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Numerical Wine Rating Scales

Can an 85 point wine be more enjoyable than a 95 pointer? If you’ve been around the wine block a few times, you’re probably thinking, “It depends….” Lots of things besides the raw number come into play. Who did the assessments, how old was the wine, am I drinking it today, where is it from, what am I going to eat with it, or just have it by itself? Feel free to add anything else.

There are so many subjective and objective factors going into a score, that without looking at an accompanying paragraph of descriptors, and knowing something about the tastes of the rater, it’s only a gross approximation if you are going to like or appreciate the wine that got a good score from another person.

Let’s take a look at the systems that are currently in use and what the numbers are trying to convey:

100 point scale: In actuality a 50 point range, because that’s the lowest score. This is used by Robert Parker, Cellar Tracker, Wine Enthusiast and too many others to list. It is probably the most utilized, but even those who use the system point out that the score only enhances and complements the written descriptors of the wine in question. When was the last time you saw a shelf talker or sign that had more than the score?
   95-100 Classic/great wine
   90-94 Outstanding/superior character and style
   85-89 Very good/special qualities
   80-84 Good/solid, well made
   75-79 Mediocre/drinkable, with flaws
   50-74 Not recommended

20 point scale: Developed at UC Davis, originally assigned points for many technical wine attributes, such as tannins, sugars, volatile acidity, as well as color, aroma, and flavor. Jancis Robinson, Decanter Magazine and others use this scale, but as Robinson’s system (below) shows, it also leaves out the bottom numbers, so it actually encompasses a 9 point range. This is a good place to point out that the widely used Aroma Wheel (, with its controlled vocabulary of descriptors, was developed at Davis, as well.  Again, the use of actual descriptors are as important as the number to understand Robinson’s rating.
   20 Truly exceptional
   19 Humdinger
   18 Cut above superior
   17 Superior
   16 Distinguished
   15 Average
   14 Dull
   13 Borderline faulty
   12 Faulty


The original Davis system assigns a certain number of points to each of ten categories which are then totaled to obtain the overall rating score for a given wine.  It used the full range of twenty points.

   17 - 20 Wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects
   13 - 16 Standard wines with neither outstanding character nor defect
   9 - 12 Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects
   5 - 8 Wines below commercial acceptability
   1 - 5 Completely spoiled wines

3 to 5 unit scale:  Rather than points to denote the rating, sometimes this uses stars, wine glasses, or an academic letter scale, often with plusses or minuses.  Gambero Rosso uses up to Three Glasses (Tre Bicchieri) for its Italian wine publication, and I developed my own similar system some years ago to make it easier for me to remember special and not so special wines that I tried at large tasting events. My simple system, also used plus and minus in each category.
   4 Super wine
   3 Very good wine
   2 OK wine
   1 No thanks

The problem, of course, is that without descriptors, the naked numbers are just that, no better than any other system I could have used. Over the years I’ve gotten lazy with the descriptors, leaving them out unless I knew that I had to have details for some reason, like writing a blog, or scouting wines for someone looking to add to their wine list. For that matter, I only used my “scores” for myself; I’ve never used points to rate any wine I’ve ever reported on, just the descriptors of what I liked or didn’t.

This entire topic was brought into very sharp focus quite by accident about a month ago when the question “How important is appearance when rating a wine?” was posed in one of the industry discussion groups I follow. I responded that it can give you a hint of what to expect, but it’s the least important factor. This led to more discussion and some private communication with someone connected to a wine rating app that was just about to go live.

He asked me to try it out, so I did, using a South African Gewürztraminer (2012 Robertson LH) that I had fallen for a while back, loaded with rose petals from start to very long finish.  The thing about the system (actually a 100 point scale), is that it has the controlled vocabulary built in. Choose the adjectives that best describes what you see, smell and taste, give a rating on a sliding scale for each section, and separately for the finish and your overall opinion, and you not only have your personal  score, but the descriptors and tasting notes as well.

There is more to the system than that, but in my mind, it makes it easier to find the words that go with the number, and as I’ve been saying, it is the words that are more important. It certainly helps to focus and taste more critically. You might like to give it a look ( and become your own Robert Parker. After all, whose opinion about what you like is more important than yours?

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