What’s In a Number? Wine Scores and the Finger Lakes

When searching through a wine shop or an online store, one is bound to come across all kinds of numbers pertaining to wine, from volume (usually 750 ml) to the vintage year the wine was bottled. The price, of course, is the number to which we pay the most attention, although many retailers make sure that another number, a score often ranging from 85 to 100, is displayed even more prominently.

These scores can be found on small cards provided by the winery or distributor, and are often taped to the rack display in a conspicuous manner. At times, the shop owner himself writes the score on a sign next to the price of the wine, convinced that the two numbers in conjunction will help consumers decide on a purchase.

Just what do these scores mean and where do they come from? The 100-point scale seems like a recognizable measure to any American who has taken a spelling quiz or a math test at one point or another. For its familiarity among the general public, Robert Parker, founder of the publication The Wine Advocate, adapted this grading scale to wine judging in the late 1970s. Parker intended to use the scale to replace for consumers the antiquated and complex French system for judging wine potential from certain estates.

As the 100-point scale became increasingly popular throughout the early 1980s, Parker and other critics began to use the system to judge all wines, including those coming from emerging wine powerhouse California. Eventually, most of the major and mid-major wine publications adopted the 100-point system and continue to use it to this day.

In reality, the 100-point scale is really a 50-point scale, as no wine scores below 50 points. While definitions differ from critic to critic, the general consensus deems any wine below 80 as not very good. Wines that score above 80 are noteworthy to good, and those that score between 85 and 90 are considered good to very good. A score of 90 to 94 is considered excellent, and a 95 to 100 score is exceptional.

Human nature being what it is, a 90 or above is usually the gold standard that makes a wine fly off the store shelves, while wines that score even a point or two lower than that mark are not guaranteed to garner the same level of consumer attention. This phenomenon has been observed so frequently that some wine enthusiasts recently founded a Web site called The 89 Project, dedicated to reviewing those wines that almost made it!

How does this 100-point system play out amongst Finger Lakes wineries? In general, wine publications specialize in vinifera, or European-style grapes, so most Finger Lakes wineries send for tasting only their Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. At times, select Finger Lakes wines receive a score in the mid-to-high 80s from various wine publications, and less often a critic awards a score in the low 90s.

Usually Riesling captures the most critical attention, although Ice Wine and Gewürztraminer have been known to score very well. While some Finger Lakes wineries score year after year, few have scored above 90 consistently, and no Finger Lakes winery has ever received an exceptional score of 95 or above from a major publication.

Some Finger Lakes enthusiasts insist that the numeric precision of the 100-point scale masks subjective and relative judgments. They insist that the Finger Lakes is at an inherent disadvantage because it is not a well-established wine region with a glamorous reputation, such as those found in Europe or California, and that critics are not inclined to grant high scores to worthy wines. Regardless of these concerns, some observers feel that they can tell a story about the Finger Lakes that transcends mere numbers.

Lenn Thompson, founder and editor of the New York wine website www.lenndevours.com, likes to place the scores in a greater context. “I don’t know that glossy magazines giving Finger Lakes wines 90+ scores really impacts what my readers get from my site,” he says. “People want to know about the vineyards, the weather and the people behind New York wines, not just a subjective numeric rating for the end result.”

In response to questions about fairness, most wine publications are willing to go on record in support of the Finger Lakes wine industry. Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of the wine magazine Wine & Spirits, is extremely complimentary of the Finger Lakes region and how it is developing. While he said he feels that there has always been good wine coming out of the Finger Lakes, in terms of scoring quality there has been a positive shift as of late.

“What’s changed is the consistency,” Greene says. “We see a lot more good wine coming out of the Finger Lakes than ever before – not just Riesling, but Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc and some Pinot Noir as well.” Although a purveyor of scores, Greene emphasizes that quality is also demonstrated in different ways, such as building lasting relationships with consumers, and he believes that the biggest challenge for the Finger Lakes is gaining the attention of wine drinkers outside of New York State.

There is little doubt among winery owners that good scores from a major publication can help increase the sales at a given winery. Marti Macinski, owner and winemaker of Standing Stone Vineyards on Seneca Lake, has noticed a sharp increase in sales and inquiries when one of her wines scores near or at 90. Macinski said she feels that scores “are generally in line with quality” and that as the Finger Lakes wine industry finds a way to fit into the scoring system it will sell more wine to more consumers.

Bob Madill, winegrower and general manager of Sheldrake Point on Cayuga Lake, relates how a score of 90 from Wine Spectator for a Riesling Ice Wine resulted in an inquiry from the White House, which later chose to feature that wine at a Governor’s Ball. Madill, who serves as the chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, feels that a consistent grouping of Finger Lakes wineries scoring in the 85 to 89 range has a “significant overall effect on the reputation and credibility of our region.”

Nearly all wine shops choose to display scores in some fashion, believing that most consumers faced with numerous choices will gravitate toward those wines that have garnered critical praise as expressed by a familiar grading scale. Dewi Rainey, owner of Red Feet Wine in Ithaca, has a different philosophy. “I do not post the ratings in the store,” she explains. “I think consumers can learn to trust their own judgments as they begin to evaluate and trust the merchant’s selections.”

Although Rainey has not always noticed significant jumps in sales due to scores alone, she noted that since most Finger Lakes wineries have limited volume, a given wine that receives good reviews might not be widely available. She prides herself in having some of the well-regarded Finger Lakes wines in stock prior to scoring. “For the crowd who reads the wine magazines, the stock can sometimes move a little bit more after a rating,” she says.

When the issue of scoring and the 100-point scale is brought up in the Finger Lakes, there are bound to be some grumbles about the negative aspects of buying into a system that has its flaws or is subject to interpretation by critics who may favor the bold tastes of California wines as opposed to the subtle, cool-climate flavors of those in the Finger Lakes. Despite these misgivings, most would concede that the Finger Lakes continues to improve in its showing in almost all the major publications, and that the numeric scores introduce wine enthusiasts from around the world to the existence of Finger Lakes wines. “We are seeing a major trend of good coverage,” insists Madill, “and this is both welcome and important for the future of the Finger Lakes.”

by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner writes for www.lenndevours.com, a New York wine website. He lives in Syracuse.

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