Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 11 September 2013

Searching for a fair playing field in the wine ratings game

Wine rating has become an industry in its own right, and despite a diversity of rating systems, and a multitude of voices, the usefulness of the ratings depends entirely on the intention of the rater. With so much information available, and so many wines to be rated, how does even the most experienced wine connoisseur know if the numbers add up?

The wine rating game is something of an industry, and I’m as culpable as the rest, adding updated scores to the Winewizard website almost daily. In this day and age it seems inconceivable that up until the late 1970s, wine commentary came without any form of quanti?cation.

Over the years, wine writers (and in the beginning there few of them) wrote anecdotally, using descriptions that seemed to make sense, as long as you didn’t interrogate them too deeply. Andre Simon’s Tables of Content – written some 80 years ago – had its fair share of purple prose, mostly intended to give his audience a sense of the relative merits of various (mainly unobtainable) bottles.

By the 1960s Hugh Johnson was pioneering wine writing as we know it. His first book on the subject, entitled simply Wine, conveyed as much a sense of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine made as it did a sensory evaluation of what ended up in the bottle. By the time his pocket guide took its place as the wine annual every successful executive needed in his pocket before consulting a wine list, some quanti?cation was clearly expected. It came in the form of a star rating system, which Platters incorporated from the very first edition of their wine guide, published in 1980.

At around the same time, a Baltimore lawyer introduced American wine consumers to a seemingly more accurate basis of quality assessment. Robert Parker’s 100-point system became in time the industry standard, at least on the surface. While Jancis Robinson and The World of Fine Wine (easily the most thoughtful, incisive and literate wine publication for English-speaking readers in the market today) both use a 20-point system, and show judging (especially in Australia) appears to favour something similar, no one can seriously dispute that the 100-point system has become the international standard.

This does not mean that they all apply equal units of measure. Parker’s 100-point system is nominally a 50-point calibration (nothing can be scored under 50). Most of the users of a 20-point system never stray below 10. Few, using any of these benchmarks, get to 100 (or 20), and most place everything within a range of 10 points anyway. An American retailer once famously observed that whatever wines Parker scores over 90 “you cannot buy”, and whatever he scores under 90 “you cannot sell”. Glancing at James Halliday’s annual Wine Companion – the de?nitive guide for buyers of Australian wines – or Jeremy Oliver’s more pocket-sized tome on the same subject, I struggle to find scores as low as the mid-80s. Most are in the early to mid-90s.

Perhaps Jancis Robinson does score wines below 10, but is too kind to share that information with her readers. I can’t recall The World of Fine Wine publishing any score under 12. The Wine Spectator in the United States lingers uncomfortably in the shadow of the Parker table (though claiming its 100-point system is somehow different) and the other American critics, Steve Tanzer and Alan Meadows for example, are in much the same place.

I developed my first 100-point system in the 1970s, and I’ve modi?ed it several times, most recently in 2002 when it became the standard enshrined in the judging criteria of the Trophy Wine Show. I try to see a real spread of points ranging from the late 40s (for wines which are faulty and frankly unspeakable) to the high 90s (and perhaps one day even attaining 100). However, it’s not easy to resist the drift to higher scores. When producers are boasting their 92 and 93 point ratings, they cannot help but show their disappointment at my score of 85 (in my view an excellent wine) because it’s not in the 90s.

I recently read an article by Gregory Dal Piaz of Snooth.com suggesting that score inflation was the means by which critics promoted themselves. The higher their rankings, the more producers are likely to quote their comments. This in turn gives them prominence. Like a government that prints currency to create the illusion of wealth, critics bump up their ratings to gain popularity and, of course, power. The trouble with this is that in the end you need to move the decimal point. For example, by the 1950s the French Franc had become so devalued it became necessary to create the “New Franc” worth 100 times more than the old one.

Robert Parker has already admitted that there were wines from Bordeaux’s 2009 vintage worth 100+. In other words, which were better than the 100-point laureates from previous vintages. No doubt at some stage in the future he may find himself, like the French central bank, compelled to recalibrate. Others may be less honest, hoping we will believe that the 100-point wine of 1995 is as good as the 100-pointer of 2015.

Of course, all this begs the question of whether it is actually possible to score wines with anything like accuracy. What does my 83 or Parker’s 92 actually mean? Would Ms Robinson agree with either of us? And rather more importantly, what would the honest punter think once the open bottle appears on the dinner table, assuming he or she is not seeking post-purchase justi?cation?

It’s easy to be dismissive and settle for a very vague star rating, or an even more subjective pre-1960s commentary and description. The only problem is that with the plethora of what is available these days (compared to what was in the market back then) some form of guidance – however ?awed – appears useful.

The question the punter needs to ask himself is: would I like to remain in a state of blissful ignorance, or would I prefer to succumb to the illusion that I know what is going on? The answer, I imagine, depends on your perspective. Do you think like a politician in government, or in opposition? DM

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