It seems that wine scoring systems, 100 point scales, 10 point scales, star systems etc. are an established feature of wine publications in Europe and especially in America adjectives starting with i.
It apparently began with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate that rated wines on a 100 point scale beginning in the late 1970’s. Although Parker, and others who have since adopted the “100 point” system don’t use 100 points at all (no wine scores less than 70 … which is undrinkable) the system ushered in a revolution in wine consumption in America. It gave casual wine drinkers an easy, fast way to organize their perception of relative quality. It gave investors a rationale for taking a position on particular, high scoring wines for investment. And, the 100 point system gave marketers a ready tool for spotlighting wines that scored high. Along with all this, enthusiasm and consumption of wine rose steadily in America. A good thing. Well done!
The consequences of this method of highlighting good wines are evident today. The casual, and subsequently more experienced wine drinkers have come to think of different wines as numbers. Investing in wine has became a fad and wine prices have risen faster then the general price of goods, carrying many wines beyond the means of most wine drinkers. As marketing has been driven by scores, and as sales has been driven by scores, wine making has begun to pursue scores. This final consequence has given rise to a shift in wine making to produce wines that appeal to the score givers, Robert Parker et. all.
There are many impassioned assaults on these scoring systems as well. They generally come from Europe, from the traditional wine consuming nations of France and England where fine wine appreciation has always been a point of intellectual fastidiousness. Also, the English and French did not come up with this idea. The European ideal has always been to take your time and learn about fine wines slowly, getting accustomed to the various styles of wine as your sense of taste gradually matures. No “fast and easy” for them!
Hugh Johnson, an English wine writer is a leading opponent of Robert Parker and his followers, claiming that “scores are unimportant, difference is what’s important”. He declares that wine scores make different wines seem interchangeable, they break down the distinction between wines made in different places from different grapes. Mr. Johnson thinks wine scores destroy wine’s greatest charm, its variety, and encourage a slavish sameness among producers who buy into the scoring mentality in order to sell their wine.
Wine scores seem to offer consumers a quick and handy guide to relative quality, a precise numerical framework within which to set the numerous wines of the world. But wine scores depend upon human tasters who are not as objective as the cold numbers indicate. Anyone who drinks wine realizes that a Pinot Noir (for instance) is completely different than a Rhone Valley Syrah. Likewise, a German Spatlase Riesling cannot realistically be compared to a California Chardonnay. Yet, in the case of both of these pairings the different wines might all get a score of 88. Are they all the same? How can a Bordeaux red that scores a 92 cost $44 per bottle when a Napa Cabernet that scores a 90 costs $125? The scoring system breaks down because those giving the scores have personal tastes. Even though the wines of Burgundy may be my favorite wines and I’d give many of them high scores, other people (consumers) may not like Burgundy at all and they wouldn’t give any Burgundy a score above 75.
So, while wine scores seem objective and precise they are actually completely subjective (dependent on the tastes of the scorer) and meaningless. The only way to use scores is to discover over time a particular critic with whose taste you completely agree. It’s childish to say Robert Parker is wrong. He’s 100% right according to his own tastes. But, should his tastes influence the pricing of wine for sale and at auction and, should his tastes influence the way wine makers make their wine?
I agree with Hugh Johnson, the real beauty of wine is its variety and the surprises that different styles spring on my nose and my taste buds. And I think wine’s greatest glory is in concert with a well cooked meal, in which case all the various styles can find a perfect place. I also think that this diversity should be encouraged and any numerical system, wether a true 100 point system or any other, can’t avoid reducing the perception of wine’s diversity. And that’s bad.