Point Scores and Wine: Making the Complicated Uncomplicated

Image by Brandon Koger

Note: This originally appeared as a guest post on Gamification.co.

When it comes to wine, points matter. In a revealing article published in the Wall Street Journal, Leonard Mlodinow – author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives – points out: “According to a 2001 study of Bordeaux wines, a one-point bump in Robert Parker’s wine ratings averages equates to a 7% increase in price, and the price difference can be much greater at the high end.” As students and proponents of gamification, we can understand that people respond well to systems that allow them to measure the impact of their actions. In the case of wine, this means that many of us will gladly pay a little bit extra for a clear indicator of quality.  I’m a part of this group; I’ll gladly pay an extra $10 for a 93-point Syrah, as opposed to the Syrah next to it from an unknown winery. Why? Because the world of wine is complicated, and wine ratings help provide that structure and understanding that I – and many others – crave.

As a marketer in the wine industry, I can testify to the effectiveness of these point scores. In fact, prominently displaying a good point score when marketing to customers makes a statistically significant difference in customer interest in a particular wine. I’ve seen the numbers. Wine ratings matter. And in any system involving points, ratings and/or scores, it’s important to understand how they’re earned and calculated. Otherwise, you may be at a disadvantage to those who understand the rules of the game.


Learning the System

What’s interesting is that although point scores do a great job at giving a quantifiable shortcut to selecting the best wines, these scores are sometimes misguided. Here are two reasons why:

1) Wine is a matter of personal preference. I’ve tasted $15 dollar non-rated wines that I’ve enjoyed more than the $50, 93+ point rated wines. Who’s to say your tastes match those of a particular expert?

2) Wine ratings aren’t always accurate. Mlodinow’s WSJ essay (quoted above) delves into the research behind the inconsistencies of wine ratings. In one experiment, it was discovered that a judge tasting the same wine multiple times could often vary the rating given by up to ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100.

That said, I still recommend using point scores and expert recommendations in three scenarios:

1) If you’re willing to check out a variety of point scores across multiple publications, you can better identify the truly outstanding wines. Because, although wine experts aren’t flawless, they know how to recognize excellent wines, so increasing the sample size of ratings on any one wine gives you a more complete picture.

2) If you’re in a pinch and need a wine that will impress a colleague or family member, it’s easier to explain the quality and value of a 96-point Pinot Noir, instead of delving into the winery’s history and/or the quality of the vintage (assuming you have all of that knowledge readily available).

3) If you’re looking for a bargain, wines that fall below the 90-point mark can oftentimes still be great wines, despite the lower price. Even though there is only a one point difference between 89 and 90, bloggers have noted that it can be detrimental to sales when you fail to make the 90-point cutoff. So it stands to reason that if wine ratings can often vary greatly, and 89-point wines aren’t subjected to the price increases of 90+ rated wines, good prices on great wines can be found in the 89-point category (you may have to sort through some mediocre wines to find the gems though).


Point-based Systems Aren’t Perfect

Ultimately, wine ratings aren’t 100% accurate, but they provide a convenient (and often useful) shortcut to determining where a wine fits along the spectrum. This applies to other points-based environments as well. For example, I enjoy using my level in Fitocracy to determine how actively I’m sticking to my weight training routine. Although “Level 24″ – and my subsequent amount of experience points – isn’t a concrete indicator of fitness level, it’s much easier for me to keep track of how quickly I level than to constantly measure and record my weight, body-fat percentage, and muscle size. Therein lies a major benefit of point systems: a quick and dirty snapshot of a metric (quality, progress, resources, etc.). So whether you’re picking your next dinner wine, leveling up in Fitocracy, or looking at someone’s reputation on Stack Overflow, make sure you understand the strengths of weaknesses of the point system you’re dealing with, and act accordingly. In the case of wine, it can make the difference between a fantastic wine and one you simply paid a lot of money for.

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.