Have Ratings Trivialized Buying Wine?

April 28 2011 - 8:40 AM

I cringe when I go inside a wine shop and I’m looking around for a certain type of wine.   The owner or clerk then picks a bottle off the shelf and says something like, “Robert Parker gave this a 91″ or “It was a 93 in Wine Spectator“.     The 100-point scales have dominated wine reviews in numerous wine publications, even in consumer-driven Web sites.

I believe the range of wine in this 100-point scale that is good (90-plus), decent (80-99), and bad (usually 70-79) doesn’t really provide a good bandwidth of reviews.     My preference is the Decanter magazine method, which uses a twenty-point scale (employing some of my same gripes as the 100-point scale) in combination with what I find to be an even more effective five star scale.  Few or no wines get five stars, most wines get three, quite a few receive two, and some even get zero.

I give Robert Parker some credit for trying to help wine buyers navigate through an unfamiliar world and try to make sense of it from an “objective” point of view, and he really did start out being the consumer advocate with an admirable entrepreneurial spirit.   Your average wine nerd can only know so much about wine, and he can only familiarize himself with certain regions.    Many people had to turn to guides to help them understand more about wine, especially when they wanted objective advice to which top-end Bordeaux to buy.  Let’s face it, most of us don’t have a few weeks to drive around Bordeaux and assess the most recent vintage by tasting from the barrel and assemble copious tasting notes and predict when the most recent vintage can be drunk.

The problem, though, is that distributors and retailers tend to use these scores to drive their purchasing and make business decisions, and winemakers tend to gear their production styles toward achieving better scores.   Some have reputed that this has caused some wine makers to go out of business, somewhat arguably due to the winemaker’s doing, and others have said that these scores have influenced wine to be over-oaked and fruit forward.  It may have had some effect on interfering with the long-standing traditions of Barolo or Rioja, both of which were always known for tannic wines requiring long aging.    Sadly, many of these producers have switched to so-called “modern” styles, based on scores, that are meant to be drunk young and often may not age as well.  In Bordeaux, châteaux wait to set their prices until they have received Parker’s scores.    His scores have supported a lucrative Bordeaux futures market, whose price depends on his scores.    The man was so powerful, he was honored by both Jacques Chirac and  François Mitterrand, who awared him a  Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite, which essentially makes him a knight.

The 100-point scoring system has been part of this controversy as well, and the range of wine that is good (90-plus), decent (80-99), and bad (usually 70-79) doesn’t really provide a good bandwidth of reviews and is prone to oversimplification “This is a 94.”  The effect of Parker and Wine Spectator, while still profound, is starting to diminish, but slowly.  Consumers go into Whole Foods or Binny’s and are not sure what to buy, so they make a purchase based on the score posted by the wine bin in absence of strong customer service.  Internet media, including Gary Vaynerchuk, arguably the next Robert Parker, may begin to cause new trends in wine buying.

It really makes a case, therefore, for the small wine shop owner to know his stuff and for the consumers to buy wine from places they can trust. The consumer can’t always be counted on to change his behavior, though the influence of Parker scores unfortunately demand some knowledge by the wine merchant in response to queries.   Ditto with the retailer-distributor relationship for that matter, and the large number of wine distributors allows some to be independent and sell to retailers the wines about which they are passionate.   Unfortunately the ratings train is out of control and will continue to taint the wine world, and if the 63-year old Robert Parker doesn’t drive it someone else will.

–Brian Ziegler