What Do Wine Rating Numbers Mean?

Wilfred Wong explains the range in understandable words.


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You walk into a wine store and the little shelf tag on a chardonnay screams that it got a 90 from the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker, which sounds great. But what exactly does 90 mean?

The information accompanying the number — “lush, unctuous ripe fruit with a light touch of vanilla” — may give you a hint of the wine’s flavor patterns, but it says nothing about what accounted for a score of 90. Or for the criteria the scorers used.

So into this picture now comes one of smartest, most knowledgeable and experienced people in the wine business in the country, Wilfred Wong, who has put words that make sense to explaining the range numbers often randomly assigned to wines either by wine panels, writers, or magazines.

Full disclosure, Wilfred is a longtime friend and fellow wine judge who has lived and worked in San Francisco his entire life, where his family owned a fine food store. We’ve judged several competitions a year together. 

For many years, Wilfred was the chief wine buyer for BevMo, a chain of wine markets that have around 150 stores in California, Arizona, and Washington. 

Wilfred has said that he tastes about 8,000 wines a year.

In 2014, in a surprise move, wine.com snagged Wilfred from BevMo, where he now has an equivalent position, or as he calls it, he’s the “wine guru.” 

So here is the Wilfred Wong Wine Scale, in his own words, giving description and meaning to numbers in a way rarely seen:

70-79: Clean, innocuous, and really simple wines and “super premium” wines with very low-keyed aromas and flavors. Usually confined to “jug” wines and often seen from areas outside of the major global growing regions. Often from areas that have never sold their wine internationally.

80-84: Clean, simple, boring wines. Commercial, like canned soup.

85-89: Very commercial to pretty fine. This is the place where most of the nationally traded wines end up. I also put wines in the 88-89 point range when they are over-oaked and contain too much sugar – fancy stuff that just missed the grade.

90-94: There are plenty of 90-point wines that are fat, rich, and big. They are often made in a production line way, but with close to top-grade grapes. But this also includes the delicate, yet complex wines that are not huge, but balanced and layered. When I venture into the 91-94 area, I find the wines pretty special.

95-100: World-class wines, typically in excellent vintages. Often single vineyard bottlings. In many cases I will prefer the winery’s single vineyard bottling to their reserve offerings.

If more wines were judged using these kinds of target points, we’d most likely see more consistency between scores and what is in the bottle.

The problem has been that one writer’s score of 90 may be another’s 70. There is a wide variation, especially in some of the big wine magazines. 

The only way to work through those numbers is to develop a long-term understanding of what each magazine judging panel or a writer tends to like. 

Wilfred’s system has focus and can be extremely useful for anyone, beginner or experienced, to apply to judging wine. 

Try it yourself, and then go see what the shelf-talkers say. I think you’ll be surprised. 

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