Anyone who pays attention to wine ratings knows one thing: Critics are giving more 100-point scores than ever before. Are there really so many more "perfect" wines today than in the past?
It's indisputable that wines are better now than a generation ago. Vineyard management, winery technology, winemaker skill—all have progressed. And as wines have improved, ratings as reflected by scores have risen. Simply put, there are more 90-point wines, those wines of outstanding quality, today than in the past.
Yet there is something else going on. The surge of 100-point ratings is about much more than wine quality. In fact, it has little to do with the wine in the bottle. Awarding a wine a perfect rating is a powerful statement. It brings attention to the wine and the winemaker—and also to the critic.
One-hundred-point ratings are rare at Wine Spectator. Over the past 30 years, I've given only two perfect scores in tastings of new releases. In 2012, Wine Spectator editors reviewed more than 17,000 newly released wines; none received a 100-point score.
In contrast, one well-established publication gave 100-point scores to more than 50 new releases in 2012.
At the root of rising scores is the matter of method. Wine reviewers fall into one of two camps: those who taste blind and those who don't.
Non-blind means the taster knows the identity of the wine; essentially, the label is visible. Implicit in that knowledge is the vintner's reputation, the wine's price, and many other considerations that don't exist when the wine's identity isn't known. This knowledge opens the door to a cognitive error called "confirmation bias," which plays a large, but largely unacknowledged, role in everyday judgment. It is a powerful influence, regardless of the independence or integrity of the critic.
In the blind approach, the critic has some general information about the wine, such as the appellation, vintage or varietal, but not the producer's name or price. For me, blind tasting is the highest standard.
That's how we conduct all of our tastings of newly released wines at Wine Spectator. But it's a costly and time-consuming endeavor.
Tasting blind forces the taster to be cautious and critical. In that context, perfection is elusive—no matter how good a wine is, you can find something that would make it better. Most winemakers assess their own wines blind in their comparative, in-house tastings-knowing they could hardly be impartial about them otherwise.
Other critics take a different approach: They taste wines with the winemaker at their winery, or even in their homes. It's far easier and less expensive to review wines at industry-sponsored events and on-site tastings.
It's the non-blind method, especially with a vintner present, that I believe is at the root of today's escalating ratings and the increase in the number of 100-point wines. It's easier to bestow a perfect score upon a wine when you're staring at the bottle and are confident of the vintner's or the wine's reputation.
When objectivity is compromised, a taster can be less cautious, less critical, in assessing a wine than he would be were he tasting blind. This is not a judgment on people's ability to judge wines but it is a strong condemnation of a methodology that leads inevitably to inflated scores.