Good, Better, Best: The Wine Social Hierarchy

Yes, Virginia, even in the world of wine, there is a pecking order.
Good, BetterIn the world of fine wine, the critics are the kingmakers. A favorable or unfavorable opinion from a select group of people whose job it is to sample and judge the world’s vintages can be powerful enough to either catapult a wine into the ranks of the world’s best, or relegate it to the odd-lot bin of the local supermarket.
Before we elaborate on this further, taste is subjective. The world’s best wine judged by the world’s finest critics may pale in comparison to a bottle of your favorite red that you pick up at the local shop. But if you consider wine an investment, it’s important to pay attention to what the critics say. Or, more to the point, how they grade.
Because yes, there is a grading system. Like in school, critics assign scores to wines they review according to a specific set of criteria. Look at any wine listing and you’ll notice a number beside the name of the wine you’re interested in, sometimes accompanied by a set of initials indicating which critic gave that number. It’s simply the fastest and easiest way to convey their opinions about certain vintages so that the average consumer can tell at a glance whether or not the wine they’re choosing is worth the expense.
There are actually many ways on how to rate wines—some reviewers use the 5-star (or 5-bottle, or 3-star systems) where the criteria for judging are fairly simple:


5 Stars: Superlative

4 Stars: Excellent

3 Stars: Good everyday drinking

2 Stars: Casual Quaffing

1 Star: Very Ordinary

[from John Platter’s Guide to South African Wines via]


And then there is the 20-point system, first developed in 1959 by Dr. Maynard Amerine of the University of California-Davis. The Davis system is remarkably scientific. It relies on ticky-boxing a set of criteria that specifies points for appearance, color, aroma and bouquet, and level of acidity. Adding the points up results in a final score that can fall within these categories:


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


Many well-regarded reviewers such as Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates still use the 20-point scoring system.


But it is the 100-point system (Parker Points) developed in the 1970s by Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate which has been adopted by most wine reviewers such as Wine Spectator and followed by wine merchants worldwide. Parker, arguably the world’s most powerful and influential wine critic, patterned this system after the American school grading system, noting that people have an easier time accepting that an “outstanding” vintage has earned, say, 95 points rather than 20.


96 – 100: Extraordinary

90 – 95: Outstanding

80 – 89: Barely above average to very good

70 – 79: Average

60 – 69: Below average

50 – 59: Unacceptable


To make this kind of scoring even easier to understand, Parker has given letter grade equivalents to the numbers, assigning an A to wines netting a score of 90-100, a B to 80-89, et cetera. It’s a system that has revolutionized—democratized, as Parker would probably like to put it—the world of wine for the average wine drinker. This is a system in such near-universal use that it has the ability to make—or break—the sales figures of wine around the globe.

So which vintages have earned the highest ratings from the critics? A look at’s lists of critics and scores reveals that French vintages such as Château MargauxPetrusChâteau d’Yquem, and Château Mouton Rothschild feature heavily at the top of the list. Leaving the French châteaux aside, these lists also reveal interesting preferences: Parker’s list includes many heavy hitters from Napa Valley such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate; Robinson’s list is quite Euro-centric with entries from Taylor Fladgate (Portugal), Egon Müller Scharzhof (Germany), and Marques de Riscal (Spain). Tim Atkins’s list has entries from Argentina and South Africa, and Wine Spectator’s list has Penfolds (Australia).

But in the grand scheme of things, do wine ratings really matter? There is an increasing amount of criticism aimed at the whole idea. Wine Folly has an interesting and useful breakdown on how wine ratings truly affect wine consumption, pointing out among other things that most wines available in the market aren’t even rated anyway. FirstWeFeast’s Jonathan Cristaldi writes that a growing and more youth-oriented market has begun to chafe at what he calls “the stereotypical stodginess of wine—best represented, of course, by such a strict grading system”, and prefer a more personal, gut-oriented approach in their purchase.

Best WinesIn the end, what it all boils down to is what was mentioned earlier in this article: Taste is subjective, and what is important is that you enjoy the wine you purchase, preferably over an excellent plate of cheese. But looking at that little number on the tag of your wine should at least narrow down the possibilities from an endless list of choices and make your personal late-night wine hour a thoroughly pleasant experience to savour.

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