This essay is the latest in an occasional series that takes a critical look at some aspect of the wine industry. There are some great responses from visitors at the end of the article.
At one time, the fine wine trade was a scene of frock-coated merchants in Mayfair and their long-established customers: gentlemans’ clubs, learned societies and the odd well-heeled private collector. The trusted merchant would quietly voice an opinion on the merits or otherwise of the latest Bordeaux vintage or new Burgundy domaine, and the grateful customer would purchase on this nod and wink. That was as near as it got to insider dealing and feverish speculation.
But all that changed through the 1980’s and 90’s as fine wine was touted as the next great investment bandwagon. Stripy-shirted Gordon Geckos rushed to pour mountains of cash into fine wine futures (more poetically called en primeurs in France). Buying into the right wines stood every chance of making you a packet and making it fast. Fine Clarets changed hands time after time without ever leaving a bonded warehouse: this was paper trading of wine, purely as a commodity.
This coincided with wine reaching new markets around the world, particularly the Far East. Its beneficial health properties had raised its profile, even in countries were wine consumption was anathema. These cash-rich consumers took to wine in a big way and, just like Rollers and Rolexes, the finest European wines of breeding and reputation were the ultimate prizes. Tales emerged of tiger economy businessmen softening the tannic blow of their 1996 Latour by adding a generous splash of Coca-Cola.
A the same time, a young US lawyer by the name of Robert Parker Junior was setting himself up as a wine critic. Parker published his own no-nonsense newsletter, which he called The Wine Advocate. His opinions were unequivocal: as well as a more or less standard tasting note on each wine reviewed, he awarded a score out of 100. Parker had come from an academic world of such numerical ratings and understood that the average consumer would welcome a system for ranking and grading wines that supplemented his tasting notes.
Little could Parker have realised how voraciously certain investors and consumers would jump on this, the miracle they’d been waiting for: an easy to understand league table that sorted wines into a definitive ranking. It made all that tedious and difficult interpretation of tasting notes unnecessary. Gone was the need to understand the arcane language of the mealy-mouthed wine aficionado: “class”, “structure” “finesse”. Now we could just punch in the numbers, crunch them through a spreadsheet and come up with investment strategies based on data, not opinion. If we stuck to 95 point wines we couldn’t lose. 85 point wines, on the other hand, were swill fit only for suckers. Parker was a godsend. In fact to some, Parker was God.
In the 1990’s the phenomenon of the small black book shopper materialised: intent, furtive little men in raincoats and Groucho Marx disguises scrutinised merchants’ shelves seeking only those wines scoring more than the magic 90. A pack of them hunting together could lay waste to a fine wine selection faster than a plague of locusts through a window box. At a pinch, 89 pointers were just acceptable, 88’s only if nothing better was available. Wines scoring 87 or below gathered dust on the shelves.
The absurdity of the situation didn’t seem to dawn on those gripped by the 100-point fever. That something so subjective, so nuanced and constantly evolving as wine could be given a definitive score – where 90 was appreciably better than 89 and one wine was absolutely better than another. It was as crazy as awarding scores to pieces of music or works of art. But that didn’t stop them. The phenomenon of the 100 point system grew and grew. Soon, the world’s biggest and most influential wine magazine, the Wine Spectator, adopted the system too and the world was awash with league tables that reduced wine to nothing more than winners and also-rans. There was no middle ground.
In time, this had a knock-on effect on wine itself. Producers who had not been sanctified by the hand of Parker found their wines languished on the shelves. Clearance sales were full of good wines rejected simply because of the Parker numbers. Inevitably, some producers responded by examining what it was that pressed Parker’s particular buttons. This they identified as wines with high extraction: plenty of body, flavour, fruit, colour and a substantial dose of new oak. Overnight, producers of old-fashioned wines that were lean and austere transformed their products. They had been Parkerised and sure enough, they were rewarded with higher scores and the sales that followed.
There is no doubt that Parker’s influence has been positive in many respects. A lot of these old-fashioned, dried-out wines needed to be kicked into action, but there was always the danger that the baby would be thrown out with the bath water; that some traditional and high quality wines would be lost to the world because of the tastes of one man – or more correctly his blinkered, but big-spending followers.
And that takes us back to the root of the problem. Where do we place the blame for escalating prices, absurd “trophy” wines, the loss of individuality in search of points? Although unfairly criticised in many quarters, the fault lies not with Parker, nor with his 100-point system. Neither does the fault lie with producers nor merchants. No, the fault can be laid fairly and squarely on one group and one group only: us.
[Stands, shuffles nervously and clears his throat]:
“My name is Tom and I am a 100-point chaser”.
