When I first met Robert Parker in the late 1970’s just he was beginning to publish the Wine Advocate, I thought he was a nice chap, yet I took an immediate disliking to his 100-point ratings system, the publication’s calling card. The implication was that Parker, and subsequent 100-point raters, could take something subjective and personal and pretend it could be judged objectively, even scientifically.
My dislike was well-founded. The points system has, over and over, proven to be a philosophical sham. Take the rate-athon that happens during the annual Bordeaux en primeur barrel tastings, where the numbers given to the same bottle may vary by as much as three to five points from one professional rater to another. I even doubt that most reviewers could come up with the exact rating of a wine from one day to the next.
That said, awarding wines rating points has been the greatest thing that’s happened to the wine industry since the ancients started using sulfur dioxide as a preservative – and just as controversial.
How scores changed the market
Simply put, ratings points were the prime reason consumer interest in wine, especially in the United States, exploded during the last 25 years of the 20th Century. However much professionals hated them, ratings provided the framework by which both trade and consumers could have a conversation about their thoughts and preferences on styles as well as individual bottles. Those who wanted guidance now had a system to follow, and those of us with independent palates had something to rail against whenever we felt combative.
Before Parker, the United States was then the China of the wine marketing world – all this growth potential just waiting to be tapped. Away from the urban centers, beverage stores sold beer and spirits with a few shelves of wine, mostly sweet and fruity ones produced in New York and California with such misleading names as ‘Burgundy’, ‘Rhine’ and ‘Claret’. While wine consumption had been growing slowly for years, by 1975 it was still at only 1.71 gallons (6.47L) per person with total American annual consumption at 368m gallons.
Ten years later, in 1985, total annual consumption in America had grown 58% to 580m gallons, and per capita consumption stood at 2.43 gallons, a 42% leap. People were not only drinking more wine, more people were drinking wine. Today, total American consumption is lapping at almost a billion gallons.
Trying to prove cause and effect is tricky, but it is interesting to observe that both the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator began publication in 1978 and 1976 respectively. Those of us who were around in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s well remember Saturday mornings at our local wine shops. Businessmen untethered for the weekend would descend like voracious locusts, their ratings cheat sheets in one hand, elbowing their way among the racks in search of the latest prizes just stocked before they sold out.
Humorous, yes? But ratings suddenly had everyone with a modicum of disposal income talking about wines, and, more importantly, buying it in volume. Even those of us who weren’t ratings snobs and thus felt superior were out shopping as well, generally for obscure wines with interesting provenances.
The points follies continued unabated for another 30 years until three things happened.
Why the wine market changed
One was the stock market crash of 2008 and with it the onslaught of the Great Recession. The wine bubble burst along with those of many other luxury items, and many high-priced producers who had not established a track record found themselves secretly bulking off their wines for pennies on the dollar.
A second major change was the rise in importance of sommeliers and sommelier certification programs in the first part of the current century. I have the feeling that many of the early somms were somewhat surprised by the sudden deference they were given by producers, as well as customers, and the power they had achieved. We wine writers were still treated with respect by producers, but those of us who were honest counselled winemakers to court the somms to get on their restaurant wine lists. And this had to be done person to person and without flaunting points. In the last 15 years, somms have grown into a very independent lot. After all, they have completed rigorous studies as well as conducted their own research in the field – they don’t need points to make recommendations.
Finally, social media permitted crowd sourcing of opinion on everything from restaurants to wines – a most grievous use of numbers over intellect that merits its own essay.
Yet even sommeliers recognize the historic importance of Parker and points. New York-based Arvid Rosengren, voted best sommelier in the world in a 2016 competition, says, “Parker’s also been an easy target. Did he have too much influence? Yes, but he’s not to blame for that, and I respect what he built, from scratch. A lot of wine growers, if not whole regions, owe a lot to him.”
And points are far from dead. Consultant Michel Rolland, whose palate was remarkably similar to Parker’s and was thus much in demand by winemakers, tells me his wineries still want to have high scores – but now, he laughs, there is no longer a central authority and they have to pursue most anyone awarding points.
John Kapon, chairman of Acker, the auction house and self-proclaimed oldest wine shop in America, sums things up quite nicely. “While everyone may not agree with everyone’s score for any given wine, there is no question that scores for wine in general have helped quantify the quality in the world of wine,” he says. “It gives everyone a basis for comparison, [although] many of the world’s top connoisseurs now rely on their own opinions and experience, and there is a lot more information shared through social media and the internet as well.
“However,” Kapon concludes, “the critics and their scores will remain an important reference point, especially for newer collectors, but in the end, everyone has to find their own palate.”
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