Love ‘em or hate ‘em, wine scores sell wine. They are used as marketing tools when the ratings are high and can kill a wine if they’re low. By their very nature, wine ratings are subjective. Really, what is the difference between a Wine Spectator score of 90 and a Wine Advocate score of 89? Or better yet, a Wine Spectator score of 82 and a Wine Advocate score of 90 on the same wine? A function of advertising dollars, perhaps? So how did this business, and a lucrative business it is, get started?
Ratings were not really part of the wine world before 1978. If they used any scoring system at all, critics in both the United States and abroad tended to use a simple 5-point system. Enter Robert M. Parker Jr. a lawyer turned self-employed wine critic who introduced the 100-point system to the wine world in 1978 when he started a wine buying guide called The Wine Advocate, published every two months.
Easy to comprehend, consumers embraced the 100-point rating system immediately. Under his system, a 96 to 100 is an extraordinary wine, 90 to 95 is excellent, and 80 to 89 is above average to very good. To avoid being influenced by the name or reputation of a winery, Mr. Parker tasted batches of wine together, slipping the bottles into individual paper bags and then mixing them up and rating each one.
His system grew in popularity and “Parker Points” started being used as marketing tools by wine retailers. As others began to see the value of such a simple yet effective system, they adopted similar scales. Enter Wine Spectator who in the mid-1980’s introduced their own 100-point scale to market their publication, while others followed over the next 10 years as both Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast adopted the 100-point systems in the mid-1990’s.
One of the most respected reviewers, Stephen Tanzer, began his International Wine Cellar publication in 1985. While Tanzer used Parker's 100 point system, he had a reputation for choosing finesse over power; the opposite of Parker's palate which tended toward full bodied, warm climate wines. His reviews were precise and to the point, without all of Parker's flamboyant style, and over the years he developed a reputation for being stingy with big scores. Tanzer has recently joined forces with Antonio Galloni, previously a wine reviewer for Robert Parker, and in my opinion, they have created one of the most dynamic platforms for in-depth information on the wine regions of the world, Vinous Media. Vinous began in 2013 and offers its users an interactive experience using video, maps, photos, interviews, stories and of course, professional wine reviews.
All of these publications and websites can have a major influence on retail sales. On the positive side, ratings can give novice wine tasters an objective way to judge wines. On the negative side, ratings have become influential enough to cause wineries to rise and fall on the strength of their published ratings. A very high rating from a respected rating authority can result in a rapid sellout of a particular wine while leaving another high quality wine without a rating, collecting dust on the shelves.
What you need to keep in mind about all of this is that rating wine is absolutely subjective. The points (and even the tasting notes) written of a particular wine are the opinions of the reviewer and reflect the rater’s own tastes, biases, and preferences. In the end, it’s not my opinion or Mr. Parker’s or the Wine Spectator that matters, it’s how you feel about a wine and the enjoyment it brings you that really counts.
We are doing a 2-part tasting series of 90+ rated wines from various “respected” wine critics for our Wednesday flights over the next 2 weeks. This week we'll focus on Europe; a French rosé (92 points), a Greek white (94 points), a Brunello (92 points) and a Priorat (95 points) . Next week we'll feature 4 domestic 90+ wines. We’d like you to be the judge and let us know what you think of the wines on the 100-point scale. The flight is $15 and no reservations are required, 6-8pm. If you can't make it during that time, we will be happy to pour you the flight at any time on Wednesday.