By Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist Published Jun 25, 2009 at 1:01 PM

"98 Points WS"

"96 Points WA"

"99 Points ST"

"Excuse me Mr. Uncorked guy, but can you please explain what all the different scores are about?"

It's hard for the average consumer to figure out what wine to buy. With tens of thousands of producers worldwide, crazy foreign labels and huge differences in vintages, how are you supposed to know what's good or what you will like?

The History of Scoring

Well, many years ago in which land no one knows for sure, some wine geeks got together and decided to come up with a rating scale, a spectrum on which to place a value on particular qualities of wine. In 1979, a guy named Robert Parker came along and was widely credited with inventing the particular rating scale of 1-100. Whether he did or not doesn't matter, but his scale up to 100 has become the unwritten abacus by which all modern wine is measured.

If a wine scores in the 90s, it sells like hotcakes. If a wine has the misfortune of being scored less than 80, it becomes the pariah of every bottle on a shelf and will likely sit there for all eternity.

Parker is hardly the only one with a rating system (although he is arguably the most consistent -- more on this later) Even more devoutly followed than Parker's publication, The Wine Advocate, is the infamous Wine Spectator. After the Spectator come many others, including Decanter Magazine, Steven Tanzer, Jancis Robinson, Gambero Rosso, Michael Broadbent ... the list goes on ad infinitum.

The rating system changed the face of retail wine purchasing forever. The average consumer, once completely dependent on deep pockets or the whim or their local wine distributor / retail / wholesaler, found empowerment in the ability to assign a value to a bottle. The buyer now has at his fingertips valuable information allowing him to get an idea of which wines are worth the money.

As much as this new power may have been a savior to those ignorant to quality wine, it has since become such a bastardized, corrupt and inconsistent system, that the numbers assigned to a wine are in many cases completely meaningless.

For starters, have you ever looked at Wine Spectator's classification of their rating system? According to the magazine, a 95-100-point wine is "Classic, a great wine." Tell me dear reader, what exactly is that supposed to mean? A 90- to 94-point wine is "Outstanding, a wine of superior character and style." Doesn't it read to you that the 90-94-point wine should actually be better? Isn't "superior" on a higher plane than "classic?"

It only gets worse, I assure you. Every year, they come out with a Top 100 wines of the world and in many years a $15 bottle with a case production of half a million cases somehow ranks higher than the best Bordeaux, the rarest Barolo, or the finest Rioja. If you have an explanation for me, I would be happy to hear it. (It is funny how certain wines with full page ads in the Wine Spectator just happen to be regularly mentioned ... hmmm?)

I openly rip on Wine Spectator because their rating system is the grossest example of inconsistency. One glaring example was the 2001 vintage for Chateau Montelena Cabernet. James Laube from the Spectator, on a campaign to shame local California wineries for trace amounts of TCA, professed, "I realized that I'm far more sensitive to TCA (2-4-6 Trichloranisol or "Cork Taint") than most people," panned the wine with 69 points while Steven Tanzer gave it a 92-95 and Robert Parker a 96.

It would be one thing if Wine Spectator had a clearly defined classification and the numerous tasters employed didn't have specific agendas, but alas, you never know what a number means with the good old "Spectacle." In fairness, they print some quality articles quite often and can be a very good resource for learning about what's happening in the world of wine, but take their scores with a grain of salt.

At least other tasters, Parker in particular, have done the majority of the tasting themselves. Parker is clear about his style, has a detailed rating system and at least provides a gauge against which to balance your own tastes. He has a good nose for quality and after that, he likes his wine big and bold and concentrated and rich and high in alcohol and well, if it reaches out of the bottle, punches you in the face and leaves a mark that lasts a long time -- he scores it well. So, at least you know that when you see "90 Points WA" you can say to yourself, well, I'm in the mood for something soft and delicate tonight, might want to stay away from this one.

Some of the other, smaller critics have discerning and fairly consistent scores, as well, but they haven't tasted nearly the quantity and variety that Parker has. Yet even with Parker's scores, what does it really mean when someone you don't know employs their 100 percent subjective palate to a liquid that demands 100 percent of your subjective enjoyment? Not only that, but one says "95" another "85" and a third "91" -- who can you trust?

With all these people weighing in on wines, and with all the variables involved, why do the wines in a retail shop with the "95 Points" shelf talker sell faster than the ones without?

I hate to say it, but it's blind consumerism. People have a hard enough time trying to find a wine they like as it is. How much easier is it to look at a fancy score and say, "Well, if Wine Advocate and Robert Parker say it's good, then by golly, it must be!" You have no idea how many times people would come in to a restaurant I was working, we would begin to talk wine, I would recommend a couple of items and the first question they would ask was, "How many points is that?"

I say "who cares?"

Take the rating system for what it is, a VERY crude and basic guide from variable sources assigning variable values to variable qualities. Unfortunately, it has since become even worse. There are several companies in California alone to which you can send your wine, they will analyze it and return recommendations on how to increase WS and WA scores with your next vintage. Why? Because that's what sells.

Wine is so much more fun when you take the time to explore it as though on a journey. Like any good trip, you aren't always going to take the right road. Sometimes, you will be with people who are walking the same path, sometimes you won't. You may even stay on the exact same path for a while because you enjoy it. But you will be learning and ultimately you will take so much more away from the experience.

So, decide for yourself which wines you do and don't like.

Don't be a score whore -- vive vin la résistance! 

Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist
Nathaniel Bauer has spent the last 10 years as a wine buyer for some of Milwaukee’s finest restaurants. Two standouts include a six-year tenure with Bartolotta’s that culminated at Bacchus as a manager and sommelier, followed by two years as the General Manager and certified sommelier at Dream Dance. Finally late in ‘08 he hung up his wine key to start a family. Even though he is now the Marketing Director for a local software company, Big Bang LLC, wine keeps calling his name. The steady chant that kept him in the restaurant business for more than a decade, even after his several attempts to ignore its call, keeps him up to date on current vintages and producers around the globe. Bauer still visits many Milwaukee establishments, both retail and restaurant, to stay a part of the fantastic wine community in this city. Now, after more than a decade in the wine and restaurant market, he is glad to have no direct affiliations and looks forward to offering an experienced and impartial opinion on how local wine purveyors can be even more successful.