Or at least I was. Like alcoholics, I suspect once bitten you are never really free of the disease, just in control of it. I have been buying fine wines – wines that seriously stretched my resources – since the late 1980’s. For a period in the early 90’s I got the Parker bug big-time too. I purchased the little black book, raincoat and Groucho glasses’n’moustache combo. I stalked the shelves in search of wines that I couldn’t really afford to buy, but couldn’t afford not to if Parker gave them a 93.
Now, don’t get me wrong: that period left me with lots of great wine that I otherwise may not have bought: fine Clarets from the 1983 to 1990 vintages for example. But there were mistakes along the way too: wines I purchased because of the scores and then, some time later, realised were not entirely to my taste; a cellar that simply didn’t reflect the balance I ultimately realised I wanted; wines I passed up because something else scored five points more and grabbed my attention. Later, when tasting that “lesser” wines I found they were sublime, poised, elegant, full of subtlety.
I guess I have been free – or in remission – from 100 point fever for four or five years now. That coincides with the period when I started to be exposed to enormous numbers of wine. I realised that Parker doesn’t know all the answers; that Parker doesn’t have the same tastes as me; that Parker makes mistakes; that there is more to life than 95 point wines that jump up and scream in your face. Sometimes we want quiet wines, gentle wines, wines to sip as we reflect on their endless complexity.
So take it from me, a reformed 100-point chaser, that blind allegiance to the highest scoring wines – no matter how influential the judge – is not a recipe for a long-term relationship with wine. Find your own voice, find confidence to drink what you want and buy wines irrespective of this absurd notion that one can be “better” than another by a single percentage point. Taste, taste, and taste some more, always with a curious and open mind; if you truly love wine it is the only way to find long term happiness.
And remember, none of this is Parker’s fault: he rounds on critics who blame him and he is right to do so. His points are nothing but a scribble in the margin. They are not the Bible.
Responses from visitors
Chris Kissack, Liverpool, England
I enjoyed your piece on 100-pointers – it was honest and extremely well written. I recall a blind tasting I attended some time ago, where the ‘wine of the night’ was a 74 pointer, and ‘worst wine of the night’ was somewhere in the mid ’90’s. It was that point that really confirmed for me that the only palate you can really trust is your own.
Joel Hopwood, Bristol, England
Parker himself constantly complains of the misuse of his TNs and point scores. And in the introduction to his Guide he specifically berates both mindless following of the ratings and also buying wine just for investment. Also, he comments on the 85/100 – 89/100 that these are often great wines “and I have many in my personal cellar”. And yet when one sees a personal favourite wine reviewed by Parker, your mind just can’t help looking at the point score rather than actually reading the damn TN! And if it’s below 88, you do think it’s basically being criticised. So why is it that although the market (esp. in the US) sees Parker as “God” when it comes to opinions on a specific wine, they won’t actually listen to him when it comes to interpreting and using his data!
|My response to Joel:
Exactly. The numbers are just too alluring and too powerful: they suggest that if you don’t drink 100 point wines, you are somehow drinking lesser wines; wines that have failed. Crazy.
Tony Gibson, Aberdeen, Scotland
Enjoyed reading you Parker article (and the responses), but you hit and then miss the point to a certain extent (to me anyway). The key to it all is mentioned – investment and fashion. The people who read these manuals (God I’m about to sound self righteous here I think) don’t want to bother learning about all the different types and tastes of wine that exist; it takes effort that they would much rather be putting in to making more money. They want a nice easy reference that they can use to prove how good their choice is. This pervades virtually everything that they do. Another easy example is to watch out when travelling to where you live/work on a sunny day. Nearly the all BMW/MGB/Porsche convertibles are being driven with the soft top up even on the best of days as they were bought as a fashion item a few years ago without a clue as to how draughty and cold they were even on a nice day in the northern UK.
|My response to Tony:
You allude to what the American’s call “trophy wines” I think. Those 95-100 point wines that don’t even touch the shelves because certain people must have them, irrespective of how good they taste or how much they cost, because it will really impress their friends. A much bigger phenomenon in the US than here, from what I’ve observed.
