Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What is a 90-point wine?

As much as people write about the 100-point scale, we usually ignore its current defining characteristic: the 90-point wine.

The idea of a 90-point wine is far more popular with big wine retailers than critics. If you ask Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews (I have), he'll tell you that 89-point wines are great values that he's happy to drink with dinner.

But try getting Costco to sell them. You just don't see "88 points Wine Enthusiast" on shelf talkers, even though I'm sure Steve Heimoff would drink those wines.

I've been thinking about this more lately, as James Suckling tries to make a career out of his ability to discern 90-point wines from everything else. Think about it: He's not looking for perfect 100-point wines, or great 95-point wines. And I don't think Suckling is doing anything intellectually ground-breaking; he's trying to reflect the zeitgeist and speak to an existing market.

In much of American wine retail culture -- particularly big-box stores and flash sites -- wines are either 90-point wines, or they're not. It's almost a binary scale.

But if so, it's a unique binary scale, because it's not the same as "pass/fail." Most retailers would acknowledge that an 89-point wine is not a failure. But what is it, then?

More importantly, what does "90-point wine" mean to the general public?

The term may have been invented by critics, but we have lost control of it. "90-point wine" has taken on meaning of its own.

American English is like that. I lived overseas for 10 years and whenever I visited the US, I heard terms I didn't understand. It once took a dinner party about 20 minutes to define "You go girl" for me, and explain how to use it.

Looking at an ad advertising 90-point wines at great prices, I had a deja vu moment for my expat days.

What are people looking for when they look for 90-point wines?

Put another way, if consumers were going to use words instead of numbers to define "90-point wine," what would they be?


scott said...

I think this bias is similar to pricing - if you have something to sell you're better off at 99 than 100.

Also, the scale only goes down to 83 or so (I think). So staying at 90 means you're safely away from swill territory.

On the other hand, if an 89 point wine is awarded spectator wine of the year, I think it would sell.

John M. Kelly said...

I discussed this from my perspective as a winery owner in my own blog. Bottom line, anything under a 90 is a marketing #fail. And a 90 is actually not that big a deal in terms of helping to "move product" (to put it in as brutal and vulgar terms as I can).

Since it is clear that the 100-point scale is not going away, I think it would be awesome if the wine media machine started to make an effort to tout the strengths and attractions wines scoring in the 88-92 range. Let the cherry-pickers focus on the 93-100 stuff but encourage interest in the "pretty good but nothing special" for the bulk of the wine-consuming public.

RE: "nothing special" - I could be over-reading, but a while back Steve Heimhoff wrote about a particular winery: "...[a] decline in quality in recent years, going from "interesting" to merely "okay." The best I could muster for ... was 87 points..."

So reviewers? I ask you - honestly, in your various worldviews, is 87 points "merely okay"?

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

As a consumer, I think the 90 point marks a place where I ( or we) are more willing to pay a bit more, although I'm not one to buy wine based on what Parker or anyone thinks.. it's just a reference point.

I also agree with buying 86-89 point wines, which usually are a much better value.

That being said.. this is only for the rare occasions when I purchase wine based on points.

A vast majority of the wine I purchase is from winemakers I know personally and have some sort of relationship with. In my opinion, knowing the person who makes your wine ( and them knowing you ) makes every bottle a bit more special, and that can't be driven by a score.

kschlach said...

This binary scale of 90+ and everything else is nothing new. WA and WS use the 85-point cutoff for publishing scores on paper. James Suckling and every retailer are doing the same thing, just 5 points higher. A number is just a number and does little to explain to the consumer what actually is inside the bottle. The beauty with using words to describe a wine is that they are so much more informative than a mere number.

The issue that is bigger than the flawed system is the laziness of the consumer. People are too lazy to read notes or stories about wines and want to be spoon fed information in the smallest possible bite. We need to wean the consumer of the number addiction.

And as much as you take Dan Soggs to task for being hypocritical, so too are you by using the system which you rally against! I like reading your blog and articles, but you have more ability than most writers to do something about changing the system you also bow down to...

W. Blake Gray said...

CWP: I am open to your suggestions as to how I might change the system. If Wine Spectator would announce tomorrow that it was changing to a 5-star rating system, that would be huge. I do not work for Wine Spectator.

kschlach said...

I said, "more ability than most writers." While I do think you are a talent writer with (probably) a decent following, you do not approach the sway of WS. Yes, what they say goes.

However, you could go to a 5-star rating system. Or how about a 20-word descriptive word bank of which you choose one (in place of your score) that would succinctly (though not definitively) describe the wine at the end of you tasting note. While discussion and argument is good, change must start somewhere. I am quite sure that more people care about what you say and do than they do what I say and do.

Baby steps...

Oh, and by the way, you could apply to WS for a job! They have an opening for a Tasting Coordinator. That sounds right up your ally ;)

Anonymous said...

What's the difference between an 89 and a 90? "One point" seems to be the only obvious answer to me. Is there a distinctive difference in overall quality between the 89 and 90?

