Wine Talk

Snooth User: Eric Guido

Are scores getting higher?

Posted by Eric Guido, Aug 21, 2009.

I just can't help but feel like both WA and WS are rating wines higher then they have in the past. These thoughts are coming from my true love in wine, Barolo. I remember reading reviews on wines from 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001 (all great vintages) and for some of the best producers in that region I would see scores of 90 - 94 for some of the best wines of the vintage. Now we have vintages like 2005 where some producers held there own but many did not and I find it strange to see so many 94 - 98 scores. I feel like this is across the board in many different regions as well.

Are wine makers just getting that much better at making wine? Or are scores going higher these days? Has the 100 point system failed in a world where too many people think anything that scores under 90 points aren't any good?

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Reply by dmcker, Aug 21, 2009.

Eric, I've felt scores were inflated for a long time, though I've wondered more in the downward direction. On a relative, subjective scale, wines that are far lesser products than others get only a few points less. A wine that's a failure in my book might get an 84, while a very successful bottle of ambrosia that doesn't fit current critical standards for style 'only' a ninety. That ninety might be fine if 100 is absolute perfection, but the 84 should probably be a 54 on a more absolute scale. A score in the 70s or lower is the kiss of death at most any price, so the whole scale shifts up. Then, since a wine of that 'quality' has an 84, others that do fall within popular modern style requirements seem to warrant more than 10 points higher, I guess...

Reply by dmcker, Aug 21, 2009.

Personally, I've always questioned the American 100-point scale. It's more flashily impressive than scales with lower point totals, and supposedly is more rigorous, but actually provides more leeway for smoke and mirrors (and tends to protect the guild of critics behind a screen of complexity). Look, for example, at the Snooth 5-point scale. There are a lot of wines out there getting 3 or 3.5 out of 5, that would be 60 or 70 on the 100-point scale if my elementary school arithmetic still serves me, but do you see the same wines getting those scores from American critics? No one would think they're drinkable if they were given a 66, say, yet there are lots of 3.5 wines on Snooth that can be delicious.

I guess I find myself going back to a Michael Broadbent type of scoring, but then there'd be a lot of critics out of work without the 100-point scale. Now that's a thought...

Reply by Eric Guido, Aug 22, 2009.

I agree 100%. The only thing I would add that might help a bit is (if my memory serves me right) 70 points is basically flawed wine. So even though they call it a 100 point scale, the fact is that it's more like a 30 point scale.

(Someone, please correct me if I'm wrong)

Reply by dmcker, Aug 22, 2009.

One other issue, too, is how certain vintages are played up. 1982 was called the vintage of the century for awhile, though its stock has dropped as the wines have gotten older and it's become clear that the vintage was not quite as great as its hype. 'Coincidentally' it was Parker that sang its praises loudest, or so my memory serves.

It's 2005's turn now. I'm old enough to remember when 1970 (and even 1975) received a lot of favorable press, for a little while into the '80s, but it (they) definitely fell off a ledge past some year in that decade. 1961 seems to have survived that valuation relatively unscathed, and 1945 also got the treatment (now that year is definitely before my time ;-) ), though I always suspected it was mostly the ecstatic joy at the end of WWII that propelled that vintage to its heights of reputation.

2005 is, at the moment, being called the greatest year for however long. And its wines are getting ratings in line with that view. Only time will tell whether they are true, and whether the people who paid so much for bottles from it were fools, or forward-looking wizzes. And whether the wine industry marketing machinery bamboozled its public, or guided it sagely.

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Aug 22, 2009.

The grade inflation over the past 20 years, and that's what it is, has made the 100 point scale more like a 10 point scale, rather than the 15 point scale it tends to be. Parker doesn't review wines that score under 85pts, or rather doesn't provide tasting notes.

Just as an indication of what has happened with wine scores I've pulled Parker's original wine buyers guide down and let's check out some scores. shall we.
Bordeaux is kind of tricky, not only have serious technological changes taken place, but producer have fundamentally changed their wines and the original buyers guide covers vintages 1981-1984, not exactly prime years but still.

So let's see.

Ch. Poujeaux, they haven't changed much

1981 - 82pts elegant and light, drink now
1982 - 87pts quite excellent, very rich and full bodied
1983 - 86 pts. quite excellent, austere

So let's compare these with a similar trio of vintage

1999 - 88pts charming, soft, velvety
2000 - 88pts serious red, excellent texture and purity
2001 - 89pts excellent concentration, forward and approachable

So not only do we see grade inflation here but there also seems to be a resultant lack of discrimination.

