Home > History of Wine > “Assuming 100 to be the standard for best”: The 100-point wine scale predates Robert Parker’s by 125 years

“Assuming 100 to be the standard for best”: The 100-point wine scale predates Robert Parker’s by 125 years


During my recent visit to Albuquerque I came across numerous references indicating that the wines of Bernalillo, located just north of Albuquerque, were celebrated next to those of El Paso in what is now Texas.  One such example appears in Colonel James F. Meline’s account of his summer tour Two Thousand Miles on Horseback (1866).[1] Colonel Meline took time to stop and taste several of the wines in Bernalillo.  He found that the “wines are capable, with proper treatment, of being made excellent” from the “superior” grapes.  Unfortunately, the wine was “inexpertly handled” and “used almost as fast as made”.  Thus old wines were “almost out of the question.”  It was later in Albuquerque that he was able to drink a Bernalillo wine “that was quite as good as any made at El Paso.”

Colonel Meline must have been suitably impressed by the Bernalillo wine he tasted in Albuquerque for he sent two bottles to the American Wine Growers’ Association of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Association published in its proceedings, which Colonel Meline reproduced in his appendix, that the 1861 white wine received a “vote 90” and the red wine “81.”  According to George Graham, Esquire, President of the Association, the white wine “was considered better than most wines of the same age, either of Catawba or good Rhine wine.”  The wines were judged “by figures marked up to 100, which is the highest character of wine of any kind…Most of our Ohio wine does not reach the excellence of the wine presented to you.”

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It is by pure chance then that I should encounter descriptions of an early 100-point rating system in the history of the wines of New Mexico.  The rating system was equally applied to all wines and in this instance alone, to those of New Mexico, Ohio, and Germany. This is a remarkable discovery given that Robert Parker is credited with promulgating the 100-point scale over a century later with his launch of The Wine Advocate in 1978.  This scale is much criticized by Hugh Johnson who wrote it “is apparently based on the American High School marking system”.[2]  There were earlier 100-point scales in use such as one created by Professor William Cruess in 1935.[3]  That the scale used by the American Wine Growers’ Association predates Prohibition and even the American Civil War places it in the early years of the American commercial wine industry.

The American Wine Growers Association of Cincinnati was founded in 1851 as an outgrowth of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society.[4]  It was modeled on the German Wein Bau Verbesserungs Gesellschaft (Wine Farmers’ Improvement Society) to “promote the cultivation of the grape, the preparation of wine in its greatest purity, and the encouragement of such efforts”.  The society was to measure “the specific gravity of wines, and noting their properties and qualities.”  This was a very important association for by 1859, Ohio was the top producer of wine in America.[5]

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The Wine Growers Association held monthly meetings where they visited vineyards, discussed techniques, and tasted wines.  They immediately held a “Wine Examination” where they tasted 45 different wines on March 29, 1851.  These wines were “marked with numbers, in uniform bottles, without any designation”.  The wines were tasted four at a time with each member of the committee silently voting on their “choice sample”.  From each group, the bottle with the majority vote was set aside for additional rounds of tasting until the top three wines were chosen.  This method remained the standard for nearly two years.

The association continued to critically examine and rank wine. The majority of the wines tasted were made from Catawba since that was the favorite grape of the state.  The Association soon realized that it needed to hedge against the increasing spread of Catawba vines exhibiting disease.  To find other hardy varieties that made equally good wine, a group of eight gentlemen visited the estate of Nicholas Longworth during October 1852.  Nicholas Longworth is considered a pioneer in the American wine commercial industry.  Over several years Nicholas Longworth had accumulated some 100 grapevines from different parts of America.   The group took the opportunity to taste and note grapes from 27 different varieties.  From these vines Nicholas Longworth produced small batches of wine that were submitted to the association for critical tasting.  These wines were tasted several months later on January 29, 1853.  For the first time, the wines were rated using a 100-point scale with “good Catawba being assumed 100”.[6]  The scale allowed the Association to decide “upon the merits of the wines”.   The tasters assigned a “grade…at such lower number as he deemed it entitled to”.  Final grades were formed from all of the results.

Rating of Nicholas Longworth's wines using 100-point scale.

Rating of Nicholas Longworth’s wines using 100-point scale.

Here are a few of the wines rated on January 29, 1853.

Of Mr. Longworth’s specimens, “all new wines”:

  • Cox, rated at 70. High perfume: Mosher, marked 100.
  • Danville, rated at 50. High flavor, Brace; others poor.
  • Winter, rated at 24. Some marked 0.
  • Fermented on skin, rated as 31. Marked 0 by three.

Mr. Rehfuss’ “experimental wines”

  • Catawba, 1851, manured, rated 97.
  • Catawba, 1851, not manured, rated 89.
  • Catawba, 1852, manured, rated 100. Better than other new wines.
  • Catawba, 1852, not manured, rated 92.

Other wines:

  • Catawba (Ohio) 1848, Rehfuss, rated 93. Good.
  • Catawba (Kentucky) 1848, Rehfuss, rated 93. Good.
  • Catawba (Kentucky) 1852, J. Rintz, rated 91. Fine, very good.
  • Missouri, 1848, rated 35. Spoiled.
  • Foreign wine, (Hock,) 1846, rated 45. Very pleasant.
  • Foreign wine, (Hock,) 1846, rated 71. Very bitter.

I have not yet found any discussion regarding the specific implementation of this scale.  It does appear this scale was required to scientifically determine the best replacement for the Catawba vine.  This 100-point scale became the subsequent standard for all of the Association’s tastings including the best in class tastings.  The scale was applied to both experimental and commercial domestic wine as well as foreign wines.  The scale continued to be used as a “vote upon the quality” of wine through at least 1870.[7]  The results of these tastings were published in horticultural journals and occasionally in the newspapers.  It appears that the 100-point scale has deeper roots in the American wine industry than previously credited.


[1] Meline, James Florant. Two Thousand Miles on Horseback. 1868. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=9ZVOAAAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[2] Johnson, Hugh. Wine A Life Uncorked.  University of California Press.
[3] Noble, A.C. “Wine tasting is a science”, California Agriculture, July 1980. URL: https://ucanr.edu/repositoryfiles/ca3407p8-72264.pdf
[4] The Horticultural review and botanical magazine, Volume 1. 1851. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=SAIfAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] History of Ohio Wines. The Ohio Department of Agriculture. URL: http://www.tasteohiowines.com/history-of-ohio-wines.aspx
[6] The Horticultural review and botanical magazine, Volume 3. 1853. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=MgMfAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] American Wine-Growers’ Association. Saturday, June 25. Date: Sunday, June 26, 1870    Paper: Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH)   Volume: XXXIV   Issue: 176   Page: 4

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