My favorite kind of wine shop is a bit like my favorite kind of bookstore: hand-selected items fill the shelves, along with excited notes from the staff on why each item was selected. I'd rather a small, well-curated shop where someone can recommend something they've tried than a big warehouse full of everything under the sun. Better yet—for me, the best way to buy wine is to talk to someone in a wine shop who can say, "oh, if you liked that, you'll also like this." And, "You're cooking lamb chops tonight? Then you should try this."
More and more often, though, the wine buying experience doesn't involve roving wine lovers suggesting bottles they've tried, or handwritten notes breathlessly extolling each bottle, but instead a printed sign and a number. Given a shelf of 89 point wines and 91 point wines and 95 point wines, what's a shopper to do? It seems as if the wines have received a final grade, and you should obviously buy the highest-point wine available for the amount of money you want to spend. "Merchants don't have to peddle their wares" anymore, wrote Mike Steinberger in Slate, "the scores do it for them."
I've received store pamphlets in the mail that literally only include point ratings and prices, not even bothering to note whose ratings they are. With sales strategies like that, what do you think are the chances for success for a winery that doesn't get reviewed, or doesn't score over, say 88 points? What are the chances you'll see those wines on the shelves?
What's lost when we buy our wine by score? Perhaps most importantly, the points in that pamphlet or taped to the store shelf seem absolute, but your taste might not align with the critic's. A recent study from the American Association of Wine Economists (downloadable here) compared scores given by consumers who keep notes on Cellar Tracker to those of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and Stephen Tanzer. Stephen Tanzer's scores were shown to be the most highly correlated with Cellar Tracker community ratings, and Robert Parker's didn't correlate as well. I'm not sure how useful it is to know how the average Cellar Tracker user's taste compares to any given critic—you need to know how your taste compares to the person whose taste you're trusting.
If Critic A likes robust wines with rich, plush fruit, and you prefer wines that are a little more subtle, or Critic B likes lavishly oaked wines, and you hate them, what do their scores mean to you? You need more information—the shorthand score doesn't tell you much that's useful.
Numbered scores also don't give us the information we need about a wine in context. A critic's quick sip and spit—no matter how expert he or she is—in a long flight of other wines doesn't tell us how the wine is going to behave in our homes. How is the wine when it's been in a decanter for an hour? How does that wine change after it's been kept in the cellar for a decade? Joe Roberts of 1WineDude writes:
When we rate a wine, we give it a stamp at a single moment in time; yet a wine with some real soul to it is for sure going to change on us, sometimes years from now, sometimes hours from now in the same glass...Maybe we can get close but we can never, ever nail the measurement of a wine's true character with real precision. It would be like grading a person when they're a teenager, giving them a "B" or an "87" on their life lived so far, when one day they might become the world's greatest psychiatrist.
And while we're talking context, how's that wine with the burgers you're grilling? How is it with oysters? Because the same wine isn't going to be 95 points for both situations. This isn't to say that all wines are equally good, that all wines are made with the same care and investment, that all wine-growing lands are equal. They certainly aren't. Scores can guide you toward wines that made with high quality grapes and careful attention—but they may also guide you toward wines that aren't made in your preferred style. And different wines are delicious depending on the occasion. Does your 92 points communicate that? No.
But this isn't to say that scoring has nothing to offer wine drinkers. If you find a critic who shares your taste, then their shorthand score may be helpful to you, especially if you are comparing, say, two Oregon Pinot Noirs that you haven't tried, or two different New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
As long as we don't take them as absolutes, as long as we consider that they're the shorthand for one opinion (or a group's set of opinions) at a single moment in the wine's life, then wine scores make wine feel less foreign and less tricky to decipher. As Howard Goldberg of The New York Times writes, "Points, like other symbols, are a form of language. They are essentially the equivalents of Consumer Reports' nearly fully red, red-and-white, all-white, white-and-black and all-black bullets in ratings tables." When faced with the daunting task of choosing from shelves and shelves of wine, the numbers make it easier to get the job done.
What works better? Checking out a free tasting at your local wine shop and picking bottles you like, keeping track of wines you've enjoyed and asking salespeople for other similar options. A critic's point ratings are no substitute for tasting and tasting and getting to know your own palate—getting a sense of what you like.
Does your local wine shop display point scores? Do scores help you decide what to buy?