Wine Scores: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Those little colored tags scattered across wine shop shelves everywhere carry a powerful message. 88. 92. 95! The scores used to rate wines by various publications can drive the demand and price of wine. In my early wine buying days, I thought that a high score meant a great wine, no matter which publication rated it. That’s simply not true. If the Mad Dog 20/20 Lovers’ Guild gives a wine a 95/100, it may not be the gem that you would expect with that score.

So whose scores matter? Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator carry the most influence. Other publications, such as Wine Enthusiast, Wine and Spirits, and Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, are also well respected.

My take on these scores is that they are an asset for wine drinkers as long as they are used the right way. Let’s take a look at some of the positives and negatives of these scores, Clint Eastwood-style.

The Good

Buying wine can be intimidating, especially for new wine drinkers. With thousands of bottles on the shelves, how do you know if what you’re buying is going to be any good? Unless you’re familiar with the different wine varietals, the appellations or regions described on the bottle, and the producer of the wine, it can be a gamble. In such case, wine scores can be a helpful guide.

A piece of advice that I received early on and would like to pass on is to find a publication that you feel your tastes match up with and use their scores as a guide until you have acquired enough experience to branch off on your own. For example, the Wine Advocate has developed a reputation for preferring big, high-alchohol reds. Many wine drinkers prefer wines that are food-friendly and have a lower alcohol content. So depending on your tastes, Wine Advocate may or may not be the publication for you to follow. Fortunately, as discussed above, there are several reputable publications to choose from.

I will rate various wines that retail for under $20. I can guarantee that there will be some readers (hopefully most readers) that agree with my assessments and recommendations. I can also guarantee that there will be some readers that disagree. The fact is that people’s tastes are different, people’s tastes evolve, and there will always be at least some subjectivity to tasting and assessing wine.

It’s easy to look right over the tasting notes that accompany those sexy scores and just focus on the numbers, but please, read the notes. Over time, I’ve learned to embrace the tasting notes. It’s very interesting to compare notes from various publications that have evaluated the same wine. They rarely match but often the aromas and flavors detected are similar. Publication X may detect the aroma of blackberries, while Publication Y may detect blueberries. Perhaps the most important aspect of these notes is that they give readers a glimpse of the various aromas and flavors that can be detected in a given varietal.

The Bad

Small, virtually unknown wineries can shoot to stardom with a high score from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. High scores are great for wineries, as increased demand and exposure allow for increased prices. If the winery reaches “cult” status and becomes targeted by trophy-wine hunters everywhere, look out. Prices can become flat-out ridiculous.

Screaming Eagle is the ultimate Napa Valley cult wine. Unless you are lucky enough to be on the winery’s coveted mailing list, you would have to resort to more expensive options such as wine auctions and high-end restaurants to get your hands on a bottle. There just aren’t that many people that can afford to shell out a mortgage payment for a bottle of wine. High scores can make wines unattainable for the average wine drinker.

The Ugly

The ugly side of wine scores is the mindset that wine drinkers fall into when they treat these scores as dogma. To the score-obsessed, a wine that does not have a high score is probably bad, and a wine that has a high score is obviously great. As a Star Wars fan, I compare this to joining the dark side.

There are outstanding wines out there that have not been rated. It may be the case that the winery is a small start-up and has yet to receive a lot of exposure. Wine publications do not taste every wine out there. There is always a new frontier of wines to be discovered, as new wineries open up across the country every year. Please, do not write off a wine because it has not received a score from a publication.

One last note is that as your wine tasting skills become more developed, you may start to disagree with some of the publications’ scores. This behavior is healthy, however, if four publications have scored a wine between a 98 and 100 and you think it’s terrible, you might need to reevaluate and hone your tasting skills.

Like it or not, wine scores are certainly here to stay. Utilize the scores and tasting notes to help develop your tastes and wine education and, most importantly, don’t join the dark side!