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What's The Point Of Points? Wine Spectator Responds

By Staff in Food on Jul 7, 2014 6:00PM

Last month in my “When It Comes To Wine, What’s The Point of Points?” article I took a look at wine scoring systems and how these ratings affect consumers and the wine industry as a whole. I attempted to reach Wine Spectator magazine for some comments to be used in that article. Unfortunately, they were unable to respond prior to the article being published.

In order for you to see another point of view on this topic I was able to do an interview with Mr. Thomas Matthews, Executive editor of Wine Spectator.

Chicagoist: Can you give us a brief description of the scoring system used by Wine Spectator?

Thomas Matthews: Wine drinkers look for guidance from critics on what to buy, and some ranking system is essential to make useful recommendations. Wine Spectator settled on the 100-point scale in the 1980s. We adopted it because it seemed like a clear and coherent system for our readers.

"Can a consumer “be expected to taste the difference” between a two-star restaurant and a three-star restaurant? It depends on the consumer, and the critic."
It follows the grading system familiar to many readers from their educational experiences. Wines rated 95-100 are classics, the best of their kind. Less than 2 percent of the 20,000 wines we review each year earn “classic” scores. Wines rated 90-94 are outstanding examples of their types. Wines rated 85-89 are “very good,” offering special interest. Wines rated 80-84 are “good,” that is, they are clean, balanced and enjoyable. Wines rated below 80 points are not recommended.

Wines can be good values at any price point. And in certain circumstances, a lower-rated wine may be a more suitable choice. For example, if I want a bottle for a casual weekday dinner, an 88-point wine at $15 may be a better choice than a 94-point wine at $50 that needs five years in the cellar to reach its full potential.

In addition, each wine review includes a tasting note that describes the wine’s character. This is crucial information for matching wines to each consumer’s personal tastes. We never advocate buying solely by score.

C: How are wines tasted for review in Wine Spectator?

TM: Wine Spectator believes strongly in blind tastings, as the best way to eliminate bias and give every wine a fair and equal chance to show its best. Newly-released wines are reviewed in peer groups in blind tastings by editors who are expert in these wine categories.

For more information on our methodology, please read our detailed explanation, posted here.

C: What makes the distinction between an 89 point wine and a 90 point wine?

TM: In my experience, if you give glasses of two different wines to a wine drinker, no matter how much—or how little—experience he or she may have—one will be preferred over the other. Humans seem to be wired to make distinctions and have preferences.

When it comes to wine scoring, our critics have learned through long experience and hundreds of wines what qualities make a wine “outstanding”—or worth 90 points—and when a wine falls just short of that high standard. In the course of tasting, the critic applies that experience to make judgments of each wine. Is it outstanding? Is it almost outstanding? Is it good but no more? The score reflects the judgment.

Thomas Matthews
C: Obviously, your wine critics are some of the finest tasters in the business, but how can a consumer be expected to taste the difference between an 89 point and 90 point wine?

TM: If consumers take the opportunity to taste wines while referring to Wine Spectator reviews, they can compare their own experiences and preferences with the descriptions and judgments of our critics. The more consistent the agreement, the more the consumer can reliably depend on our reviews.

That’s no different from a film critic or a restaurant critic. Can a consumer “be expected to taste the difference” between a two-star restaurant and a three-star restaurant? It depends on the consumer, and the critic. The better the critic, and the more educated and attentive the consumer, the more useful the reviews will be—always given, of course, that critic and consumer share similar values.

C: Can you address the idea that there has been a “Grade inflation” in wine scores in general over the past decade or so?

TM: I can only speak to Wine Spectator reviews.

Each year, in our Jan. 31-Feb. 28 issue, we publish a statistical record of our tastings from the previous year. We want to be as transparent as possible with our readers.

In 2008, we reviewed 19,680 wines. Of these, 1 percent scored 95 points or higher, 26 percent scored 90-94 points, 48 percent scored 85-89 points, 20 percent scored 80-84 points, and 5 percent scored below 80 points.

