Are “Five Star” Wine Rating Systems Too Simple?

Before Robert Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point wine-rating system to the world back in 1978, wine tasters, if they used any scoring method at all, would generally use a simple “five star” scale to rate their wines.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

This five star (or five point) system is best understood as:

1  Poor
3  Good
4  Excellent
5  Outstanding

Naturally, it is simplicity that differentiates a five-star system from Parker’s system. After all, what budding connoisseur intrigued by wine would not choose to begin their lifetime of passion de vin with something elemental, readily grasped? And who among us can really tell the difference between an 83-point wine and an 84-point wine?

While there is much that is ludicrous about the Parker scale (e.g., a 76-point wine can be just as undrinkable as a 38-point wine), it’s much easier to understand the five-point system because we can readily identify with it – it corresponds with the letter-grade system many of us grew up with in grammar school. A simple system, yes. But very, very dull! Fortunately, other ardent wine rating personae have tackled the notion of dressing up this simple little system with rating thresholds of their own.

Jon Bonné, lifestyle editor for (and Amuse-Bouche wine blogger) expands the aforementioned scale to the following:

1.0, Undrinkable: Major flaws that make the wine too bad to drink.
2.0, Marginally drinkable: You’d drink it if stranded on a desert island, but not otherwise.
3.0, Acceptable: Wine free of any major flaws, but not otherwise worth mentioning.
3.5, Good: Decent and drinkable wine, competently made and enjoyable to the average drinker.
4.0, Very good: Highly pleasurable wine with excellent qualities, the product of top-notch winemaking.
4.5: Excellent: Wine that excels in every aspect, true to its terroir and origin and of exceptional quality.
5.0, Extraordinary: Classic wine of rare and unparalleled quality.

Bonné suggests that:

“Wines below 3.0 aren’t worthy of consideration at all, and 3.5 is a decent starting point for wine worth buying. Beyond that? It’s really a matter of personal taste and preference.”

Deceptively simple. Yet notice how the five-point scale is already stretching out to something beyond five points. In his defense, Bonné only bases his ratings on a five-point system. But whoa – he’s willing to rate incrementally by half-points. Perceptively tedious!

Erin over at Grape Juice quips that she has her parents to thank for her growing alcoholism. Her wine rating methodology goes beyond the five-star rating system, too, though I’d have to say it’s more of a five-bar raving system. Or raging system – take your pick:

Not Even On Pain of Death: I’d pretty much run screaming from this wine if I ever saw it again.
I Wouldn’t Make Faces: Not my choice, but if someone were to serve it to me at a gathering of some sort, I wouldn’t turn up my nose.
I’d Hit It: A good wine, but not necessarily mindblowing. I’d consider buying it again.
Repeat Offender: I’ll be buying this one again. A wine with a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
Bet Your Bottom Dollar: A sure-fire hit. Even your mother-in-law would like this one.

Hmmm, I wonder how Erin can taste wine with her tongue in her cheek like that. Come to think of it, if I had a mother-in-law, she’d probably only drink white zinfandel. At the other end of the wine-scoring spectrum, Rod Phillips at Worlds of Wine suggests a 1,000-point wine-scoring scale.

Methinks Rod jesteth overtly. But yikes!! Talk about tedious. Well then, could there be a wine tasting methodology that isn’t boorishly elemental, deceptively simple, flagrantly tedious, or mincingly ambiguous? Something that goes beyond “trite” yet doesn’t have you mired in point-shaving schemes?

You bet. It’s a moderately sane 20-point system, and it’s freely available to all. If you like wine but want to know why you like it, or if you would choose to educate yourself further about wine, then here’s a little guidance, some developmental history, and a place to download the winehiker’s scoring sheet for nearly everyone.



Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Syrah

At our Syrah tasting event last Thursday evening, six of us compared six bottles of Syrah – four from California and two from France. It was a pretty good lineup, but the top three finishers were all from California’s Central Coast appellation. It was clear that all six of us who formed the night’s tasting panel have true California palates.

The colors in our glasses were a deep violet – two with a slight degree of gold banding about the edges – but the aromas and flavors were richly contrasting between spiciness, fruitiness, and smokiness. A moderate degree of chewiness was present in most; aroma, taste, texture, and finish all combined to generate an exceptionally high score in the night’s eventual winner.

None of these wines were older than the 2003 vintage, yet all are drinkable now.

Paired with our Syrah were whole-wheat seeded breads, a sharp Wisconsin Cheddar cheese, a softer Edam cheese, and an excellent sun-dried tomato/cream cheese fondue prepared in my kitchen by Chef Tanya. All were terrific accompaniments to our Syrah wines.

About the wines
The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat (alcohol content) and the price per 750ml bottle. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. If no link is present, purchase information is not available online.

Below the group ranking, I’ve employed the scoring sheet to tabulate my thoughts about each individual wine.

Group Ranking


2004 “R” Runquist, Paso Robles, California




2003 Thomas Fogarty, Fat Buck Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, California




2004 Andrew Murray Tout Le Jours, Central Coast




2003 Mas Grand Plagniol, Costieres de Nimes, France




2004 Concannon Stampmaker’s, Livermore, Califronia




2004 Emmanuel Darnaud, Crozes-Hermitages, France



Winehiker’s Ranking


2004 “R” Runquist, Paso Robles, California


2004 Andrew Murray Tout Le Jours, Central Coast


2003 Mas Grand Plagniol, Costieres de Nimes, France


2003 Thomas Fogarty, Fat Buck Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, California


2004 Concannon Stampmaker’s, Livermore, Califronia


2004 Emmanuel Darnaud, Crozes-Hermitages, France

In this tasting, the group scores, as well as my individual scores, were quite widespread; in both we had a clear favorite in the Runquist and a clear nonfavorite in the Darnaud, which exhibited an incredibly earthy taste. I loved the fruity aroma, the rich vanilla smokiness, and the velvet textures of the Runquist; the only criterion I did not score it highest on was finish, which lingered perhaps only 15-20 seconds. My selection for the evening was the Fogarty, purchased directly at the winery above Palo Alto; I had liked it enough to buy it this summer during a post-hike visit, but it was much more of a hit with the group than it was with me. Indeed, I liked the Plagniol more.

