Peter Klann at Little Raven Vineyards in Denver recently published some history and comments on the role of wine ratings. The paragraphs below are his. Part two will be republished tomorrow. His contact details are at the end of the commentary.
In 1978, Robert Parker Jr., lawyer turned self-employed wine critic, introduced the 100 point scoring system to the wine world. Consumers intuitively understood this system with 96 to 100 being an extraordinary wine, 90 to 95 an excellent wine, and 80 to 89 is above average to good. Mr. Parker fashioned himself as a crusading consumer advocate on a mission to enlighten the discriminating wine buyer.
The method for determining “The Number” is to taste batches to wine together with each bottle covered in individual paper bags. Each wine is swirled, sniffed, and spat into a bucket, and notes are taken on the aromas and flavors. After tasting several wines against each other, a score is attached to each wine according to the taster’s judgment.
As Mr. Parker’s influence grew, retailers started quoting Parker points in advertisements and other promotional materials. “The Number” became an excellent way for marketers to promote wine. And soon its effects were felt throughout the industry. “The Number” helped elevate the overall quality of wine, contributed to the growth of the wine market in the U.S., and perhaps even influenced the popularity of certain grapes. But its most direct impact may be in the way wine is sold.
For better or for worse, “The Number” is proving an effective stand-in for the knowledgeable, wine shop sommelier sales person. Instead of relying on your wine shop sommelier to know your specific likes and dislikes and to assist you in selecting good matches for your palate, retailers simply fall back on “The Number.”
So whenever a good number is available (and a good number is anything 90 or above), the wine is heavily promoted through distributors, retailers, magazines, on web sites, and in “shelf talkers.” The wine flies off the shelf based on the taste of one individual determining a rating.
Does this person have the same tastes as you? A rating system that draws a distinction between a Cabernet scoring 90 and one receiving an 89 implies a precision of the senses that even many wine critics agree that human beings do not possess. Ratings are quick judgments that a single individual renders early in the life of a bottle of wine that, once expressed numerically, magically transform the nebulous and subjective into the authoritative and objective.
Mr. Parker tends to favor the very big, alcoholic and fruit-forward wines; he rates this style in the 90 to 100 point range. The wines he dismisses in the 80-point range tend to be the kind of more subtle and often elegant wines. If you like big and fruit-forward style of wine, you will most likely agree with most of Mr. Parker’s ratings (He is very consistent.) Others have jumped on the numbers game and there are many others rating wines too such as The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits Magazine. These publications also use a 100-point scale.
But is a review from Robert Parker more or less valid than a Wine Spectator score? Some wine shops require distributors to submit scores when they offer wines for placement, but how valid are these scores? Does any number or piece of press constitute a valid measure? Is the wine critic for Sacramento Bee a solid source, or the Albuquerque Journal? Do they know what you appreciate about the wines you drink?
The bottom line is wine preference is highly individualistic; so unless your tastes are the same as the reviewer, disappointment is sure to follow. If you are interested in buying wine based on numbers, it’s always a good idea to go back and read the notes to see who produced the score. The important point is to find someone whose taste in wines runs parallel to your own and see what they thought about that wine you’d like to try or buy. Stay tuned . . . more to come next week.
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us a call.
1590 Little Raven, # 175
Denver, CO 80202