emails with another blogger, at the end of which he asked when I was going to stop using the 100-point scale in my wine reviews. This was not the first time that I had encountered the anti-100 point bias. A few months ago, I was interviewed by Jameson Fink, one of my favorite wine bloggers, for the Grape Collective. He suggested that since I fancy myself as a bit of a statistician, I should create an alternative to the 100-Point scale.

Why would I want to do that?

I am not here to say that the 100-Point scale for rating wine is “perfect” but it does serve a purpose—it gives a relative assessment of a product that others would have no idea they would enjoy without purchasing it themselves. And it is easy to understand.

So this week, I did a bit of research. I looked at a ton of blogs—some that I read on a regular basis, others that I did not even know existed. What did I find? Of those sites that reviewed wine, over half used some sort of numerical score to rate the wine and exactly half of those used the 100-point scale. The other numerical raters used some derivation that could be fairly easily translated into the 100-point scale (giving a wine 9.3 points out of 10 is the 100-point scale, folks), a 20-point scale (the aforementioned Vinography uses a 10-point scale with half point increments—that’s a 20-point scale), or a 10-point scale (this is usually done claiming a 5-point scale, but by introducing half-points it becomes a 10-point scale).

Grading-ScaleThere are others that use some derivation of a numeric scale—some use a 5-star scale (which is really a 10-point scale), others use the scholastic grading scale (A, B, C, etc.—by the way, this is almost precisely the same as the method that I use, I just use numbers to convey the exact same thing).

There was one, Jon Thorsen, the Reverse Wine Snob, that actually used a bit of math to arrive at his rating. Jon uses a linear formula to create a QPR rating (Quality-Price Ratio)—his final score is 75% quality and 25% “value”.

A few (I was actually surprised how few there were, actually) have devised their own scale, with the most common being “Recommended”, “Highly Recommended”, etc. There were a few more clever derivations of this theme (Loie at Cheap Wine Curious rates her wines from “Blech!” to “Case Worthy!”), but they were essentially the same.

Last, about a third of the blogs that I researched wrote wine reviews but did not explicitly “rate” the wine on any type of evident scale. These writers, through their prose, generally indicated their impressions of the wine and left it to the reader to draw any conclusions about the relative quality of the wine.

So why did I conduct this “research”?

Another good question.

The root of all things evil these days?

The root of all things evil these days?

No, despite popular opinion, I do not have unlimited leisure time to peruse scores of wine blogs. Rather, I was hoping to discover why there is disdain for the 100-point scale. It seems to be rooted in the malaise that many have for the “Father of Modern Wine Ratings” (I just made that up), Robert Parker, Jr., who did not “invent” the 100-Point scale, but certainly popularized its attachment to wine reviews.

I get most of the criticism:

  • It is impossible to affix a numerical value to wine.
  • The scores (even among the same critic) can be widely variable.
  • The scale has been essentially reduced to a 85-95 Point range.
  • And perhaps more….

But I still don’t get it. Any review, whether there is a scale or not attached to it is subjective. There is simply no way (yet) to get around the human element when it comes to evaluating wine.

Isn’t the goal to let people know what you think about the wine? If I do that using numbers between 80-100, is that significantly different from a 10, 20, or 30 point scale? So why all the fuss about the 100-point scale? I just do not understand how it is categorically worse than “8+/10”, “3 Stars”, “A-“, or “Recommended Plus”.

What am I missing?

 

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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37 Responses to Friday Rant: The 100 Point Scale

  1. I’m with you on this. The problem is not the scale itself but how it is interpreted and misused by consumers. It’s not an objective measure of wine quality and doesn’t begin to fully describe a wine. And it tells you little about how much you will like the wine. All the scale tells you is the quality category the wine belongs in and the reviewer’s level of enthusiasm for the wine compared to others she has assessed. Without a well-written tasting note to accompany the rating, the numerical score itself tells you little.

    Like

    • I agree with you fully Dwight! Thanks for the comment. I would even take it a step further to say that it only represents ‘a moment in time’ as well. I am not much a believer in the whole biodynamic calendar, but I do adhere to the theory that certain wines will show differently on random days—wines evolve, people evolve (at least some). Ratings may (should?) change, too.

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  2. GFwinecountryliving says:

    Whether others like the 100 pt scale or not, it is something everyone understands, so why not use it if that is what works best for you?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, what you’re missing are the downsides of human nature in general and of those in the wine community. Go to any comments sections of a news article and you’ll see a number of trolls. Haters gonna hate and the wine community is not immune to it. I’d argue that the wine community can be very snobbish (as evidenced by the many blogs trying to take the snobbery away from wine) so there’s an aversion towards simplistic scales. And I’m sure there’s more than a little bit of passive aggressive competition – “that wine blogger uses a silly scale. I’m better because my scale is not as silly.”