Winehiker’s Bottom Line
If you would buy a California-grown Syrah priced in the mid-twenties, you cannot go wrong should you choose to lay in a stock of the Runquist and the Fogarty.

*It would appear that Fogarty’s 2004 Fat Buck Ridge Syrah has gone up in price in the few short weeks since I purchased it; it’s now $50 per bottle.

When liking a wine is not enough

There’s a lot of debate out there in the Great Blogosphere about wine scores and wine-scoring systems. Some suggest that wine tasting is too subjective a practice to quantify with objective numerals. Seasoned wine tasters would have you distrust someone else’s (e.g., Robert Parker’s) seasoned palate. Yet I’ve learned that knowing that I like a wine is not enough – I want to know why I prefer one wine over another. Because other people do, too, I believe that’s where a wine scoring system can help.

I had a lot of help from my wine-tasting friends developing a 20-point scoring sheet that I use quite frequently. We’ve found that a 20-point system is definitely more manageable than a 100-point system such as Parker’s and others – I think they’re too difficult to attempt by most people who would taste wine. A 5-star system, I’ve found, is just too simple, because it doesn’t offer any real educational value.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet for individuals and groups.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet
works well for both individuals and groups.

This wine scoring sheet is broken into seven criteria with numeric values assigned to each; sample descriptive adjectives are offered within each tasting criterion (aroma, body, finish, etc.). It also is two-sided, allowing input for individual wine scores for seven wines, as well as space for tasting notes and group scoring on the second page to aggregate a group’s individual ratings. A third page includes instructions for how to use it.

Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery remarks:

“While it can argued as to whether “taste/flavor” should be 4 points and “finish” only 2, the winehiker’s system can be a big help for people who want to learn to taste more thoughtfully by breaking a rating down into more manageable chunks.”

Most of my guests are new tasters who want to learn why they like a wine (or why they don’t); many return for follow-up tastings. That’s a vote of confidence, indicating that they derive value from this scoring system.  Perhaps you will too!

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Have you scored any wines using this or any other 20-point wine scoring sheet?
If you have, please let me know what you think.

If you haven’t used it, this scoring sheet can be
a valuable learning tool to help you train your palate.
Try it at your next tasting!

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Tasting Wine Made Easy

Who's ready for easy?

Who’s ready for easy?

If you love wine but are not sure why you prefer one wine over another, you can learn to identify what your palate is telling you. The best part about learning to separate wine into its aroma, flavor, body, and other attributes is that it is very fun to do! Plus, when practiced in the intimate atmosphere of a small group, all participants can interact with each other in a manner that promotes discovery, friendship, learning, and above all, joy!

At a typical tasting event, a host may choose to announce one grape variety, such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, or Chardonnay; he or she may also decide to choose a geographic region, such as Australia’s Hunter Valley or France’s Bordeaux region. A simple objective would be to pour and taste six wines of this varietal or from that region. As you taste your wines, follow a “blind comparison” format to prevent label bias, and use a wine scoring sheet that includes space for notes; be sure to keep it for reviewing later when you plan to purchase wine.

Though there are a number of ways to approach a blind comparison tasting, I believe the best way is to involve each participant in the purchase of the wine they bring to the tasting. As such, shopping for wine can comprise online research, prior tasting knowledge, consulting with a wine merchant, or just plain old eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

The main thing is: a blind (comparison) wine tasting is for everybody who wants to learn about wine. You don’t have to know anything about wine other than the notion that you want to learn more. Before long, you’ll come to understand that the world of wine is not nearly so intimidating as it is fun!



Free wine scoring sheet

In my wine tasting rounds, I’ve often used wine-scoring sheets that were supplied by the proprietor of a tasting room or something a friend found on the Internet. I had often scoured the Internet searching for a tasting sheet that delivered a fairly comprehensive approach to scoring wine – something that displayed more than just six circles and a dozen straight lines. I often came up empty-handed.

So back in 2005, I decided to develop my own wine scoring sheet. And then I tested and tweaked it with the help of a group of friends that I regularly taste wine with. Since I loaded it onto this blog*, hardly a day goes by that someone else isn’t searching for a wine scoring sheet and finds mine.

Based on the Davis 20-point scale, this Wine Scoring Sheet is meant to be used primarily for comparative blind tastings. It will serve both individuals and groups with its two-page approach. The first page is designed so that each individual in a group can score up to 7 wines. The second page allows a 12-person group to rank all wines based on the results that are tallied on the first page. There’s even room for adding your own notes.

Using the Wine Scoring Sheet, a typical blind tasting follows these 7 tasting criteria:

  • Appearance
  • Aroma
  • Balance
  • Body/Texture
  • Taste/Flavor
  • Finish
  • Overall Quality

The Wine Scoring Sheet also includes a third page that lists a simple set of instructions for its use.

So if searching around the ’net for a simple-to-use wine scoring sheet has left a bad taste in your mouth, consider trying the winehiker’s free Wine Scoring Sheet. If you like using it, please add your comments to this post – I’d love to read them.


Related Posts:
When liking a wine is not enough
Tasting Wine Made Easy

*As of February 2009, you can also find my wine scoring sheet on DocStoc.