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Explaining the ratings

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So in tomorrow's paper, the column will feature a new addition — the wines will now be rated on the 100-point scale that's incredibly common among wine magazines/writers/critics/bloggers. There are strong opinions about the ratings scale, but both advocates and detractors will agree that the system is popular.

I had planned on explaining in detail why I chose to start rating the wines using the scale, but Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog touches on most of my reasons in his piece called The 100 Point Wine Rating Scale Works. The core of his argument — wine drinkers like it. Sure, there'll always be opponents to the system, but for the most part it's true.

The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker — a giant in wine writing circles — brought the 100-point scale to the popularity it now enjoys over twenty years ago. His breakdown of the scale makes a lot of sense, seeing as he pretty much pioneered it. Wine Spectator's summary of their use of the scale is here, while Wine Access' summary is here. They're fairly consistent, and because I review wines for Wine Access, I probably follow their system most closely.

I've been scoring all wines that I taste for a couple of years now, but never bothered to publish the scores in the column. When I started reviewing wines for Wine Access, I had to use the 100-point scale, and actually came to like it. Since I score the wine when I taste it (rather than afterward), all my notes have scores.

Describing a wine's features will continue to be at the core of my wine reviews — I'd never just go through and list a bunch of wines and their scores. For me, part of it is that I like articulating a wine's characteristics in writing, and would never taste a wine and simply jot down a score (even though it would probably make my life infinitely easier). I think a score can complement a rating, and vice-versa. It adds some context.

I try to score wines based on their own individual merit, but if I'm trying three $12 Chilean Merlots, for example, it's useful for me to taste them together and rate them both on their own merit and the way they compare to their contemporaries.

Are there problems with the system? Absolutely. For example, you'd be hard-pressed to find many wines rated under 80 points in any wine publication, so essentially it's a 20-point scale that starts at 80. But most wine publications agree that wines rated under 80 are likely flawed in some capacity — they are poorly made wines that cannot be recommended.

Because I'm limited to a certain amount of space in the paper, it seems more productive/useful for me to write about wines that I think are worth trying, so you probably won't see many wines rated less than 80 in the paper. I typically try to find redeeming qualities in wines I write about; if a wine is well-made and has potential for people to enjoy, that's probably good enough for a lower-80s score to me. Wines that over-deliver relative to their price point will typically rank anywhere from 87 to 91ish. If a wine is simply outstanding and/or shows the potential to be cellared for a while and mature into a thing of beauty, then we're looking at 90ish points and up.

The bottom line: trust your palate. Take my reviews for what they are — one person's opinion on how something tastes. If a written review sounds good, and you buy and enjoy it, that's great. If you determine that your preferences are the exact opposite of mine, that's fine too.

Apologies for the rambling, willy-nilly explanation of why I'll now be rating wines out of 100 in the column. I feel like I haven't actually explained anything. I rate this blog post a slightly flawed 75.

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.


Blogs that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson follows:

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