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Where'd That 91 Point Score Come From Exactly?

Wine ratings. Few things stir up so much controversy and drive so many decisions as a mere number or grade on a bottle of wine. It’s both alluring and perhaps offputting to some because of its mystique. Seriously, how many beverages have the kind of connotations that wine has?

  • An integral part of the sacrament.
  • The subject of numerous quotes, books, poems, and stories.
  • Its own Ancient Greek god (Dionysus).

Then, there are those wine scores that further cement these impressions.

The fact remains that those numbers mean much more than you may think. They influence consumer behavior and buying habits. They can even make or break a winery or producer.

But are they the real deal?

Why Wine Scores Are a Thing

Other than generalizations and the subject of debates, the significance of wine reviews and ratings is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before, it was—and still is—sales copy. Advertisers wax poetic about their clients’ wines to create that buzz that translates into dollars.

The Legendary Robert Parker

However, things changed with the 1982 Bordeaux vintage and wine critic Robert Parker’s assessment of it. When others wrote it off as a bad year, Parker insisted it would develop into an excellent, long-lived wine.

He was right.

Thus, started the mad rush to get rated and to please the discerning palette of critics. Robert Parker remained on the crest of the tide. If your wine earned his accolades, it guaranteed success.

Like many other critics in his wake, he used a 100-point system. Americans are well-acquainted with the value of getting a score of 90 or better on a test. Read: A.

The natural assumption was that a 90+ wine was the best you could buy, especially if you could afford it. The difference between a 89 and 90 rating makes all the difference.

Many vintners and producers responded by making wines they thought he’d like. Of course, we all have our preferences. Parker enjoyed big Cabernet Sauvignons. It’s safe to say that he was a driving force in the industry. That’s how valuable his assessments became.

Interestingly, other reviewers, such as the University of California—Davis, Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, and  

Vinum Magazine, use a 20-point scale instead. The criticism with the 90-point system is that the finest of it makes it less useful—other than the 90+ score.

You have to ask precisely what is the difference between 89 and 90 or between 88 and 89, for that matter. You also have to wonder, what wines score under 80? On the other end of the scale, you might not want to pick a wine that is so-so.

The Value of a High Rating

We can’t overemphasize what a high rating or favorable review means to vintner. Many will capitalize on it with labels on their bottles boasting of the score. You’ll see shelf-talkers, with quotes from a critic praising a particular wine.

Unfortunately, it’s come to the point where only the number matters and not who is dishing them out on various wines. If you look closely at those placards, you might see who or what entity gave this impressive score.

North Dakota State Fair?

Some wannabe wine critic with a blog called Wining With Joe?

Dom Pierre’s podcast called Wine Not?

The point is that you have to read the fine print when you look at those shelf-talkers. Find out who is making the claim and what their credentials are. The critic who writes a wine column once in a while isn’t going to give you the best assessment.

Retailers know how influential these scores are. You’ll often see them on store endcaps or on the top shelf with other 90+ scoring wines to drive sales. It works with consumers who are either overwhelmed with all their choices or want to impress their friends with their excellent picks.

Wineries know it, too. There’s even a private California business that claims they have it down to a science with software and number crunching to predict harvest dates, evaluate wines, and even tell you what you can expect to make off of a particular vintage.

The other thing to bear in mind is that just because a Pinot Noir scores high marks doesn’t mean that a winery’s Cabernet Franc is great, too. Any winemaker will tell you that different grape varieties have their quirks.

They have different harvest dates, growing difficulties, and susceptibility to various climate conditions, such as frost. All these things play a role in the final product. And they are all different. That’s why you also have to look at the particular wine on that shelf-talker.

Pro Tip: Be sure also to check the vintage on the card. A national wine magazine was well-aware of this ruse and asked customers to call out retailers putting out these misleading shelf-talkers. After all, the vintage is on the label for a good reason.

Wine laws vary by the American Viticultural Area (AVA) for the United States. You can safely bet that a minimum of 85 percent of the named AVA comes from that place. The regs vary, depending on how it’s labeled. That adds another riff on the value of the shelf-talker.

Wine Awards

Another thing to understand is the allure of wine awards. Now, don’t get us wrong. Many are totally legit and praiseworthy. However, some are nowhere near a Judgment-of-Paris to crown the next world’s top wine.

Often, new wineries and producers enter these competitions to get some name recognition and earn some cred to sell more bottles. You’ll often see them with labels boasting of their award or prominently displayed on their website. Again, pay attention to the vintages and varietal names.

Just like the wine rating, it pays to do some checking. Getting the Gold Award for Best Red Wine from the Lake County Fair doesn’t carry the same prestige as getting picked as one of Wine Spectator’s 100 Best Wines.

