What’s in a number?

Kelly J. Hayes

You walk into a wine shop, not exactly sure what to buy.In front of you are a thousand bottles. Hanging from a few of them are little tags marked with numbers and tasting notes. You pick a bottle that you may have tried before, but you hear the voice of the wine guy behind you: “That’s good, but Parker gave the one next to it a 90.” Impressive, though you don’t know why the Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker is giving out numbers to wines. You buy the bottle recommended by the wine guy, despite the fact it’s $10 more than the one you were holding in your hand originally.Later that night as your assembled guests “ooh” and “ahh” over your selection, you display your immense knowledge of wine by parroting the wine guy: “It should be good, Parker gave it a 90.”What is it with wine and numbers? Why are the ratings assigned by Robert Parker, The Wine Spectator, and other journals of wine so important to consumers and even more important to the industry? A little background. Since the beginning of time, ratings have been a way of keeping score. The assignation of a number is a way to determine who has won a game, who has the most stuff, and in a subjective sense, who has the best stuff. Wine often was given one to four stars in the early days of wine journalism by writers looking for a device to rank wines.In 1959, Dr. Maynard Amerine, an oenology professor at the University of California Davis, devised a 20-point scale for rating wines. In that weighted system, points were awarded or deducted for a wine’s attributes, such as appearance, color, aroma, body, acidity and flavor. The idea was to scientifically and objectively rate a wine with little room for subjective input. The flavor component, for example, merited just one point.In the mid 1970s, Robert Parker was a lawyer and an amateur “wine geek” before the term was even created. According to Elin McCoy in her Parker biography, “The Emperor of Wine,” Parker and a friend, Victor Morgonroth, devised a scale that would prove to be far more powerful and popular than the rather restrictive UC Davis 20-point system.Knowing that all Americans came through school using a grading scale based on 100, Parker and Morgonroth simply extrapolated the 100-point system to wines. In their system, every wine began with 50 points. Then points were added for flavor and appearance (1-5), aroma and bouquet (1-15), flavor and finish (1-20), and finally, overall quality or the opportunity for improvement with age (1-10). Violà! A scale for evaluating wines was established that had room for subjective wiggle and could be as easily understood as a baseball batting average or the grade you received on your history essay in school. In the mid-1980s, The Wine Spectator took to using a 100-point scale as well and the rest, as they say, is history. Parker went on to become the single-most-influential wine authority on Earth, and the Spectator has become the most successful wine magazine in this country.What does it mean for the industry? Well, it gives the people who sell wine a way to differentiate their product from the competition. While a point, or even two, in the ratings may not mean that much in the glass, it can be an enormous factor in how a wine is priced, distributed, marketed and ultimately sold.And what do these ratings mean to you as a wine drinker? They should simply be used as a tool to help you navigate your way around the store or wine list. If a particular vintage in a particular region, or a particular wine, receives uniformly high scores, then chances are it is a well-made wine from a good place grown at a good time. But that does not necessarily mean that it is the best wine for you at a given time, for a given meal, or a special occasion.Rather, look at the numbers, but read the notes and taste the wines. Parker himself notes, “There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”And that is 100-point advice.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at