How Useful is the Wine Scoring System?

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


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.”