Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The 100-point scale and liberal elitism

I was reading yet another excoriation of the 100-point rating scale by some blogger I hadn't heard of when I realized something:

1) Complaints for a change in the system come from nannies who want me to drink what they like.

2) The above is what American conservatives think of liberals in general.

Suddenly I saw the whole 100-point-scale debate in a different light. Are its opponents wine aficionados trying to more accurately capture the subjective experience of wine? Or are they taste police trying to outlaw other people's fun? Smug liberal elitists with a narrow band of approved pleasures who want everyone to have only the experiences they deem appropriate?

I submit, 100-point-scale haters, that you are all of the above.

Now before you go down to the Comments to flame me (if you stand behind your beliefs as I do, you'll put your name on it), here is my reasoning.

You don't have to follow the 100-point scale! Nobody is telling you to buy wines based on it.

What you're complaining about is the fact that other people like the scale. What business is that of yours?

The 100-point scale exists because a lot of American consumers -- and retailers -- like it. Wineries, as a whole, do not like it; it causes more problems than it solves, because not every wine gets 90 points from someone. But if consumers didn't like it -- if they preferred a four-star system or "recommended" wines or badges or gold medals -- then they would seek out and buy wines recommended under those systems, because all of them are available.

The marketplace chose the 100-point scale.

So when you rail against the scale, you're taking the side of producers against the will of the buying public. You don't trust people to make their own buying decisions.

In short, you look down on people.

I'm tolerant of, and frankly guilty of, a lot of liberal elitism when it comes to how other people's buying decisions affect society. I'm very pro-environment and think we should buy more organically raised products. I'm against excessive packaging. I think we should tax items based on their total cost, including such costs as CO2 emissions, dismantling and disposal.

What does the 100-point-scale have to do with societal good, though? It doesn't discriminate against biodynamic wines; it doesn't discriminate against anything. In fact, a progressive ratings organization could tweak its scale to give extra points for lightweight bottles or organic viticulture, and if the marketplace agreed with those values, that organization could be as successful as the Wine Advocate.

It's not the 100-point scale's fault that Jay Miller likes fruit syrup. It's like saying you don't like democracy because 48% of Americans decided George W. Bush would make a good president (in fact, I'll bet there are some liberals who think just that.) You don't like Jay Miller's ratings? Issue ratings of your own. Compete with him; don't grab the ball and say we're all going to play a new game based on rules you're making up on your blog.

I don't generally like the pejorative term "liberal elitist." When it comes to leaders, I want somebody who went to a good school, not a former wrestling impresario, to use one current example.

But I don't want to share a bottle of wine with a liberal elitist, nor do I want one in my ear when I make a buying decision. And I'm a lifelong Democrat. Imagine how liberal elitist wine-buying philosophy is received by the majority of this country, who are more conservative than I am.

Listen up, pretentious snobs: If you want to drink wine made from natural yeast with no added sulfites and extended skin contact and a bit of oxidation so that it's complex and has an aroma combining the Pacific Ocean, elderberry tea and your roommate's old shoes, that's fantastic. And if you can accurately describe the wine and its producers in an appealing enough way, maybe I'll want to try it too. I'm under your tent more often than not.

But don't tell the American consumer they can't simplify their rankings of wine into a democratic, anti-classist, easy-to-understand system that levels the playing field so that Argentinian peasant farmers and French hereditary land owners have the same chance at glory.

There's my rant. Now it's your turn. Go ahead and rate this post -- on the 100-point scale, please.


Ross said...

The 100 point scale is the industry norm but it still irks me that the minute difference between a 90 and a 89 has such a great affect on sales. Maybe I should have a wah-burger and some french cries! 90pts...

Tom Merle said...

We are stuck with it, to be sure. But it brings in an unnatural level of precision when offered by an individual. And it can't be replicated. Even with medals, it's been shown that there is only a 10% chance of a judge repeating the score s/he gave a wine earlier in the day.

The solution is continue to rely on this system, but lump a bunch of scores (and notes) together to create a 'Wisdom of Crowds' collective evaluation in the manner of CellarTracker. This averaging takes out the idiosyncrasies and misplaced accuracy. Using standard deviation, the consumer can find wines that a have a wider appeal, just as s/he can on Trip Advisor and Yelp with their respective products. Just don't rely on the liberal elitist "experts" like Mr. Gray. Power to the people.

W. Blake Gray said...

Tom: A great idea in theory, but in practice, it only helps find good wines if you're the kind of consumer who likes the most popular products.

Is your favorite film always the biggest hit? Is your favorite band topping the charts? If so, then high Cellar Tracker composite scores will work for you.

