The Parker Holdouts (Portfolio.com)

Conventional wisdom in the wine industry is that 90 points is the breaking point when it comes to a critic’s rating: Over that magic number means you can’t keep a wine in stock; under it means you can’t give a wine away.

The 100-point rating system is the brainchild of übercritic Robert Parker, who developed the method in the mid-1970s for his newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Parker experimented with other ratings, including letter grades and a 20-point scale developed at the University of California–Davis, but ultimately created his own.

Any American who had gone through grammar school easily understood his system: A 95 is good, while a 75 is not. You get 50 points just for showing up.

Wine Spectator and other publications quickly adopted Parker’s system, and today the 100-point scale is ubiquitous. “The entire process of making and selling wine today revolves around the scores,” says Tyler Coleman, author of Wine Politics. “Parker has steered people toward finding good wines, but what’s gotten lost is that it’s just an opinion. When you give a wine a number, it takes on a patina of objectivity.”

Occasionally critics seek out a wine to review on their own, but most often, wineries or distributors submit samples for ratings. Despite the system’s importance, some winemakers don’t send their wines in for review at all. “That’s a game we refuse to play,” says Pete Hedges, winemaker for Hedges Family Estate in Red Mountain, Washington State’s hot new wine-growing region.

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