Do Wine Review Scores Matter in a Wine 2.0 World?

Sancho Panza Statue in Madrid‘…only to let me smell one and I can tell positively its country, its kind, its flavor and soundness, the changes it will undergo and everything that appertains to a wine.”

… Sancho Panza, in the novel Don Quixote by Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

A Short History

Ever since the Scot, David Hume, an economic philosopher, authored ‘On the Standard of Taste and Other Essays’ in 1757, these two figures, Mr. Hume and Señor Panza, have been credited with being the fathers of modern wine criticism. How much, but perhaps how little has changed. Is past indeed prologue?

In the late 1970’s, just out of college and working for Disney in Florida, I was transferred from the Food & Beverage Department, where I had been the new restaurant project manager at Lake Buena Vista, to take over Lake Buena Vista Wines. The primary marketing outreach for the store  was a wine club, Win  & Jack, early days in St Helena. CAsupported by a monthly print newsletter. One of my first events was billed as the ‘Napa Valley Boys’, featuring Win Wilson of Cuvaison, and Jack Daniels of Chapellet. Win and Jack quickly became my mentors, andVintners Club on my first trip to wine country and San Francisco, Win took me to a Vintner’s Club tasting in a room above Draper & Esquin Wine Merchants. The room was packed with well dressed San Francisco business professionals intent on tasting and writing notes on the 12 glasses of wine in front of them. The wines had all been decanted into carafes and covered by lettered brown paper bags; and, the wine glasses were on a sheet atop matching letters. The tasting protocol was explained, and silence during the tasting was expected. The then common Cal Davis 20 point system was used to evaluate each wine. At the conclusion, each wine was discussed before being reveled. Before this day, I had just noted whether I liked the wine, or not; but, from this Robert Lawrence Balzerday forward the question, at least for awhile, was where did the wine stand on a 20 point scale, and what were the descriptors. I started to read the newsletters of Robert Lawrence Balzer, and Robert Finigan, along with a San Diego based wine newspaper started by Bob Morrisey, The Wine Spectator. Also, on the reading list was the Connoisseurs Guide and the San Diego Grapevine. However, the magazines, while informing my choices, all of my purchase decisions were based on my tasting and evaluating the wine, and on my dynamic route to market business model.

During my stay at Disney, I started grad school, majoring in marketing, and decided to use my  Disney wine industry contacts to line up internships in Burgundy and across Germany. At Labore Roi in Nuits St Georges, my realLabore Roi, Nuits St George, FR tasting education began. Labore Roi, was and is a negotiant, and as such received samples from courtiers, often numbering in the 100’s per day. The winemaker took me under his wing, and I tasted 1000’s of samples of the best and the worst that Burgundy had to offer. It was here in Nuits that I developed my tasting frame of reference for quality. This was only reinforced in Germany, where I worked in the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and the Franken, and once again tasted 50 to 100 wines per day.

Returning to Florida, I went to work for a small wine distributor with the task of putting together a portfolio of some of the then start-up wine companies: Kistler, Far Niente,  Spring Mountain, Ch Montelena, Silver Oak, World Shippers (the genisis of Robert Katcher Selections), etc. I don’t  remember scores ever beingRobert Parker part of the decision. Sampling and tasting drove the process. I had returned to the States just as Robert Parker’s ‘The Wine Advocate’ started to gain circulation and influence based on initiating with his friend Victor Morgenroth a 100 point rating scale. In 1980, Marvin Shanken’s Wine Spectator started reviewing wines utilizing a tasting panel. The ascension of Robert Parker, and the growing influence of The Wine Spectator marked a significant change from the Balzer-Finigan era. The change was completed with Parker’s reviews on the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, and the shift in the Wine Spectator’s review process to reflect a 100 point scale. The die had been cast. Other publications quickly followed, such as The Wine Enthusiast, The Wine News, Wine & Spirits, and now, even The Connoisseurs Guide, all rate wines on a 100 points system. Soon retailers large and small adopted point ratings for their in-house POS. Restaurants, for a period of time noted Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast ratings for wines on their lists. And now here we are. We’re approaching the 30 year mark for the 100 point scale; so, the question is does it still influence wine sales. And, if so, who are the influencers, and what are the implications on winery marketing plans with the evolution of new media in a wine 2.0 world?