Let's take a look at Boyd Cantenac as well, another property whose wines have remained quite consistent over the years.

1981 - 70pts soft, dilute, vegetal
1982 - 86pts unctuous, fat, fleshy flavors
1983 - 88pts, one of the property's top wines, full blown, spicy, ripe,
1984 - 80pts one dimensional, cleanly made, ready to drink

and now

1999 - 86pts - elegant, sweet, well made
2000 - 89pts finest in decades, full bodied, substantial
2001 - 90pts, finest ever, more depth, texture and persistance
2002 - 90pts considerable richness and intensity

Again scores are both higher and more closely spaced.

I chose those 2 properties in bordeaux since they are properties I am familiar with and have been consuming for the span of time in question.

Let's move on to Barolo for even more fun.

The original buyer's guide included reviews from some pretty killer vintages. The media would have us believe that almost every vintage coming out of Piedmont these days is killer but that's another, not unrelated, story.

Some wines.

1978 Castello di Neive Barbaresco Santo Stefano - 87pts rich full intensity, full bodied

2004 - 93pts beautiful, terrific, poised, delicate and pure

1982 Ceretto Barolo Brunate - 89pts backward, very rich and full
2001 - 91pts gorgeous, dense and structured

1982 Ceretto Barolo Prapo - 89pts excellent
2001 - 92pts, massive, strapping, terrific substance

1982 Clerico Barolo Ginestra - 90pts explosively rich, intense, exceptional concentration, length, and balance
2001 - 95pts dense and structured, exceptional length and substance

1978 Conterno Monfortino - 92pts no real note given
1999 - 98pts breasthtaking

1978 Mascarello Monprivato - 90pts A monumental wine
2004 - 96pts explosive, remarkable, majestic

G Rinaldi Brunate

1978 87pts
1979 78pts bitterly tannic
1980 75pts excessively volatile
1982 88pts

2001 - 93pts, explosive nose, length and elegance
2002 - 85-87pts short on the palate and lacks overall complexity
2003 - 92pts seriously long and powerful, remarkably accessible
2004 - 96+pts truly majestic, superb weight and density, finely-textured yet powerful style

1982 Sandrone barolo - 90pts superstar, explosively rich, chewy, very concentrated, should be stunning
2004 - 98pts breathtaking purity and definition, stunning grace and elegance

Now it can certainly be argued that the older wines were originally woefully underscored by Parker, and realize the recent releases have been reviewed by Antonio Galloni, but the difference in point scoring is significant.

We can certainly continue and many will argue that wines are being made better than ever but the theory behind the 100 point scale has always been that the rating are a numerical rating relative to the peer group. If that was truly so then the wines would tend to remain around their original point scored as the overall level of quality increased.

The fact of the matter is that there has been grade inflation and compression over the years, for whatever reason and that has made point scores less useful, for the moment I'm not getting into the discussion about their utility.

On the bright side I think we have pretty much reached the apex of point inflation, at least until someone goes over to a 110 point scale.

Reply by Eric Guido, Aug 22, 2009.

Greg, you are the man.

That's exactly the kind of analysis I was hoping to see.

My experience doesn't go as far back as yours but I can say that its becoming obvious now that these new vintages are receiving some crazy points. I couldn't believe the 2005 Vietti Lazzarito received 98 points from Suckling. That would make it the best Lazzarito that Suckling has ever tasted and although I understand that Vietti has made some changes in the past few years, I still find it very strange.

I find it very helpful that Antonio tastes back vintages regularly because this at least gives us a reference point for his palate.

Reply by Philip James, Aug 22, 2009.

Greg - thats very impressive. I was going to take a more philosophical view, but ultimately, it gets us to the same answer:

Our society only functions because certain things can be expected (Maslow's heirachy of needs). At its most basic level, its expected that if I hold the door open for you, you say thank you. As long as I believe you'll thank me I'll hold the door open for you. If, instead I'm worried that you'll attack me, then I'd not leave myself unguarded. A more realistic case occurred recently when Silicon Valley sent a team of delegates (twitter, google, meetup etc) to Iraq to talk about their websites. In a country where basic needs like food and shelter cannot be taken for granted, social networking was not of much interest.

The life of a critic basically works thus: they review wines, people turn to them for advice on whats good, wineries submit samples in the hope of a favorable review. If a critic published lots of bad reviews, wineries would stop submitting samples, and ultimately readers would stop reading the content.

There's a very clear societal benefit from rating inflation, and a very clear pressure to do this as well. Ultimately, I think the best a critic can ever hope to do, is slow down this inflation, as I dont believe it can effectively be quelled by will alone

Reply by dmcker, Aug 22, 2009.