    The more important thing you missed is my grading scale – Excellent, good, fair, good with food, horse piss.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I understand the 100 pt. scale and often use that in my wine selection. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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    • I used to be a high school teacher and I wrote details reports on each kid, followed by their “grade”. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the kids and parents would first look at the grade and then read my comments—the same is true with wine reviews. We look at the score first, then (maybe) read the prose. Why? Because we all understand the scale!

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  5. Thanks for the kudos. Hope to see you in Seattle in 2015. We can drink some Champagne out of any vessel you choose.

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  6. nomadfromcincy says:

    I think this is the reactionary response to the power of these scores. A lot of people in the trade hate that a few numbers from a few publications dictate the success of a wine in the market.

    Personally I agree with you. And I like the approach that you and guys like Alder use — I think the best way to score a wine is a range. I don’t like the false precision of a single number.

    At the end of the day, I think most consumers actually like scores. If they were aware, I think they would not like that a couple publications control the fate of wineries… but they don’t think that deeply about it.

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    • I am completely on board: most consumers like scores and most producers hate them (or at least see them as a ‘necessary’ evil). So given that paradox, what is the best solution? Perhaps acknowledging that scores are at best subjective (and to a certain extent, arbitrary)?

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  7. Duff's Wines says:

    I’ve struggled with using scores myself in fear it might influence people specifically when I’m trying something a little more directional. I’m OK with almost any scale and, as has been mentioned, most consumers like some rating despite their lack of attendance to any other details besides price and score. What I struggle with is the inflation over time for most raters. not everyone does this and I think bloggers and non-traditional reviewers do have a broader scale. But, If 80 is ‘Good’, why don’t we see a bunch of low 80’s from the ‘pros’. Wine is mostly ‘good’ can be ‘excellent’ and once in a while is ‘special’. But scores seem to congregate at 90. The scale is more 87 to 95. Maybe bloggers need to ‘pro-up’ and get on the inflated score bandwagon. Give that Little Penguin an 87! Boone’s Farms Strawberry Hill? 88! Have a good weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A lot there in that comment. First, I agree, that 90 is the benchmark score but I do not think that has anything to do with the wine world. Let’s face it, unless you were some sort of dullard in school, you never did cartwheels over getting a B. Sure, it might have been in Latin, a subject you hated, but other than the outliers, everyone wanted an A. Well, 90 is an A.

      Certainly you could argue that wine scores have been creeping up, but I also could argue that wines have been getting better. Unless “we” decide to recenter the scores (which would never happen), I think you would have to agree that most wines above a certain point (let’s say $10 for the sake of argument) are actually fairly well made. To me, most of these wines are at least “B” or 85 point wines. They just are. I would carry that along and say there is a high percentage of wines (a third?) above that 10 buck threshold that could eek into the “A-” or >89 point range.

      Now I would be the first to acknowledge that my assessment flies in the face of the bell shaped curve upon which this grading “system” was originally based–a “C” was supposed to be “average” and only the most exceptional (around 10%) would get an “A”.

      The same thing has happened in academia, by the way. The grading scale has long considered a “B” to be “average” and a high percentage of students (again, around a third) get grades that are 90 or above.

      So have ratings (or grades) been creeping up? Or have wines (and students) been getting better over the last few decades?

      Certainly, it could be argued, both are true.

      The parallels are rather striking….

      Liked by 1 person

  8. talkavino says:

    I’m with Bill. What Parker had been incriminated lately is an inflation of the scores – lately, he gave lots of 100s, and overall scale moved very close to 90 – I’m yet to see a 70 or even 80 rating published by WS or WA.

    Consumers need guidance, it is as simple as that. Some wine stores deliberately remove all the notions of the scores and instead offer quality help people in choosing the wine – that might be a model one day, but definitely we are not there yet.

    Lots of consumers understand and swear by 100-points scale – I don’t think there is anything wrong with it or with any other scale in general. If you understand the scale, you get the notion of quality, and this is what matters – but then Parker’s 100 points will not necessarily be the same 100 points for someone else (for instance, doesn’t work for me).

    Lastly, I personally use 10 points (or 20, as you consider it), because I would take forever to decide on 90 versus 91 versus 92, so my 5 through 10 works just fine for me.

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    • I did not really spell it out in the comment to Bill, but I think the problem is rather straight forward: Wine Critics today (with Parker leading the way) have never re-centered their scale. In other words, they essentially set what it was to be a 90 point wine years ago and never adjusted it to account for the fact that the “average” wine today is simply better than the average wine thirty years ago. You may disagree with that premise, but I think it is clearly the case.

      Thus, the “average” wine today would merit a, say, 85 on the scale that was created 30 years ago. Thus, the whole scale has shifted to the right. The problem is that there is an upper end to the scale (100 points) which causes a log jam at the top.

