How Useful is the Wine Scoring System?

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

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.