If the scale only goes as low as 83 or so, why even use the 100 point scoring system? Change it to 1-10 or 1-20. While the difference is still distinguished by a single point, that point carries more significance when it's used on a 1-10 scale than a 1-100.

Charlie Olken said...

Blake, CWP and everyone else--

There is no perfect rating system. The world used to operate on two types of systems--the old 20-point system and a star system.

With twenty points, only wines at 18 and above were "hot". 17.5 may not have meant instant rejection, but the principle of "I've got to have the best" pertained then as it does now.

In the star system, it is always the top two categories that get the glory. When Earl Singer and I started Connoisseurs Guide back in the 1970s, we adopted and adapted the Guide Michelin three-star system. Add in wines that get no stars and our own bottom of the barrel "downturned glass" for wines with big problems and you get five tiers. A five star system is also a five tier system.

For us, it is the wines at two and three stars that get the glory. For the five star folks (see M. Broadbent, for example), it is the four and five star wines.

We write very long tasting notes (60-150 words) and I hope some folks read them. Those words tell the story of the win--not our stars or the 100-point system we have added because it is the currency in which wine ratings are traded.

If folks do not read our words, they are not going to read the words associated with five stars, ten chopsticks, Joe Roberts' letter grades or any other system of symbolic notation.

As for 89 points, well, I understand that there is some kind of magic spell that goes with 90 but not 89. But, there are people who do read the words and look at the price and make decisions based on their own palates and their pocketbooks. And I think, given the popular response we get to our "Best Buys" column, I would submit that there are lots and lots of those folks who think for themselves and are not led around by their 90-point noses.

Austin Beeman said...

Intellectually, we know there is only one unit of different between 89 and 90. But emotionally it is another matter.

89 is "in the 80s" and not much different than a 81pt score.

90 is "in the 90s" and not much different than a 99pt score.

There are enough people who think like that to make the difference in sales enormous.

Anonymous said...

a 90 point wine is only a 90 point wine if you as a consumer agree with the critic. Know your critics and how you value their scores. Certain scores I just automatically knock off 2 to 5 points!

W. Blake Gray said...

Folks, this is all comment drift.

This is NOT another rant against the 100-point scale. It bores me to write what everybody else writes.

I'm asking questions about language and meaning.

Before you can begin to think about replacing the 100-point scale for retailers and consumers who like it, you need to start thinking about what it means to them, not to you.

kschlach said...

What words would you use to describe a 90-pt wine? How would the descriptors vary between Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and say Sauvignon Blanc? I agree that a simple '90' doesn't do each of these grapes justice.

Maggie said...

If I magic myself into the brain of a consumer shopping for a 90 point wine, this is what I hear:
I need a wine that is guaranteed not to be a waste of money, wine isn't cheap and I can't risk getting a disappointing bottle. I also need to find a wine that will impress my friends - I don't want to be the person who brings the lamest wine to the dinner party on Saturday, what will everyone else recognize and be pleased that I brought?

That's one version anyway.

Is that the question you were asking?

Maggie said...

If I magic myself into the brain of a consumer shopping for a 90 point wine, this is what I hear:
I need a wine that is guaranteed not to be a waste of money, wine isn't cheap and I can't risk getting a disappointing bottle. I also need to find a wine that will impress my friends - I don't want to be the person who brings the lamest wine to the dinner party on Saturday, what will everyone else recognize and be pleased that I brought?

That's one version anyway.

Is that the question you were asking?

W. Blake Gray said...

Maggie: Yes. If retailers are advertising "90-point wines" as a category, like "sparkling wines" or "fortified wines" or whatever, it's worth knowing what the message being sent and received is.

I don't know if anyone has ever done a consumer survey on this question, but if so I would love to see it.

Anonymous said...

language is not enough to describe a wines value to anyone. There has to be multiple avenues for the winery, restaurant, consumer and distibutor to differientiate a wine.

Sommeliere said...

When Tanzer gives a wine an 89 score, I am out the door to buy it.

This subject has been discussed many times and you, Blake, should know that it depends on who is doing the reviewing.

W. Blake Gray said...

Sommeliere: Again, it's not what I know that matters ... it's what consumers think. If everyone drank what I liked, well, that would suck because I'd never get any of it.

Anonymous said...

90 points is validation for the consumer... much like Maggie said, they feel that it hedges their bets. A local retailer that I buy food (but rarely wine) from has a display of wines labeled 90 points and over, $20 and under (or something along those lines) and it's easy to see that those wines move the fastest. They have clever names for the rest of their selections as well to make sure that people feel validated no matter what they're buying. It's ok to buy an "every day white" for home, a "critic's choice" or "classic import" for a special occasion or a 90+ and $20 for the dinner party goer. The value of shorthand for the consumer is huge, and as we all know scores are the shortest form. If someone doesn't beat me to it I'm going to bottle a wine called "90 plus" and sell the sh*t out of it. Thanks for the provocative post Blake.

Mike Duffy said...

It's easy: in school, 90% is a A-. :)

Threeboys said...