The Influence of Wine Ratings

Twisted Oak ReviewReviews and ratings do matter; but, perhaps in a different way than in the last 25-30 years. The impact of reviews has evolved, and there is not a one answer fits all situations solution. Samples submitted for review and the subsequent scoring should be part of the smallest, or the largest wineries integrated marketing plans.

As a start-up, small, medium or large wine company, the allocation of resources – human and capital, the sophistication of your channel strategy, your pricing and competitive frame positioning, your promotional, development andwine ratings marketing budgets, and your work ethic will go a long way towards the building of a successful wine brand, even in this saturated, flat market, with or without reviews. But to ignore submission of samples for review at a time when you should be maximizing your marketing efforts, to rise above the noise, is perhaps folly. Taking a broad view, wine ratings do tend to influence wine sales.

Your wine media samples plan should be in concert with your product production and release plans, and market channel strategy. If you have a DTT or DTC distribution model limiting sales to a few markets, then your samples for sb05reviewwinespecinsiderjpgreview strategy may be different than if you have a three-tier, multi-state model. In the former case you should identify the influencers affecting gatekeepers and consumer behavior. In the latter case, it is important to provide material for POS and sell sheets that provide tools for the individual sales representatives of the distributors selling your brand. Also, note that reviews may be necessary to secure new distribution in club stores such as Sam’s and COSTCO; while distribution in BevMo is driven by in-house ratings, and pricing, selection and distribution play a larger role. If your sales are primarily cellar door at the winery tasting room, a review from one of the major publications (usually at least a 93+) will help sell your wine. If you produce Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, your samples for review plan would likely be different than that of a cult Napa Cabernet producer; i.e. Burghound, IWR, Pinot Report, vs eRobertParker, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast.

A new generation of smart, professional and independent sommeliers are now Sommelier in Chargedecision makers at many of the most prestigious single unit and multi-unit restaurants in  major urban and resort communities. Their choices create buzz. They are the new trend shapers. While reviews assist in providing information, scores, no matter how grand, tend to carry little weight. This is also true in the independent retail market, where many of current retailers have adopted an effective web interface and/or a significant social media presence to inform their customers. A few well executed examples are J.J. Buckley Fine Wines, Wine Library, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, and Avalon Wine. Inaddition, the proliferation of wine specific search engines has empowered consumers and customers to write  reviews  for  sites such as,,,  and Your tech savvy customers should be encouraged in this practice.

While traditional wine centric media still holds sway, there is an erosion in their effect on consumer buying decisions. In my youth it was Balzer and Finigan. Over time they gave way to The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, et al; and, now consumers, merchants, sommeliers and bloggers are gainingWine Bloggers Conference traction, as traditional media outlets falter. In the identification of persuaders effecting wine purchase decisions, a discernable shift is occurring. Cruvee is tracking 600 dedicated wine bloggers; 2 million wine tweets (Twitter) a day; 50,000 registered wine site forum members; 100 million friend feed entries; and 100 Wine Social network sites (from’s web site social monitoring page). Change can be sudden, or, as this appears in this instance to be, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Change driven by consumers’ need to be integral to the conversation. Any effective, cogent media sample plan should now include a social media component.

Power to the peopleWhile some segments of the traditional wine media still shape the behavior of the multitudes when it comes to wine purchasing decisions, consumers are now and will continue to be empowered in what is the new brand/consumer conversation paradigm.

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.

36 thoughts on “Do Wine Review Scores Matter in a Wine 2.0 World?

  1. Thanks for the broad history and insight. The response I get time and time again from most Distributors and Retailers is that they want wines with scores because that’s what drives customers to buy. As we continue to move forward and as the luddites die off, I think that consumers who use technology as a mater of course in their lives, will be the 2.0 players and participants in fora that will indeed make scores less relevant.

    • Patrick: having recently worked with a major CA distributor sales rep as part of a client project, i was blown away with the size of his book… well, actually 2 books, each weighing about 10-15 lbs. He said 90+ reviews were a shorthand way to the top of his awareness list. Although, not 1 of the 20 restaurant or indy wine stores, that we called-on, once asked about a score or review.

