On Rating Wine

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A number of people have inquired about how I rate wine, in particular perhaps because I often write something such as “90 points on my scale” as the end of a review. Exactly what constitutes my scale, then, becomes a legitimate question, and one I’m pleased to try to answer.

 

Most wine raters use a 100-point scale, and I am among them. It allows for far more flexibility and variation than does a 10 or 50-point scale, obviously. The most famous wine rater, Robert Parker, uses a scale that looks like this:

 

Baseline (Always 50)

Color and Appearance (Max 5)

Aroma and Bouquet (Max 15)

Flavor and Finish (Max 20)

Overall (Max 10)

 

For Parker, each wine starts with a baseline of 50, and then points are added from the above categories, all the way up to 100 at the most. I appreciate Parker a great deal for his pioneering, but also for what comes off to me as a general lack of arrogance when it comes to his ratings. This isn’t science, and he knows it. On eRobertParker.com, he explains his rating scale in depth, and ends with the line “However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”

 

This, in my thinking, couldn’t be more true. When people ask me what is “good wine,” I almost invariably respond by saying “Good wine is whatever wine you personally enjoy and can afford.” I don’t drink white zinfandel if I can help it, but if you love the stuff, I’m certainly not going to judge you.   It’s also quite rare that I spend over $50 on a bottle, and I prefer to spend less.

 

Also, like Parker, my numbers hold some sort of implied meaning, much like a report card. Here’s a brief explanation, using grading criteria:

 

95-100 is an “A+” for me, meaning that a wine is as good as I think wine can possibly be. One caveat: remember that on my scale, a wine will start to lose points once it breaks the $30 retail price, and can lose up to five points for value depending on what it retails for. Therefore, some very impressive wines can wind up scored in a lower category if they simply cost too much money. If your disposable income is unlimited, you’d probably prefer Parker’s scale to mine.

 

90-94 equals an “A” on my scale. This is excellent wine, in the top 10% or higher of all wines tasted. It’s complex and sophisticated, a work of art worthy of hanging on a wall or storing in a cellar.

 

85-89 is a “B+” if you will. This is solid wine, enjoyable to drink, possibly even exciting. It does things that most other wines don’t and, though far from perfect, is impressive in at least some fashion.

 

80-84 is a “B”. This is a wine that has no notable flaws, and might be called “good” in casual conversation.

 

70-79 is a “C”. This is average wine. You can drink it without being offended, but it’s far from ideal.

 

60-69 is a “D”, a wine that is lesser than other wines, and has obvious flaws such as a serious lack of balance, unpleasant flavors or aromas, or too much acidity.

 

50-59 is an “F”, an undrinkable wine, a failure.

 

Typically, when I rate a wine in the 70’s, I’m being a bit harsher than “soundly made,” but by and large we are consistent. Here’s where my scale differs slightly from Parker’s, and you are welcome to decide for yourself which one you prefer, though Parker and I are hardly in competition (me = small fish in big pond, Parker = whale). I’m not a full-time wine industry professional. My wine writing currently brings in somewhere between $200 to $400 on any given month – not bad for a hobby, but far from something I could pay the bills with. We’re working on that. But while Sonja and I remain middle class professionals, we have a relatively tight budget for wine. For this reason, it seemed prudent to me to include “Value” as a category in my wine ratings by adjusting my baseline. Here’s what that looks like:

 

Baseline (Always 45)

Color and Appearance (Max 5)

Aroma and Bouquet (Max 15)

Flavor and Finish (Max 20)

Overall (Max 10)

Value (Max 5)

 

Value is calculated using the below table:

 

$1-$30 – 5

$30-$75 – 4

$75-$150 – 3

$150-$300 – 2

$300-$500 – 1

$501+ – 0

 

To use an extreme example, let’s say I had a bottle of 1945 Chateau Lafite or even a more recent vintage of Screaming Eagle, both wines that run in the four-figure price range if not higher, and let’s say I just absolutely loved them. The highest rating they could get from me would be 95 points: very respectable, but far from perfect. This is consistent with my philosophy that wine is a compliment to other experiences, a pairing if you will, and should not be the experience unto itself. A bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet can cost more than it would take to send my entire family to Europe for a few weeks, and no matter how fantastic it may taste (I wouldn’t know – never had even a sip of it) I could never rationalize that expense. It’s the same reason I don’t drive a Maserati.

 

Here’s an example of a wine I rated recently, and truly enjoyed:

 

Titus Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – 93 Pts.

Color and Appearance – 5

Aroma and Bouquet – 12

Flavor and Finish – 18

Overall – 9

Value – 4

 

At $50/bottle, it received four points for value out of five. All things considered, this is a truly excellent wine, and one I often point to when people start painting this vintage with a broad and unfair brush.

 

I’ve had it pointed out to me on more than one occasion that many of the wines I rate receive scores in the 90’s. This is very true. The reason is that I’ve been tasting for a long time, and I know, and therefore purchase, what I like. I do accept samples that are shipped to me from wineries, though I find that mostly wineries ship only very good wines to me to rate. So yes, my average score is pretty high, but that’s got more to do with drinking good wine than it does rating bad wine too high.

 

One final thought: I believe in rating wine for what it is. I recently fell in love with a little Napa winery called Smith-Madrone up on Spring Mountain. There, the Smith’s make an amazing Riesling, and an excellent Cab, amongst other things. Someone asked recently if I liked the Riesling or the Cab better, and I politely told them that was the wrong question. It’s sort of like asking if someone prefers Honda Civics or Honda lawnmowers. It’s okay to have both.

 

If I rate a Napa Cab and I give it 90-points, I mean in my book it’s a 90-point Napa Cab. If it’s a Frontenac from Minnesota and gets 90 points, it means it’s a 90-point Midwestern Frontenac. Pitted against one another, these wines might not be comparable, even though they got the same score. In other words, I try to rate wine for what it is. Frankly, turning a St. Croix grape into drinkable wine is apparently very difficult, so when I try a St. Croix that’s full-bodied, smooth, and doesn’t reek of pickle juice, it scores rather high – as a St. Croix. But I’ve never had a St. Croix, made anywhere, that could stand up to a decent, small production Cabernet from Napa or Sonoma. They might be out there, but I’ve never had one. All this to say, I try hard to compare apples to apples, Sonoma Merlot to Sonoma Merlot, and Chablis to Chablis, taking into consideration the region where the grapes were grown as well as the varietal to try to offer the most objective and accurate take possible on every wine I rate.

 

So in a nutshell, that’s my system. I could go into a lot more detail, and if you have questions I’m happy to do so. Like Parker, I’d remind anyone reading that my palate and yours are different, and that neither my palate nor my ratings are a substitute for your own personal tastes. I’m making suggestions about wines I like, and you’re welcome to take them. If you think I nailed it, please tell me. If you think I screwed up, please let me know that, too. Ultimately, I enjoy writing and I enjoy wine, and I also enjoy communicating with people about these things. Cheers, and may you find a wonderful wine today to pair with your experiences!

Mark

 

 

For a detailed look at Robert Parker’s explanation about his own ratings, visit: https://www.erobertparker.com/info/legend.asp

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