In 2013, in comparison, we tasted 20,478 wines. Of these, 1 percent scored 95 points or higher, 32 percent scored 90-94 points, 54 percent scored 85-89 points, 12 percent scored 80-84 points, and 1 percent scored below 80 points.

As you can see, scores did shift slightly higher (except for the top category, “classic”). Does this reflect “grade inflation”? We don’t think so.

"Vintners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making wine, and consumers choose the destination by deciding which wines to buy."
Our experience tells us that vintners are constantly improving. Science gives them better tools; competition forces them to use those tools more expertly; consumers are more educated and demand better wines. Every region in the world has improved, and this general improvement is evident to anyone who has long experience tasting wines.

The 20,000 wines we review represent only a small percentage of the wines made each year and offered for sale in the U.S. We believe that we have gotten better at pre-selecting wines for review that are better made, and weeding out lower-quality wines before they reach our offices.

C: In my "When It Comes To Wine, What's The Point Of Points?" article, I noted that no wine reviewed in the Wine Spectator Buying Guide this year scored under 80 points. You observed that you make more reviews available online. Why aren't more wines, from a wider score range, included in the printed buying guide?

TM: Our goal is first and foremost to recommend wines we believe our readers will enjoy. We publish a “Buying Guide,” not a “Don’t Buy Guide.” Space in the magazine is limited. Why waste paper, and readers’ time, on wines that don’t deliver pleasure, quality and value?

However, our Web site,, and our WineRatings+ app (for iOS and Android devices), offer access to our entire database. Every month our critics review hundreds of wines that do not fit in the magazine’s Buying Guide, but all of those reviews are accessible via our database. Some of these are low-scoring wines, while others have high scores but may be produced in tiny quantities, or sold at high prices.

If you are making up a shopping list, then the Buying Guide will help guide your efforts. If you are considering a specific wine, in a shop or restaurant, then the database can give you our informed opinion, positive or negative.

C: How do you respond to the assertion that the 100 point system has homogenized the way wines are made and is at least partially responsible for the downplaying of terroir in wine making?

TM: The question is mis-directed. A scale in itself can’t have any particular impact. Why can’t a critic give high scores to wines that emphasize terroir? Wine Spectator’s critics prize diversity, regionality and typicity in wine - we don’t give high scores to “homogenized” wines.

I think you are asking whether a critic can earn such a large and loyal following that her tastes, whether expressed through the 100-point scale or some other ranking system, can significantly impact the way wines are made.

Possibly. But in my opinion that is giving too much power to the critic, and not enough to the winemaker and the consumer. Vintners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making wine, and consumers choose the destination by deciding which wines to buy. Critics only communicate between the two groups, helping to articulate the qualities that winemakers give to wines, and consumers enjoy in the glass.

C: Do you find that consumers let points obscure or overshadow the tasting notes? How do you recommend consumers use your reviews?

TM: Of course it depends on the consumer. But who are we to tell the consumer how to use information to make choices? We try to be helpful and give the best guidance we can. Consumers will take the information they find helpful and the advice they find useful.

We hope consumers will begin with the tasting notes, to learn whether bottle they are considering is in the style of wine they prefer. Then we hope they will use the score to compare the quality levels of wines of similar style. The “drink window”, which indicates when a wine should be at its peak, is also relevant, depending on when the consumer intends to open the wine. And of course price is a critical factor in determining whether the wine is a good value at its quality level.

C: Is there anything else you would like to add?

TM: Wine Spectator is much more than a collection of wine reviews. The Buying Guide makes up only one-third of an average issue; the rest of the pages are devoted to news, features, analysis and opinion. Readers will find plenty of wine information, but also recipes, travel guides and profiles of vintners and chefs.

We hold ourselves to high standards of ethics, professionalism and expertise. We are journalists who love wine and want to share our passion; we hope others can benefit from our experience. It is an inclusive vision, not a snobby or pretentious approach. Our goal is to educate and entertain, to help people develop their own tastes and explore the whole world and life of wine.

By John Lenart