Tuesday, October 22, 2013

100-Point Wine Rating Scale: Grade Inflation?

100-Point Wine Rating Scale

Recently, I was reading James Laube's article in Wine Spectator about the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California. In general, I'm a fan of his writing - he has a similar worldview when it comes to wine and I usually agree with his criticisms of the wine world (and also his celebrations). This article, however, made me wonder a bit. In his writing, he references the Wine Spectator's 100-Point Wine Rating Scale - he rates the 2010 vintage as a 98, adding it to the 5 other 95 or higher vintages he's rated since 2004.
Here is Wine Spectator's 100-point scale:
  • 95-100 Classic: a great wine
  • 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
  • 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
  • 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
  • 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50-74 Not recommended
(Now, I've never seen anything in the 50-74 range in the magazine, though I may have just missed it.)
I find it hard to believe that, in 7 vintages, 5 of them have been "Classics" across the board. How can so many vintages be "a great wine?" If basically every vintage is Classic, then either a) the wineries have perfected their production process, rendering weather and other circumstances irrelevant, or b) there is quite a bit of grade inflation going on.

I would suggest it's b). It's a shame, really, as, in general, wines have gotten so much better across the board. What used to be an outstanding wine is now pretty common, just because vinification has improved around the world, as have vineyard practices.

I don't use the 100-Point Wine Rating Scale, partially because it seems more a marketing tool than descriptor and I believe wine tasting is more nuanced than that. I could see it as a useful tool if it was used to describe just the quality of a wine or vintage, as it relates to other similar wines or vintages. As with every bell curve, the vast majority of wines and vintages should be rated 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine, with an occasional one above or below. It should happen rarely that anything is rated 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style (superior being the operative adjective) and 95-100 Classic: a great wine should happen once or so in a lifetime for it to be truly useful.

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