How consumers buy wine – the 100-point scale revisited

Wine ratings by the likes of Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have been useful guides in the past for a generation of consumers in the US who really didn’t know too much about wine.  According to Michel Bettane, famed French wine critic speaking last November in Hong Kong, wine evaluation traditionally served the interests of the trade, maintaining good prices for producers and therefore merchants.  In the US, ratings helped consumers buy wine because they were easy to understand and easily duplicatable. 

At the 13th annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival last Friday, Daniel Sogg, former editor of the Wine Spectator, gave his take on the most popular form of ratings, the 100-point scale.  Sogg said it is clearly part of our culture and has instant meaning for consumers.  He said it also satisfies a psychological need for consumers who see aspirational value in higher scores and who do not want to appear “stupid” to their peers.  Sogg said that ratings have become even more important to consumers given the sheer volume of brands coming out of a growing number of wine regions. 

What the ratings don’t always reflect are the conditions under which wines are evaluated.  Wine critics often taste several wines at a time and therefore tasting order and fatigue may affect their opinion, and they may judge the wines comparatively to the particular group in front of them. 

What ratings also don’t convey is why consumers enjoy these wines.  According to Bettane, the old world approach, and the way Bettane & Desseauve practice wine criticism, is to evaluate wines on a relative vs. absolute basis, taking into account vintage, terroir, style, ageing potential and other complex elements.  According to Bettane, the evaluation should also consider the “cultural dimension” of wine including history and tradition vs. the immediate and perishable flavor of wine or its immediate price.  The evaluation of wine ultimately should be an education vs. a recommendation because the “pleasure is complete” when the consumer makes his own decision.

Sogg said that most US critics do take temporal aspects of wine like ageability into account by  scoring wines “at their best.”  For example, if a critic says the wine will be at its best from 2012 to 2020, then the score should apply to that stage.  In reality, this is not always the case.  Sogg said that its not the best wines that get the best scores, but the best examples of a “style” of wine that appeal to certain critics, such as big, fruit-driven reds that show well young, and this influences how some winemakers make their wines.  Sogg gave examples of some producers blending in a small amount of young wines prior to bottling (US labelling laws permit up to 5% of non-vintage wines in a vintage-labelled wine) to add youthful fruit to a longer-aged wine, or putting the wines in 100% new french oak for the last 5-6 months of ageing.  Some Bordeaux producers perform full malolactic on wines in new french oak barrel to show well early in en primeur despite its questionable impact on ageability. 

Scores also don’t take into account how we buy and enjoy the wines.  We enjoy simple, fruity, inexpensive wines for everyday consumption to ultra-luxury, meditation wines, and we also invest in wines.  Is a 90-point score for a $10 argentina malbec that we have with tonight’s burger comparable to a $200 Napa Valley cab that is cellared away?   Could a wine rated on its own possibly taste better when paired with complementary-flavored food?

Sogg made the point that the 100-point scale is not really a 100-point scale – when was the last time you saw a 25 or 50 point wine?  It’s really a 15-20 point scale.  It gets back to the original commercial importance of scores in markets like the US and UK.   Critics simply seek out wines that they can recommend.

Sogg said that consumer-driven wine evaluation such as and blogs will increase in importance but that conventional wine ratings will always have a role.  Time will tell.  While ratings may or may not be objective, Sogg conceded that consumer “enjoyment” of wine is by nature subjective.