(reprinted with permission from BeyondWonderful.com)

The New Ratings System on the Block: Why justwinepoints Might Just Take Over The World

by Michael DeLoach

Remember back in January when I told you about all the new stuff happening in 2007? Well, a new publication (online, or sent directly to your PDA or cell via paid subscription) arrived in March and not only has over a quarter-million enthusiastic registered users and over 90,000 paying weekly subscribers, but has wineries and retailers going ga-ga as well. Who are the only folks who seem to have their noses out of joint? You guessed it: wine snobs, the same ones who laughed at the new publication and called it “a joke”.

And it’s a hoot to read their blogs now, carrying on about how this new group of wine critics, previously denounced as goofy and irrelevant, is suddenly going to sully the “honor” of the 100-point wine rating system.

In use for a mere 25 years, the “honorable” system in question is, as far as anyone can tell, based loosely on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand segment called “Rate-A-Record”, which asked contestants to listen to a tune and to rate it between 35 and 89 points (Robert Parker claims the 100-point system is based on college scores, but I received 4.0s: a “4-star” system – more on that in a moment).

This 100-point method of rating wine is in my opinion (shared by many, as regular readers know) rather dishonest since it takes a human experiential opinion, arbitrarily and subjectively assigns it an absolute and final numeric value, and thereby allows it to appear steeped in science and objectivity which (by the raters’ own admissions) it patently is not. It’s rather like glancing at a painting for thirty seconds and declaring it a “ninety-two” or a “seventy-four.”

The 100-point system is however, by dint of its centennial familiarity, hugely popular with baby-boomer wine shoppers, and consequently, way groovy with retailers and pretty much anyone else who sells wine.

Along with others, I tend to rely on the time-tested three-to-five point (or “star”) rating system favored by somewhat more human critics for over two hundred years. Three points for Michelin restaurants, four stars for the New York Times (food again) and Consumer Reports (for measurable, tangible, palpable things like cars and washing machines objectively tested for months, things that are neither tasted nor smelled), and five stars or diamonds when Mobil or the American Automobile Association rate hotels.

For decades wine critics have tended to favor the three-star system, most notably Gambero Rosso’s venerated Tre Bicchieri (literally Three Glasses) and the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines, the latter rather reluctantly adopting the 100-point system a few years back in addition to its existing three-star system in order to avoid risking apparent irrelevance.

By far the most familiar and popular system for Americans, many movie critics use a five point system and, likely because there are a plethora of movies released over the course of the year to review (about 1000 in the domestic market including foreign films), also employ “half-stars” to help make distinctions, thus creating a defacto10-point scale (not counting zero-star reviews, but counting a ˝-star review).

What does all this have to do with justwinepoints?

Well, the snootiest (and I would say most effete) of the cork dork establishment have been decrying the ratings of this new, incredibly popular wine publication because:

a) it only gives out ratings between 90 and 99 points (you know: the only ratings wine geeks actually care about), an act the snobs think “inflates” the 100 point system; perhaps they are also offended that someone is wantonly and nakedly addressing them directly – the gall, the temerity!
b) it deigns to give ratings to bottles that sell for under $20, sometimes under $15 (How dare they! Now the hoi polloi will be involved!), and rates these wines against others in their own price category (gosh, how fair and logical)
c) worst of all, as the name would imply, justwinepoints doesn’t describe the wine, it just gives “the number,” since that’s all anyone really seems to care about: a first for a wine publication that does its own reviews – also meaning no flowery wine language to ape at the next Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner

Some of the bloggers (and one actual paid wine writer for a small Florida newspaper) complained that, in addition to the above sins, justwinepoints openly admits that it requires wineries pay for label placements in reviews (printed publications require the very same thing, only they keep it a secret from their readers).

If anything, it appears the major fault of justwinepoints is its honesty.

Here’s my analysis: justwinepoints doesn’t rate on the 100-point scale at all, it rates on the five-point movie scale (the one with half-points). They’ve just translated it to the 100-point scale that everyone is used to seeing in stores, and they’ve adjusted the scale so that wines that you actually find in stores can be rated. Consequently, it’s been a huge hit.

Who’s using justwinepoints in their marketing materials? First, the biggest and best: Estancia (part of Constellation, the world’s largest wine company) Raymond Winery, Round Hill, Landmark Vineyards, Wilson-Daniels, Ltd. (Silverado, Burgess, Girard, and Schramsberg), plus small, cool wineries like Robert Hall, Roshambo and Sobon, and the big bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Sam’s of Chicago, and direct retailers like Geerlings & Wade and Wine Woot. There are many, many more here to name.

So huge and instantly popular was justwinepoints that one particular blogger, Good Grape (http://www.goodgrape.com/) went so far as to accuse Sam’s of Chicago (Good Grape’s competitor – yes, Good Grape is a wine shop, too), Sobon winery and justwinepoints of, if not a payola scheme, certainly of collusion in a recent 95 point rating for Sobon’s Rocky Top Zinfandel (July 9, 2007), which is sold and promoted by Sam’s using justwinepoint’s ratings.

Interestingly, the blogger seemed to have no argument with the rating itself, calling the wine in question “beautiful.”

What the blogger was so incensed about, what was hanging in the balance now that justwinepoints was threateningly on the scene, was the supposed integrity of the 100-point scale, which on a good day has a reputation (among members of this same snooty group) ranging from capricious to rigged.

Now again: How is justwinepoints a 5-point movie-style scale, with only 10 individual possible ratings? Simple: Count on your fingers the (whole number) ratings starting with 90 through 99. You should get 10 possible ratings. (Don’t subtract 90 from 99. That’s how we ended up celebrating the Millennium – a 1000 year anniversary -- in the wrong year, when only 999 years had passed since the last one). Now count the movie ratings “half-star, one-star, one-and-a-half-stars…” through the “five-star” rating on your fingers – and you should get ten individual possible ratings as well.

But it’s on a 100- point scale! I hear you screaming. How can you use only the last ten numbers in the scale and still keep a straight face?

No, it’s actually not a 100-point scale, and neither are the other ones. Parker’s scale, for instance, is only a 50-point scale, starting at the number 50. (Remember: he claims it’s like a college grade, so you can’t get anything below an “F”, or a 50, right?) That’s not me saying so, that’s Parker himself.

An “unacceptable” wine for Parker is anything under 60, a “D.” The Wine Spectator’s scale is different from Parker’s (it also “starts” at 50, but anything below 75 is “not recommended”, so what’s the point of anything below 75 anyway?), and The Wine Enthusiast’s scale is different from The Spectator’s (it’s even more “inflated”) and so on from publication to publication.

There is no Standard 100 Point Scale. No such thing, never was. This left the ride open to brilliant innovators like justwinepoints clever and nimble enough to grab the brass ring, mount up full force, feet forward, kicking the Old Guard square in the teeth while knocking them off of the 100-point merry-go-round.

And there’s absolutely nothing the Old Guard can do about it, since nobody at this point but a dwindling retinue of cranky wine snobs reads their blogs and magazines anyway, and those snobs now contend that they never truly placed much credence in the veracity of the 100-point scale in the first place; that it’s just a guideline. They protest that they trust their own palates steadfastly. They don’t look at “the number,” no, no, they vehemently insist that they only read the tasting notes.

Then why, might I inquire, all the fuss about another 100-point publication?

See, suddenly the snobs are all worried about the “little guy,” the “ordinary consumer.” They don’t want anyone getting bad information from amateurs on the web, or worse yet, being “manipulated” by unscrupulous wine publishers. They wouldn’t want anyone to get confused.

Wait a minute, isn’t that exactly what consumers were getting before justwinepoints showed up?