There's one other very good use of composite scores that I've learned from Yelp: While I find high Yelp ratings fairly worthless, low Yelp ratings are often a good warning. I'll bet the same is true of composite wine ratings.

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

You say, "The marketplace chose the 100-point scale." This is so not true. The Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate chose this. In the UK, the print media there chose the 20-point scale. Consumers didn't get any input. Retailers didn't get any input. Wineries didn't get any input.

The 100-point system is also the only rating system in use by CellarTracker, so it's use is growing rather than shrinking.

I also think that there aren't that many "100-point scale haters". Dislikers, sure. Haters? Most (all?) rating systems are imperfect (look at baseball!) and the 100-point proves unsatisfying to some (many?) over time.

You go on to say that, "What you're complaining about is the fact that other people like the scale." It seems to me that what they're complaining about is that the 100-point scale is so dominate. (Some complain how ridiculous it is to rate wine in the first place.)

You also say, "What does the 100-point-scale have to do with societal good, though? It doesn't discriminate..." ...but it does appear to discriminate against wines who score less than 90 pts.

And, is not marketplace the wrong word here?... "is a location where goods and services are exchanged" - How can a location make a choice?

Pete said...

There's definitely some elitism going on, but what on earth makes it "liberal" elitism? You seem to use the term because it's the one people always use these days. But of course it's the one people always use because conservative elites like Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz have turned it into an effective, focused-group tested wedge term. Meanwhile, the last 30 years of rightward drift in American politics—fueled by the Olin and Scaife and Heritage foundations, and AEI, and dozens more like them—has demonstrated that conservative elites not only exist, but have far more sway than their liberal counterparts. When it comes the 100-point system, the people who popularized it would appropriately be categorized as liberal. Take Parker. Love him or hate him, he smashed the hegemony of old-school British wine criticism. He said anybody, even an American lawyer, some guy from Maryland, could step forward and pronounce judgment on wine—and could frame that judgment in a way that anyone could understand. Furthermore, Parker said that what matters isn't that a wine fit some traditional paradigm but that it taste good. The 100-point scale is at its heart a hedonistic scale. What could be more liberal? And if you want to argue that hedonism is a conservative principle well gosh that's going to be fun to read. Conservative elites hate the 100-point scale for its embrace of aesthetic relativism. Look at it this way: You're far more likely to see someone who denounces the 100-point scale decry a wine as "incorrect"—as failing to fulfill the traditional conception of what a wine from a place or of a variety should be—than you are Parker or Spectator. That’s practically conservatism defined.

The Cask Room, Mike Kallay said...

The problem with the 100 point scale is that it implies a 100 point level of precision that is simply not there. Parker seemingly had good intentions when compositing the different components of wine & determining a final score, but from everything I've seen recently, a number is simply pulled out of thin air based on the wine relative to others & to de facto style (from most 100 point raters). GaryV does this every single week.

If you're only using 25 points to separate the very best from the very worst, why is there a precision of 100? Why not a 25 point system? Or, why not a system like letter grades? That's what I would like to see.

I think that other than Parker who does write detailed accountings of the wines & his impressions that the 100 point scale is a shortcut to expression for the other critics.

Have you looked at the user contributed reviews of beer at or The craft beer lover off the street has more analysis & information in his/her review than 1/2 page of Spectator reviews or other highly regarded and/or paid wine critic.

I would say that the craft beer community, because of when it really came to be (past 15 years) has had a pretty clean slate when determining their rating system -- and you'll see from it that they use a five point system that averages out the following components: appearance, aroma, taste, feel, drinkability. Yet, you have Wine Enthusiast jamming beer into a 100 point system with no background offered other than 5-10 adjectives. To me, this type of system offers so much information that I can really feel pretty good about how something is going to taste before I drink it. I can't say the same for any 100 point system, save for possibly the WA only because of the detailed analytics. The score was always meant to be a shortcut for comparison, not the full review.

Check out reviews of this beer for instance:


Palate Press said...

There is a tremendous difference between "hating" the 100 point scale and criticizing it. I, for one, don't "hate" it, and recognize that it has utility to the average wine drinker because it is familiar from their school days. That said, I still think it perfectly valid to observe the inconsistencies in its application, whether that comes from grade inflation from year to year or the addition of an asterisk, or the combination of 100-point scoring and non-blind tastings, particularly when the tastings are pre-arranged and the wineries know the taste preferences of the tasters.

Personally, I think the difference between an "89" and "90" might have as much to do with the direction of the wind, a good versus bad breakfast, or the youth and blouse-cut of the woman pouring it. However, that is not a criticism of the scale. If the consumer fails to recognize the absurdity of giving too much validity to a one point difference in an arbitrary scale, that is the consumer's problem. But that does not mean the scale is applied in a reasoned or consistent manner. That criticism is appropriate, whether it is against the 100-point scale, the 20-point scale, or a collection of stars.

