Demystifying Wine Spectator Ratings

Wine bottles for tasting

The Wine Spectator ratings are one of the gold standards of the wine industry to evaluate which wine to sell, purchase and drink.

Background on Wine Spectator Ratings

Retailers, restaurants, wine writers, wine educators and wine drinkers all look to these somewhat mysterious rating numbers when deciding which wine to try and which one to leave on the shelf.

Since 1996, Wine Spectator has been a leading force in the evaluation of wines from throughout the world. Each year a team of 15 wine professionals review over 15,000 bottles of wine. Seven senior tasters, each with a specialty of type of wine or region, plus eight professional wine tasters concentrate on evaluating the wines submitted for tasting to the magazine's four offices by wine producers and importers. The magazine also purchases wines not previously submitted for evaluation.

The tasters specialize in a wine region or type of grape. This allows the taster to concentrate their expertise on a certain type of wine or wine region and to be able to evaluate the wines against similar wines. Their specialties don't change year to year, ensuring that there is a consistency of tasting notes and ratings throughout the years.

Each issue of the magazine has anywhere from 400 to 1,000 wine reviews and ratings. The magazine also publishes reviews and ratings on its website. Wine Spectator had over 220,000 wine ratings and comments in their database as of the end of 2009.

A 100-Point Rating Scale

There are several major wine rating scales used by the major wine reviewers such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. To understand the ratings it is important to understand the descriptions established by the wine reviewer. By comparing the descriptions you can see how a wine given 89 points by one reviewer may, in fact, be rated at par by another reviewer who gives the wine a rating of 92.

Wine Spectator uses a 100-point rating scale with the following descriptions:

  • 95 to 100 points - Classic: A great wine. These are the truly excellent wines
  • 90 to 94 points - Outstanding: A wine of superior character and style
  • 85 to 89 points - Very good: A wine with special qualities
  • 80 to 84 points - Good: A solid, well-made wine
  • 75 to 79 points - Mediocre: A drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
  • 50 to 74 points - Not recommended

It is not uncommon for the wines with 90 points or more to be more expensive than those wines that receive lower points in their review. However, don't be surprised to find some less expensive wines in this category. This is where the rating system comes in handy - you can quickly get the opinion of a wine expert and not just have to rely on the price to make your wine selection.

Preparing the Tasting Reports

Each of the four tasting offices receive anywhere from two to 20 cases of wine each day. The magazine enters the individual wines into the database, noting the wine name, winery and vintage. At this point, handlers assign a unique code to each bottle for reviewers to use throughout the tasting process.

How the tasting process works

All wine evaluations at Wine Spectator are blind. The reviewer does not know which wine they are tasting. The only information they receive is the vintage and the grape type, but they do not know the price of the wine or the producer. The taster evaluates a group of similar wines all at the same time comparing them against a similar wine they have already reviewed and given a point rating. The taster enters both a point score as well as their comments about the wine.

Ratings Are Opinions

Wine ratings are subjective. They are just opinions by the taster. Not all tasters may agree on how they rate a particular wine. Alternatively, they may agree and you may disagree with their ratings entirely.

As you build your wine knowledge you may find that your evaluation of a particular wine is similar to the rating given by a specific taster. For example, you may find that your evaluation always agrees with the Wine Spectator ratings. You may decide that you only want to use the ratings as a benchmark for you when selecting wines - or ignore the ratings entirely. Whatever your choice of wine, the key is to find the wine that you enjoy, regardless of the rating.

Demystifying Wine Spectator Ratings