Let’s say you walk into a wine shop to pick out a wine for the evening. You have two regionally similar wines, except in front of one bottle is a laminated wine score. Which one do you reach for? Wine scores seem to be so ingrained in the fabric of shopping for wine it’s almost silly to think that this idea of formalized wine scores actually has been around for less than 50 years.
While there are certainly credible resources out there, even the idea of “credibility” is inherently subjective. In a way, the point scale offers the delusion of better wine. But what does better even mean? And is it really better?
When there’s a lack of affixed wine scores on a bottle or shelf, there’s no need to panic. In sheer statistics alone, because of the exceedingly broad selection of wine available on the market, the majority of wine isn’t rated. Not all wines are rated. Not all wines even have the opportunity to get rated.
This is not an ultimate bash to the wine score, but rather an endorsement for yourself to have control as the consumer. You have the power to rely less on scores to make your choices — observe scores as the supporting cast instead of the lead.
Because critics of the top publications taste thousands of wine a year, it can be incredibly useful to see how particular wines in identical categories stack up with each other. The idea is that I, myself, likely will not catch up and have the same breadth of tasting opportunity as any of these critics. Rational, right?
However, the anatomy of the wine score is not foolproof. There isn’t even one universal scoring method. The 100-point scale we’re all used to seeing was introduced by Robert Parker in the late 70s. Over the years, each publication has adapted this scale but when you take the time to see how each outlet standardizes their scores, you’ll find there’s varying elements to each one and they don’t all represent the same principles.
Then there’s the scores for varying vintages. A common gripe about scores is a wine sign not matching with the wine that is physically on the self. My argument is for you to see past that. In years of faster production between vintages sometimes the logistics are simply around the fact critics haven’t even gotten to tasting the vintage yet. Also, while there’s a part of me who’s a vintage variation detective, I also understand that for many admirable producers, they have the ability to keep a level of consistency across vintages so that 2015 might not be all that different from the 2016. There are many wines that have pleasantly surprised me from horrific growing seasons than those which were flat out crap. Yet someone will disregard the 2016 if that’s the wine without a score.
The scores themselves are one thing, what they represent is another. To me it’s the equivalent of demanding 5-star service in every waking moment. It’s what gives life to someone who scoffs at a score of 89. Wineries are also often charged to have their wines rated, so what does that mean for the smaller producers with less marketing budgets or quantities in general? In some cases it feels the game has even become about particular producers chasing an arbitrary wine score above anything else.
What can you do?
Try to compartmentalize the score and the wine. Think of a score in context. On some scales the scores aren’t necessarily pointing you in a direction of what would be “good” for you, sometimes the score indicates how “true” a wine is based on the characteristics of what a Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley “should” be. After a while you’ll realize which critics are more in line with your tasting preferences than another. If you like big, fruit-forward Napa Valley Cabs, the critic with an affinity for Bordeaux might not be your personal trusted source.
Talk to your wine expert. This is where I make the argument to support your local wine shop. While the circumstances of Covid has made some of us want to do more one-stop shopping and grab as much as we need from one place like a grocery store, nothing can replace the type of a service you get from the local spot you frequent. You get to know them, they get to know you, and at a point they just understand your palate — both approvals and objections. You can basically give them a budget and let them run with it as far as suggestions go and you’ll be pleased!
Be open — to both the new and old. A lot of the focus now seems to be “unknown” grapes you don’t see often, and I get it. It’s exciting to try something new! But also regroup to what you think you know. Just because you’ve had a Chardonnay doesn’t mean you’ve had all Chardonnay. Inspect the label. Maybe it’s the brand that catches your eye because you’ve tried other wines they sell. Maybe it’s the renown wine region that has you curious. Maybe you see who the importer is and you already like some of the other selections they import. So many opportunities! None of which involves putting the wine score on a pedestal.
Moral of the story, blindly following scores is limiting, but they have their place. Take wine scores into context when you do use them. Above all, trust yourself and what you enjoy. Drink what you like and remember you are the boss of your own wine glass!