Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The death of the 100-pt rating system

Robert Parker's ratings are perhaps the single most important influence on the wine industry, ever. The main reason for this is his prescient utilization of the 100-pt wine rating system as shorthand for wine quality. The 100-pt wine rating system is well entrenched as the main way critics describe a wine's characteristics. Most Americans equate the scores to the equivalent letter grades we all received in school. How many students care how the final grade was calculated? Very few consumers care how a wine gets its 92 points. They equate high scores with delicious wine. What many consumers don't understand is that the scores they see lining the shelves at their local wine shop are a subjective assessment by one individual. The retailer usually just picks the highest score from the major critics (or not so major) and publications regardless of the varying range of scores.

Fortunately, this system is about at the end of its run. However, it is not dying for the reasons you may think. While its opponents eagerly wait for its dominance to fade, its proponents are actually the ones slowly strangling it. Most of these wine pundits are reviewing the same wines and are competing for consumer attention. This, amongst other reasons, has led to score inflation over the past few years. As the system has slowly been reduced from a 50-pt scale to a 10-pt scale, it is quickly on its way to a binary system. When it first was used, you would not be hard pressed to find scores in the low 80s (at the time a reasonably positive score), but now many pundits will not publish scores for wines that rate below 90 points.

These days, 94 points is run of the mill. If you subscribe to any of the flash sale sites (i.e., Wines Til Sold Out, Invino, etc.) you will notice wines scoring in the mid 90s being deeply discounted. If the wine is that good, why are wineries having to discount those wines? As critics who use this system keep inflating scores to remain salient, they are ruining the system. Now, a wine has to receive a score of at least 96 or higher for it to be a guaranteed sell out for the winery. This means that we are almost to the point of a binary system. The genius of the 100-pt system is its ability to sell wine and sell it well. A binary system does not differentiate the good wine from the great wine from the truly extraordinary wine.

So how do wineries sell wine if critical success is becoming harder and harder to achieve and even a score of over 90 is not a guarantee of sales? The answer is relationships. Wineries need to build relationships with the people that buy their wine and the people that they want to buy their wine. It used to be that the score was the beginning of that relationship. Not so any more. Social media is the beginning of that relationship now. I would attempt to describe this new era, but Alder Yarrow at his blog, Vinography, did so much more eloquently than I ever could, so please, I urge you to read his post from last week here.

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