Rating Wines: Is it Art or Science?

WWglassWhen I was in my 20’s and had just gotten a taste for wines, I thought, “Wow!” This is fun! I also  had the perfect forum to launch my wine-loving career. My family owned and operated Ashbury Market, which was a mere two blocks from the infamous Haight-Ashbury corner. What a place to begin what would become a lifetime of tasting wines. In those early days, there was very little in terms of written material on wines. Yes, information on classic wines (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Porto, etc.) from the UK writers and merchants were available and excellent for study. As a wine merchant in the United States in the mid 1970’s, how did I sell what I bought? This is a very good question.

I began by writing 3 x 5 shelf-talkers and taping them up in front of the bottles I wanted to sell. I rotated the signs and chose only select bottles to  highlight special wines. As time went on, more wine became available and customers wanted to know more. Of course since our shop was so small, I was usually available for hand-selling. By the time we reached the early 1980’s, the wine selection became overwhelming and ratings became more and more important. I had to change our methods of marketing wines.

I started with the University of California at Davis and their 20-point scale. The scale taught me a disciplined method to separate the qualities of wine when tasting. I still did not post scores in our little shop. As I passed the 10-year mark of retailing wines, I started competitive tastings. My life was now a series of comparative tastings and wine judging, and this served as a solid foundation to understanding the scoring of wines. I began writing for publications. Three of my first were Wine Country International,  Bay Food (a local Berkeley, California paper) and Vinums Australia. This was the 1980s, and all outlets required that I develop a 100 point scale. My model was the Australia Roseworthy College scale. This was just the beginning. At this time I was tasting about 4,000 wines annually. My number would max out at 10,000 wines annually in the early 2000’s.

So what is the Wilfred Wong scale?
Armed with on-the-floor retail knowledge of what customers would buy, like, and buy again, I learned that any scoring system had to work for the everyday person and not just the wine aficionado. Since the early 1990’s when I solidified my 100 point scale, I have seen my system remain consistent. I approach the wine for what it is supposed to represent. It is not tied to the price of the wine, yet some realities exist. A value wine would be hard pressed to get 100 points just as an ultra-priced wine always wants to achieve the 90 point threshold. I take my ratings seriously, but not myself. Having structure and experience is the starting point of where this all begins. Just as the elite tasters, Robert Parker, Jr, Antonio Galloni, Stephen Tanzer and others, serious raters of wines are acutely aware that it begins with the science and ends with the art. Below is my 100 point scale.

0-50: Poor, incredible amount of flaws- In the early 1970’s wine judges would often encounter these kinds of wine. Today, this category is rarely seen.
51-69 Wines here have noticeable flaws that are real and not just imagined or perceived. I sometime see these wines from immature winegrowing regions.
70-79 Clean, innocuous and really simple wines and super premium wines, with very low keyed aromas and flavors. Usually confined to “jug” wines and often seen from areas outside of the major global growing regions. Often from areas that have never sold their wine internationally.
80-84 Clean, simple, boring wines, commercial like canned soup.
85-89 Very commercial, to pretty fine. This is the place where most of the nationally traded wines end up. I also put wines in the 88-89 point range when they are over-oaked and contain too much sugar, fancy stuff that just missed the grade.
90-94 There are lots 90 point wines that are fat, rich and big. They are often made in a production line way, but with close to an top grade grapes. But this also includes the delicate, yet complex – wines that are not huge, but balanced and layered. When I venture into the 91-94 area, I find the wines pretty special.
95-100 World class wines, typically in excellent vintages. Often single vineyard bottlings; in many cases I will prefer the winery’s single vineyard bottling to their reserve offerings.



One thought on “Rating Wines: Is it Art or Science?”

  1. Having had the distinct pleasure of seeing you in action, this was an edifying read on your method. Part art, part science, and a whole lot of discipline behind both. I’d like to throw in integrity as well. It’s one thing to taste blind in an office, and another to taste in front of (sometimes) the very winemakers and owners themselves and stay true to your method. Thank you Wilfred.

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