How Useful is the Wine Scoring System?

What’s in a wine score? A local winemaker rebels against the system
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

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.

Give that Monet a 99
So what’s the problem? Nothing, as long as you believe that the complexities of wine can be summed up in a single number. As he pours more wine, Hedges explains that artists capture landscapes on canvas and winemakers express terroir in the glass. In his view, putting a number on wine is as absurd as giving a Monet landscape a 99.

“What other art form would do that? Are you going to have one person telling you what good music is? Wine and people evolve,” Hedges says. “It all comes back to this: I used to like sweet wine and listen to Garth Brooks.”

These days, Hedges’ tastes have expanded to include complex reds and all sorts of music, and he tries to get consumers and winemakers to ditch wine scores.
His online manifesto Score Revolution (at scorevolt.com) started after a chef kicked Hedges out of a New York City restaurant ten years ago. He was trying to sell his family’s wine by showing the chef a sheet of good wine scores. The score sheet insulted the chef, Hedges came to believe, but more importantly, such scores degrade the efforts of winemakers who are trying to put art in the bottle.

And here’s the funny thing. Most winemakers I talked to—and I talked to dozens—agree with Hedges. They hate submitting wines for scores. So why do they do it? Because Washington state makes such a little puddle of wine compared to California (producing 188,000 tons of wine grapes in 2012, compared to California’s 4 million tons), it’s hard to make a splash without some tonnage. Take Red Mountain–based winemakers Kelly and Tim Hightower, for example, on a recent selling trip to a new state for them, Virginia. As they make the rounds with their distributor to wine shops and restaurant owners, they find there is not a lot of awareness of Washington wine and that it helps to flash those 90s scores.

“We want more distribution, so we are submitting more wine for scores,” Tim Hightower says. “You say Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate gave us X, Y and Z. It gives you instant credibility” with certain people. And yet, Hightower’s opinion of wine scores isn’t so hot. “Some consumers put a lot of weight on it. They shouldn’t, though. Is it really a 91? It is not that exact a science.”

Our state’s wine commission has parsed the intersection of wine and wine prices to create the perfect talking point. “Over the last four years, Washington has gotten more 90+ scores, has outperformed France, Italy, California and Oregon,” says Steve Warner, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission. “At the same time, the average cost for premium Washington wine is less than these other regions. That’s an eye-opener! People go, ‘Wow!’”
So now you are shaking your head, wondering how that could be possible given how little wine Washington produces relative to France or California. It’s a percentage of wines tasted. For example in 2012, Wine Spectator wine critics tasted 730 wines from Washington, and 47 percent of those wines scored 90 points or more. Its critics tasted lots more California wines, but only 35 percent of those wines scored 90 or higher.

Another cheerleader for scores is Washington wine pioneer Jim Holmes. In 1972, people said Holmes and pal John Williams were crazy when they planted grapes on 80 acres of desert west of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today that “worthless” land is the home of two famous Red Mountain vineyards, Ciel du Cheval and Kiona. Holmes believes that fame can be attributed to numbers—bottles of wine made from his grapes score an average of 92 points each year.
“Gaining recognition as a world-class wine area is just impossible in our modern world unless there is a valid and believable way to compare wines from different places,” Holmes says. “Scores from critics who have large followings provide this needed platform.”

Wine scores: Behind the Scenes
While grocery aisle “shelf talkers” promise a “muscular Malbec” or “supple Chardonnay,” what registers with many shoppers is the number above the adjectives. But is it objective?

Before I researched this story, I had this vision of Robert Parker sitting at a plain table with a white notepad while assistants brought him an anonymous glass of wine. He would sip and consider, then scribble notes, and repeat. And that is how he started tasting in 1978. He put bottles into individual paper bags so he wouldn’t be influenced by the name or reputation of the winery. These days, David Schildknecht (improbably based in Ohio) is the expert who tastes Pacific Northwest wines for The Wine Advocate.

“I regret that I don’t get to do much tasting blind,” Schildknecht says on the website Essential Northwest Wines. “By the time I finish tasting in the company of the vintners—who usually, though not always, let me know, wine by wine, what’s coming—that’s about all the time I have available.”

We aren’t talking sour grapes here. Marie-Eve Gilla is an award-winning winemaker at Forgeron Cellars in Walla Walla, and her wine regularly scores in the 90s. But she doesn’t believe tastings that say they are blind always are. She tells a story about one of her wines that got two very different scores. She submitted the same wine under two different labels, and the one that appeared to be made by a man got the higher score.

Gregutt says he does taste blind when he’s scoring for Wine Enthusiast. Here is how he describes the process: Winemakers ship wines to his house. He lets the bottles rest a few days, and then his wife, Karen, pours them so Gregutt won’t know who made the wine. He usually tastes about 10 wines at one time and arranges them from low score to high score.

“I pride myself in this. I revisit the wines. Young wines are often tight, closed down, and sometimes they take hours or days to open up.” After he gives the wines time to show their true colors, he assigns a final score.

Blake Gray, a respected wine industry blogger and former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle defends wine scores—to a point. “For a wine to get above 95, it has to be profound, not just delicious,” Gray says. “But most days, I don’t want profound. Ratings over 98, profound wines, are for collectors, for bragging rights, for ‘mine is bigger than yours.’”

Guilty as charged admits amateur wine collector Mike Holmes, owner of Holmes Electric in Kent (no relation to Jim). He paid dearly for a wine that received 100 points from The Wine Advocate, hoping to blow away his pals in an informal wine club where members “dig deep and bring out your best guns,” says Holmes.

“You are told it’s a 100-point wine,” Holmes says. But when the group tasted this wine, Holmes was deflated. “You have in your mind what 100 points is. This wasn’t it. Everyone agreed. It was embarrassing.” I met Holmes and his wine posse at a new event called Woodinville Reserve at Columbia Winery. Holmes says he’s not chasing scores anymore, but it’s worth noting that Woodinville Reserve is only for wines that score 90 or above.

Real People Road Test
Anyway, collectors and critics are a small segment of the population. What about regular people? To find out, I hold an informal blind tasting at the Inn at Blackberry Creek in Walla Walla and invite wine amateurs. The wines are a combination of expensive bottles donated by winemakers with a few inexpensive Grocery Outlet bottles thrown in.

At first, group members express concern they wouldn’t know wheat from chaff. They score quietly until one professor from Pullman exclaims, “Robust!”
A friend of the professor’s peers grandly over his glass. “Flat,” he pronounces.

In the end, most people choose a Kiona Reserve Merlot ($42) as their favorite, although another Red Mountain Merlot in the tasting had scored higher with professional tasters. The only wine that everybody likes is a Precept Wines Pinot Grigio ($4.99 at the Grocery Outlet!).

When the scores and prices are revealed, our amateur tasters laugh and tease each other as rain pelts down on the leaded glass windows and a fire crackles in the fireplace—a jolly scene that reveals two important points. First, wine is about the total experience, the beverage plus the company and the setting. Point two: Wine tasting is subjective. So while wine scores don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, buyer, beware: Sometimes a number is just a number, and a masterpiece might be hiding in plain sight at the Grocery Outlet.