      As for deciding between 90 and 91, while I disagree that it would take “forever” to decide, it is, without any doubt, subjective. But then so is any scale regardless of the units.

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  9. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. As with art, I rarely if ever pay heed to the “critics.” With wine, I buy and ingest what pleases my tongue and palate. Too often I have listened to various ‘experts,’ only to be disappointed. Scoring systems may be useful to some (many?), Jeff, but in the end, it’s my senses that typically make (good) choices. 🙂 Onward with your initiative!

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    • I agree 100%! Learning what you like is the most important element of wine appreciation. For some, scores from some “experts” can serve as a starting point. For others (like my father-in-law) scores can be the be-all and end-all—if it has not been rated 90 or higher, it can’t be “good” in their mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. LOL – I actually have a draft post entitles “WTF is wrong with rating wines” (no doubt drafted after reading a blog blasting the 100 point scale). I don’t get it either. As you say rating anything is subjective. In my mind a rating is a “data point” and the informed consumer should try to gather as many data points as possible before making a buy decision be that a bottle of wine or a washing machine. It’s almost as if the critics of the 100 point scale think the majority of consumers can’t discern for themselves that a rating is one person’s opinion (And that’s assuming one cares enough to check it out. No other data to go on, got $15 to pick up a bottle of wine before going to a party and you don’t know and or care about wine – why not choose a wine rated 90 points over one rated 87 points?). Even when I knew nothing about wine I knew the rating was one person’s opinion. Granted that person may have more expertise, presumably born of experience, but it’s one persons opinion. Having said that, folks do rely on reviews be it a bottle of wine or looking at Yelp for a restaurant review, or review of products on Amazon. The more opinions on whatever being reviewed the better in my book. As Dwight mentioned, it’s not the scale it’s how its used by consumers.

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    • Bravo Martin! I concur 100%. People do not realize that they make decisions based on other people’s opinions all the time. Just the other day, a pipe burst in our house and we needed a plumber. We consulted Angie’s List and chose the highest rated plumber and worked our way down. Ultimately, it will be up to us to determine if the guy we hired did a “good” job or not—Angie’s List just provided some guidance in a sea of unknown quantities.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. shirazrat says:

    I don’t use a score, never have. I went through that process when I used to grade Year 12 papers when I was a teacher. The criteria for a grade was carefully worked out and I ended up reading through essays and just mentally ticking off my supposedly objective criteria against them. But that was a necessary evil, because the grades were used for school results. I can see how a similar process might be used in wine competitions or wine shows – though I am now having some reservations about the use of the 100 point scoring system in wine shows mainly because it reflects an amateurish approach to wine analysis whereas trained wine judges had a very specialized way of doing it and using a 20 point scoring method. No problem with other people using a 100 point or 20 point or five star scoring system or whatever, but if it is just indicating how much they like a wine they could just as easily say that. The use of the 100 point score by wine critics is a problem, however, for a number of reasons. First, it has led to inflated wine scores and perfectly good wines get ignored because of the hype that wines with high scores get. That’s because it is a marketing tool the way it is used. Second, the use of high scores puts a wine critic in a business relationship with the wine producers and the retailers who use those scores to sell wines. Three, with the obvious example of Robert Parker it leads to favoured wine styles rather than bringing attention to the diversity of wines around the world. Four, it dumbs down the wines and us as wine drinkers if we just follow the scores. People stop reading tasting notes and just look at the score. They get used to the idea of buying wine based on a score, not anything else. What do they really learn or understand about a wine from a score? Five, it creates a power situation where only a handful of critics (whose scores are influential) run a closed shop on wine writing just like things were done in the old days before blogging. I guess because I am not a critic and would rather just tell stories about the wines I drink and the people I meet, I don’t need to do that. Maybe those who use a score should at least say how and why they do that.

    PS. Love reading people’s blogs with or without scores . I just ignore the scores. 🙂

    Like

    • Wow, a lot there to digest! I would disagree about your first point–the whole “amateurs vs. professional” argument has run its course, I hope. Do “professionals” really speak to the wine buying public? These “pros” tend to be wrapped up in pretension and jargon and tend to turn people off instead of engaging them. Inflated wine scores are a problem, but I disagree as to why–I think the inflation is due to the Flynn Effect (usually reserved to the measurement of intelligence, but apropos here)–where each subsequent “generation” is rated higher than the previous. There are myriad reasons for this: improved viticulture, winemaking, etc. I just think that an “average” wine today is “better” than an “average” wine from 20-30 years ago…

      I agree that the relationship between critics, wineries, and retailers is a rather seedy one, but that is the case in almost any industry, is it not? Of course, Robert Parker has become the punching bag of sorts, and I will in now way defend him, but he is but a figurehead of a much larger issue–as I mentioned in another comment, Mr. Parker would not be in business (or have his overblown influence) if people did not value his opinion. Perhaps we do not agree with him, but how do you convince the “masses” they are “wrong”?

