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Grade Inflation Is Killing The Value of Wine Reviews

By Stephen Eliot

Grade inflation; it is an issue that has bothered us for some time and one that has a grown past annoyance and into something, I would argue, that is in many ways threatening the validity of conscientious wine criticism. It is a trend about which it is hard for us to write as most anything we say too easily appears to be self-serving, either by way of shamelessly tooting our own horns or by lambasting the competition from an overly self-righteous perch. The thing is, however, I very much believe that the proliferation of 97, 98, 99 and, gasp, 100-point scores has done much to undermine the work of thoughtful critics everywhere. It is significant fuel for the fire of populist arguments that expertise is subjective, and it does nothing to quiet the tedious mantra that the new generation of wine-interested folk does not care about what the “experts” have to say.

Every so often an intelligent bit of writing comes along that both raises and answers questions worth asking; one whose logic is hard to refute, and whose arguments make a great deal of sense, the kind of article that makes you wish that you had written it yourself. This week’s Best of the Blogs entitled “What’s 97 Points Between Friends” and recently posted on the Red to Brown Wine Review1 site is just such a piece. It is a smart, succinct and highly recommended article that belongs on the required-reading list for everyone on both sides of the battle about wine scores and scoring. It is no simple whine but is instead a genuinely thought-provoking series of observations about what is right and what is wrong with the current state of the 100-point scoring system. In the main, it ascribes its woes and growing irrelevance to willful abuse on the part of a few major critics rather than some inherent fatal flaw in the system itself.

It begins,

“The issue is the growing irrelevance of the 100-point scoring systems, rendered largely useless by the artificially inflated scores of many prominent wine critics.”

“Like any scoring system it has strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths is the ability to have a wide range of scores available to you to make both nuanced and large score differentials between wines. When you score one wine 92 and another 91, you are making a distinction that isn’t available to say a 5 star system. This advantage of the 100 point system, however, has been much diminished in recent years.”

It author feels, and I firmly concur, that the remedy to the decline and growing irrelevance of both the system and more importantly to wine criticism itself is simple.

“Ultimately I believe it’s incumbent on people who are scoring things in their professional fields to show a level of restraint and integrity in the way they rate things.”

“There are only so many times a consumer will buy what they are told is a 96 point wine before it starts to become shorthand for just a solid bottle of wine, at which point, how relevant is a wine critic?”

The article is a fair warning and a plea for sanity rather than one more frothy indictment of expertise and defense of everyman subjectivity, and I found in it a hopeful voice from someone who is serious about wine.

Say what you will about personal likes and dislikes, but if most every wine is a benchmark, there are no benchmark wines!



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Grade Inflation
by Doug Wilder
Posted on:10/31/2014 4:38:43 PM

Where all the wines are above average...

by John
Posted on:11/3/2014 1:32:41 PM

Aren't some grades inflated because they're paid for through advertising? That's what I've heard anyways

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/3/2014 6:26:11 PM


I keep hearing that thought but I do not know of any reputable wine reviewer, including big mags like The Spectator, The Enthusiast, that gives points for dollars.

Some, however, do give placement logos and label images for dollars, which is really advertising alongside their tasting notes. It has been argued that those paid ads buy points but the mags strongly refute that argument, and I have no knowledge to the contrary.

My belief is that we have grade inflation because of the old saying, "One hand washes the other". High ratings lead to use of the mag's ratings in advertising and to increased access. 

Low ratings, from honest, non-inflationary producers like Connoisseurs' Guide leads to wineries like Iron Horse, Kistler and others to essentially blackball us. I accept that as one of the prices of hard-hitting honesty.

Poimnts and Daisies
by Joseph Telep
Posted on:11/10/2014 5:38:21 PM

How "bout going back to your 3-Daisies rating system exclusively.  I found it just as informative as the supplementary numerals.  My olfactory senses and taste buds can't distinguish between 91 and 92 pts.  Don't think I'm alone. 

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/10/2014 6:15:54 PM

Clouds, Bomb bursts, Meadow muffins. Our symbols have been called all kinds of things--mostly puffs.

Only because it is a constant source of amusement, I have to note that those symbols are "stars" or more correctly, "etoiles" as used in the Guide Michelin, the French restaurant review book.

We did, and still do, think in terms of one, two and three-star wines. The use of the 100-point system came about because the wineries stopped using our words and thus cut us off from access to increased readership--due, as more than one explained to us, that we were no longer using the lingua franca of wine reivews.

Grade inflation did not start with Mr. Parker, although he has recently perfected it into a fine art. And while I personally find him to be an outstanding reviewer, and not responsible for the trend to riper wines than thirty years ago, he has been the most obvious grade inflator of late.

The wines of today may be better than they were years ago, but not by that much and not any better than the great wines were several decades ago.

What has changed is that there are more and more reviewers and too many of them discovered that the way to winery hearts, and frequent mentions, was through ever higher scores.

What winery worth its salt is going to trumpet our 91 and 92 point high recommendations (two stars, which for us, is the top ten per cent of what we review) when The Enthusiast or Parker or the Pinot File or Tanzer or twenty unknown bloggers are giving their wines scores in the 94-98 point range.

Fortunately for us, we have readers like you you understand our standards and support the wines we rate more highly than the rest of bottles under review.

We have, more than once, flirted with the notion of simply lifting our score range by three or four points and giving ratings in the same range as everyone else.

Ultimately, we do not because, as consumers, which is how we got into this biz in the first place, we understand that when all wines get 90 points, there is no longer any standard of objectivity being applied.

If I thought that giving up the 100-point system would encourage the rest of the world to do it as well, then perhaps we might. But, absent that wonderful outcome, we feel pretty much confined to play by the rules, even though we interpret them a little less generously.

Thanks for your note, and for asking the question about how we view our role in critical wine evaluation.


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