You Heard it Through the Grapevine: Unraveling the Meaning Behind the Ratings Codes

We are part of The Trust Project
Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

So many good wines, so little time to drink them all. With the flood of new wines hitting the market each month, we all could use a filtering mechanism to assist us as we rush through our daily lives, bombarded with emails, Google Alerts and wine critics’ proclamations.

Certainly, these filters exist–abundantly–but then a sub corollary kicks in: which to rely on?

In the vast cosmos of wine review content, the overwhelming source of generally  reliable wine critique and tasting notes that we see in our retail wine shops and the Internet is centered on four print publications, each widely recognized by its initials. Do you recognize these: Wine Spectator (WS), Wine Enthusiast (WE) (based right in our backyard in Mount Kisco), Wine Advocate (WA) and International Wine Cellar (IWC)? Is one more reliable than the other? Their individual reviews can be remarkably in line with each other, though with subtle differences. Find one that aligns with your palate preferences and purchase wines accordingly.

Today, the wine evaluation and recommendation process is in the midst of a sea change. It is becoming less reliant on the opinions of a small handful of “experts,” and more on peer critiques and tasting notes through social media, effectively bypassing traditional wine criticism. The last time such a seismic shift occurred was 30 years ago.

Prior to the early 1980s, the typical sources of wine recommendations were wine distributors and importers themselves. Somewhat self-serving, to say the least. Then along came the four aforementioned publications. Among them, the one with arguably the greatest influence on wine trends and opinion has been The Wine Advocate.

Founded by Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate quickly gained a reputation as being fiercely independent, refusing to accept advertising, free samples or free trips. Parker revolutionized the global arena of wine critique and built a devoted following among paid subscribers and retail wine merchants who freely posted his ratings on their shelves.

The Wine Advocate introduced a scoring system that became the industry norm, based on a number scale of 50 to 100 points. With this tool in hand it codified the hodgepodge of French wine assessments then in place. Parker singlehandedly influenced a new wave of wine styles that swept the wine world over the last 15 years. Eager to sell their wines into the American market, a number of European winemakers crafted their wines to Parker’s benchmark (which favored more fruit-forward, less complex wines), much to the chagrin of wine purists.

It’s been a good business run for Parker. With an estimated 50,000 current subscribers paying $75 per year, what started out as a part-time hobby became a full-time business, allowing Parker to quit his day job as a lawyer, hire five to six critics and travel around the world at will–all while reviewing (and sampling) over 16,000 wines per year.

However, in the midst of the aforementioned sea change of the rising influence of peer evaluations, Parker’s empire began suffering chinks in its armor. His adamant stance on independence was dealt a small blow when it was reported in 2009 that two of his staff critics accepted a paid trip to Australia for a wine report. This chink was followed by a report by an Internet news gatherer, Dr. Vino, who questioned whether it was financially feasible to review over 16,000 wines per year without accepting a substantial number of free samples.

And then came the biggest surprise of all. Last December, The Wall Street Journal reported that Parker sold an interest in his business to a Singapore-based company. This raised concern in the industry as to whether The Wine Advocate could retain the level of independence upon which Parker has built his reputation.

The saga continues to this day, with speculation, defections and even a lawsuit, all emanating from Parker’s decision to begin his exit from his lifelong passion. Is this the way he planned his exit strategy? Stay tuned next week for insights and new developments.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted  wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.