Wine Politics - "What's the score?" Rating Wines

Jul 15, 2009

If you are new to the world of wine and find yourself in a wine shop or a liquor store, you might notice what we call in the industry, ‘shelf talkers’ - little tags that basically talk about the wine.

A few lines long, you might read, “soft, blackberry fruit, hints of smoke and earth” or “crisp, green lime flavours matched with charming nuances of apple” or something to that affect.

And there, right below the ‘purple prose’ (wine writing) you’ll see a few scores usually written in bold:

89 Points Wine Spectator
90 Points Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate
95 Points Steven Tanzer, International Wine Cellar
89 Points Wine Access

When it comes to a bottle of wine, it’s the price, those very numbers that are extracted from our wallets as bills and cents or digits in our bank account that matter (sometimes the alcohol content as well – Australian and California wines can get as high 16% abv). But for many wine aficionados, merchants, buyers and collectors, the points are everything and this can also affect the price.

We could blame it on Robert Parker. Back in the last century, about 1983, he predicted that the Bordeaux vintage of ’82 was a must-have for wine merchants and buyers. When his prediction paid off, everyone turned to The Wine Advocate. Inside the pages of this humble but confident magazine, wine buyers found only tasting notes and scores. There wasn’t a hint of advertising. Still is. The periodical is as bare as a philosophical quarterly or a university medical journal.

When Parker started out, he wanted to be the consumer’s guide to wine; no frills, no fuss. Reading through American and British magazines and newspapers, he grew sick and tired of wine journalists who had been wined and dined by agencies and wineries. (Apparently there was one critic who every time he visited a winery, left the trunk of his car open in the event that when he came back, there would be cases waiting for him.) Their reviews were a matter of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Parker believed in a democratic approach. (The 1970s was the time of Ralph Nader and consumer advocacy.) Parker was passionate and knew enough about his own tastes to recommend a wine and be honest. Having been to France, he was, perhaps, no different than other wine critics. (In the 1960s and 1970s, wine journalism was in its infancy. Many writers had little or no training. When Jancis Robinson started out, she had been working in the travel business and like many, took courses here and there while writing wine articles over the years.)

Featured on page 2 of the first issue, one could find Parker’s rating system. A wine rated below 64 was “to be avoided”; a 60-64 rating had “noticeable flaws”; 65-74 meant the wines was “average”; 75-79 you could expect “above average”; 80-89 meant you had a “very good wine”; 90-95 was “outstanding” and 96-100, “extraordinary” (The Emperor of Wine)

Rating a wine was not new. In 1855 the French classified their Médoc (an important sub-region of Bordeaux) in response to a request from Napoleon III’s Paris Expo of the same year. Organized into five tiers or growths, these 61 chateaux have remained lodged into the upper class minds of wine drinkers for over 125 years. They have also remained unchanged. (There was an adjustment in the twentieth century. Baron Philippe de Rothschild had simply refused to be a second growth in this glamorized popularity contest and demanded to be first. After petitioning for most of his life, his wish was granted in 1973 and he died happily in 1988 – who says nothing changes after high school?) Graves established a ranking system in 1953 followed by St.-Emilion in 1955 but they have nowhere near the cache that the 1855 system has.

Like the Médoc classification system (or ‘caste’ system notes Edward Hyam in the dated but still quite useful book on French wine country, Vin – “for in a class system it is possible for the lower classes to work their way into the higher”), Robert Parker’s scoring was the first and has continued to be the most important. Just as we think Coke before Pepsi, Parker’s ratings are foremost in the minds of wine buyers. After Parker, came Wine Spectator. Marvin Shanken paid $40,000 for the failing San Diego-based tabloid and turned it into the consumer giant it is today, adopting the 100-point rating system in 1985. (A famous exchange between Parker and Shanken. “What do you think of me stealing your 100-point system?” Parker: “What difference does it make? You give everything 90 points anyway.” Shanken: “We’re going to put you out of business” and of course that never happened. [The Emperor of Taste])

The trouble with Parker is that he became the very thing he fought against. He didn’t believe in the Classification of 1855. If he felt a wine was poor, he said so. He called the 1973 Bordeaux vintage ‘terrible’.

Following his major prediction of ’83, Parker became the critic that made a fledgling winery overnight. If Parker scored your wine 90+, expect hundreds of phone calls and faxes the next morning.

Slowly, over the years, cult wineries, such as Screaming Eagle ‘blossomed’ out of Parker’s modern day rating system. In 1997 the said winery of Napa Valley received a 100-points for their Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was initially priced at $125.00. At an auction that same year following the rating, the wine sold for $2500. So, in a sense, like the Classification system of 1855, Parker has become an icon of the wealthy wine drinking crowd, many of whom are slavish followers of his.

Robert Parker is more of a legend than a man. But he is also very American with very-American taste. Following the wines he rates, you can see a preference for bold, meaty, full-bodied wine. Just as the majority of the American viewing public wants sex and violence, dumbed-down television like American Idol and blockbuster movies following the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay formula (which is just blow everything up – really…), Parker’s wine are for those who could care less about subtlety.

This is the great tragedy of the wine world. The intentions were good, no one ever plans to change the world (although Gary Vaynerchuk of claims he is and I admire his fascination for variety and hesitation on scoring) and no one plans to become a satire of their own success. Over the years, the wines that received the highest points received the biggest returns. Scores are everything. Wineries took notice and the result has been a great gluttonous surge of mainstream wine, all of them sharing the same tendency to be robust and full-bodied.

