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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the 100-point wine scoring system, which has long influenced American wine culture. Beavers details the history of the system, and how famed wine critic Robert Parker popularized it in the late 1960s — using the United States’ high school grading system as a model.
Beavers also explains why other publications — including VinePair — have since adopted Parker’s points system, and why these wine scores have continued to influence the market and American palate even after Parker’s retirement.
Tune in to learn more about the hundred-point system.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and sometimes, I just think to myself, “Keith, why can’t you get into Wes Anderson films?”
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 28 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. It’s Season 2, and how are you? Wow, that rhymed. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the 100-point wine scoring system, but we have to talk about it.
Wow. Scoring wine. What’s that about? People make wine, and scores are applied to those wines by random people. Then, you go out into the world, and you look at the scores. Now, not all, but some of us buy wine based on scores. That’s crazy, right? The thing is, buying anything with scores today is what we do. When we want to go to a restaurant, we look for at least four and a half stars, right, guys? What are we doing with three and a half? What are we doing with that?
When you’re on Amazon and you’re looking up something you want to buy — especially with something a little more expensive — you’re reading the reviews. You’re hoping that item is at least four and a half stars so we’re used to this whole scoring thing. When we read online, there are a lot of roundups. We have them on VinePair with “the best of this, the best of that.” We rank things. It’s easy, it’s fun. It’s shorthand. You say, “Cool, just help me figure this out so I can go and do this. I’ll get into it more in-depth later, but right now, I just need a score.”
This is how our world works. In the wine world, the literature of wine has been going on since antiquity. Back in the day, all the way up until the 19th century, it was really mostly about agriculture. People writing about wine when they weren’t really scoring wine. They were talking about wines they may have liked. Even Pliny the Elder, in the ancient Roman era, would write about wines that he liked from different parts of Italy. Yet, a lot of the work being done in literature back in the day was more about the vine, the vineyard, maybe even viticulture. Of course, all that was mostly in Europe.
For the United States, though, from colonization all the way through to Prohibition, there was a lot of wine literature being pumped out. It was chaotic, disorganized, and people trying to figure out how to make wine in the United States was an absolute nightmare. That was based on which wines work. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the United States started realizing, “Oh, wine that’s not sweet like we had in Prohibition is actually good. We like dry red wine with a little bit of acidity and structure.”
As we started learning how to drink wine again, a lot of literature would come out to help us enjoy wine. Books on wine etiquette and how to throw wine parties and this misunderstood science of how to understand aromas and flavors. As we saw Napa rise before the Judgment of Paris and before it became its own American viticultural area, there were great things happening in Napa. It’s one of the reasons why the Judgment of Paris happened.
In Napa and Sonoma, there were people there helping the people who lived there enjoy wine. One of the most well known is Robert Finnegan. He was in the story I told last week in the Judgment of Paris. There were people out there helping Americans enjoy wine but it wasn’t until the hundred-point system was applied to wine in the United States that things got crazy.
That is because of one man: Robert M. Parker Jr. If you’re not familiar with that name, this is one of our premier or first celebrity wine critics who became nationally and internationally famous for his writing about wine and this scoring thing with wine. It got to the point where a score from Robert Parker could define the price of your wine. I’m not sure if his story has a humble beginning, but it’s a very typical American Eastern Seaboard story where he was born and raised outside of Baltimore. He became a lawyer in Baltimore. At the age of 20, he tried his first wine, I believe it was at law school. He fell in love with wine, and this started his whole love for wine, as we all do. When you taste wine for the first time, you say “Oh, my gosh.” Then, you start working your way through wine trying to understand it, listening to “Wine 101,” you know how it goes.
As he practiced law, he was able to explore wines. He actually went to Europe at one point and enjoyed Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. This is so fascinating because Robert Parker was around at the right time doing what he was doing. As we’ve talked about in the past few episodes, when it comes to American wine history, this moment in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a catalyst moment for us. The timing here is crazy. He was falling more in love with wine, but still practicing law. However, he was getting very frustrated with the lack of independent and reliable criticism about wine. He wanted to read more tasting notes than guides to where to go. There’s a story I read in the mid-’70s when he was at dinner with one of his friends and he was a lawyer friend, I’m not really sure. This friend was fascinated with the fact or Robert Parker’s ability to assess wine and said, “Hey, you should be doing this full-time instead of law.”.
I don’t know if that was the conversation that made it happen, but Robert Parker was thinking about launching his own buyer’s guide. He said, “If people can’t do it, I’m going to do it right.” He decides to launch this newsletter bi-monthly called The Wine Advocate. It was his way of dissecting wines. This guy wrote very copious tasting notes. He went down to some serious detail.
In 1978, the first newsletter went out. What happened here is I guess nobody really knew how hungry Americans were to understand wine. By 1984, The Wine Advocate was doing well enough that he could retire from law and have this be his full-time gig. Now, it was time to really make a name for himself. I don’t know if he planned this or not, but he did an extremely detailed breakdown and description of the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux, to the point where it really got the attention of the French. It prompted him to actually release a Wine Advocate in French, and that blew up.
By 1998, The Wine Advocate had 45,000 subscribers from all over the world, mainly the U.S. and France, but I think it was 30-plus other countries. People were subscribing to this. People wanted to know about wine. At that point, he was the only voice doing it. Now, Robert Parker wasn’t the only one with a newsletter in the United States. There were hundreds of them, I’m sure, and there were some that were probably very influential to their communities, but Robert Parker was on an international level at this point. There was something about his newsletter that was different than everybody else’s.
He was the first to apply scores to wines. This is why it became such a big deal. He designed the hundred-point scoring system that he used for wine off of the United States high school grading system, which started from 50 at the lowest, all the way up to 100. Every American could understand that point system.
