Wine consumers as a whole love wine ratings. Why? The sheer number of wines available and the complexity of wine labels make ratings a boon for confused consumers. While there are a myriad of sources for wine ratings, the two most influential sources for ratings are the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. The glossy Wine Spectator magazine, with its articles about travel, food, and wine, is wildly popular and hugely influential, but no one person holds more sway in the world of wine than Robert Parker. His periodical, The Wine Advocate, is the antithesis of the Wine Spectator, printed black type on tan paper; its format resembles a technical paper.
An attorney by trade, Parker’s impact is felt world wide. He became famous when he tasted samples of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage and correctly announced it extraordinary, contrary to a number of wine critics at the time. He has an enduring loyalty to French wine. He is renowned for his enthusiastic and wildly descriptive tasting notes. He has compared a wine from the left bank of Bordeaux to “a towering skyscraper in the mouth,” a Zinfandel to “balls to the walls,” and has described a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as “pure sex in a bottle.” One of his claims to fame, in addition to his amazing palate, is his independence. Parker takes no advertising money from anyone for his magazine, the Wine Advocate, and purchases all of the wine he tastes on the open market to insure that he is tasting the same wine the consumers he represents are buying at retail. His good reviews can sell out a wine before it hits the store shelves, and his bad reviews can seriously damage a wine’s salability.
The Wine Spectator, while also a formidable force in the wine world in selling wines, does not have Parker’s claim to independence. This periodical takes large sums of money in advertising dollars from the very wines it reviews, thus casting serious doubts on its impartiality. But, the sheer volume of readers of this beautiful periodical and the number of wines rated, 16,000 per year, contribute to an extremely powerful force in the wine world.
Parker, while wildly successful, has his fair share of critics. The major criticisms revolve around the style of wine he prefers and to the 100 point scoring method he made famous. Parker tastes hundred of wines at a single tasting, which critics claim cause big, concentrated wines to rise to the top of his reviews. Such wines do not always make the best dinner companions, overpowering the food. Critics see winemakers and consultants shifting their wines to meet Parker’s palate and preference, in an effort to achieve a favorable rating, and fear the loss of nuance and the loss of the effect of terrior.
This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Parkerization” of wine production. The effect has been to move wine production toward higher alcohol content, and an overly “gammy” style of wine.
While many retailers and consumers love the simplicity of the 100 point rating system, critics claim it is too simplistic and the personality of the wine gets lost in it. The rating system also fails to take into account personal preference, which is all important in the enjoyment of wine. There is one school of thought regarding Robert Parker that, as consumers become better educated, some of Parker’s influence becomes diminished.
Not all reviews are based on a 100 point system. The Europeans often use a 20 point system. But, since most of the reviews in the US are based on the 100 point system, here is a brief description of how it should be interpreted:
70 – 79: These wines are flawed and taste less than average
80 – 84: Above average
85 – 90: Good to very good
90 – 94: Superior to exceptional
95 – 100: The ultimate example of their type.
It is also important to remember that all reviews are purely subjective and not scientifically accurate. Here are a few problems that also exist in the world of wine ratings:
1. Critics not only have different opinions, but often fall into two schools, those who like complex and bold wines, and those who like complex and subtle wines.
2. Equally rated wines from different regions will taste different.
3. There are more unrated wines in the world than rated ones.
4. Low ratings are rarely published, and often difficult to find out about.
5. Not every bottle of wine from the same vineyard and vintage tastes the same.
6. In older wines ratings may not be as accurate as each bottle ages differently and not all have been
stored under the same conditions.
Wine ratings are a great tool, an indicator of a critic’s opinion. Use them as such, and, as always, drink what you enjoy!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.