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Understanding Wine Ratings

A wine rating is a score assigned by one or more wine critics to a wine as a subjective assessment of the quality of the wine. The most commonly used 100 point scale was first introduced by the influential wine critic Robert M. Parker, the founder of The Wine Advocate. This scale is now followed by the three major publications Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits. Other well-known users of the 100 point scale include CellarTracker, James Halliday, James Suckling, The Wine Cellar Insider and Stephen Tanzer.

In general, the meaning of the wine score can be summarized as below:

95-100   Classic: An extraordinary wine or a rare find.

90-94     Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style.

85-89     Very good: a wine with special qualities.

80-84     Good: a solid, well-made wine.

75-79     Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws.

50-74     Below average and not recommended.

Wine ratings in itself has become a big business and maintaining objectivity and a high standard of ethics in rating wines has become all the more important. Major publications such as Wine Spectator employ a “single blind” methodology where the tasters are provided general aspects of the wine that provide context, which include vintage, appellation and grape variety but never the name of the producer or the wine’s price. Wine Spectator has posted a histogram of its rated wines by rating category that is built from its database of nearly 250,000 reviews over a period spanning 3 decades. The results that are captured below and provide a good approximation of the distribution of rated wines:

Key Takeaways

  • Only about the Top 2% of the rated wine universe or less than 1% of all wines produced fall in the collectible wine category (95 points and above). These wines are highly sought after, rare and expensive.
  • About 21% of the rated wine universe or less than 5% of all wines produced fall in the 90 points and higher range. This is why a 90+ point wine below $20 is considered such a strong value proposition.
  • The median of the rated wine universe is the 85 to 89 point range. These are good solid well-made wines.

In the wine world, two categories get the most attention:

Value wines rated 90+: On the one end of the spectrum, we have the "low price - high value" category e.g. a 90+ rated wine under $15. This is good quality at a low cost and appeals to the value conscious consumer.

Collectible wines rated 95+: At the other end of the spectrum, we have the "collectible wines" e.g. wines rated 95+ points. Here the wine consumer understands and appreciates the intricacies of the wine and price is a secondary consideration. This niche appeals to the wine connoisseurs and the serious collectors who are willing to spend for perfection.

The two categories that often get lost in all the wine ratings hype are:

Wines rated 92-94 points: Strategy guru Michael Porter would probably call this category "stuck in the middle", as it neither appeals to the cost conscious value seeker as these wines are typically above $20 or the wine connoisseur collector who is seeking something closer to perfection. However we think of these wines as the hidden pearls or the best kept secrets. These are excellent wines that almost made it to collectible stature and often available at fantastic bargains.

Wines rated 85-89 points: This rating category is often considered the “kiss of death” for wine producers and we think of it as the most misunderstood category by many consumers who consider only a 90 or better to be an endorsement. While technically a one point difference is insignificant, the difference between an 89 and a 90 point wine score is construed as huge. However the publications themselves disagree! For instance, an 80-84 denotes a “Good” wine and an “85-89” denotes a “Very Good” wine. The key takeaway is that a wine rated in the 80s is likely going to be available at a tremendous bargain.

Critics of the wine rating system contend that the economic and marketing power of receiving favorable scores by influential critics has steered global winemaking towards producing a homogeneous style that is perceived as appealing to the critics. For instance, wineries have often been accused of making wines tailored to Robert Parker's tastes. Wine expert Jancis Robinson, the first non-trade Master of Wine, once noted that Parker and The Wine Advocate were "...in danger of controlling the international fine wine market."

We would like you to think of a wine rating as a tool to understand and appreciate a wine. Most professional wine tasters and sommeliers will tell you that wine tasting is a difficult, imprecise and a humbling experience. From the thousands of wines we have tasted over the years to determine the wine selection at Liquid Discount, we could not agree more! We often bring in wines that are unrated and also have started to reject wines that are rated as we have steadily gained conviction on the character and profile of wines we would like to maintain at our store.

In Robert Parker's own words, "There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself". Eventually whether a wine is rated or not, all that matters is that you, our customer, enjoys the wine!

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