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The 89 Point Phenomenon

by Rick Anderson

Over the past twenty years, I’ve had my ups and downs with 100-point scale used by nearly all reviewers in the US beverage media. For many consumers, these ratings are the closest thing they have to a “seal of approval”. They are the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead the poor wine shopper safely out of a bewildering maze of choices. On the other hand, for many people “in the trade” (the term we in the alcohol industry use to describe professionals), the 100-point scale is seen as an abomination, a sell-out; something to peddle wine (and magazines!) but otherwise deserving of contempt.  For better or worse, the 100-point scale is not going anywhere. The truth is, any product that can score an “87” or better is most likely going to be pretty satisfying. The original purpose of the score is as necessary as ever: To offer an easily-understandable, generally reliable guide for “good wine”.

Like all good things, people have taken this grading system to an extreme. Countless customers will approach us, proclaiming “I only buy wines that score 90 or better!” Wineries have figured this out and started making their wines to match specific critics’ palates. In many cases, I have observed a winery’s scores improve from scores in the high 80’s to the low 90’s once they make a sustained advertising commitment to a particular magazine. Is this ethical? It’s hard to say. The wines that receive a 90 after their ad campaign are just as delicious as they were when the prior vintage received an 88, before the campaign. Is the shopper being duped into buying a fraud or is the shopper being coaxed into trying a wine he or she will enjoy? These scales are completely subjective assessments made by a single individual who is tasting a wine a particular point in time. Maybe that critic was having a good day or a bad day when the wine was tasted? Perhaps the wine was going through a particularly vibrant (or closed) phase at the moment of sampling? This is one key problem with the 100-point scale.

The other problem comes from the question of degree. How much better, exactly, is a 92-point wine than a 91-point wine. What is it that brings a critic to score a wine 91+ points? What happened that made it so much better than a 91-point wine but not quite a 92-point wine? Is a 100-point wine really “perfect”? What does that even mean? How can one critic award a wine 100-points while another scores it a mere 98? Who is right? Is the wine perfect or not? (More importantly, is any critic’s palate so perfect that he or she can accurately score a wine a perfect score?) If the system is arbitrary at the top end of the scale, how can it be reliable anywhere along the line?

And so, for the three of you who are still reading this far, I reward you with the meaty nut of the topic. Some of the best wines I taste seem to score an 89. How can this be? My theory is that wines that attain this score are, in fact, typically quite balanced. The wines that are awarded scores in the 90’s range often present a few key characteristics: They are usually very intense, frequently quite rich of body and are well-suited to an excellent first palate impression. The reason for this is that critics will sample dozens of wines every day; even into the mid 100’s during a busy time. The problem is that, even for someone who is very experienced at evaluating wine, a person’s palate begins to become a bit numb after sampling fifteen to twenty wines. This phenomenon is known as “palate fatigue”. The upshot is that once a person’s palate is fatigued, the wines that stand out are the ones with more assertive characteristics. Hence, the wines that attain “good” scores are the ones that smack you around with big tannins or loads of primary fruit.

The problem with this is that these same “big” wines become very tiresome by the end of the first glass.

Conversely, the wines that score an 89 are often much more subtle. They are recognized by the critic as being well-made and without significant flaws, but just somehow fail to impress him or her in the same way that the “93-point monster wine” does. Of course, very few of us will regularly consume more than a couple of glasses of wine in a single session. Palate fatigue is not a consideration. Balance and finesse, however, does play a role in our enjoyment. The 89 point wines are often the ones that are more delicious at the end of the bottle than they were at the first taste. They also seem to unfailingly pair better with most foods than do the “big score” wines sitting next to them on the shelf. These bold wines can easily overwhelm all but the most robust dishes with their heavily-amped flavor profiles.

So, next time you are scanning the shelves for wines with ratings, take a chance on one of the almost-made-it wines sporting an 89-point score. You may find that they soon become your favorite wines of all.

Take a look at some of our favorite 89ers on the shelves right now:

Cocagne Chenin Blanc Vendomois 2015

Vendomois Lieu-Dit Cocagne Chenin Blanc // France // $12.99

This is a little gem of a wine and counter-intuitively inexpensive considering the small-scale production and the quality of the fruit. It’s a bone dry Chenin Blanc bursting with tangy apple, grapefruit and lime and a wet stone/chalky impression that must come from the silex soil. The finish is surprisingly long and has the cleansing bite of an apple sorbet. 89 points Wine Spectator

Beyerskloof Pinotage 2016

Beyerskloof Pinotage // South Africa // $14.99

This calling-card grape of South Africa has a smudged nose of over-ripe strawberry intermingled with dark chocolate. The palate is medium-bodied with plush rounded tannins and a light yet lengthy finish. 89 points Robert Parker

Le Volte dell’Ornellaia // Italy // $29.99

The Le Volte dell’Ornellaia is a blend of Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. It opens to a pretty ruby color and shows bright aromas of sweet fruit and cherry. That fruit ripeness and sweetness comes through clearly. The overall effect  is accessible and easy to drink. 89 points Robert Parker 

Ehmoser Zweigelt Rose 2016

Josef Ehmoser Zweigelt Rose // Austria // $16.99

Brilliant pale pink. Fragrant, streamlined character, nuances of red berries and cherries. Refreshing fruit. Pair with summer fish dishes, salads, barbecue, chicken, sausages. 89 points Antonio Galloni

Molino Real Mountain Blanco // Spain // $24.99

Yummy aromas of orange blossoms and citric overtones. The palate has substance yet is bone dry of good length. This is Molino Real’s dry wine. Málaga is traditionally known for their sweet wines but some dry Moscatel wines are also produced in the area under the Sierras de Málaga DO. This wine is made from 100% Moscatel de Alejandría sourced from two steep sites on slate slopes from 500m to 1,000m elevation. It is fermented with native yeasts in stainless steel tanks and aged for 9 months. 89 points Antonio Galloni

Varner Pinot Noir Los Alamos 2014

Varner Pinot Noir // California // $24.99

Crushed flowers, sweet tobacco, dried cherries and mint are some of the notes that lift from the Varner Pinot Noir Los Alamos Vineyard. Distinctly savory and aromatic, the Pinot is a very pretty wine. And the price? A steal in the realm of handmade wines. 89 points Antonio Galloni

Malat ‘Crazy Creatures’ Gruner Veltliner // Austria // $19.99

A subdued nose carries just a hint of pear fruit. The slender, dry palate gives a little more green pear and fresh zestiness alongside peppery edges of herbs. This is light and easy but has lasting freshness. 89 points Wine Enthusiast

Pfluger Riesling 2015

Pfluger Riesling // Germany // $21.99

Deliciously intense, zesty and racy lemon fruit combined with the finesse of beautifully balanced Riesling. This has purity, energy and intense Riesling-ness in a style that is both approachable and refined, not to mention seriously well priced. 89 points Wine Enthusiast