The Basics of the 100-Point Scale for Wine Ratings

A wine that’s rated 90 points or higher (according to Robert Parker’s “Parker Points”) should be well-made, with complex flavours and balanced structure.

The 100-point scale for wine rating is common in North America and is analogous to school grades: Anything over 90 is excellent; 80 to 89 is above average, and so on. This system was made ubiquitous by American wine critic Robert Parker — he even trademarked the term “Parker Points.” This system is used by The Wine Advocate, the publication that Parker founded (and from which he officially retired in 2019, though the magazine continues to publish wine scores by its panel of critics). It’s also used by Wine Spectator, another major source of wine ratings. A wine that scores 90 points or higher is usually a pretty good bottle — but you won’t necessarily like it.

Point scores are a quick, quantitative snapshot of a wine’s quality. A wine that’s rated 90 points or higher should be well-made, with complex flavours and balanced structure. Highly rated wines are often more expensive than others in the same category — this is especially true if the wine has earned consistently high scores for several past vintages.

But some high-scoring wines are actually quite inexpensive, because price is primarily determined by production, shipping and distribution costs, as well as name recognition and brand. This is why you can find very highly rated Argentine Malbec for half the price of an American red blend with the same score. Argentina’s wine is simply cheaper than American wine, so even the highest quality stuff is a relative bargain.

Stephen Richmond, owner of Vines – Riverbend Wine Merchants, says that rating systems are a great sales tool; if a wine scores 90 points or higher, the shop usually incorporates this on its shelf tags.

Alcanna’s chain of Wine & Beyond stores takes this even further and devotes an entire section to 90-point wines.

“The 90-plus section is useful because it houses wines that show some hallmark qualities, such as age-ability, balance and complexity,” says Chase Brackenbury, wine ambassador for Wine & Beyond. “The section evolved out of consumer demand and interest… It is a great conversation starter with newer wine shoppers who are unfamiliar with the 90-plus process, or even with those who don’t necessarily buy into the program.”

But a point score is just that — a single, numerical measurement that reveals nothing about what the wine will taste like or if you’ll like it. Parker is notorious for favouring bold, “fruit bomb” wines, leading some wine producers to try to make wines designed to earn a high Parker rating. (The 2004 documentary, Mondovino, explores this in depth.) But if you don’t care for this style yourself, you may not like it — even if Parker gave it 96 points.

This is why some stores don’t bother with points at all.

Juanita Roos, co-owner of Color de Vino, describes her store as a “points-free zone” and prefers to help her customers find wines for reasons other than ratings. “We explain that scoring wines using points is often a panel average, and why be average?” Roos says. “Really, how many people would agree on any one wine? Follow a person that likes what you like. It’s so subjective to time, place and who you’re with.”

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This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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