In days long gone, a handful of powerful publications were the gatekeepers of wine reviews. They passed out scores, and wineries either benefitted from them or not. In today’s world, these magazines are no longer the gatekeepers for reviews. Wineries and retailers are.

Things started to change around 15-20 years ago with the introduction of blogging. Wineries could now get attention from somewhere other than the big magazines. Independent reviewers, who were reviewing wines with more intention and devotion, also emerged.

In two high profile examples, Antonio Galloni established the Piedmont Report in 2004. Jeb Dunnuck established The Rhône Report in 2008. Both were eventually brought under the umbrella of The Wine Advocate (TWA), Galloni in 2006 and Dunnuck in 2013. (I established Washington Wine Report in 2004 and rebranded to Northwest Wine Report in 2022.)

Then something interesting happened. Galloni left TWA in 2013 and started a new review site, Vinous. Similarly, Dunnuck left TWA and founded in 2017.

No publication has been immune from the trend of reviewers going independent. James Suckling founded after leaving Wine Spectator. (I left Wine Enthusiast and started focusing fully on my own site in 2022.)

With technology providing the equivalent of a modern day printing press, more independent review sites have launched from people not formerly associated with the major magazines. Additionally, wine competitions have started handing out generous point scores instead of just medals-for-all.

This has led to a tectonic change in the wine reviewing landscape. Wineries and retailers no longer need scores from legacy publications to help sell wine. Instead, they have a buffet of reviews to choose from.

One could refer to this as the democratization of wine reviewing. It was.

However, previously, reviewers were vetted (usually). Regional experience was considered paramount. Reviewers also typically had extended tenures, allowing wineries and consumers to better understand their palates.

Reviewers provided not just a service to consumers but also a check to wineries when they missed the mark. The importance of reviews came from both the publication with which it was associated as well as a reviewer’s own experience and credibility.

None of these things are the case any longer.

Today, the score is all-important, not the publication or the reviewer. There is no standard whatsoever for reviewer experience at some independent publications and even some legacy ones. Reviewers often have little experience and no regional expertise. Reviews are, generally speaking, nothing but effusively positive.

There have, no doubt, been some benefits from these changes. Wineries are no longer beholden to a small handful of publications and their predominantly white male reviewers to get attention. People interested in reviewing wine can self-start, as I did. Consumers have more varied voices.

Unfortunately, the problems are manifold. Reviewers are strongly incentivized to give high scores to rise above the fray. Wineries are similarly incentivized to promote the highest score a wine receives, regardless of its source.

In doing so, wineries and retailers bestow credibility on the reviewer and outlet by lending some of their own. They elevate those voices. That is a fundamental change from the days when the credibility of the review was coming from the publication itself.

This might seem like a victimless problem. However, giving wineries and retailers control over the legitimacy of reviewers and reviews is deeply conflicted. Both are in the business of selling something.

The reality is everyone loses. Consumers buy wines based off scores that have little credibility. Many realize it and start ignoring reviews. Wineries and retailers hurt their credibility by promoting scores that aren’t based in reality and that they don’t even necessarily believe.

Wine criticism takes the worst hit. These changes have turbo-charged score inflation. As reviewing outlets multiply, one sure-fire way to get wineries to promote scores (and hence your brand) is to score at the upper reaches of the scale.

Top scores, once rare beasts reserved for the best wines from the best vintages (as I believe they still should be), are now so commonplace they have little meaning. When reading articles of all of the 100-point scores publications gave last year, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Ultimately, these changes will usher in the end of the 100-point system. That day is fast approaching. Scores have already reached unsustainably high levels where they are less and less impactful.

Some will surely rejoice when that happens. However, consumers still need ways to find wines they are more likely to enjoy from the thousands of available options. Wineries similarly need ways to elevate their wines in an increasingly competitive environment.

Wine reviewing, for better or worse, has long served as one of the mechanisms to do these things. Once that arrow gets removed from the quiver, all the points in the world won’t affect people’s buying habits.

Perhaps something better will rise from the ashes. However, as the wine industry sails into a near perfect storm of headwinds, losing one of the primary tools used for decades to sell wine is unlikely to be anything to celebrate.

Northwest Wine Report is wholly subscriber funded. Please subscribe to support continued independent content and reviews on this site. It is the only way that the site will be able to continue.

To receive articles via email, click here.