  2. I may not represent the average wine buyer since I am purchasing wines that I can write about on my wine blog. That being said, I try not to let an RP score of 90+ dissuade me from purchasing a wine if my wine shop purveyor personally recommends it. On the whole though, I tend to skip them unless I’m specifically looking for something big and ripe.

    • Imensely enjoy your blog and your POV re wine. My fav LynchBob cartoon involved a wine consumer spitting out his wine and commenting that it was dreck… the clerk then notified the consumer that RP had just given the wine a 93, to which the consumer replied “I’ll take 3 cases”. I’m sensing that those days, if not over are numbered

  3. wow, I’m exhausted after reading this terrific survey of the current realities. Like you, I was getting pounded constantly for scores, only to find on the street that no one asked for them or, if you brought them up, it sometimes worked against you…except in the big box stores and a few other places. I don’t think the need for critical acclaim will go away, but I think respect will grow for a broader number of voices. As wine democracy flowers, 50 different voices saying ‘hey, this is good stuff’ ought to matter.

    • Jim; Thanks. Hope all is well at B-F. The now sound of low resolution static is, I believe, rising to the level of the Greek chorus; and the many will, and are being heard above the din of the few…

  4. scores.. We love and hate them altogether. Giving scores creates a hierarchy that is, most often, based not necessarily on merit/quality but more on name alone destroys the credibility of the reviewer/magazine, and, eventually, the producer.

    Decanter’s star system is more acceptable as a guide for consumers & collectors. The problem with number rating is the psychological impact on an unwitting consumer created by an 89 instead of a 90 rating.

    Personally, I would prefer just the tasting notes that describes the wine and its cellaring potential. This leaves me responsible for my choices.

    • Leo: I admit that i either have subscriptions to or read reviews on line. I always find the value in the copy of the review. When I was at Labore Roi, I had the opportunity to read the tasting notes from Ed Lauber, founder of Lauber Imports, who had just spen 3 months tasting all the great wines in Burgundy. No scores, just an impression of time, place and taste.

  5. Unfortunately ratings (rhymes with lemmings!) do matter. But maybe not so much for a tasting room/bar/shop. We encourage people to taste before they buy and buy what they like. Sales at our shop follow a very simple path – for the most part we sell what we have open. People do come in and buy known brands such as Au Bon Climat but smaller, lesser known brands sell when people taste.

    You can take a look at for a list of what is selling at our store.

    • Ash: A relationship with your local wine shop owner, or sales person is as valuable as a good relationship w/one’s butcher. Over time trust is developed, and the conversation develops, to the good of all. Taste is a matter of individual experience and preference, and our customers have rediscovered that the decision is theirs

    • My local (or preferred online) wine shop is one of my trusted sources for wine recommendations. Additionally, if I dine out, order a glass and like it, I’ll note the bottle. Personally, I’m not sold on ratings. I’m also a bargain hunter, so that’s often a source of inspiration for me. 🙂

  6. Unfortunately in one market where I sell wines, I have to deal with a government monopoly that controls all aspect of wine & spirits activities. Although I bring in wines through this monopoly (no other way) for direct sales to my customers, I also propose wines for listing in the monopoly stores (yes, they are the only ones who have retail shops). Here’s the kicker: they give priority to wines with 90+ ratings in Parker or WS. Guess what: During the busy holiday season last year, they had a massive sale (first time!) of specialty wines that they overstocked and did not sell quickly, at close to 30% off!

    While the point system may work for some, I always find that it does not help the consumer to be open minded. I have seen them going into the shops and only buying wines that have 90+ from Parker or WS. How sad, indeed!

  7. One interesting part of this discussion is how then, in a Wine 2.0 world, do wines get promoted? I imagine the answer is that wineries someday (soon) will have to provide live wi-fi feeds in stores of up-to-the-minute blogger, social site (like Snooth) and twitter comments on their wines, that feed right into the shopper’s iPhone or Blackberry. With the devices and services available today to consumers, we’re almost there. Have there been any retailer-sponsored TTLs? There probably will be soon. All this is not as easy, or neat and tidy as slapping a score on a placard, so I imagine scores will live on for some time yet. It will be interesting to see how all this develops.