Russ Margach, Oregon, USA
I appreciated your essay, if for no other reason than it points out the folies of humanity. Many people do, indeed, chase after the top wines from the Wine Spectator, Steve Tanzer, Robert Parker, John Gilman and others. It is a feeding frenzy over certain wines. We’ve just seen it here with many of the 1998 Pinot Noir wines from Oregon. If they were highly reviewed by the Wine Spectator, any merchants who had any remaining were soon depleted of their stocks. Yet typically, the wines were released months prior to these reviews, and few, if any, of the wines were still available at retail. The situation is somewhat different with the ‘en primeur’ programs of the Bordelais because of the vast quantities of wine made. And they were doing this long before Robert Parker stepped in to fuel the fire of desire. But the presence of the 100 point system he developed and that other critics use has created demand worldwide that is somehow, to me, nearly antithetical to wine. Antithetical because wine is an evolving, living thing, and often most beautiful when age has confered nuances of grace and elegance.
But with the intense pressure to acquire the newest top wines which is created by the critics’ reviews, we’ve seemed to lose the appreciation of the very qualities the time bestows on fine wine. Now, we’re always on a search for the newest, best wine. We want to do barrel tastings of the latest and greatest. We want to have the lowdown on the new wines before anyone else does, and assure our own precious dose of the rare commodity. It’s as if people are saying, “Forget last year’s wine. Don’t give me no old wine! I want wine from yesterday.” That’s right out of Steve Martin’s movie “The Jerk”. In my opinion, this contributes recklessly to the “Internationalisation” of wines because it is the big fruit, new oak, high alcohol wines that get attention in a field of dozens of peers during a critic’s tasting, and this becomes the standard. And then to compete, winemakers have to reach for that same set of characteristics to get their wines noticed. But in the process we lose idiosyncrasy and individuality in the wines.
|My response to Russ:
We’re obviously not far apart here Russ. I’ve just written a newspaper piece on the “globalisation of wine” and agree this is one of the powerful influences that is helping destroy diversity.
Robert Conservus, Vancouver, Canada
Thanks for reviewing a common gripe in the industry! I do have my own rating system which works quite well:
3 points – A memorable experience
2 points – Worth searching out
1 points – Drinkable, but nothing special.
0 points – Not worth buying.
However, I must admit that this simple system has some shortcomings. As a result, I added 96 points to each rating and publish the scores as 96 – 99 points. This gives the public the scores they are used to, me the credability of using a scoring system similar to my peers and a reason for every winery in the world to send free samples. Adding 96 points only also precludes ANY wine from getting 100 points and I am free to bitterly criticize the wine, no matter how well made, for not being perfect.
|My response to Robert:
Oh how I’d love to believe you Robert! That all wines score between 96 and 99, yet nothing scores 100. Lovely
James Snodgrass, UK
Although in the main I agree with your piece on Parker chasers, you don’t place enough emphasis on the fact that Parker and the Wine Spectator do provide a valuable service to the hapless consumer, particularly one buying en primeur. (Remember, all you had before was the reputation of the chateau and your wine merchant’s word on the quality of the wine – which, of course, he was also trying to sell to you.) It also is satisfying when such scoring systems enable you to purchase a humble claret which is the equal to some much more prestigious – and expensive – wines. And, to be honest, I have never tasted a 90+ point wine which was rubbish (though I have tasted many sub-85 pointers which were delicious).
You also correctly point out that many delicate wines (especially red Burgundy) suffer under such power-based scoring systems – though it is interesting to note that there is now somewhat of a backlash against the “maximum extract” policy pursued by Lalou Bize-Leroy and (until recently) Denis Mortet.
If one leaves to one side the question of subjectivity in judging a wine’s quality, it is the natural human tendency to focus on break points in these scoring systems (85, 90, 95 etc) that is the difficulty. What, in reality, is the difference between an 89-point wine and a 90-point wine? Or, indeed, a 94- and 95-point one?
I think the Gambero Rosso three-level system (Uno, Due e Tre Bicchieri) does the job perfectly for Italian wines. You’ve got to be a good wine to get in the Gambero Rosso guide at all, and then you’re rated as good, very good and outstanding. They also take account of “traditional character” – some highly concentrated, acidic and tannic 1997 Chianti Classicos, really needing several years to show their best (and highly rated by Parker/WS), are marked down in the Gambero Rosso as lacking the typicité of their appellation. However, the Gambero Rosso system has a major flaw: it just doesn’t allow for the human tendency to see minute differences in rankings as being somehow highly significant.
|My response to James:
Gambero Rosso’s three-point system (or, for example Decanter magazine’s five-star system) do avoid the tendency towards the irrational weight that some people give to the single digit that separates an 88 point wine from an 89 point wine. However, I’m sure many people caught up in the 100-point mentality find these systems too crude: once again missing out on very good (and good value) wines by simply concentrating only on those making into the top band. With any numerical scoring system the message is the same: don’t concentrate on the scores alone: read the reviews and try to gain personal experience, otherwise you are doomed to disappointment.