The Rising Influence of Professional Wine Ratings

Editor’s note: Part 3 of a three-part series analyzing the current state of the wine industry.

With the strong increase in online wine sales in recent years has come an equally significant increase in the use of “expert wine ratings” by online (and even brick and mortar) retailers.

Long the sole purview of dedicated wine collectors/aficionados, wine ratings continue to become more mainstream with each passing day. This phenomenon has the potential to not only influence how wine is sold and marketed, but also how wine is ultimately vinified and produced.

Buying wine without tasting it first is (understandably) one of the main concerns for most wine buyers. so absent in-store wine recommendations, expert wine ratings provide a valuable decision-making tool. With in-store wine tastings being a rarity these days (mostly due to the pandemic), the use of ratings and reviews give buyers a proxy of sorts, as well as some comfort that what they’re buying is decent.

Most critics use a well-recognized 100-point scale. The rule of thumb is that 90+ point ratings make wines appealing and easy to sell; sub-85 ratings, however, often make wines difficult to move. The pressure on wine makers to produce 90+ wines is decidedly palpable.

So, who are these so-called “wine experts”? Let’s take a closer look.

A Quick Background

Professional wine critics have been around for decades. Decanter Magazine was founded in London in 1975, for example. The Wine Spectator was started in Napa, California, in 1976 and Robert Parker (arguably the World’s most famous wine critic) started The Wine Advocate in 1978.

So how come they weren’t as well-known until recently? What has changed? Well, three things:

  • They are (still to this day) mainly subscription-based publications.
  • They have only come “online” in the past 10 years.
  • They have only recently allowed publication of their ratings by third parties through commercial subscriptions.

That last point is crucial, and the one that has significantly expanded wine ratings’ reach and usage. Wine retailers can now buy commercial licenses from the critics and publish ratings and reviews of individual wines directly on their online sales platforms. This is an invaluable development, as it allows wine buyers (primarily online buyers) to learn about wines without having to subscribe independently to one or more of their services.

Wine Critics As influencers

The other notable effect that wine critics are having in the industry is that, as they continue to gain reach and following, critics are indirectly influencing not only how wines are marketed, but also how they are produced.

Robert Parker, for example, has become so influential that a 90+ Parker rating is a powerful marketing tool, while a sub-85 rating can literally turn a wine into a sales “dud”. Accordingly, Parker’s personal bias towards big, bold, powerful, high alcohol wines has not gone unnoticed by winemakers. There have even been accusations that some wine makers have started vinifying their wines to produce “Parkerized” wines to get good Parker ratings (and good sales).

This criticism may be a bit exaggerated; the wine industry has diversified exponentially in offerings, varietals and styles in the 40 years Parker has been rating wines. There is also the overall effect of climate change, which has resulted in warmer growing conditions (and as a result riper, richer, higher alcohol wines).

So, What Conclusions Can We Draw?

We can expect that professional wine ratings/critics will continue to play a crucial and increasingly influential role in retail wine sales going forward, so it’s worth paying close attention to them. Realistically, with the ever-growing number of wine offerings, regions and varietals, average wine consumers are having an increasingly difficult time sorting through all the available options.

Wine reviews/critics help cut through the background “noise” and organize, rationalize and in a way, guide buying decisions in an easy-to-understand format.

A Quick Overview of the Major Wine Critics

There are many professional wine reviewers out there. However, The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate are the most followed.

The Wine Spectator – The largest wine ratings outfit also publishes Cigar Aficionado and The Whiskey Advocate. In addition to wine ratings, the publications hosts several annual wine tastings and seminars in major cities, has an annual “Top 100 Wines” list that is highly influential, and gives annual awards to restaurants offering “extraordinary” and “comprehensive” wine lists. Its wine ratings methodology is considered the most “objective” and “consistent”.

The Wine Advocate – A highly influential publication that’s slightly more narrowly focused; for years focusing primarily in wines from Bordeaux and Napa/Sonoma, as well as “big, powerful reds” from Italy, Spain and Australia. The Wine Advocate started expanding its geographical reach in the late 2000s and now actively covers most of the world’s wine regions.

Other influential wine critics and publications include: Decanter Magazine, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, The Wine Enthusiast, and Vinous Media.

Juan Ruiz is a finance and investment professional with over 30 years’ experience collecting and reviewing wines. He’s a graduate of New York’s Institute of Culinary Education’s Intensive Sommelier Program and a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas.