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Will Stagflation Kill The 100-Point System?

By Charles Olken

They are at it again. Will the attacks on the 100-point system never stop until that rating methodology dies of its own excesses? There are several issues here that deserve more air time, and I am here to give it to them.

Can Wines Be Reviewed in Large Numbers Without Some Kind of Hierarchical Rating System?

There are people who seem to think so. And I understand their point. I just think they don’t understand the real world. Take a CGCW review of 100 Chardonnays and imagine that review without any rating hierarchy. Not even: lousy, average, good, better, best. Most readers simply throw up their hands in disgust and frustration at 20 or 30 pages of reviews that are in words only. I would rather read the dictionary in Greek, and I don’t speak Greek, than read hundreds of wine reviews without some shorthand system of differentiation. Let’s be clear here. I am not talking about taking the top ten wines and commenting on them. I am talking about reviews of every wine tasted. Boring, deadly, impenetrable.

Okay. What about a few rating tiers as opposed to 100?

There is a little bit of “dancing on the head of a pin” about this argument, but let’s suppose that all wine was rated into five tiers. Would that be a bad thing? Nope, not at all. In fact, I and CGCW would much prefer that. But what we prefer is totally secondary to what the public prefers. And that is where this discussion breaks down. We can agree that the ratings in the 100-point system are less replicable on a single-point basis than those stated in five tiers. But does it really matter that a wine might get 88 one day and 89 the next, or 94 one day and 95 the next. Any wine whose point score would vary by more than one or two in separate tastings would also change tiers in a five-tier system. No subjective system of analysis will produce identical results from sample to sample for every wine. Even if we agree that five tiers is preferable to 20 tiers, we are agreeing on “tiers” and just vamping on how many and why.

Can The Best Rose’ Earn 100 Points?

I have argued, not always successfully, that a great Pinot Noir or Syrah or Chardonnay or Cabernet offers more complete satisfaction than the best Rose’. An argument in opposition to that position says that I am comparing apples and oranges. I prefer to think of it as wild Chinook Salmon versus farm-raised Atlantic Salmon. I eat a lot of the latter, but I prefer the former. I drink my fair share of Rose’ but I prefer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Wines are like cars and movies and compact cameras. Some are better than others, but they are all of the same species. I have yet to meet the Rose’, no matter how much I love a good Rose’ in the right setting, that thrills me more than top-rated Chards and Pinots in the right setting. Sorry, Rose’, love you as I do, you cannot be judged independent of the other cards in the deck.

And Now For My Ultimate Bitch About The 100-Point System: Grade Inflation

Every rating system in the world is subject to grade inflation. When I went to college, a “B” was hard-earned and an “A” was next to impossible. Only the grade geeks got those, and they were a lot smarter than I was to begin with. Now, my wonderful college has been found to have suffered from grade inflation and one would have to sleep through class to get a “C”. Everyone gets “B” for giving it the old college try and an “A” becomes easily achievable with the right degree of effort. In other words, try hard and you will succeed.

Well, the same thing has happened to 100-point wine rating system. It is not so long ago that very good California Chardonnays from the likes of Acacia in its heyday were universally getting scores in the 80s. If a wine got 90 points, it was a brilliant effort worthy of very high praise. And then it happened. Someone discovered that higher scores brought instant attention, and grade inflation took off. Soon, it was not uncommon to read a hundred Chardonnay reviews in the Wine Spectator with 80 of them scoring 90 points or better. The latest bothersome trend is the use of 100-point scores for scads of wine at time. Robert Parker, for whom I have great admiration, has recently given more 100-point scores to one vintage of Bordeaux than he had given in total previously. The wines are very good. Are they the best in history? There are very few other critics in this world believe that they are.

Will Stagflation Destroy The 100-Point System?

Some would argue that it already has.

Where do scores go from here? Once the majority of critics start handing out 100-point ratings like Halloween candy, they have nowhere left to go. Wines earning 90-points from many reviewers are barely better than likeable, above average, pleasant. Should not 90-points mean something grand? It does not today. Now, wines need to score in the mid-90s to get any special attention, and the reason for that is simple. With 90-points no longer difficult to receive, who needs a 90-point wine from a reviewer who gives that kind of rating to the overwhelming majority of wines tasted?

Scores cannot go any higher. And it becomes harder and harder to find ways to differentiate between wines when all are rated at the top. Will success spoil the system? It just might, and if and when it does, you won’t find many tears shed in these environs. But neither will a return to five tiers or ten, to stars or puffs or chopsticks really rid the world of grade inflation. All systems are susceptible to that ill. Just ask my alma mater that was supposed to be above such hijinks.