    • Mark: the transition is already taking form. In referring to my immediate prior post on, live interactive tastings are ongoing and the audience is growing rapidly. Retailers are involved, and I’ve attended 4 in the bay area. And today I took part in an on-line ia/v nteractive discussion with 2 vintners, one in Oregon, one in NZ. Oh, and scores weren’t mentioned, in our discussion of green, sustainable farming practices on Earth Day. There have been a number of tweet outs from bloggers on Twitter providing real time feeds from local events such as the recent RRV Barrel tasting w/e, and from the upcoming DCV Passport w/e. Oh, reviews won’t go away, just who and how they will be delivered is the question. In an era where the loudest voice has carried the day, we are in a transformative point of time, and wineries such as Hahn, Twisted Oak and St Supery are creating consumer and blogger missionaries to effectively spread the message via word of mouse.

  8. Recommendation (scores or a waiter or a friend) are the #1 driver for catalyzing wine purchasing so they always matter. The question is whether user generated reviews or social network reviews will outpace professional reviews or work strongly in tandem to help buyer make qualified decisions. I say yes and yes. Great article.

    • Paul: It is my belief that having the right question matters as much or more than just having the right answer. In the days when I sold wine door to door, at 4 PM each day, no matter the market, I would do a tasting at the line-up meeting in a restaurant, creating knowledge. Instead of being the only person selling the wine, every sales day I added 10-15 new sales people. A simple but effective straight forward word-of-mouth tool. Today, that’s replicated on Twitter, FB, or, etc.

  9. Your article is very interesting, I believe that consumers are changing significantly especially towards traditional advertising, how they get the “scoop” on individual wines. Your article focused on rating systems and that is important to the wine elite but the vast majority of wine drinkers just want to know if a bottle of wine taste good or not (to them).

    I am just starting to get involved with the wine industry (I’m an old technologist) and have been heavily involved with social sites for along while and wineries / wine companies are truly missing the boat!

    Look forward to more post!

    • Mark: Welcome to the wonderful world of wine. Although the social web is experiencing exponential growth, the question of how do I make this work is on the minds of many winery marketers, PR or sales people. I’m just trying, one story at a time. There are, as there always are, winery leaders. To name just a few: Hahn, Twisted Oak and St. Supery. Stay tuned to the evelution.

      • Having tested the waters for more than a year (daily and I mean daily-hourly) in another industry the wineries need to understand that a different approach is needed…you need to be there alot and as a human being. I guess that I’m offering advice so that many don’t waste time!

  10. Fantastic overview. It is always one thing to spot trends as they are happening; another thing entirely to see where they will lead. Thinking back a year ago, I doubt any winery imagined that a PDA alone could be a marketing tool, but now, with twitter and other social media “conversations” taking place in the vast but interconnected wine community, who knows? Oh wait a sec, YOU know, right?

    • Tish: First, welcome to the bloggersphere. Great points re. wine writter ethics at . Ya know, I don’t know it all, or even most. What i do know is that, as Bob Dylan sang, ‘The Time They are a Changin’; and, well, just trying to figure out where we are as we travel this time/space continuum of the social web. I’m thinking we may be headed back to a time as Robert Mondavi once said “When drinking wine, I only need to know two things: I like the wine, or I don’t like the wine. If I know the answer to that, I know all I need to know.”

  11. First off, thanks for an exhaustive (in a good way) overview of the whole 100-point scale phenomenon. More often than not, if I’m going to try a new wine it is because a friend/family member/coworker whose palate I trust recommended it. Bringing the power of the referral into the online space to bring wineries direct sales… that’s where things are headed. Looking forward to taking back wine!

    • Erica: You’re too vibrant to be exhausted. A glass of Shiraz, perhaps? Scores, not reviews are the bain of our existence in the wine industry. Damed if we do, damed if we don’t. The good news is that the idea of the wine review is in a contretemps , rapidly moving toward a democratization thanks to sites like and the bloggerssphere.

