Looking back at the wines I’ve had over the last several months, I’ve clearly been in a 90-point rut: prior to this last weekend, I’ve given either 90 or 91 points to 10 of the last 16 wines I’ve had. Three of those remaining six received fewer than 90, and three more than 91. Some of these 90 or 91-point wines came from wineries I greatly respect: Waters and Baer in Washington State, Cameron and Bergstrom in Oregon, Melville in California. A Gigondas from Kermit Lynch’s Domaine les Pallieres was supremely disappointing. This past weekend, though, I devoured standout wines from Washington’s Reynvaan and Australia’s Torbreck, and they’ve solidly pulled me out of the 90-point rut. But it has me thinking: was the rut in the glass or in my head?
My gut tells me that when I’m on the fence about a wine, I default to 90 points. If it’s good but too expensive, do I take the easy way out and default to 90 points? If it’s solid but unremarkable, do I go straight to 90? One way or another, perhaps, I rationalize my way to 90 if the wine satisfies but doesn’t excite. It’s my comfort zone. It’s aesthetically pleasing. 90 is also safe in a crowd. Experienced winos can disagree with a 90 – maybe they’d go 89 or 91 – but they tend to respect it either way mostly because they just don’t get excited about it. 90 points can deflect attention, and sometimes that’s what we want.
It’s difficult to find out how many wines receive these scores by amateur or even professional reviewers. Two of the largest retail wine inventories online, K&L and wine.com, let you see all their wines with 90+ points, but aren’t able to show you only the 93-point wines, for example. Cellartracker.com doesn’t allow you to search by score, either. I went back to the report written by winecurmudgeon.com on the “winestream media bias” towards giving red wines higher scores than whites to see if they broke down their sample of over 50,000 professional reviews, and the answer was kind of. Still, it’s illuminating. The higher the score, the lower the quantity:
So what does a 90 point review really mean? What should the consumer take from a 90-point review? After all, wine reviews are primarily for the consumer. These are complicated questions, but I think there are some simple ways to think about evaluating the bridgmanite of wine scores in the wine aisle.
First, a 90 score is low enough, and abundant enough, that within the context of wines reviewed by a particular source it’s unlikely to be a wine of distinction. If you’re looking for a uniquely expressive wine then you probably shouldn’t spend your dollars on a wine because it received 90 points.
Second, place the wine in the context of its category. Napa cabernet sauvignons aren’t cheap. There are some over-achieving bottles that start around $25, but most of the good stuff starts around the $50 price point, which is essentially where you also find bottles that hit a level of profile consistency that transcends vintage variation. So, if the 90-point bottle in question is a $50 Napa cab, it’s probably a well-executed version of the prototypical Napa cab lacking in particularities that would make it unique. Another good example are sauvignon blancs from New Zealand. These routinely start around $10 and few go above $25, and it’s hard to find any version at any price that goes into the mid 90s on the 100-point scale of any major reviewer. If you find a 90-point version for $12 you’ve probably found an over-achiever, and if you’re looking at a 90-point $20 bottle you’ve probably got an under-achiever.
You can also do this evaluation based on the grapes involved. For example, a Bordeaux(-style) blend. There are fantastic Bordeaux blends, from Bordeaux, for $20-25, as well as from other parts of the world. If you see a wine of this ilk for $55 with a 90-point score, then you should probably do a bit more research before deciding.
Third, a 90-point score means, like all scores, very little in the end. It comes down to what you like and what intrigues you.
Finally, refer back to the second paragraph of this post. 90 points is a safe place to go for a wine reviewer if, for whatever reason, they’re unsure or unmoved by the wine but recognize it meets the broad concept of “quality wine.” It’s my belief that wines that achieve more than their parts, wines whose profiles transcend the varietal or blend, earn the right to be considered exceptional. I can say with a high degree of confidence that no 90-point wine meets either of those conditions, and I say that both from a good amount of experience drinking wines and reading wine reviews. I cannot recall seeing adjectives like “special” or “brilliant” used in 90-point reviews. At the end of the day, unless the wine is of exceeding value, I can take or leave 90-point wines, though I’m still not sure whether they’re in my head or my glass.