      While I agree completely that following the scores blindly is mindless–there are many that do not possess the experience, sophistication, or time to invest that you (we?) have–so what are they to do? I think scores are a good starting point, but for many, they are all they need to make a decision when they have limited resources?

      I would argue that with all the blogs (and accompanying scores), consumers have many more (not fewer) data points to consider before making a purchase, which ultimately reduces the collective influence of the “traditional critics”.

      I think we are much more aligned than you may think–I too, feel the story is at the root of wine appreciation, not any score….

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  12. I like looking at how different bloggers/publications/etc. rate a wine on the 100 point scale; however, I think the only problem with it (and a problem with rating a wine in general, whether numerically or with a word like ‘recommended’) is that some people take that word as law. They think because someone gave it a 90, they should love it. That being said, the people who look at a wine with a ’90’ rating and then just assume that means they’re going to like it probably don’t know the difference between a Merlot and a Zinfandel. So, basically, I think I’m saying: keep doing what you’re doing.

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    • Just like with anything, people will have different approaches and thoughts. My father-in-law will not buy a wine unless there is a ’90’ (or more) attached to it and it is under $25. That works for him—it gives him confidence when going into a wine store. For many, a trip to the wine shop is intimidating as hell and many of them don’t want to trust the clerk—let’s face it, he or she might have an agenda to their selection….

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  13. I don’t mind the 100 point scale or really any other scale. I think the problem lies with having a few people being the end all be all of wine ratings. We all know that wine is really subjective. What Robert Parker loves may not be what you love or I love. You really just need to follow the reviews of those people you have learned have similar tastes. But so many novices, or even wine “snobs”, come to think that a wine isn’t worth it if it doesn’t have a rating, or some sort of suitable level of prestige. And there are too many good wines out there to limit yourself to that! So keep using the 100 point scale, and Anatoli can keep using the 10 point scale, and I’ll keep describing the wines without rating them! 🙂

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    • I did not mean to begrudge anyone that uses a different scale (or does not rate wine at all)—far from it. My point was that I do not understand all the derision toward the 100-point scale (often from someone who has essentially the same scale with a different base to it). As for Parker (or anyone else) wielding too much power, I agree for the most part, but his opinion sells a LOT of wine. Some people out there must agree with him….

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t take it that way at all Jeff! Just pointing out that I like seeing all the different methods – there is value in all of them. I think his method (and name) sell wine because people don’t trust themselves to buy what they like, or try something new without a fancy score… 🙂

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  14. In times of crisis, go with what you know!

    I get in trouble using a score out of 20, cos to me, the way I was marked in my degree course, 40% is a pass, so I give 8/20 for a wine and say “it’s drinkable”, the winemaker gets fecked off and a couple of readers aren’t too enthused either.

    My point being is you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, if a marking system works for you then just keep going…we all all love ya! 🙂

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    • That is the basic problem with anyone trying to introduce a different numerical scale or someone who tries to “re-center” the scale, making it more “sane” (for lack of a better word). It is important to point out that the wineries (at least most of them) are complicit here as well, despite how much they complain….

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  15. Lynn Millar says:

    I’m drawn to the “blech”, “case worthy” ratings. I understand bloggers having there subjective opinions and as a ‘user’ I have to consider (like movie reviewers). Are there any wines sold rated less than 80 though? Where would the 55 rated wine be? Where do the stores get there ratings? Is there one rating god over the universe? Or does BevMo (etc) have it’s own rating guru (or cynically – a marketing guru in charge of selling ‘blech-worthy’ stuff)?

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    • Generally speaking, most reviewers of wine will not review a wine that they see as scoring below 80 points (more like 84), particularly if they get that wine as a free sample to review. No one wants to be in the business of attacking another’s livelihood. By mentioning BevMo, you bring up an interesting point. Although they claim to be unbiased in the wines the rate in house, it is not a stretch to cast some doubt on the ratings since they obviously have an interest in the wine receiving a “good” score.

      As for the “Blech” scale, that is done by my blogging friend Loie over at Cheap Wine Curious. You should go check out her blog, it is really a lot of fun and she has a great palate. And she, like you, lives in Sonoma County….

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  16. We created our own scale that we thought would allow a fuller range of rating and give it some humor and also gave it a price component.. Originally we were only going to add the pricing part but decided to be a bit unique. Not concerned with those who do or don’t, mostly concerned with the next glass…

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  17. kriskkaria says:

    I like the Blech!, not so sure about case worthy. Its all very subjective.

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