Friday, August 12, 2011

In Defense of the 100pt Rating System

A growing community of wine bloggers have become increasingly negative towards using a Robert Parker inspired 100 point wine rating system for reviewing wines with many alternatives suggested. Citing such complaints as the system is subjective and that it cannot truly be standardized across the industry: one writer’s “90” is another’s “88”. That is true, however, my main argument to this complaint is that all rating systems are subjective – by nature. There can never truly be a definitive rating system for anything remotely artistic. Ideally, a consumer finds a trusted voice and learns how the individual reviewer applies whatever rating system they employ.

In defense of the 100-point rating system, I offer the following arguments, or, at the very least, an explanation as to why I use the scale.

1. Familiarity
The simple genius of the 100-point scale is that, at its core, it is very simple to understand and very familiar. Everyone can relate to a percentage-based, out-of-100 type of system because we’ve lived with these types of scores throughout our academic lives. From math tests to essays to book reports we are subjected to a rating where perfection, a perfect “100” is the ultimate goal to be achieved and where you were awarded 50+ points just for showing up (more on this last point below). A simple glance at the result of two tests where one is scored "90" and the other "89", you immediately know which one is the better result. Now, I always hope that a visitor to my site will read the full description of a wine’s characteristics rather than simply glancing at the score, however, should they choose not to, I’m confident that, more often than not, the higher scored wine will give them more drinking pleasure.

2. A word-based rating system always needs an explanation
How is anyone to know at a quick glance that “Amazing” is better than “Extraordinary” without the reviewer explaining this? Why this doesn’t work without a glossary or accompanying chart at the ready at all times, is that these words have their own predefined unique meanings and they only relate to the quality of a wine by way of context, which, itself, is completely subjective. Even worse, the reviewer who avoids defining the words and their relevance to a rating system at all and simply uses them in their literal means as a way to categorize the wines reviewed. “Honey, I feel like an “Amazing” wine tonight. Oh right, you’re still on your “Extraordinary” kick. Well, I suppose we can pick a “Satisfactory” wine as a compromise.” Yikes.

3. Alternative systems lack latitude
A star-based rating system doesn’t provide a wide enough spectrum within which to work. Granted, a 100 point scale is usually limited to the 80-95 point range (95+ point wines being exclusive and anything under 80 points isn’t worth the effort), but at least you have more room to work with. My favourite Canadian wine publication, "Vines", using the star rating system in their buyer's guide and although I love their write-ups I doubt that even they think that all of the 4 star wines are truly equal.

4. Minimum points is a red herring
Often, the criticism of the 100 point system is focused on the fact that wines get X number of points just for showing-up, which, depending on the publication, can range from 50-75 points. Decanter magazine uses both a star-based categorical approach and a 20 point scoring system, but never posts a score below 10 unless the wine was faulty. Essentially, a wine gets 10 points for showing up and being wine, not vinegar. I like to remind people that this too should be familiar to them as part of their final grade for any class back in High School was based on attendance.

When people focus on this fact I think they are missing the point that the beauty of the 100 point scale is the balance between the subtle differences of wines with the restrained flexibility with which to distinguish them. All wrapped-up in an immediately recognizable and familiar format.

In my opinion, the 100 point rating system trumps all others and is as close to an industry standard as we're ever likely to see. It's not perfect, but it is easy to understand and relate to - which should be the goal of any wine writer in the attempt to bestow the virtue of wine to the masses.
 - Liam Carrier ©copyright 2011


  1. great article and arguments in favor of the 100-point system ... i agree with most of what you said but not all ...

    i think the 20-point system is the most practical in terms of the actual technicalities behind scoring ... meaning how can one actually (in their head) calculate such a qualitative thing (as tastes and aromas) on a 100-point scale .. which is why it had to be immediately cut in half and even at that, there's a complex guide that comes along with this scale, if applied properly ... which of course no one uses... meaning (although i have no data to back this up) i would bet that statistically speaking there would be a lot more professional tasters and critics that agree on a 16 rating versus a 91 rating (which i would estimate to be the same score, using different scales) ... therefore it would be easier to compare and reference based on the 20-point scale than the 100-point scale...

    but all of this is VERY subjective of course ...

    the other thing i disagree with is your confidence in your readers consistently liking your 90 point wine more than your 89 point wine ... if you used 90 and 85 as an example then yes.... but again going back to my original points, in the 100-point scale the level of subjectivity is far too high to make these assumptions, especially when we see consistent 2-4 variations in points given to identical wines from world-class critics across the various publications ... to makes things really simple, wine is at least 50% personal taste and 50% the actual quality and value added to the wine ... meaning i have some friends that die for 5 dollar sweet muscat ... they love the stuff ... and can't stand dry red, even a Romanee Conti ... granted i understand the technicalities involved in the point system, attempting to eliminate as much subjectivity as possible (placing value and point for balance, complexity, expression, finish, texture, etc) ... but i still stand by my point ...

    finally i disagree with your evaluation of the 20-point system in terms of people only apply the scale from 10 and above... i reverted to the 20 point system when i began my wine blog The Grand Crew back in 2008 and then started a tasting club with my graduate student colleagues... they were 90% newbies but i wanted them to participate just as actively as me in the whole tasting and rating process... so i figured that 20 point (broken down into categories and point ranges) would be far easier for the new comers to grasp... and after all, introducing wine to amateurs is my prime interest ... versus preaching to the choir ... this is what i use :

    0 to 5 - Undrinkable to Poor and Objectionable

    6 to 8 - Deficient

    9 to 11 - Commercially Acceptable and Average

    12 to 14 - Good

    15 to 17 - Excellent

    18 to 20 - Extraordinary

    there's a million ways this could be put together but my main point is that throughout the course of 3 years of monthly tastings of international students in Paris (blind tasting format, where we go around the circle of 15-25 tasters and they all describe their tasting experience, rating, and blind guess) i saw every single point applied ... even a 0 once .. hahaha ... but there were plenty of below 5s ... a whole bunch of below 10s ... and a lot of 10-15s ... and a decent amount of 15+s... you must be asking yourself "damn what wine were you feeding to these poor people, haha" ... it was interesting to see the variation in that many of the 5 point wines by some were 15 point wines by others ... granted this is an analysis of amateurs that typically know very little about wine (although i did manage to educate them quite a bit through the years) ... but like i mentioned before the variation also exists, and noticeably so, in professionals ...

    anyways ... i really liked your article ... i just though it'd be interesting to add a bit more food for thought ...

    kenny galloway

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