Have you ever considered walking into an art gallery and scoring a painting or a sculpture? No, not really, right?

But we do rate movies, we give them a thumbs up or down, four stars, three stars, we award them Oscars and Golden Globes. The same with CDs. They have a rating system that isn’t perfect, but usually the reviewer has had some experience with the genre of music they are rating. The same with the movie critic. Many have gone to school, watched countless films, know the clichés, understand the symbolism.

We can sit down with friends and watch a film. We will see the same images on the screen but our perceptions might vary, some of us focusing on different characters and recalling different scenes. We can go back to that film time and time again, just as we can listen and re-listen to a CD, judging the merits of a particular artist’s use of words and overall musical talents.

Wine is different and so is the wine world. Existing somewhere between categories of art and the film industry, relying half on the elements and half on human beings, it is a matter of what I would like to call ‘calculated guess-work’ based on experience. There is a science to it, of course, but we cannot control the winds, the sun and the rain, can we?

From wine makers to critics, every wine is unique just as every palate is subjective and personal. Whereas what we see and hear can often be agreed upon, what we taste and smell is another matter. We can pick up a novel and re-read a passage that has layers of symbols yet how do we know while drinking a certain wine we are picking up the same flavours, the same nuances as our neighbor? We can direct others to certain aromas but how certain are we? It is a mystery at times.

The rating system is flawed because few critics can agree on wine. While Parker might rate a Rioja 90 points, Stephen Tanzer might give 87. In Australia, James Halliday might give an Eden Valley Riesling 90 points whereas a fellow wine critic might shake his head and go 85 points. Shots in the dark. There is no consistency. (With something as simple as a table, I’m sure we can all agree on the measurements plus or minus a fraction of an inch or metre…)

Points are often the substitute for description but shouldn’t be. Kermit Lynch, a famous California wine importer in his book, Adventures on the Wine Route balks at the idea of judging and scoring a wine. “Those big rock-‘em-sock-‘em blockbusters perform one function admirably – they win tastings…. Usually such wines give their all in the first whiff and sip…”

Lynch compares two wines, a Château Margaux (considered the finest of Médoc wines in Bordeaux) and a moderately-priced rosé wine from Bandol in the South of France. Which is better? Lynch urges the reader to compare them side by side and award points. The Margaux would most likely win. Now take those two wines to dinner and serve them both with boiled artichoke and rate them once more. “The Margaux is bitter and metallic-tasting, whereas the Bandol rosé stands up and dances like Baryshnikov.”

Lynch’s argument is comically apt when he writes that when “a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it”. It’s our palates, he basically says and even if we are beginners, we should be able to rely on our own tastes. Why should we value the ratings of critics who can’t agree on a bunch of numbers they have arbitrarily awarded a wine – a scoring system, I forgot to mention, based on the American high school grade system.

I agree with Lynch that a wine should be judged in the environment in which it is tasted and that environment includes the company you keep, the food you eat and quite simply on one’s mood.

The other flaw of rating a wine is that many times a wine will be tasted and scored in sequence of other wines. Have you ever tried to watch two movies in a row? Did you find you paid more attention to the first as opposed to the second?

There is also bottle variation (see Vino Variations June 2009) as much as the temperature of wine served, the time of day, the time when the bottle was opened. Who is to say that a certain wine should be opened this year as opposed to next? Or that one? Can one bottle represent the entire vintage? Should the wine be decanted? How do you score a wine when you’re only guessing when is the right time to taste it?

The scoring system is little more than an over-inflated tool. Some might call it a necessary evil. I find it foolish. There are many flaws and many egos. As much as it forewarns consumers and gives them some idea of quality, it keeps us from branching out and exploring the un-scored wines or the less than 90 pointers. By creating a comfort zone and drinking the high scoring wine, we force the market to appease us and therefore mainstream becomes our only means of drinking wine (just as we keep coming back to boring Bruckheimer-Bay-like films). We’re not going to eat steak everyday so why do we need beefy big wines with higher alcohol (and a lot of wineries, especially in France have made their wines with higher alcohol content, often as a result of adding sugar to increase the percentage)?

I have to admit, I admire the Canadian magazine Vines for using the star system which is much closer to what I learned through Wine Studies Education Trust. Through my course work, we learned to judge wines based on appearance, nose and palate, all contributing to a final assessment. Was the wine Poor? Acceptable? Good? Outstanding or Extraordinary?

But again, we tasted the wine for the sake of tasting it, not truly enjoying it with a meal. If everyone is unique, if all wines are unique, then why do we need high scoring wines to appear at our table in a world of diversity? The mainstream is an excuse not to think and explore – we undermine our own preferences. Popularity contests have nothing to do with taste and individuality.

I don’t think I’d trust a goat to wear my hat.

Hyams, Edward, Vin: The Wine Country of France, Newnes, London, 1959.
Lynch, Kermit, Adventures on the Wine Route. Farrar Straus Geroux, New York, 1988.
McCoy, Elin, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M.Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste, Harper Perennial, New York, 2005.
Robinson, Jancis, Tasting Pleasure. Penguin Press, New York, 1999.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford, London, 2003.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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