Wine scores, and why they don’t work (still)

CellarTracker scoresHedges CMS White is the kind of wine we don’t see enough of in the United States — a well-made, everyday wine at a reasonable price. It’s a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and marsanne, and I’ve been drinking it (along with its companion, CMS Red) for years. The suggested retail price is $14, but it usually costs less than that, and I picked up a previous vintage over the weekend for $10.

The wine was as it always is — crisp, fresh and even a little more interesting than usual, with more of a stony finish and less fruit than normal (probably because it was a year older). Is it white Burgundy? Nope. But, as the Wine Curmudgeon always points out, it’s not supposed to be.

Which brings us to the Hedges’ entry in CellarTracker, the blog’s unofficial wine tracking software. One of CellarTracker’s most fun features is the public tasting notes, where you can see what other people have to say about your wine. The public notes also encourage wine scores, which I tolerate for two reasons: first, because the software is so good otherwise, and second, because it allows me to point out the fallacy of wine scores.

One drinker gave the CMS White 77 points, which is the equivalent of something you wouldn’t use to get drunk with. Two others gave it 90 points, which is about as good a score as this style of wine is going to get. But my favorite score was an 86, from a person who noted that the wine was “over the hill and starting to fall apart.” Yet, somehow, it still got an 86, which is a fine score for almost any kind of wine.

Those four scores demonstrate everything that is wrong with wine scores. Here are four people, drinking the exact same thing, who come to almost completely different conclusions. And one person, who finds the wine flawed, still gives it a high score. How can anyone, reading this, be anything but confused? And yet wine scoring is considered the be all and end all of wine criticism. It’s enough to make the Wine Curmudgeon take to his wine closet and refuse to come out.

Please note that I’m not criticizing the people who gave the scores. Each is entitled to his or her opinion. I’m criticizing the system that forces them to give scores. They have different palates, different approaches to wine, and different ideas about what the wine is supposed to taste like. The 77 person described the Hedges as bland. Which I can see, if 77 prefers heavily oaked California wines with high alcohol. If, on the other hand, you prefer lighter, less extracted wines, as I do, then the wine isn’t bland. It is (as I wrote) crisp and fresh.

At best, as this exercise demonstrates, scoring is wildly inconsistent. At worst, it’s even more confusing than not using any score at all. Look at the Hedges scores in CellarTracker!, and tell me how anyone can decide to buy the wine based on what the scores say.

Image courtesy of Jacksonville Wine Guide, using a Creative Commons license

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5 thoughts on “Wine scores, and why they don’t work (still)

  • By Tish - Reply

    This is a perfect example of how wine STYLE has to be considered before any standard of “quality” can be applied to a wine. People who do not like the Hedges would probably also not like Big House White, Conundrum, Sokol-Blosser “Evolution” (to name a few). And this is all the more reason why the most effective context in which wine advice should be delivered and taken is when the giver and taker are live and in person.
    I wholeheartedly give this post a score of 88, which is exactly the score I give every wine.

  • By ryan - Reply

    Saying a wine is 86pts and over the hill, is not necessarily wrong. Sadly with the failed idea of scores each one is entitled to 1 or so it’s thought. There fore all wines who score 99 eventually will go over the hill, thus they may have just been saying the wine “is” 86 pts, but at this point over the hill.
    Eitherway this is precisely why scores fail, though more to your point is the fact that on these sites, and in my own life, wines get scored different amounts depending on the night, dinner, time, etc…Wine is subjective. Points are not.

  • By Jeff Siegel - Reply

    Tish, I give your comment an 88. Right on.
    Ryan, I wish you could tatoo that on everyone’s forehead. Wine is subjective.. points are not.

  • By Kristin - Reply

    I don’t like scores either. It absolutely drives me nuts when people criticize a wine for NOT being something it’s NOT supposed to be. As Trish said, the style has to be considered. I’d add the price point does too. I don’t expect as much from a $10 bottle as I do a $40 bottle. The $10 bottle shouldn’t be competing on the same playing field with more expensive wines.

  • By Rick Nelson - Reply

    As a retailer, I’m not a fan of wine scores. There’s too much focus on scores and less on tasting notes. I’d rather buy an 86 pointer with a tasting profile I like than a 96 pointer with flavor descriptions that I don’t like. Sadly, there are too many wine customers who won’t purchase unless the score is 95 points or higher. Big mistake in my book.

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