  12. I’m really enjoying the informative comments. I can safely say that most of us seem to share the same issues. I really think that point scores have gotten out of hand and I am not surprised at the current backlash. I have always believed in the power of the individual.

    Sooner or later, those following point scores will stop once they feel confident of their choices. There have been countless times I got totally disappointed after tasting a high scorer, and I know that I’m not alone on this experience.

  13. With the explosion of user-generated reviews – be they from full-time bloggers or conscientious tasters who post to snooth et al – there is now an overwhelming amount of opinion for consumers to consider. And it has been argued that this explosion will devalue the mainstream media’s scoring system and free consumers from its hegemony.

    I doubt things will turn out this way. Here’s why:

    Setting aside all the arguments about what a score means/implies/accounts for, in the end, it’s simply a number that accompanies the wine, much like the price that (supposedly) reflects it. The reason why critics put scores in their reviews is because they believe (rightly) that people need them. They need them when they’re reading about a wine, and they need them at the point of purchase.

    I would argue that most people, when presented with a paragraph of tasting notes and a score, are going to look at the score first and then decide if the review is worth reading. Would you bother reading a review of a wine with a dreadful score? Didn’t think so.

    I would also argue that a high score on an unfamiliar label/varietal/appellation might intrigue a reader enough to spend time with the actual review. In this instance, (high) scores have the effect of broadening a drinker’s horizons, instead of narrowing them as the naysayers fear.

    It doesn’t matter who the author of the score is, readers still benefit from them in this manner.

    At the point of purchase, however, it absolutely matters who the author is. As tireless a taster as he is, BevMo’s Wilfred Wong is no Robert Parker. Ditto for Alder Yarrow and every other blogger. They simply reach too small an audience to have value at retail.

    I should add that all of this applies only to wine enthusiasts – people who care enough to read all the blather put out about a given wine. The vast majority of wine consumers do not share this behavior. They just want to buy a decent bottle and not feel ripped off.

    The trade side of the equation is rather different. Retailers and restaurants have their own reputations to consider. Retailers who make the effort to learn what their customers like and steer them to it can do quite well without outside opinion. But it’s a lot of work. Oftentimes, in the absence of a warm body, a WS score works just fine. Restaurants who care about food and wine pairing will list wines that accentuate their cooking and respect their customer’s wallets. But it’s a lot of work. Especially when a few trophy wines can burnish their reputation just as well.

    Wine score aren’t going away anytime soon. We need them because there is both an overwhelming amount of product choice and an overwhelming amount of product reviews. Things might be different were wineries capable of producing some meaningful advertising of their own, as is done in virtually every other consumer products category.

    • Fred: Times are indeed changing and the effect of review scores has demonstrably diminished in regards to effecting purchase. As stated the change is evolutionary and not as profound as RP overtaking Finigan re. the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Not all wineries sell in big box retail or grocery, nor are all consumers lemmings who continue to jump through hoops to buy the 95+ cult Napa Cabernet. The impact of Facebook, Twitter, and others are brand awareness initiatives. A digital handshake, so to speak. The conversations occurring on blogs, forums and the 1M+ wine tweets/day are moving the market, and the static has become noise, and the noise a greek chorus of ideas. One only has to look at the impact of Gary V and Wine Library TV, where the use of new media created value for his store, his personal brand, and product categories and wine brands. Although an example of one success, this is not a trend of one, but a movement of the many.

  14. This is a terrific article. Thank you for it.

    I suspect the 100-point scale is here for a while. Indeed, it might become even more powerful, rather than less so, as people move to the internet for wine purchases. Sure, there are hundreds of bloggers out there giving far more detailed and thoughtful reviews that the point + blurbs found in Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate. But is that were internet sales really come from? I doubt it. I think, instead, they come from email blasts from on line wine retailers. Here are a few I received in the last week:

    94 Points Chat-Du-Pape In Stock Now!

    A Sangiovese 35 years in the making- VT Rating

    WA97 Points Ornellaia Pre-Arrival

    Wine & Spirits – 92 Points

    Points are a very quick way of saying “this is good,” far shorter than:

    “The Little Wooden Guy just gets warm fuzzy feelings for an under $15 dollar Cabernet that tastes like Cabernet, not oak juice.

