Thursday, October 16, 2014

What’s 97 points between friends?

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a couple of years now but in the ensuing time a little boy, moving house, and a new job have all conspired to give me an excuse not to write it. Recent events, however, have brought back a bit of fire to the belly.

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

Without going into the full detail of the 100 point scoring system, historically wines scoring in the 70s had significant issues/flaws, wines in the 80s were decent quality drinkable wines, while wines of 90 and above were excellent, and 95 and above were benchmark, world class wines. There will be debates at the margins in terms of what I have just described, but it roughly captures the original design and usage of the scoring system that has dominated wine appraisal over the past 3 decades.

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 (something I still use). This advantage of the 100 point system, however, has been much diminished in recent years.

Points Inflation

The past decade or so has seen an inflation of points scoring from a significant number of prominent critics. It has been a gradual but undoubted trend. In particular, wines scoring 95 and above abound in a way they never have before. Examples are legion, but perhaps the most infamous of recent times was the eighteen 100 point scores Robert Parker delivered for 2009 Bordeaux. Only a few years previously he had delivered only two 100 point wines from a similarly lauded Bordeaux vintage, that being 2005.

The local example, but by no means the only one, is James Halliday. He is undoubtedly Australia’s most famous wine critic, and someone I have always greatly admired. What has happened over the past decade however, has been an increasing points creep in his scoring that has almost moved to the point of farce. A decade ago, had I read a review of his that rated a reasonably priced wine at 93 points, my interest would have been piqued. In more recent years the equivalent quality wine would almost inevitably get something like a 96 point score. Accordingly, I’ve found myself in what seems like the ridiculous situation of largely ignoring any Halliday reviews for wines scoring less than 96 points. It seems like I will have to revise that up again now, with Halliday awarding a 97 point score to a whopping 166 wines in his latest annual guide, 98 points to 24 wines, and 99 points to a further two.

Undoubtedly in this tally are some genuinely world class, benchmark wines. But looking through those awarded 97 points, there are many that are not. A case in point is the 2012 St Hallett’s Blackwell Shiraz from the Barossa Valley which Halliday gave 97. It’s a wine I’ve generally really enjoyed most vintages and when I tasted the 2012 over 3 days recently I once again found it to be an excellent wine. It was to my mind a 92/93 point wine, which particularly given the $25 price tag makes it a fantastic buy if you enjoy your Barossa Shiraz, and a wine I would highly recommend. Having said this, it is not a benchmark wine, and I don’t think any serious consideration of this wine would label it as profound.

Moving beyond just Halliday, more recently there has been a frenzy around the release of the 2010 Penfolds Grange. This is undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest wines and 2010 was a very good vintage in South Australia. That it would therefore get some very high scores upon release is no surprise. However, as with the broader trend of points inflation, Grange score inflation has followed suit. To the point now where this wine has already received 100 point scores upon release from critics like Andrew Caillard MW,  Nick Stock, and Tyson Stelzer. Never mind that this is a wine that typically takes a couple of decades to reveal its full potential, it has been given a hat-trick of perfect scores straight off the bat. What happens when these critics taste and score the wine in 20 years time, once the wine is in full bloom, is anyone’s guess.   

Of course not every critic has joined in this arms race, and I hope those that continue to show restraint will hold the line. However, my inbox now receives so many daily offers of wines that have been rated 95, 96, and 97 points by a prominent critic that it would appear that world class wine is simply a mouse ckick away. What has happened in the past decade has made the distinction between truly great wine and very good wine difficult to discern.

Does any of this even matter?

Plenty of people have suggested it’s not really a big deal, and that we should just take a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down. Some of the typical refrains are -

Scoring wine is a nonsense in the first place, so who cares

A score stakes a claim as to your genuine opinion on the wine, or anything that you’re critiquing for that matter. People argue to the contrary that you should just read the tasting note and make an assessment from there. For mine, with a tasting note alone it is virtually impossible to both genuinely convey the quality, flavours and textures of a wine in a way that consumers can easily get their heads around, while also subsequently enabling them to compare and contrast different options available to them. I’ve increasingly come to the view that a tasting note without a score is a bit meaningless. They compliment one another. Scoring wine remains important.

As long as the range used is consistent what does it matter?

Have a think about anything else in life that is scored (movies, restaurants, the credit ratings of banks). Imagine now that you just decide to move everything up a notch. A David and Margaret reviewed 3 star movie (At The Movies), which has always been the kind of solid, ok movie that you would watch if it’s in your style or there is nothing else to watch, now becomes a recommended 3.5 or 4 star movie. In this new regime, the scoring might be consistent, but it is far less meaningful. The critic is not doing their job of sorting the wheat from the chaff. With the scoring of wine it is no different.

If you don’t like the way the critic scores just ignore it?

Unfortunately that’s not really possible. I guess if it was largely irrelevant bloggers like myself that were throwing out 97 points with gay abandon then yes it would be possible to ignore. People like Parker and Halliday and other critics, however, are too ubiquitous in their respective areas of focus. They have an affect. If you are passionate about wine, you can’t just ignore them or the issue more broadly.


Wine criticism is a profession riven with conflicts of interest (a topic for another day). However, I used to be of the belief that these conflicts could largely be managed. However, it seems I was wrong. The plethora of overrated wine about the place would appear to be evidence of this. 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. Giving everyone a guernsey does no one any good in the long term.

In my day job I’m involved in reviewing and rating investment opportunities for clients. I know that if I were to adopt the Parker or Halliday approach to my scoring I might make some fund managers happy in the short-term, but my credibility would ultimately come under question, and in the end I would be out of a job. Admittedly overrating a wine won’t have the same consequences as putting someone’s life savings in a dud investment, but I’ve got no doubt that if this points inflation trend continues, critics might ultimately find themselves out of a gig. 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?



Gav said...

I've been saying this for a long time.

Scoring wine might be important for those who don't have time or desire to research further, but but the 100 point scale is useless/unreliable to the consumer and is highly favourable to the retailer.

Summary is, if you read a review and put any value on the points score then you're buying wine to brag about the points more than enjoying the contents.

Free Run Juice - Damien said...

Some really interesting food for thought, but what about the fact that Wine Front's CM now reviews around a 1/3 of the wines for JH, with Tyson Stelzer doing all the sparkling?
The point inflation seems pretty endemic no; or perhaps it's just a recalibration?

Red said...

Moredsir, I agree that this can and often is the case. I guess I differ however, in that I think scoring is actually an important part of the critic's role. As such, the lack of restraint and integrity in many critics scores is my main gripe.

Red said...


The problem is indeed widespread, and hopefully that comes across in my article. While Halliday might be the leading and most obvious culprit, he is by no means the only one.

Steve Dingwall said...

Great read. I think the 100 point system gives the false impression of some sort of quantitative process, while most wi be scores are purely qualitative observations. This could be improved by scoring all wines blind and repeating the tastings at least twice, with the same wines.

Free Run Juice - Damien said...

Maybe the way forward is a totally different system. Take Andrew Graham's refreshingly honest "would I buy it?" for example.
At least that puts the money where the mouth is!

Jules Gutierrez said...

If, in anyone's opinion, high scores are being too freely given out by certain reviewers, then I would say it discredits those reviewers, not the scale itself.

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