Bear in mind that the winemakers are choosing to enter these competitions. And just because they won in 2010 doesn’t mean more recent vintages are up to snuff.

The other thing to watch is the retailer’s 100 best wines. Some often get their picks ready just before their annual wine sale or box them up for Christmas gifts as the store owner’s favorite selections.

It could be that, or it could be the stuff they’re trying to unload because it’s been there forever. Or it’s a great deal they got on the wine from their distributor who is also trying to unload some stuff they’ve had forever.

How People Evaluate Wine

We’ll admit that there is something nerdy about wine. When you have to know the intricacies of labeling in Old World bottles, it crosses the line for some people. It doesn’t help when a vintner calls a bottle their Grand Vin when there aren’t any regulations governing how they use it.

A wine bottle has to sell itself perhaps literally in seconds, not unlike a website with stuff for sale. Robert Mondavi promoted the concept of varietal labeling that we know today. Wine laws here and abroad give you an excellent picture of what you can expect.

Varietal labeling attempts to make the wine seem less intimidating. The grape varieties are familiar to you. Winemakers often take it to the next level for good or bad with pretty pictures, wine names, or flowery descriptions. For many people, that’s how they pick one bottle over another, especially if it has that high wine score on it, too.

Price and Quality

It’s a widespread belief that price equals quality. We may buy one pair of shoes over another simply because it costs more. The same thing applies to wine.

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that price cues can influence our perception of wine by activating our brains’ valuation system or how pleasant people think of a particular wine.

Participants given the same wine with different price points thought that the more expensive one was better. It triggered brain activity associated with pleasurable sensations, as seen in the fMRI images.

That’s a simplistic way to view wine on several scores. After all, supply and demand drive the market just like any other product. While the price-equals-better equation works with some bottles, it’s not necessarily true across the board.

For example, many wines are excellent values because they either aren’t well known to garner a higher price, or they don’t have that cache of a 90+ rating to put them on buyers’ radar.

It’s a case where not having a respectable critic score—or their attention to write about it—can keep wine affordably priced regardless of its quality. It’s often the case with Old World wines, such as Portugal. 

How Humans Perceive Wine

So, we know that wine ratings, labeling, and price can affect how we perceive it. The next question is whether those scores and reviews are meaningful. Let’s start with some facts.

Scientists have identified over 1,000 aromatic compounds in wine that can contribute to the aromas and taste sensations. Compare that to coffee, which only has 50. Suffice to say that there is a lot going on inside of your glass.

There’s also the genetic component to the equation. Humans have over 1,000 genes for odor perception. However, not all of them are actively affecting our sense of smell and, hence, taste. Scientists estimate the figure at less than 50 percent.

A study published in the journal Nature Genetics considered how that might affect how we smell and taste. They took DNA samples from 189 participants to see which genes were active in each of the individuals. They found that none of them had the same lineup of active genes.

In other words, our sense of smell is uniquely our own. That means those 90+ scores from the judges at the North Dakota State Fair aren’t necessarily relevant to anyone but the judges themselves. But we could have told you that, too.

How to View Wine Scores and Reviews

The takeaway message from this discussion is that taste is subjective to things within and outside of our control. Bolstering a mediocre wine with obscure ratings doesn’t make it any better. It’s merely another tool that some producers and winemakers use to drive sales.

That’s not to say that all wine scores are meaningless and don’t offer a valued opinion. Prestigious publications such as the Wine Enthusiast can give you some welcome advice if you’re debating about which wine to get.

Remember that their staff evaluates literally hundreds of wines. They have the experience to tell you if you’re drinking a well-made Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The fascinating thing is that the human brain responds to these challenges.

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that the brains of Master Sommeliers are structurally different from casual wine drinkers. Areas associated with vision and smell were more highly developed because of the unique challenges of their profession.

That means that the wine scores you see from critics that evaluate wine for a living are more significant and relevant when you are choosing a wine. It’s nothing against state fairs or blogs. It’s just that professional wine tasting is a skill that requires the necessary experience to make an accurate judgment call.

Sail to Trail Wineworks takes that position seriously. We seek out these kinds of critics because they have the experience to review wines, even if they’re tough. Anyone can say that a bottle of wine tastes good. It takes a professional to know where it stands in the pack.

Final Thoughts

Wine ratings are the proverbial double-edged sword. When used correctly and ethically, they provide valuable insights into the wines and the winemakers. They can provide you with the necessary information you need to make informed choices, whether you’re at your local wine shop or scanning the wine list at your favorite restaurant.

The essential thing to remember is to consider the source. Read the fine print so that you know that you’re getting an independent, professional assessment of a wine that you can trust.

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