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by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:4/21/2015 8:52:32 AM

Wow, Charlie, mentioning how misleading and superficial the 100 Point Scale is is an attack? Goddam First Amendment.

Wine reviews are, indeed, incredibly boring. It's the great irony of wine. So remarkable to drink, so dull to describe. Wine completely outclasses a human's ability to express what it possesses. But a number tacked on, ah, now I get it. How did early, unsophisticated, scoreless humans learn to love wine?

If the 100 Point Scale were outlawed tomorrow, the whole damned wine world would be destroyed. What would people do? It's too scary to think about. It would be worse than when the bees finally all die. How in the world would we survive? You're right, one mustn't attack the system. One must simply accept that a score exists in each wine, and it is but the seers and soothsayers job to reveal them.

I like scores, truthfully. Always have. Hell, I review books I haven't read. Same thing. Two sips, reading the dust jacket, that's plenty. Score away! But maybe drop the descriptions--no one reads them anyway.


by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/21/2015 9:49:08 AM

Never fear, Ron. Points may go away but something will take their place because it is impossible to differentiate small differences in words.

And yes, I realize that not every one of my readers thoroughly examines every word and nuance that Steve and I put in print. Hell, they probably read only a selected set of reviews. But, those selections could not exist in context without the other hundreds that accompnay them.

The 100-point system is not perfect. No system is. I would have prefered that it never came into prominences and the CGCW system had become the lingua franca of rating shorthand. My bad luck. Tant pis. The world is not going to stop one way or the other.

Wine appreciation is totally different from wine criticism done on the scale that we or Parker, Finigan or Balzer attempt. 

I appreciate that you find the score to be the incorrect focus. It is. That is why CGCW writes long and, hopefully, thoughtful descriptions. Those words are the intended focus, but they are helped in their meaning by a rating of some sort. We are simply going to have to play past each other on this because I believe that communication with my readers is aided by a rating and you believe that it perverts the course of vinous justice.

Life can do that sometimes.

Wine Scores
by James Rego
Posted on:4/21/2015 10:14:02 AM

Who am I to disagree with HMW, but here goes anyway! I think the comments are the most important part of the score . The number points the way but as in the case of Chardonnay and, in particular , Pinot Noir, I want to know if the wine is dry or sweet. I don't like a sweet red or Chardonnay ;and yes, I know that the reviewer doesn't always make such distinction but it remains an important issue for me. It helps if you can align your palate with that of a particular reviewer.

Hosemaster of Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/21/2015 10:30:05 AM

Hello James-

Ron and I are simply rehashing old ground. It is what old folks do when they have nothing better to occupy their time.

And disagreeing with the Hosemaster is de rigeur. Hell, he disagrees with everyone, including himself at times. That is why we love him.

I should have earlier, and will now, give him full credit for his concerns about grade stagflation, which I have picked up as the starting point of this piece. There are absurdities in any rating system, and this business of now giving out 100 point scores everywhere, when few or none did not exist previously, is simply one-upsmanship on the parts of those who do it. I have no idea why my vaunted alma mater felt it had to do that with its grades, but if I interpret their new policy correctly, I graduated with high honors just like most of the new classes there. And most Bordeaux, for that matter.

by TomHill
Posted on:4/22/2015 9:35:36 AM

Charlie sez: "Wine appreciation is totally different from wine criticism done on the scale that we or Parker, Finigan or Balzer attempt. "


You're dating yourself a bit there, Charlie. I don't recall that Finigan or Balzer ever awarded scores to their wine reviews...but my memory may be a bit fuzzy on that score.

   I think your comments are all pretty much on-point and can't find much to disagree about them. As for me..the CGCW  FourMeadowMuffin (or was it Three...danged memory) was perfectly fine.



Old Guys
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/22/2015 12:19:19 PM

Both Finigan and Balzer used a tier system, if memory serves correctly.

I appreciate that 100 points (really 15 points to 20 points depending on the user) suggests more finite conclusions that five tiers, but I cannot remember any reviewer/critic who used no shorthand system of differentiation in addition to the words.

I don't remember all the angst about the old 20 point system, which with decimals, because a 200 point system, and I don't get the angst now. Everyone who is not a dolt understands the ephemeral nature of reactions to wine and so they do not worry about 90 points one day and 91 the next. And three point swings, which do happen, would also move a wine from one tier to the next up or down.

What I really object to are all the red herrings being brought into play when so many folks do not want any ratings at all--ranging from wineries who got burned and thus say "damn those ratings" to purists who get on their high horses and get their knickers in a twise about minor varitations.

The real issues are grade inflation, trustworthy reviewers for those who use them, the accuracy and thoughtfulness of the words. 

We ought to be talkiing about those issues.

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