How Useful is the Wine Scoring System?

What’s in a wine score? A local winemaker rebels against the system

Red Mountain is full of interesting sights. Like movie-star-handsome Christophe Hedges, stripped to the waist, heaving huge stones into their proper place at the French country farmhouse he’s building near his family’s winery, Hedges Family Estate. The stone house already looks ancient, like it grew organically from the rocky soil. Or I should say grew biodynamically, because that’s how Hedges tends his vines, in concert with the cosmos.

I’ve come to this tiny but famous American Viticultural Area in eastern Washington not (just) for the scenery, but to sip Hedges’ dry and fragrant rosé in the bone-warming sun and talk about why this excellent wine has no score. “When someone says a wine is 100 points, what does that mean?” Hedges thunders. I respond meekly. “That it’s…perfect?”

“So who determined that? Was it God?” Hedges asks. “The wine critic, is he a god?”

A few days later and 70 miles east, wine critic Paul Gregutt opens the door of his lovely rose-draped cottage in Waitsburg looking very human. He’s got a bad cold, which will create a backlog in his work. He gestures around the kitchen at wine that has been submitted for scoring by winemakers around the Northwest. “Five days out of seven—sometimes seven days out of seven—I’m tasting wine in the afternoon,” Gregutt says. He scores wine for Wine Enthusiast, one of the national publications that help determine the fortunes of a bottle of wine.

“Consumers are looking for a life ring in a sea of wine,” Gregutt says. “They will see that a wine got 91 points in Wine Enthusiast and they will buy it. Scores have an impact. A good one. It’s fine with me.”

Gregutt has been raising awareness of Northwest wines since 1998, when he took on the Washington and Oregon beat with Wine Enthusiast. Until May of this year, he also wrote about wine for The Seattle Times and he is a chief wine designer for Waitsburg Cellars (whose wines have been scored in The Wine Advocate). He is quick to point out he’s not nearly as powerful as Robert Parker, the man who made 100 points the gold standard for wine lovers. When Parker launched The Wine Advocate newsletter in 1978, it was not the first American publication to rate wine with a number. But it was the first to widely use the now familiar 50–100 point scale.

Consumers loved those black and white numbers, and soon the 100-point-scale, Parker-style scores were adopted by many other wine critics and publications.
According to Parker, a 96–100 is an extraordinary wine, 90–95 is excellent, 80–89 is above average to very good, 70–79 is average with little distinction except that it is soundly made, below 70 is flawed, and 50 is plonk.