Are Wine Ratings Irrelevant to the Modern Sommelier?

“But did it get a 95?” Ratings have become ubiquitous in the wine world, to the benefit of consumers who may not have the time, the palates, or the funds to taste through thousands of bottles. But what about restaurant professionals, whose jobs involve doing just that? Are ratings relevant to them, not only on a personal level, but on a professional level, where interactions with ratings-seeking consumers are bound to occur? Sommelier Journal Editorial Advisory Board member Shayn Bjornholm, MS, explores this issue in the July 2008 cover story, “What's in a Score?”

On a personal level, the answer to Bjornholm's query appears to be “not much.” “The first thing I learned about sommeliers is that they trust their own palates,” Sommelier Journal Editor David Vogels, CWP, writes in his column, “For Openers,” in the same issue. “Wine professionals taste thousands of wines a year . . . . Scoring wines is not part of their job description, unless they use some kind of private shorthand as a memory jogger. So the next thing I learned about sommeliers was that they not only trust their own palates, but don't trust other people's scores.”

Bjornholm agrees in his article: “One truth is that more and more sommeliers are spending their time and efforts to train palates by way of certification from various educational bodies. And as they scale the previously unattainable heights occupied by the wine critics, and their growing abilities gain the trust of their patrons, wine points are becoming more and more of a moot point.”

On the professional level, the answer seems to be more complicated. Bjornholm found a mixture of opinions on the pros and cons of wine ratings in the restaurant setting, but most of the sommeliers he surveyed came down against using ratings in their restaurants. “Reducing a wine to a numerical score takes away the subtlety and joy that makes wine interesting in the first place,” said Geoff Kruth, MS, wine director of the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, Calif.

Others believed that using ratings invalidates their job of building a great list to match the cuisine of the restaurant and of guiding their customers through the list. Michael Meagher, assistant beverage director for the New France restaurant group in Boston, said, “I am there to speak about the qualities of the wine, the background, the varietals–if anything, I often go in the opposite direction of wines with high scores, because those are the wines that are easier on the wallet.” Meagher noted another problem with high-point scorers: many have high-levels of alcohol and more assertive flavor profiles that make food pairing more difficult.

Not everyone was opposed to using ratings. John McCune, director of wine and spirits for the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont., felt that ratings provide an opportunity for restaurants. “We live in a point-based society–it works!” McCune said. “Fill your list with wines rated extremely high (most, if not all of which, are great), and you have a formula for success.” Indeed, Bjornholm found that many restaurants around the country actively market wine scores with “100-Point Wine Dinners” and other similar, point-driven wine functions.

Many sommeliers fell between the open embrace of McCune and the flat rejection of Kruth, accepting the notion that scores do matter to some customers. “Scores seem to be very important to the enthusiasts and those with disposable income who enjoy trophy offerings,” said Julia Warren Schiavone, wine director of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels in Greensboro, N.C. “I need to know them to communicate with my guests who place value on that information.”

But Bjornholm found that the number of guests who actually mention scores on their own is quite low, the consensus being that less than 10% of customers ever bring them up. In other words, the original question, “Did it get a 95?”, is asked far less often than, “What would you recommend?”