"Bordeaux is kind of tricky, not only have serious technological changes taken place, but producer have fundamentally changed their wines"

So Greg, should we consider, for example, Chateau Pavie as even the same wine, when comparing vintages from the '60s to those this decade? The wines seem to have been re-engineered just for the purpose of achieving a certain type of rating by Parker et al. Scores for the chateau have risen into the mid-90s, but I, for one, don't think the wine has gotten better. Rather the contrary.

That's another part of the ratings problem...

Reply by GregT, Aug 22, 2009.

Greg - I think discrimination is the issue. The 83 Boyd is 88 points as one of their top wines, but the 00 Boyd is only 89 although one of the finest in decades? And the finest ever is the 01, at 90 points. That's incredibly fine discrimination.

So for fun, let's look at some WS scores for France, Spain, and the US. They are all from different critics, so that's important to keep in mind.

WS scores for a wine that I buy from time to time, Gruaud Larose:
78 - 91pts
83 - 90 pts
96- 90 pts
99 - 90 pts
01 - 92 pts
02 - 92 pts
03 - 92 pts
05 - 91 pts
According to that list, it is a wine you should buy in every vintage because it's never all that much better or worse than the last vintage. I can't put any faith in these scores, and don't.

C.V.N.E. Vina Real is like this:
85 - 91pts
96 - 89pts
99 - 94pts
00 - 94pts
01 - 95pts
02 - 93pts
03 - 94pts
04 - 93pts
06 - 94pts
Different critic(s). Interesting results. Nearly independent of vintage, since nobody would rate the 2002 and 1996 in any way equivalent. I need to taste these side by side again and I recognize that some winemakers put out some pretty good wine in the 2002 vintage, but . . .

In any event, they've stuck with one critic for Spain for the past few years and he's increasingly understanding these wines. Although he seems to have been a little carried away on the 06 too.

And here's Viader. Not as much history because it's a newer winery.
90 - 91pts
92 - 88
93 - 89
94 - 93
95 - 92
97 - 97
99 - 94
00 - 92
01 - 94
02 - 92
Yet a third critic but he's been there for all of these vintages. What's interesting is that his enthusiasm seemed to peak at the 1999 vintage in Napa, after which he became increasingly cranky. He loved the 1997 and then almost uniquely, rated the 1999 at least as good overall, although this particular wine didn't fare as well.

Viader was almost a kind of cult wine in the 90s but now it's less hyped. However, it's got a good shot of cab franc in it and I think that's why it continues to get high points from WS, because his palate has definitely changed. I actually like his rankings these days more than in the past. He has pulled back in general, which I think was not a bad idea.

As far as grade inflation goes, I tended to think that there was some inflation but now, looking at these, I'm not 100% sure about that. I think there's a fifteen point scale for most critics -82 to 97. Very few wines score 100 and very few score much below 82 these days. Partly that's because winemaking really is much better. Competition works.

Also I think it's because wines scoring really low are simply not reported. In the few cases where they are, as in the BV George de la Tour getting a highly publicized 69, it was to make a point and punish them rather than actually rate the wine.

Phillip - I don't know if it's quite as simple as you suggest. For a few reasons.

Critics publish reviews and customers look for the high points as guidance on what to buy. Some people read the low points, but nobody is going to act on those. So the service to the customer is the guidance, which means publishing notes on the better wines. There are many more good wines today than 30 years ago, so with a larger universe, we are likely to see more positive reviews.

I doubt that the critics are going to worry about getting wine. When Parker started, he just bought the wines and many many bloggers do that today, as well as many newspapers, etc. When one becomes prominent, wineries and distributors start sending samples, but it's not necessarily the make-or-break issue for the critic so much as meeting the needs of the readers is.

However, the main and true beneficiary of the scores is the vendor, whether retailer or wholesaler. The most important critic in the US market, bar none, is Robert Parker. I know a few people who love wine but only a few subscribe to his publication, especially now that it's available on the web. Some do of course, but they're a fraction of the wine buying market. However, probably 75 percent of the stores in NYC and probably a much higher percentage, as well as nearly every distributor and importer, subscribes.


Scores move product. When Joe Average walks into a store, he figures they're trying to sell him something, so when sees 90 points from some third party, he trusts it. Parker reviews a lot of wine and he rules the top end and those shelf-talkers move product. He could probably refuse all freebies and double or triple his price, and he would still keep his circulation in the trade. Meanwhile, most other magazines tend to be more consumer-oriented with livestlye articles and recipes and fewer wines covered. If they stopped receiving wine, they'd likely survive anyhow on the other stuff.

