Is score inflation equal to quality inflation?

By Andreas Larsson / 18 Sep, 2022

I remember the days when I was a young chap in the business. Like many of us, I was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm, the eloquence, and the sheer passion of Robert Parker. The wine enthusiast who turned professional and became the world’s most important wine critic ever. Not the least did he give life to the 100-point scale that has been intriguing wine lovers ever since.

I remember checking out his notes and being thrilled to find bargains in the 86–89-point spectrum that my meagre sommelier salary could afford back then. What about 1994 Lynch-Bages 88 points or 1997 Mouton-Rothschild 90 points? I even managed to pour the latter by the glass thanks to the low score and consequently low demand, to the benefit of happy customers.

Today it´s all different though! Imagine any of these chateaux scoring lower than 95 points regardless of vintage. It won´t likely happen!

I jokingly wrote a piece for a Swedish wine website on April Fools’ Day about how we would expand the 100 point scale to a 105 point scale. We would also arrange a unique 100+ points tasting with 2000 Château Latour 102 points, 2001 Harlan Estate 103 points, 2009 Château Ausone 104 points and so on... Can you believe how my inbox was loaded to the brim with emails from enthusiastic wine lovers desperately begging for a sacred spot! In the end, it was just April the 1st!

Yet looking back at this, it´s perhaps not a completely silly idea as everything is getting consistently better...

Is this then a question of inflation in wine scores, or in wine quality?

My positive side would say quality, quality, and quality! I probably belong to the last generation that remember lousy and insipid vintages, wines that refermented in bottle (before hip pet-nat existed that is). Looking at the extraordinary progress we´ve seen just in the last 20 years in terms of hygiene, cellar practices, wine consultants, selective picking, sorting tables and gadgets with Nasa or Tesla technology standards.

Wines are certainly much better that they used to be! In some cases, even to the detriment of personality and character! Albeit I remain optimistic about the fact that there are very few bad wines out there. The vintage will always make its imprint but there´s no reason to produce a substandard wine!

90 is the new 85! For many years leading magazines and wine authorities considered a wine scoring 85 points, a “good” wine. Yet today that wouldn´t attract more interest than yesterday’s baguette!

90 points feels like the barrier today. Any well-made Côtes du Rhône, vibrant Alvarinho, or ambitious Bordeaux Supérieur will easily attain this magical number.

A wine that retails for 15 bucks on the shelf with a sticker that says 90 points will sell. I spoke to numerous producers about this phenomenon and most agree that sending samples for tenders without that 90-point score is simply a no sell, regardless of how good that 89-point wine is!

We shouldn´t forget that wine tasting, and appreciation is far from an exact science, we could never really measure how “good” a wine really is. It´s very much about the individual critic’s aesthetic values.

I used to be very involved in various blind tasting organizations and I still prefer to taste blind whenever possible, and I think that one becomes more restrictive within this format. Yet no one really seems to care whether the wines were blind tasted or not.

In many cases the only option if you want to taste through the latest vintage in Bordeaux en primeur or the cult wines of Napa – is to taste with the winemaker or owner at the estate. Fully understandable even though I still think that our judgment will be slightly more biased.

What are my own thoughts about scores then? In a perfect world I would be happy to just drink and enjoy fine wine without having to measure them on this very imperfect scale. Yet, in reality, I do have to use them in my various projects, and I happily accept to do so.

Wine critics love scores! Many leading names has gotten great attention and renown from both producers and consumers, thanks to generous judgements from 90+ values to the perfect three-digit gems. Despite the great work in tasting and writing beautiful reports on a region or a vintage, the score remains the big thing!

Consumers love scores! Any happy wine lover with less experience of tasting as much wine as professionals do will easily be allured by that 15 dollar 90-point Rasteau and even more so by the 95-point 29.99 Chilean Cabernet!

Producers love scores! In many markets the score is certainly a highly contributing factor to boost one’s sales and whoever gets those 100 points will enjoy tremendous attention and reputation.

Last but not least – retailers love scores! As much as I love passionate people finding the latest, coolest, great value, authentic, artisan kind of wines, having the knowledge to explain and sell these. The vast majority of wine sellers will still heavily remain on judgments from wine critics and those magical numbers.

Are scores here to stay? Indeed, they are!