Scores, in Context

Scores are only one piece of the puzzle

Scores matter. You might not like that, but they did, they do, and they will. When I review a region for The Wine Advocate, I spend time visiting, researching, penning a comprehensive article—and scores are just part of that. I am aware that readers will focus on and discuss scores, whereas in a perfect world they would be interpreted as a part of the communication.

A score works because it is lingua franca (universally understood). There is no hiding behind vernacular. You nail your appreciation to the wall. It holds that person accountable. It allows anyone to compare your views with others and possibly their own. However, a score without a complete tasting note, explanation of winemaking, context of terroir, or growing season … is just a number.

Furthermore, a score should not live on its own. If a stranger remarks that a particular wine is 92 points, that does not mean anything to me. A score must be part of a community, preferably strictly arranged along an axis of vintages or its peers. If I give a 2007 Château Trotanoy a score of 92, then subscribers can instantly compare that with 30 or 40 other vintages. They can compare it with other Pomerol estates born of the same vintage or draw conclusions in terms of viticulture and vinification. (For example, do I prefer Cabernet Franc in Pomerol wines? Do I like early or late picked wine? And so on.) Go further and compare that score with other Bordeaux châteaux, maybe compare it with a South African Bordeaux blend. You can compare with other reviewers and, most importantly, yourself. You may agree or disagree—that’s fine. At least you know where I am coming from and can decide if I might be a useful guide.

The problem is not the scores themselves. Those that argue they never use scores are kidding themselves. Adjectives such as terrible, bad, average, good, very good, excellent, perfect … your brain ineluctably attaches a cognitive value of appreciation. No, the problem is the misuse of scores. They are habitually extricated from context—that body of the report—even from the tasting note itself. There is nothing I can do about that.

I don’t score wines to be quoted and gain attention. I score wines partly because before I was a professional writer, I found it intellectually stimulating, a means of judging my own palate. Did I get that wine right or wrong? Or has the wine changed? Most importantly, I score wines to communicate a message to the subscribers of The Wine Advocate, part of the package along with the words, photos, and videos.

People claiming that scores are in decline should consider that nearly every successful subscription website is based on an archive of scores and notes. They should consider the popularity of community-generated sites, and their reliance on scores. They should also consider that as wine has become more expensive, the need for accountability by independent third parties has become more important. But to reiterate, scores only work when you can theoretically delete all of them from a report, yet still understand which wines a person liked and why. Scores? They adjust the lens and make it clearer.

Based in England, Neal Martin is the founder of Wine-Journal and has written for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate since 2006. He is the writer and reviewer for Bordeaux, Burgundy, and South Africa.