The point I am trying to make is that the criticism is not necessarily of the 100-point scale, but its application.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: Wow, those beer reviews are all over the map. I just started looking at the color -- some said it was amber, others brown, others ruby red, and one guy said "orangish ecru," whatever the hell that is.

PP: I don't think we're in disagreement here (good thing, as I'm writing an article for you). I'm not saying the 100-point scale is great or the best or well applied. I'm just tired of the manifesto-like righteousness of many of its opponents.

I also have to note something from some comments I've seen about this piece on Twitter. I've been poking conservatives and liberals, not equally, for my whole career. You can poke conservatives most easily by telling them France does something better than the US, but they're proud of being conservative. I never have understood why many liberals simply don't like being called "liberal."

Portobello said...


I think the blog post is spot on, thought provoking, and satisfying. I give it 91pts.

Here is the deal with the 100 point scale: It's what we know. "Hey, what was your score on that Geometry test?"

Compare Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling on the same scale? Compare Chemistry grades to Math grades to Philosophy grades to Studio Art grades to History grades? They use the same scale.

"A" grades beat "B" grades, even when it is a B+ (89 points). It is in our culture too (to quote Ricky Bobby, "...if you ain't first, you're last!"). But, if we are using the ratings to see which wine we want to "hire" to be on the dinner table, then we need to realize who was doing the grading when we size up the resume' and to appreciate that there really is not much difference between 88 (B+) and 91 (A-). Sometimes we consumers have to make these hiring decisions on the fly. We have to decide if that wine is really going to do the job we are hiring for. said...

The 100 point scale is for some CONSUMERS and not for other CONSuMERS.

Oh i could so add more but its not the best way to use my energy : )

Keith Miller

SteveinOakland said...

I give you a solid 91 Blake.

In terms of how to use a 100 pt scale, I really like the way it is used to present combined information on the Rotten Tomatos movie review web site.

They have a 100 pt score which is statistically meaningful, as it is an aggregated percentage based on the binary decisions of several groups(those who like or don't like a movie). A 100% critics score means all the "recognized critics" who entered a result liked it.

Of course there are fewer movies to review than wine, so it is easier in that context. There are also separate scores for those of the "top critics", and those of "regular site members" and "everyone (the masses)". This is nice too have as well, adding the ability of the general population to add their opinion.

Unknown said...


An observation - you say: "It's like saying you don't like democracy because 48% of Americans decided George W. Bush would make a good president..."

The US is not a "Democracy" per se - it is a "Republic." While it would take pages to go into the sordid and boring detail, it is a mistake that I see more and more frequently these days, especially amongst our elected officials. And while it does increasingly appear that we are becoming a democracy - which is basically an elite majority or in some cases, an ignorant and uneducated majority enforcing a 50.1 over 49.9 minority.

A "Republic" is a form of government limited by a "Constitution" which will generally restrict the rights of a majority. The Republican Constitution form of government is representative, in that it is effectively created by the written Constitution with the powers divided between three separate Branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial.

Sorry this has nothing to do with the 100 point scale... and I'm sure someone will point out what a liberal elitist I am by clarifying the above...


Christian Miller said...

The 100 point scale implies a false level of precision, along a single rational scale. Most consumer and sensory research tells us that this is misleading as an indicator of how much any random consumer will enjoy a wine's flavor.

I don't understand what is particularly "democratic" about the scale. The ratings are issued by individuals, not voted on by the wine-drinking population as a whole, nor even people representative of them.

I can see why you'd say the "marketplace has spoken" in favor of the 100 point scale, but let's not confuse the marketplace with consumer demand. The point system has been adopted and promoted by the trade and distribution system, for reasons too dreary and complex to go into here. But most consumers do not buy wine "by the points", although within certain circumstances, holding other factors constant (blah blah blah), the point rating can be very influential.

Ted said...

For most, the 100 point system is like any other kitchen gadget, EASY. It takes no effort and that is why it is popular. Wine marketers who can rank highly on the EASY scale will find a larger group of buyers. The few who are more discerning, like a true gourmet cook, can get past it with a little effort. Overall, the system helps the fearful make a choice thereby helping to increase the number who choose wine as a beverage. Those who argue against the 100 point system most likely just enjoy arguing.
90 pts (90s are attention getters and you got my attention)

bd said...

There are too many points in the 100 point system, as there are too many taste variations of a 90 point wine. We only need 25 points as I believe a previous commenter suggested, and there ought to be some zeros awarded. It's too bad we aren't able to centralize and categorize all the popular tasters/raters into factions of sweet/syrup lovers, acid and mineral lovers, etc.

