Anatomy of a 91 Point Wine Score

Deep down I’m a neurotic, self loathing, low self esteemed, guilt-tinged fat kid.  Which is probably why every time I read it, it feels like nothing short of an old school bitch-slapping.  I can’t get past the first line without envisioning myself curled up in the fetal position in some crack den with Steve Heimoff standing over me, sporting a purple and yellow pimp hat demanding his money between punishing blows. What could elicit such a nightmarish vision?

As we announced back in February, our 2008 Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir received a score of 91 from Wine Enthusiast magazine.  The score and full review are published in the current May issue and will be available online starting May 1st.  Along with the numeric score, we recently got an advanced look at the actual review from West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff, which reads:


Tasted at a little more than a year of age, this Pinot Noir is a bit brusque. It should have been held back for another six months, to let the tannins, fruit and oak knit together.  With very rich black cherry, black raspberry, cola and sweet smoky oak flavors, it should begin to resolve by late Fall 2010, and provide pleasant drinking for another 3–4 years.


Brusque?  That’s not an adjective that you’d normally see in a positive review.  Per Webster’s, Brusque = “markedly short and abrupt; blunt in manner or speech often to the point of ungracious harshness.”

I’ve personally been called brusque (and more vulgar variants thereof) more than a few times in my life.  But, my poor baby wine?  That just seems, well, brusque!

Kerith chooses to look at the review in the best possible light.  She contends that had we held the wine back for another 6-months we might have scored even higher!  We’ll definitely pop open a bottle in the late Fall to see if he was right about its aging cycle.  Mr. Heimoff tastes many more wines than most, and it could well be that he’s spot on in his prediction.   If so, we’ll certainly take that into consideration as we plan our release schedule for our 2009 vintage.

But for me, it has taken many bottles of wine and quite a few pills to reduce the sting of that brusque comment.  And as the haze has started to clear, I’ve wondered how our 91 point score was determined.  Some insightful posts on the Wine Enthusiast site helped me to better understand this opaque world. 

First up was this blog post from Tasting Director and Senior Editor Joe Czerwinski which details his approach to wine scoring (note: our reviewer Mr. Heimoff likely employs a modified reviewing approach).  In his post, Mr. Czerwinski breaks down the scoring as follows:

Appearance:                      up to 5 points

Aroma:                                 up to 10 points

Flavor:                                  up to 15 points

Mouthfeel:                         up to 10 points

Overall Quality / Ability to Age:                   up to 10 points.

So, in total a wine can receive 50 points

But, uh, aren’t these wines scored on a 100-point scale?

Well, here’s where it gets even more complicated.  According to Wine Enthusiast, scoring is broken down as follows:

Classic - 98-100:                The pinnacle of quality.

Superb -  94-97:                  A great achievement.

Excellent - 90-93:             Highly recommended.

Very Good  - 87-89:          Often good value; well recommended.

Good - 83-86:                       Suitable for everyday consumption; often good value.

Acceptable - 80-82:         Can be employed in casual, less-critical circumstances.

Below 80-points, Wine Enthusiast deems the wine to be unacceptable and does not publish a point rating or review.  This means that once a wine clears the bar of acceptability, that wine will score within the range of 80-100 points. 

OK, so to refresh:  on a 100-point scale, you can score up to 50-points but only those wines that score within the top 20 points actually get counted.

Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Given an acceptable scale of 80-100 points, one might assume that 90-points would be the average.  One, naturally, would be wrong.

As you can see from the graph below, the scores from Wine Enthusiast work roughly on a bell curve, with a score of 87 being at the top of the bell and scores trailing off in either direction.


But if you examine this data closely you see two interesting anomalies.  First, there is a spike up at the far left side in the NR column.  This stands for Not Rated – basically all of the wines that scored in the dreaded 50-79 Unacceptable category.  It’s interesting to note that very few wines actually end up in this bucket, which leads to a statistical argument over its relevancy and whether there really is a 50-point distribution at all, or just the 20-point one between 80 and 100.  Given the high point in the bell curve resting comfortably at 87, I think it’s fair to assume that the relevant range is much closer to 20 points than 50 points.  But, since I was a political science major who flunked statistics (twice) at Cal, I’ll leave that debate for our more educated readers.

The other interesting anomaly is the uptick at the 90-point level.  This graph shows that there are more 90-point wines in this data sample than 89-point wines.  In a true bell curve, it should be the reverse.  So, why more 90’s than 89’s?  I think this is where statistics and human nature diverge.  My guess is that in the course of reviewing so many wines, the reviewers are inclined to bump up anyone who’s on the fence between 89 and 90.  The reviewers know that there is a big economic difference between an 89 and a 90 for a wine producer.  If they can, it seems that they will move the needle up a notch and award the coveted 90 point score.  Does this diminish the value of a 90-point score?  Apparently not, since 90-points remains the benchmark for perceived quality in the wine business.

So, what does all this mean for our review?

It seems that somewhere along the line we lost 9 out of a possible 50 points to arrive at a 91 (or, if you’re one of those glass-half-full heathens, we earned a total of 41 out of 50 possible points).  That 91 point score puts us squarely into the Excellent category and it likely means that we weren’t on the bubble between Excellent and Very Good.  Had we scored a 90, I know that I’d harbor some doubt over whether our 90 was legitimate or a “mercy-90” that could have just as easily been an 89. 

At least with a 91, I think we can feel good that we’re in a little bit more rarified statistical air.

And now if only our wine wasn’t so brusque maybe I could finally get that vision of Steve Heimoff in a pimp hat out of my head…


**If you’ve read through this whole post, you deserve a little reward.  We are all sold out of our full bottles of the 2008 Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, but we have exactly 20 of the half bottles left (as of 4/21/10).  So, if you’ve been holding off or want to get your hands on the very last of this vintage, now’s the time.  And if you enter the coupon code BRUSQUE when you order, we'll take 10% off your purchase price.  Just click here to place your order.**