The concept of classifying and ranking wine has been around almost as long as wine itself. Informal regional identification began thousands of years ago for the purpose of helping merchants get better pricing for wines they brought in from high quality grape growing areas. Later beginning around 900 AD Benedictine and Cistercian Monks worked to develop a detailed classification of the best vineyards in the French region of Burgundy, and here specific plots of land eventually became ranked as "Premier Cru" or "Grand Cru" depending on the quality of wine they produced. Famously the 1855 Bordeaux Classification was ordered by Napoleon III to grade the area's best chateaux and these almost 200 year old rankings are still highly revered to this day.
Although in the past wines were classified and ranked strictly within the context of their own regions this changed dramatically in the 20th century. A unique 20-point grading scale was first established in the 1950's to rank wines based on their technical attributes, but its use was largely limited to industry professionals. Then in the 1980’s a largely unknown wine critic named Robert Parker pioneered a new wine ranking system which quickly exploded in popularity. Printed in his magazine called the Wine Advocate, Parker ranked wines from all over the world based on a 100-point scale. His system was designed to be easy for the average consumer to understand and quickly caught on across other publications. Today the 100-point scale is the world's most commonly used wine ranking system and many wineries all over the globe post these scores in their marketing materials, tasting rooms, or even on the wine bottles themselves to help sell their wine.
Although the 100-point scale is extremely popular and was designed with the average consumer in mind it does have its shortcomings. Some argue this scale has even changed the trajectory of wine styles being made in many of the worlds major wine regions. As the founder of the 100-point scale Robert Parker became well known for his preference to drink wines that are fruity, extracted, and high in alcohol, and he often rewarded this style of wine with his highest scores. Wineries eventually caught on and began to adjust their winemaking techniques to appeal to Parker's palate. Since wines being reviewed are typically only tasted and scored by one person it exposes a major flaw in the system, as wineries are encouraged to cater to a specific person's preferences in order to score highly. Everyone has a unique palate and tastes wine differently, so adjusting a wine to fit a single point of reference can compromise traditional and regional styles in favor of one individual's biases. There are many great wines out there that do not fit the Parker 100-point mold, and if you are only buying highly ranked bottles you are seriously missing out on some fabulous and unique stuff!
The 100-point system is here to stay - so where do we go from here? As a wine consumer it is a good idea to approach wine rankings with caution yet also understand that some good can come from them. High scores do tend to reflect overall quality, so buying a 90+ point wine will usually provide you with the peace of mind that the wine is at least probably well made. However, just because a wine is well made does not mean it was made in a style you will like, and sometimes very high scoring wines by certain critics may be completely undrinkable to other people with different tastes. Buying wine based off of an advertised score could be a good starting point for someone who is new into wine, but scores only have meaning if there is context behind them. It is important to find a critic that you tend to agree with and follow their suggestions as this will usually result in the highest chance of success. Regardless the most important thing when buying wine is keeping an open mind. Taste and enjoy the wine that you like and don't assume something is the “best wine ever” because points told you so. I do think the 100-point system can hinder the average consumer from focusing on the very things that actually make a wine special - things like the vineyard, the producer, the region, and the history.
Unfortunately buying wine simply because of a high point score will leave you no more educated than when you started, and sadly it can even hide the best features of the world's most unique wines. Never be afraid to do your own research! Find wines you love using your taste buds as a guide and strive to learn about the people behind the wine itself. Read about the vineyards, the wineries, the regions. Read detailed tasting notes to see if the wine sounds like something you'd like. Chances are you will find wines you LOVE once you stop following points and start exploring for yourself!