W. Blake Gray said...

Keith: That's it in a nutshell.

Christian and Richard: I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole of semantics here, but about that word "democracy" ...

Richard: "democracy" in my original statement is different from "a democracy," correct?

Christian: While I defend my use of the word in the above instance, I might be stretching in in the point you made. What I like most about the scale is that it breaks the hereditary grip on top prices and prestige that certain estates had before the 100-point-scale came into being. Yes, Romanee Conti may be great terroir, but that doesn't mean it will always lead to great wine -- the grapes can be screwed up in the winery, and indeed many of the top chateaux were indifferent before Parker in particular started rating wines on their taste, not their turf.

Anyway, it is that aspect -- overturning a hereditary landowner-controlled system -- that I'm calling "democratic." I confess that "revolutionary" is a better, more accurate term, but the word has been so debased by its use in every tweet about new brands of dish soap that I detest it and try to find something better. Perhaps in this instance I haven't yet.

Tone Kelly said...

What a discussion.

I remember when the British wine reviewers dominated and there were NO points or scale. The wine reviews described the wines, often in terms such as " diaphanous as a lady's dress" or some such terminology. Was the wine good - no way to tell. Did the reviewer really like it or just mildly like it - again, no way to tell.

Now we fast forward 35 years. I think it would be fair to split the opinions into 3 camps.
1. The 100 point scale is fine/ok - we need a scale and this seems to work
2. The 100 point scale has too many points we need something with less precision.
3. Let's go back to no scale. Words alone are fine.

The difference between 1 and 2 is the precision of the score (implied or otherwise). The 20 point scale in the US came out of UC Davis and American Wine Society and the UK and was designed to help reviewers separate bad wines from decent/good wines. (circa 1960s and 70s). It was never designed to provide a fine separation between grades of good/better/best/wow wines. Wines of the era often had faults and the full scale was used (all the way down to 0). Today in the UK I see the 20 point scale used with such terms as 17++ pr 17.5- or 18-. (Jancis Robinson). If one counts the ++ vs. + vs. - vs. splits [17.5/18] we have 25 levels between 17.5 and a full 20 point wine. Sounds like even more precision than the 100 point scale between 90 (roughly 17.5) and 100 (20).
If the cutoff is 90 points today (89 is so not worth buying), under the 20 point scale I would suggest that anything below 17 would be out of favor.

Relative to #2 - going back to a no scale approach. I suspect that the market has already spoken on that and I just don't see it happening. Too many consumers like it when they are in a hurry to buy wine for the evening dinner.

On a personal note, I too was a score hound, but in the last few years I have been much more driven by the text description. However, the score gives me a feel for the "greatness" or "quality" of the wine as perceived by the reviewer.

Unknown said...


Oh, I do say old man, you are absolutely spot on, I say! Cherio, pip, pip...

Yes, Mr. Gray, you are absolutely correct "democracy" and "a democracy."

I guess the elitist liberal in me just knee jerked when I saw anything about 'democracy.'


W. Blake Gray said...

Confidential to aspiring writer:

Though talking is the most noticeable and often the most fun part, the important part of good writing is listening. Try reading your pieces aloud to someone.

Good luck.

charlie w. said...

Oh now I'm just amused.

tom barras said...

For a slightly different take on the subject:

Patrick Frank said...

The 100-point scale pretends to a level of objectivity that just does not exist with wine. How to rate two chardonnays made in radically different styles? To pretend to be objective in such a circumstance is to be disingenuous. So Yes, I hate the 100 point scale. It just dumbs things down.

Randy Pitts said...

Scores are for people weak on marketing. "Get out and do it yourself" is by far the best motto I can offer anyone who's got wine backing up in storage.

People aren't listening to number monkeys anymore, in fact the younger gen laugh and are cynical about their parents way of marketing. Scores, puffs, smokes, stars... How about allowing your DTC clients taste the wines and let them be your judge. If they like it, then they'll buy it and thus support you. People don't fall in love with scores or their ability to get on some "cult" mailing list, rather they love meeting the guy/gal who crafts the small production stuff... They love walking (even a short 4 minute tour) with the grower/wineguy which easily converts to a wineclub and 1/2 case home. It used to be a club and case, but things have changed... We're in a different world now... Our cash receipts have skyrocketed as folks are not throwing in on a credit card, rather they're putting cash in their pocket and saying, "OK, this is what we have to spend on vacation and that's it".

So get out there and grab the cash!!!

Sasha said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you -- terrific post, really smart analysis. I wrote a post around the same time in defense of the scale and you touched on some great stuff that I was thinking about, too but didn't include.