In any event, I don't think there's anything wrong with the 100 point system, nor do I think it's quite as scientific as it may seem. It allows you a finer gradient than say, five stars, while on the other hand I don't think anyone can tell the difference between a 91 and 92 and 93 point wine with any consistency.

Finally, I think there are more people with less knowledge writing about wine these days. People who've been drinking wine for three or four years are blogging about it and giving scores out, people who have decided that they only like this or that type of wine are also blogging about it and giving scores out, people who try maybe a hundred or so wines a year are blogging about it and giving scores out, magazines and newspapers are filling space with articles on wine every once in a while, and so on. I care less about grade inflation from someone who's been in the business for thirty years than I am bothered by some yo-yo who fancies himself or herself an expert and offers useless opinions on subjects unknown.

Reply by Eric Guido, Aug 22, 2009.

GregT, you have some really great points but I still feel like I can't compare your data to the Italian wines that started me on this train of thought.

Here's one example from WA on a Barolo I love and follow. I find it funny that my favorite and most typical (IMO) happens to also be close to the lowest scoring bottle.
2005 Vietti Barolo Rocche 95
2004 Vietti Barolo Rocche 96
2003 Vietti Barolo Rocche 92
2001 Vietti Barolo Rocche 92
2000 Vietti Barolo Rocche 93
1999 Vietti Barolo Rocche 92
1998 Vietti Barolo Rocche 91
1997 Vietti Barolo Rocche 90
1996 Vietti Barolo Rocche 90 Best Rocche I've ever had to date.

Here's another;
2004 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 97
2003 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 94
2001 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 96
2000 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 92
1999 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 92
1998 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 93
1997 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 92
1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 88

What I'm saying is that these were highly respected bottles a decade ago at scores in the low nineties. Now they score mid to high nineties. Did the producers get better at what they do? I guess it's possible. But it's hard for me to imagine that these new releases are going to age as well or better then some of the bottles on the market from 96, 99 and 2001.

Reply by GregT, Aug 22, 2009.

The problem with the WA is that for those wines, you have Parker, Thomases, Rovani, and Galloni. In Spain they had Parker, Rovani and Miller and the curve is even steeper. Doing an analysis like you want is hard for the WA because the shifting reveiwers are quite different and apparently so is their tasting methodology. Each one seems to have his own preferred tasting method, which could make it hard to compare over the years.

As far as WA and WS, I'm not defending one or the other, but until recently I thought that the WA did its tastings blind. Apparently they don't, except rarely, so perhaps that's also an issue? It's why I used the WS.

Just speculating obviously. But if you're looking at the WA, it might be more instructive to look at Parker's own ratings. He's covered Bordeaux, CA, and the Rhone for many years. I haven't looked into it, but you might want to see if his scores have generally trended upward. Otherwise it may simply be palate differences between the critics.

Have you posted it on their site? It might be an interesting thread.

Reply by Eric Guido, Aug 22, 2009.

You make a good point, although I believe the Vietti I sighted is all Antonio while the Conterno's are a mix of reviewers. It would be an interesting topic for the Parker boards but I certainly wouldn't want this to be a witch hunt full of roastings and name calling. Then Squires would come along and ban me for being a rabble rouser.

Reply by GregT, Aug 22, 2009.

Well you would be!

Have you followed any of Galloni's notes over time? Honestly I don't know if there's inflation or not, but clearly if a single reviewer were trending upward that would be a hint. I'm sure someone has done this analysis at some point. I have a few ideas for people to contact. Let's see what comes up.

Reply by dmcker, Aug 23, 2009.

Is there a site to go to that gives detailed instructions and breakdowns regarding the 100-point scale and how to implement it while tasting wine?

I've been to a few sites, such as:
where Parker makes claims regarding the severity of his grading, as well as making clear that his system comes from schoolday experiences with grading systems ;-)
where it becomes even clearer how subjective the grading is

and several others like

which attempt to debunk the 100pt. system entirely.

I was wondering if there was anything out there that was a bit more rigorous regarding methodolgy...

Reply by dmcker, Aug 23, 2009.

And here's an interesting quote from the Wikipedia article on Parker:
"Many customers buy only wines he rates at 90-95 points ("outstanding" in Parker's system) or above: this drove the prices for 90+ wines very high, and also made wines rated from 75-79 ("above average") or even 80-89 ("very good") hard to sell, even though some of these may in fact be excellent bargains. The saying in the wine trade is that if Parker gives a wine a score of below 80 it can't be sold at any price, but if he gives it a score above 90 it becomes too expensive for most customers."