    Night One

    The nose tells you right up front this is a warm weather wine, but after that nothing is obvious. This is a very deep dark nose. Imagine dark chocolate covered blackberries a elderberries, lightly dusted with espresso. There is also a touch of fennel.

    Okay, that’s startling. This is incredibly dark. It is deep with elderberry, but the berries, not sweet jam. It has loads of tobacco, burnt coffee grounds and unsweetened chocolate. Some plums join the show on the mid-palate, but it does not really show big changes there. This is wound pretty tight. It should be interesting to see what happens to it on Night Two.

    Night Two

    On Night Two the nose is a bit more classic Cabernet. It opens with blackcurrant, eucalyptus and some sage.

    The palate has changed, too. Blackcurrant and elderberry, now a bit more jammy than on Night One but not a fruit bomb by any measure, open the attack. Now there is a definite mid-palate, presenting chocolate, smoked meat and eucalyptus. Plum skins show up just as it moves to the finish. The mouth-feel is smooth and silky.

    Ladies and gentlemen, this is a $13 Cabernet Sauvignon. If you have been reading for a while, you know I usually just skip low-priced Cabs, preferring to spend $20 or under on other varietals that show better in the lower price range. However, at $13 this is a steal.”

    Perhaps the influence of the big boys, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, etc., will be diluted, but it will likely be diluted by other people handing out points on an 100 point scale.

    Thank you for the link to The 89 Project. We have space for another forty bloggers, so if you (or anybody else) is interested, just let me know.

    Finally, “hey there” from one last-70s Disney worker to another. Of course, you were working as a professional, while I was saying “Welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Railroad. As we leave Main Street Station, if you look to your left, you can see the Magic Kingdom Monorail Station and the Magic Kingdom Ferry Boat Landing ….”

  15. I still don’t know what points taste like, and to be honest, it’s always going to be the biggest, baddest wine on the table that stands out.

    Wines that dominate tastings do the same thing to food on the table. To me, high scores are almost a guarantee that they FAIL in their final culinary utility.

    If I want a cocktail, I’ll drink a cocktail. I want wines at table free from affectation or ultra-ripeness. I want them to be restrained and transparent to the soil and vintage.

    So do the people who I sell wine to, and I have yet to have one person out of the 3000 I’ve led around this vineyard on a tour that say: I love huge, massive pinots that show extract and are the color of syrah. Yet, those seem to be the wines that the kingmakers would like us to support.

    It’s like being at the LA Auto Show and rating the cars by seeing them on the convention center floor. A wine may impress me with its lines and a chick in a bikini standing next to it, but a car has to drive up Highway 1 to strut its stuff, and for me a pinot has to have a few years of cellar age and be on table with some good salmon or duck confit, or a nice Affine or Epoisses to show how it handles.

  16. Yay! I’m so thrilled to see consumers gaining an equal footing with an elusive handful of “wine know-it-all” pro reviewers. After all, social media is all about authenticity, and it doesn’t get more authentic than wine. Why should the wine gatekeepers be unknown – and untouchable – by the good people who buy into and support the drink we all love so much? Bravo, both to you for highlighting so succinctly all the trends converging right now, and for the movement itself. What a breath of fresh air on the wine scene.

  17. Cork, as always, thank you for the industry insight and incredibly well-researched article.

    In our experience with including point scores in the Hello Vino app, we’ve found that consumers indicate greater purchase intent for wines that list scores/accolades (they indicate this with a “thumbs up” button through the app).

    Just a tidbit from a data guy,

    – Rick from Hello Vino

    • Rick, thanks for the kind comments. Keep up the good work at Your smartphone app is the most frequently utilized app on my iPhone. Per your point that scores tend to predict purchase intent was discussed in my Oct 9, 200p post, ‘Revisiting Wine Marketing 101 the result of positive scores imply Confirmation – the reinforcement that the decision is good. This can be in the form of availability or rarity, appealing to cultural values (sustainable or biodynamic wines), based on acclaim, reviews or a wine blog, or on the affirmation from friends or family.

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