When wine was first becoming really popular in the U.S., back in the late 1970s, critic Robert Parker popularized the process of rating individual wines on a 100-point scale. The system resonated with Americans, who related to it because it reminded them of their grading system in school. Eventually it was adopted by virtually every important critic and wine magazine in the country.
Just as inevitably, there was a great deal of underground grumbling about the 100-point scale. Wines were sold on the basis of ratings, and in many circles the conversation was about the rating and not about the wine. Consumers felt uncomfortable with the idea that a handful of individuals were controlling the wine market. Many wine drinkers felt that the system was overly precise and ultimately unfair, since it reduced an aesthetic and soulful product to the status of a number. Parker himself observed that a numerical rating was the equivalent of taking a snapshot of a marathon runner.
With the blossoming of the Internet, democracy arrived in the world of wine. It was suddenly possible for consumers to communicate with each other and share their perceptions of individual wines. Suddenly, the opinions of people like themselves became more important to many wine drinkers than the pronouncements of “critics.” Not surprisingly, the heaviest criticism of wine blogs has come from the mainstream magazines, since their franchise is being endangered; wholesalers don’t like it much either, as it’s making their jobs more time-consuming and difficult.
The revolt against the 100-point rating scale has now broken out into the open. If you visit www.scorerevolution.com, you may read and sign a “manifesto” against the numerical rating of wine. “The 100 point rating system is a clumsy and useless tool for examining wine,” proclaims the manifesto. “If wine is, as we believe, a subjective subtle and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable.” If you sign, you can join a growing legion of consumers, winemakers, bloggers and sommeliers.
Whether you sign or not, the influence of ratings is fading fast, and those who used to control the system will never be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.