Reply by GregT, Aug 24, 2009.

dmcker - that's a really hot issue right now over on the e-robertparker site. He has written that he believes in blind tasting and he's written extensively on it. But then he recently hired people who eschew blind tasting and tasting in peer groups and finally last week he himself came out and stated last week that he stopped buying wines in the 80s and has been tasting with importers/distributors. I have a lot of respect for all the work he has done over the years, but I'm disappointed at this new revelation. There is a lot to be said for non-blind tasting, but changing your methods MAY account for some changes in scores. That's speculation, as I don't know for a certainty.

Regarding your quote - the saying in the trade has some truth to it. If I give someone shelf-talkers for a wine, it sells more than the wine without. It's not fair to blame Parker for that though. He's first and foremost a wine lover and the fact that people worship his opinion isn't his fault.

Personally, I have no problem with the 100 pt system and actually agree with RP's thinking that it has more resonance with people since it's familiar from school. The idea was to make wine and wine discussion more accessible to the average person and he accomplished that. Problem is that everyone he's hired has come in under his shadow and most other magazines are also in his shadow, so it becomes hard to get independent opinions other than the shrill and polemical.

Reply by Eric Guido, Aug 24, 2009.

Good point, when I first started using Cellar tracker and trying to score the wines I tasted I was at first surprised by the point breakdown described below...

THE 100-POINT RATING SCALE (Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate describes this in more detail.)
Extraordinary (96-100 points)
Outstanding (90-95)
Very Good to Excellent (85-89)
Good (80-84)
Average (75-79)
Below average (70-74)
Avoid (50-70)

From this, I would say that the majority of wines that I used to place at 90 would be better off at 85 and wines that I might score 85 were probably better described as 75 - 79 (average). There's a lot of good wine out there, should it score 80 - 84 points???

Reply by GregT, Aug 25, 2009.

My personal answer is yes.

Those ranges definitely need to be recalibrated. As Greg said, the actual score range these days is much more compressed. I figure it's between 85 and 97, with a few outliers once in a while that generate a lot of noise. If something scores 99 points, it's in every e-mail, newsletter, bulletin board, etc. And if something scores down in the low 80s, same thing. Meantime 85 or 86 or 87 mean drinkable, but pedestrian.

A score of 86 or 87 or 88 or even 89 for something over $20 is the kiss of death. I've even heard people disparage others for paying $30 for a wine that "only" has 90 points. Maybe the other guy just likes the wine?

I think it's why the WS Bordeaux scores I posted are so tight regardless of vintage. They hover around 90 and the Vina Real hover in the low mid 90s. That's really safe scoring and having tasted the wines, there's some real vintage variation in those so I don't see the logic of the scores. But compressing them means you don't take too strong a stand one way or another.

Reply by Kheldarstl, Aug 26, 2009.

I cconcur, the ratings do seem to be inflated recently, I am a homebrewer and have judged beer at several homebrew competitions over the years, Personal experience says judginging anything is arbitrary, Many a times have I tasted a beer in a competition and following the "guidelines" assign it a much lower score then it probably deserves, the tendency is to boost the scores of the beer (or wine) which you like. My criteria when juding either a beer or a wine is complex, and as follows...

Does it look like what I would expect from a wine of this varietal/region ?

Does it smell like I would expect from a wine of this region/varietal ?

Does it taste like what I would expect from a wine of this varietal/region ?

Are there any noticable flaws in the aroma/taste ?

Are there any fatal Flaws ?

Out of all the wines I have every tasted from this region/varietal how does it rank ?

If there are no serious flaws, I will not assign a score under 90
If there are any flaws, I will generally not score it above 90
If there are any fatal flaws, It will not get above a 75

I have very rarely found a beer or wine to be undrinkable

More complex = higher score
Simplicity = lower score

Hope these meandering thoughts add to the discusssion


Reply by dmcker, Aug 26, 2009.

Thanks, Keith, for the personal insights. They do add meat to our theorizing.

Am a bit curious, though:
"If there are no serious flaws, I will not assign a score under 90
If there are any flaws, I will generally not score it above 90
If there are any fatal flaws, It will not get above a 75"

Not sure what the difference is between 'flaws' and 'serious flaws' without more detailed discussion, but it seems a little confusing about how you use 90 as a cutoff. Also, if the product has 'fatal flaws' why would it even get a score in the low 70s?

Would also be interested in learning more from your beer experience. There's been talk recently of adding more beer info and discussion to Snooth...

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