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Interpreting our Wine Ratings

Different publications and reviewers have different methods for rankings wines for their readers. The most popular system today is the 100-point scale. There are many reviewers that use a 20-point scale and still others 5-points. Some reviews use icons that look like stars, corks, bottles, thumbs up, etc. to communicate a wine’s overall quality. Icons are cute, I suppose, and those that are unique may be eligible for trademark protection. In the end though, icons are just place holders for numbers. Numbers appear to be extremely precise, but it’s not always clear what they communicate.

I’s not always clear where the numerical scale really starts. On the 100-point scale, it’s extremely rare to see a rating below 70. Whereas a rating in the 70’s communicates a wine that is really not very good one you wouldn’t want to buy, a rating below 70 indicates a wine so flawed that some sort of drastic corrective action is probably called for at the winery. On the 100-point scale, wines pretty much get 60 points for simply being in liquid form and having some measure of alcohol. But what about a 5-point system? Does a “1” translate to a 60 or would that be a zero? Is 4 equal to 80 or to 95? Who knows?

Another issue with the 100-point system is that it implies a level of precision that is not realistic over multiple tastings. Wines simply taste different from one day to the next. Our palates change too, even during the course of a single day. A wine that receives a 91 in a blind tasting one day might get a 92 or an 89 the next day from that same reviewer.

In setting up the ratings system for NorCal Wine, I’ve sought to do the following:
  • Avoid artificial precision
  • Clearly communicate our recommendations
  • Create a range of ratings between which there are meaningful differences
  • Provide ratings that can serve as a call to action

We provide four different levels of rating: recommended, highly recommended, very highly recommended and highest recommendation. On this scale, wines that are merely acceptable don’t make the grade. They aren’t recommended. For that matter, wines that are good and hit all the marks but don’t illicit any particular excitement on our part aren’t recommended either. I figure that if you’re going to read wine ratings on a website, you’re not looking for wines that are “pretty good.” You want wine that you’ll actively enjoy, not sip absent-minded. Those are wines that we “recommend.” For those of you who do like a 100-point scale, our recommended wines tend to be those other reviewers give 87 - 89 points. They are wines that you’ll enjoy but for which you might not want to spend a lot of money.

A wine we rate as “Highly Recommended” is one that has at least one feature worthy of special note. That may be complexity, concentration, purity, etc. These are wines that you would order a second glass of without considering the price. Something about them really captures your attention.  On a 100-point scale, they are in the 90 - 92 range.

“Very Highly Recommended” wines don’t capture your attention, they command it. Conversation ceases, except for short phrases like “Holy Cow.” This is a wine of which you’re going to want to buy more than one bottle. And you will probably be willing to spend over your normal price limit to get them. Whereas the “Highly Recommended” wine has one exceptional feature, the “Very Highly Recommended” has several. These are wines with charisma, wines that you don’t want to put down. “Very Highly Recommended” translates to about 93 - 95 points.

Our “Highest Recommendation” goes to wines that seem to correlate to 96 points or greater on the 100-point scale. These wines are so good that the phrase “cost is no object” may come into play for you. If the wine isn’t perfect, it’s pretty darn close.

Our ratings as described above do not take price into consideration. We don’t want to filter the qualitative ratings through our perception of the value of a dollar. In a world where many people won’t pay more than $20 for a bottle but restaurants offer Romanee-Conti for $3,000, there is clearly no universal standard for value. We provide a rating and the price, you can make your own decision about value.

That said, we do sometimes give different value-oriented ratings. One is “exceptional value.” Wines that we rate in that way may or may not be inexpensive and they aren’t necessarily the very best wines either. But, they are so good for the price relative to other wines in that style that our jaws drop a little bit. We say, “How can they sell this for that?” These are wines you might want to buy by the case. They are wines that make you feel a bit guilty about buying something else.

The final value rating we offer is “Best Buy.” These are wines that may not have made our “Recommended” list but are solid and at such a low price that we believe they merit your interest. These are wines to stock up on for parties and everyday drinking.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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