Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The 100 Point System

This post is taken directly from a comment I left on a thread at Paul Gregutt's blog. I loathe to waste words, so I'm reposting it here for anyone who's interested. Feel free to read the entire conversation; it's quite interesting.

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm not looking for a flame war, but do like to be cited when I'm quoted.

While I can commiserate with you about being under-appreciated for the good work that you do (which I personally do appreciate; hell, I have a signed copy of your book) I think that in large part the reliance of wine buyers on the 100 point system leads to that very under-appreciation. Frankly, for many people a numeric grade speaks louder than a thousand words of effusive praise.

When you say that "wine drinkers who care enough about the subject to actually purchase and read the trade mags probably don't need scores to decide what they actually want to drink," I must beg to differ. There are gross numbers of consumers who rely almost solely on those numbers, or "won't buy anything less than a 90 point wine." I think that for these people the number itself is an assurance of quality; in their mind it ensures that they are getting the best possible bang for their ever-stretched buck. Not all wine drinkers are this way, but in a world where everyone wants to be savvy but doesn't necessarily have the time to do the research necessary to make an informed decision, the 100-point system offers them a quick and easy way to purchase something that they feel they can have confidence in.

I ramble, but am narrowing in on my point. The 100-point grading system is an exercise in reductionism; it takes all the words of praise, criticism, and thoughtful reflection that a wine writer can put into a review and reduces it to a quantitative analysis of something (wine) that is in essence not quantifiable. When there is careful and considerate reasoning behind the score that might not be so bad, but when a reviewer flies into a region, spends two weeks there, and spits out (no pun intended) 810 reviews as a result, one has to wonder about the quality of the journalism involved.

I am, of course, talking about The Wine Advocate's Jay Miller (whom I was talking about in that original Cayuse review as well). This sort of thing is in my mind not only sloppy journalism, but detrimental to the wine industry in general; many an undeserving 89 point score has led to poor sales for a winery. However, these scores are given undue gravitas by wine collectors globally- Quilceda Creek will forever be known as the 100 point Washington wine.

I don't mean to hijack your blog, but it's a subject to which I've given a lot of thought. I don't necessarily have any answers; the public demands scores, wineries with high scores tout them, retailers and distributors use them to move product, and wine publications get publicity from them. As they say, it is what it is.

There is a (I think natural) backlash to this trend from those who see it as damaging to the industry. Let me point out, however, that not all of us are militant about it, and certainly not all of us are crying "death to critics!"

Or at least, not death to ALL of them.


  1. I very much enjoyed the comments you had for Paul G. on this topic of the critic’s influence. I’ve found that most critics don’t want to acknowledge the influence they can or do have over wine styles and wine sales. I think if critics openly claimed their influence then there would be a backlash from the consumer because the consumer wants to believe they are making the decisions and not being told what decisions to make.


  2. Hey Scott,

    Interesting points. I agree that a lot of critics like to play the 'little me, just an advocate for the consumer' card. The question of why is complicated, and there're probably multiple factors contributing to it. It's an interesting subject to go into; I'll try to do a post about it later.

    When I read someone like Paul Gregutt bemoaning the terroirist movement as not giving him enough credit for the work he does I empathize. I appreciate immensely the fact that he focuses entirely on the Pacific Northwest, a region that he both lives in and is passionate about. I do think that much of the time he writes in a style both considerate and well-parsed. As he said, I think that he takes a lot of flack for the transgressions of others in his industry. He loses credit in my book for utilizing the 100-point system, even if that's what's required for working at a nationwide publication, but focusing on the region he lives in is so crucial. If every reviewer did that the system would not be as broken as it is.

    Thanks for reading, Scott; I really appreciate it! How'd 2010 harvest treat you down there?

  3. I used to be an avid follower of Paul G.’s blog, but finally concluded what’s the point. I found that he was often very defensive if one offered up an idea or point of view that was not in line with his. And I think he is primarily a WA wine supporter and secondarily a NW supporter.

    I wasn’t aware that he bemoans terroirists. What does he say?

    The cold 2010 growing season was pretty nerve racking. Ironically, the ‘10 wines will likely be a bit higher in alcohol than what we would normally shoot for, but we had to wait for the acids to come down. I knew in early October that we were either going to get very lean wines or highly structured wines depending on how long the good weather held out. It’s too early to call for sure, but the wines certainly aren’t lean.

  4. I have to give you my copy of The Wine Trials 2011. A great and well-researched critique of the 100 point system and the subjectivity of it. There needs to be more transparency about how critics arrive at these numbers and what internal and external influences come into play.

  5. @Scott - I said 'terroirist,' but meant more along the lines of Alice Feiring and the like who set themselves in opposition to the wine critic establishment. And really, of course he's against them; they're at conflicting ends of the argument. BTW, glad to hear you survived the season! I think there'll be a lot of high alcohol wines out of the eastern NW; acid numbers were weird across the board, from everyone I've talked to.

    @Jameson - Let me borrow it! I've heard of the series. Another 'everything you know is wrong,' iconoclastic wine book, right?