He would give points to wines, and mostly it was Bordeaux and then some American wines, but he was really fascinated with Bordeaux. The scores he applied to wines, he did not believe these were the major part of the entries of his newsletter. I’ll paraphrase here: He really wanted people to use the point as a supplement to the tasting notes. This guy wrote, again, very detailed tasting notes about wine. He wanted that to be the feature of his newsletter, not the points. However, this is at a time in America when we were, again, very hungry for wine knowledge.
If we’re hungry for wine knowledge and we’re in a modern era where distribution and importation is now a thing, wine reps selling to retail stores and restaurants, started to rely on these points very heavily because the wines that Robert Parker was writing about were not your everyday wines. These were fine wines, or wines built to age.
One of the reasons why The Wine Advocate was so respected, beyond the tasting notes and the scores, was there were no ads. It was just wine information cover to cover with no distractions. As people noticed how successful the scoring thing could be, they started applying it to their own ventures. For example, Marvin Shanken, who created Wine Spectator, which I think started as a newsletter but quickly became a magazine — he started using a hundred-point system for scoring wines their own way. That is a magazine, so there are advertisements there.
That’s where capitalism started churning out. This idea of scores and wine started to really define what people looked for in a wine. They didn’t look for what was inside the bottle so much as they looked for the score. They assumed that the higher the score, the better the wine, which is true. Yet, there was really no indication as to their personal preference in that score, and that’s the capper. That’s the twist with numerical scores to denote the quality of wine, and that led to some controversy.
For example, Hugh Johnson, who’s a very famous wine writer in the U.K. and wine critic, said, “You’re going to apply a score to a wine that’s going to age, so it’s going to change. Are you going to then apply a score later on? How do you correlate that score that you apply later on with the earlier score? It’s a mess. This doesn’t work.” But Robert Parker didn’t see wine that way, specifically.
There’s a quote on the cover of his newsletter that says, “Wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize.” Obviously, he was approaching wine with this very calculated effort, and someone like Hugh Johnson had more of a sense of where a wine was going and that it’s an active thing. It’s not just a snapshot in time wine.
Also, Robert Parker really loved Bordeaux and also really enjoyed deep, dark, fuller-bodied red wines. He was mostly a red wine critic, and he ended up doing a lot of his little literary work in Bordeaux and in the Rhône. It got to the point that his influence was so great that winemakers in France, Italy, the United States, Spain, and beyond would make wines so that he would actually like them and get big scores so those scores could get them sales. Even though Robert Parker wanted the scores to be a supplement to his very detailed notes, this system was just too easy. It was just too good.
This became the standard. A score on wine defined its price, its popularity, and its reputation. Other publications like The Wine Spectator and eventually Wine Enthusiast applied scores as well. That’s what the game became. It was a score thing.
Today, scores are still very popular. They’re not the standard they once were, but they still have influence. I believe The Wine Advocate morphed into robertparker.com, which is his website. In 2012, he sold that entire website to a Singapore ex-wine merchant for $1.5 million. So he retired, but his idea never did. To this day, scores are still applied to wine, so we gotta talk about that. What does it mean when a score is applied to wine? How do you figure that out?
One of the cool reasons why scoring is not as popular as it once was is because these days we, the American drinking culture, are more interested in the stories behind the wines than we are about applying a calculated score to a wine. And tasting notes are also very important to us, but the language of tasting notes is a whole other thing. We go over that in previous episodes, of course, but there’s something nice about a point. It’s a number. It’s quick and easy to understand. It’s very shorthand. If you trust the person who’s giving the score, you trust the score. It’s also something that transcends all languages. It’s a number — everyone knows 93. Everyone knows what a 94 is, but no matter how calculated a point is supposed to be applied to wine, it’s a very arbitrary thing. How do you trust a score applied to a wine, knowing you’re to spend some money on wine? Every 100-point system is very similar, but every one is actually different from one another. Every system is created independently and designed for that particular publication or entity to get its message across.
At VinePair, we’ve actually created our own hundred-point scoring system with our own levels in tiers and how we think a hundred-point system should be applied to when we review wines. Being the tastings director of VinePair, I’m the one that does all the tasting and all the reviewing. Using that system that we developed helps me get my message across to you guys, based on how VinePair sees a certain wine.
That’s where the 100-point system exists today. It’s similar to a movie critic. When you want to see a movie, I don’t know about you, but I have certain movie or film critics that I like to read before I see a movie because I often agree with what they say. This is similar to the 100-point wine scoring system. You go to a wine shop, and you see a point, that point is given to that wine by somebody. If you’re familiar with that somebody, and you like the way that somebody talks about wine, you’re probably going to go ahead look at that number and choose to buy the bottle of wine based on that person’s wine score. If you see a number from another wine critic that you may not know, you may not get the wine or you may get it anyway, but not take into account the score. That is how it works these days, because wine is so much more than one point, but it’s a really good, quick reference point for you if you know who’s actually giving the point and agree with that person’s taste in wine.
Even though these numbers can seem a little bit arbitrary — and they are arbitrary and subjective because it is one person’s palate or a panel of palates making a decision on wine and a score — what’s really cool is every website has its own hundred-point system with its criteria so you can see why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen. At VinePair, we have our 100-point system in categories and we have it all explained for you. If you look at a wine on VinePair that I reviewed and given a score to, you can go and look at that link to see why where it is in the scale of why I said what I said.
That’s a little bit of history, application, evolution, and where we are today with this 100-point wine scoring system. I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere for a very long time. Even though today, stories and backgrounds are so much more enjoyable today than just a cold, hard score, that score will always help us in a pinch if we trust the person giving the score.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.