The days of scores are numbered

Scores have driven sales in the US market for two decades or more but, says Jeff Siegel, there are signs their dominance is coming to an end.

Wine scores have driven wine retail for nearly two decades
Wine scores have driven wine retail for nearly two decades

David Marberger has lived with wine scores for more than two decades as the owner of a fine liquor store in Annapolis, Maryland. And he is more than happy to see the end of their dominance in US wine retailing. But what does he include with his weekly sales e-mail? Scores, of course.

“That’s still the thing that gets people in the store,” says Marberger, who owns the 27-year-old Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits. “I don’t think scores are nearly as important any more, and we’re seeing more and more customers who don’t make decisions based on scores. And I know we don’t buy wines just based on scores any more. So I suppose that makes me a liar when I say we need to put them on the wine of the week sale e-mail.”

Welcome to the conundrum that is wine scores in the US. The 100-point system, popularised by the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker some 40 years ago, remains the sales and marketing tool that everyone loves to hate, even as they keep using it. Scores have withstood regular waves of critical assault, the disdain of hipster sommeliers, and changing retail conditions that today rely more on margins and volume discounts than on 92 points. Most recently, the New York Times’s Eric Asimov has called for a new approach to wine criticism, including the elimination of scores.

But scores are still with us. “That’s the problem,” says Tim McNally, a New Orleans wine critic, wine judge, and the host of a wine radio show. “Scores are a crutch for retailers and wineries, and asking them to give them up is like asking them to give up their first born. Are scores crappy? Yes. But what’s going to replace them? And how do we know that whatever replaces them won’t be crappy, too?”

 

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