The wine is 93 points, according to the experts. And is that enough for you, informed consumer, to buy the bottle?
While we don't buy our food based on numbers other than price, the practice of relying on numerical ratings is endemic in the wine industry.
Shelf talkers deliver the message -- known as points -- in stores and usually feature a score in bold print, a perfect 20 or 100 point score the best attainable, depending on the reviewer. But numerical scores misinform more than they educate buyers and perpetuate an unfortunate trend in wine buying based on a single number. Distilling the taste of a nuanced beverage like wine into a number is about as relevant as buying music or books based on a numerical score. We all experience the pleasures of life in a unique way, certainly through palates strikingly different from those of wine critics.
Yet it remains too many bottles can make shopping an unpleasant challenge for consumers. Consequently, supporters of wine points argue scores simplify a difficult purchase.
But there are key reasons to avoid numerical-based buying.
Points Don't Describe Wine -- Some wine drinkers swear points alone indicate the best bottles. Reviewers defend high numbers as indicators of exceptional wine based on comparative tastings and other benchmarks. But a high numerical score won't guarantee the wine is enjoyed more than another ranked 15 points lower. A brief paragraph explaining factors like vintage, the vineyard, the winemaker's style; this describes wine in a meaningful context.
Points Make You Miss Great Bottles -- There's a unwritten cut-off point in the wine industry. Most shopkeepers who allow signs see lukewarm response to wines tagged just under 90 points when, down the aisle, there's a 90-point version flying off the shelf. But in fact, an 82-point wine, when tasted among peers, without any promotional points affixed, may be the crowd choice when tasted in a group. High scores divert attention away from great bottles.
Points Are Routinely Misused -- The folks who design store signs may omit the vintage, intentionally, or by accident. So it turns out the 95-point rating was for the bottle two vintage's past. And high scoring tags may hang on shelves for years. High-point bottles may be not ready to drink tonight but focusing on just a number obscures this. A more honest way to use points might be to note all bottles which are barely drinkable with negative points or zeros.
Points Aren't Forever -- Critics and tasting panels may have one crack at a bottle. And even if a bottle is judged as flawed and then retested, the rating of a wine is often based on one encounter. Wine is not static and may show different nuances six months from now, or it may age at a snail's pace. When a bottle was rated last year, and two years later finally hits the shelf, the 95 points may no longer be relevant. The high score, however, may still be used on a sign.
Critics Retract Points -- Occasionally a critic will admit that the wine originally given 97 points -- upon subsequent review -- isn't quite what she thought it was. After a retest, guess which score is most likely to end up on the shelf?
A Knowledgeable Merchant Is Always A Better Substitute For Points And Meaningless Store Tags -- Avoid buying based on points alone. Don't be swayed by shelf talkers which read like a movie review tag line; phrases taken out of context to explain what you will encounter. Learn instead from your instincts, from books about wine, and with the help of experienced store staff.