In the wine selling business, it is a binary scale. While the retailer may recognize the 1 pt difference in the wine quality, they certainly recoginze the 1 pt difference in sales. My Costco buyer will not entertain a new item that doesn't come with a 90pt score. No exceptions. I will tell the brand managers that I deal with to not even produce a piece of point of sale with anything lower than a 90. It's a waste of time & paper, unless it comes with a 'best buy' or 'best value' tag/rating in the same publication.
The consumer is already bamboozled with the wine geek info we put on our labels and POS. They are confused by the abundance of labels on the grocery shelf/zim rack. They see two wines, same price with a shelf talker of 89 & 90, they are going right to the 90. Life is fast and they aren't reading the vernacular on the necker, or in the magazine.

I don't necessarily like it, but from that is my take from of the buyers/consumers stance from a supplier viewpoint.

Christian Miller said...

"My Costco buyer will not entertain a new item that doesn't come with a 90pt score."
Does he or she have properly controlled research that shows demand among Costco consumers drops significantly under 90pt barrier? I'll bet a 90 point wine they don't.

"They see two wines, same price with a shelf talker of 89 & 90, they are going right to the 90."
Regardless of variety, brand, winery, AVA, personal experience, etc.?

Francly Speaking said...

When people ask me how many points a particular wine that I made has garnered I always tell them 'my Mom gives it a 90', no matter what anyone else has said about it!

W. Blake Gray said...

Christian: I was hoping you'd stop by. (For those who don't know, Christian is the director of Full Glass Research.)

Do you have anything on this topic? Feel free to email me privately if you prefer.

Threeboys said...

I don't know if the Costco buyer has that research, but she certainly has that philosophy. No 90, don't even present it. I have experienced it many times. And when one of my wines does garner a 90, I am suddenly in demand with her.

In my response, same variety is assumed. I think that the general consumer doesn't take into account AVA, perhaps winery, most probably don't have a personal experience with the winery. So, yes, same varietal, same price, it's the 90.

Christian Miller said...

"I don't know if the Costco buyer has that research, but she certainly has that philosophy."
Indeed, that's the point I was trying to make. There is a lot of self-fulfilling or circular logic around this topic.

"I think that the general consumer doesn't take into account AVA..."
Broadly true for all wine consumers, but research shows AVA has significant impact for high frequency, high involvement consumers. And those consumers buy over half of $10+ wine and 90% of $20+ wine, hence also most 90 point wines.

1WineDude said...

It's very simply, really.

A 90 point wine is a wine with logarithm 1.3745329845424927e+51 with a base of 3.7.

I mean... ***duh***!


Threeboys said...

Ah. My misunderstanding on Costco.

Touching on the high involvement, high frequency consumer, do you have any research into their being affected by 90 vs 89, all other things being equal (varietal, AVA, etc)?

And, if you have a blog, the answer is there, and I'm just not reading it, sorry:)

Courtney Cochran said...

Define a 90 point wine with words? "You go, vino"

Mike Duffy said...

"Nine-Oh, or no go!"

Christian Miller said...

"Touching on the high involvement, high frequency consumer, do you have any research into their being affected by 90 vs 89, all other things being equal (varietal, AVA, etc)?"

No, but I'd love to run that experiment. I have a website ( with some commentary, but I am appallingly slow to update it. I ran one entertaining experiment pitting stodgy old Napa Cabs vs. pointy cult wines. Stodgy old Cabs swept the table.

Anonymous said...

88-89pt wines are bargains

Taste very much like 90pt wines but are cheaper

I target then

W. Blake Gray said...

Christian: Using what standard did the older Napa Cabs win?

Austin Beeman said...

Wines with 90s are viewed as 'A' wines. 89s are 'B' wines. Just like high school.

100 point scale is like the American education system while the 20 point scale was used because it is the French system.

What 90 points means for me as a retailer is that THIS WINE WILL SELL WITHOUT MY EFFORT. 89 points means it will be a 'hand-sell.'

Anonymous said...

Judging a wine for a rating in a publication or a competition is a subjective thing. The taster is not necessarily the same person from day to day, his or her frame of reference will subtily change and so will the scores. I seriously doubt if a reviewer or judge would give the same wine the same score, especially using a 100 point scale, from on day to the next. Many tastings include numerous samples...change the tasting order and an individual's perception of a given wine will change. I know of one instance where a particular wine took double gold/best of class at the S.F. Chronicle tasting and a bronze at the Orange County Fair, which panel was correct? Enter more competitions...get more golds.

Anonymous said...

Dear ColoradoWinePress,

Consumers are lazy? Consumers are the ONLY reason why the wine trade can even exist! So don't be surprised if they do whatever they bloody well want.

I know you are not very bright, but think about it hard and you will know it is true.

I also hate to burst your geeky little bubble, but the reason why consumers are focused on the pts system is because wine is just not that important in their lives.

You see, with time spent making loads of money, playing sports and chatting up lingerie models, I really don't give a rat's behind about the story behind a wine.

So just grab me a 96 pointer and close the door after you. C'mon, chop chop ...

Unknown said...

Thanks for post. Actually I was not aware about 90 Point wine. Very Informative Article