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Saying goodbye to the 100-point scale

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I've been thinking a lot about the way I review wines as of late — specifically, about how I score them, and whether I should be using the 100-point scale or not.

For those that don't know, the 100-point scale is fairly widely used among wine writers. Arguably invented (but certainly popularized) by American lawyer-turned-wine writer Robert Parker in the Wine Advocate newsletter he founded (and more recently sold), the scale became popular among many wine magazines, writers, and retailers (a high numerical rating is good for moving bottles).

The first time I ever scored wine on the 100-point scale was when I started judging at Wine Access' International Value Wine Awards and Canadian Wine Awards, in around 2007. The numerical scores of each taster mattered more to each wine in that context than it would for something like a column or even a standalone wine review. In the competition, the numerical score — once parsed out and juggled by some software with other judges' scores — determined whether a wine made it to the final rounds of the competition or was left behind. The same system is used for WineAlign's National Wine Awards of Canada and World Wine Awards of Canada, at which I'm also a judge (the latter starts this coming Monday, Sept. 8). In that context, the 100-point scale makes sense.

I later became a member of Wine Access' national tasting panel, and since the now-defunct magazine used the 100-point scale in the reviews section, I decided to adopt it in the column as well. Fine.

But as of late, I've come to dislike using the 100-point scale. It doesn't bother me when I see it in other people's reviews, as I can choose to ignore it if I want to, but I personally don't like assigning a wine an overly specific score out of 100 if I don't have to.

The fact the scale goes from one (or zero, I guess) to 100 has become a bit of a joke. Find me a wine in any publication that's scored below 80, and I'll buy you a bottle of said wine. It just doesn't happen. In fact, most reviews (my own included) tend to fall somewhere in the 85 to 95-point range, making it for the most part a 10-point scale dressed up as something far more all-encompassing and ‘scientific' than it actually is.

I've thought about abandoning the 100-point system — or even abandoning scoring/rating wines altogether — but I also realize there are people who really appreciate a score on a wine. I totally get that.

What if there was a third option that fell somewhere in the middle? What if I rated wines based on a five-star system — like that used by Marion Warhaft when reviewing restaurants, or by CD, concert, movie, etc. reviewers?

Think about it this way. I review two wines, fairly similar in price. Maybe they're similar in style too, or maybe they're not. Instead of giving each one a score in the mid-80s, let's say, they each get four stars. Doesn't that help level the playing field? Wouldn't that bring the emphasis back on the review itself rather than a number assigned to the wine? How do you explain why one wine is worth 85 points and another 87? No really - how do you do it?

There's also the fact I'd be more comfortable using the full range of stars than I would assigning a wine a score that, in paper, is probably insulting even when it's not meant to be. An example: I try a value-priced (read: cheap) wine that's serviceable — completely drinkable but really nothing special. With the 100-point system and the range of points commonly used by most people, myself included, there's a feeling based on precedent that a wine should get at least an 84, pretty much the lowest score going in the column these days (and in most other wine publications).

An 84/100 on a math test would be pretty darn good (at least for me) — it would be an A in most classes. To me a wine like this isn't an 84-point wine, nor is it a 60-point wine, but it's somewhere in the middle. Assigning a wine like this three stars seems far more palatable than giving it a score in the 100-point system that will make it look like crap.

A 70-point score is visibly shocking in the 100-point wine rating system, and in the plethora of 85+-point reviews out there seems like a slap in the face. Would you be willing to try a wine rated 70 given the convention of wines starting in the low 80s score-wise? Probably not. But what if it were rated three-and-a-half stars out of five? Think about it in the context of Marion Warhaft's restaurant reviews, or a movie/CD review, and that's a pretty good score. In the context of wine reviews, 70/100 is bad.

Other than the most fervent (read: geeky) wine critics, who tastes a wine and thinks "this is an 89-point wine"? I'd say far more people taste a wine and just plain decide whether they like it or not, and a five-star system is at least a bit closer to that. I think adopting the five-star system allows some elbow room in the ratings department while shifting the emphasis back on the description of the wine itself rather than a overly specific score.

There's only one other field in which I can think things are reviewed and assigned a score out of 100, and that's in the pages of Consumer Reports. But they take objects — cars, TVs, lawnmowers, heck, even wines — and put them through vigorous, objective testing to determine quality and safety standards.

I taste wine. Yes, there are objective quality components that can be determined, but for the most part it's subjective. Most of us don't buy wine because it is well-constructed and is reliable — we buy it because we need something to go with pizza, or we're going to be sitting outside on the deck, or we're celebrating an anniversary. Without getting too melodramatic, it's more emotional. We enjoy wine, and that's not something that can be comfortably wrapped up in a number.

So starting in this weekend's column, I've switched to a five-star reviewing system. I can tell you that working within those parameters (rather than the 100-point system) was a treat — you may not notice much difference in the way the review was written but it sure took the pressure off of me to come to a hard number on a wine that, given the context, I could feel completely different about tomorrow than I did today.

Any thoughts? Let me know what you think in the comments here, or on this weekend's article, or shoot me an email or bug me on Twitter.

Rant over. Time for a drink.

Twitter: @bensigurdson 

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