Can you ever imagine grading a wine like you grade a spelling test or high school math test (using the grading method of the United States)? Or better yet, think of grading fine art pieces. What percentage would you give to the Mona Lisa? The Starry Night? Dancers in Pink? Campbell’s Soup Cans? What percentage grade would you assign to each and would your friends grade them the same as you, or do believe that tastes are highly subjective?
Even though my guess is that many of you would deem it impossible to grade them, you may have fallen victim to this exact concept the last time you went to your local wine shop or supermarket to buy wine. Have you ever been mulling over a few wines, intensely studying the backs of the bottles or the tasting notes to see which one most aptly fits your taste preferences, only to become so overwhelmed that you choose the one with 92 points because that obviously is better than one with 89 points, and most certainly better than the one without any points. Well if so, you likely fell victim to this beautifully deceptive marketing tactic that really only serves to sell wines (and at a higher price) and bought into the monopoly of tastes that one critic has deemed to be a ‘one size fits all’ in wines. But you thought you actually had choices and your own taste preferences, right?
I wanted to understand how this concept of grading wines was born and understand the person and motives behind it. And most importantly, how could this one single man’s tastes, and this 100-point scale, have completely changed and influenced the way wine is made in many parts of the world, what the market now demands, and the been so influential in the exorbitant prices of fine wines today? Because along with only a few others (I won’t mention Emile Peynaud and his student Michel Rolland, who happens to be a best friend of Bob), the way many wines are made today are aimed at the tastes of only a few men who have the ability to either earn money from this or heavily influence how much money someone else makes from it.
If there are any of you still wondering who I am speaking of, he goes by Bob, and you may know his wine magazine The Wine Advocate where he critiques nearly 10,000 wines per year and assigns his Parker Points to them. His history begins with his Maryland days, where he was sipping Coca-Cola, living a simple country life and doing his undergrad in history with a minor in art history (which clearly didn’t move him in ways perhaps mathematics might have) before beginning to study law and then turning into a self-taught wine writer and critic. One of his notable accomplishments in law was being able to simplify the legal jargon which was often too difficult for the average person to understand, a skill which he would ultimately utilize to dumb-down wine and also make easier to understand by the average person. And I personally wouldn’t be completely against that if I didn’t see what appears to me as a lot of hypocrisy along the way, combined with such an authoritative stance on his beliefs.
Parker didn’t seem to have a strong affection for high alcohol, oaky and colossal wines when he first started writing, as per his 10th issue of Wine Advocate in April 1980. Ironically, this would become nearly the exact style of wine he would fancy in subsequent years when he would praise the ‘best’ California wines for being powerful and massive with oodles of fruit. Nor did he seem to appreciate the gouging of consumers with high prices and often wrote negatively about good wines that came with exorbitant prices. And yet, his style of scoring and critique would lead to the exact prices that make nearly impossible for many consumers to afford, which more or less gave him a monopoly in the industry because now it will cost other critics tens of thousands of dollars to understand benchmark years like 1982 and 2000, as prices rose nearly 2,000 percent from the years 1983 to 2002. And strange to me is the fact that he attacked the highly publicized taste competitions between California and Bordeaux, saying that the best in each region are worlds apart – California wines are best young and are big and bold with an intensity of fruit, while the best Bordeaux evolve over time to be subtle and complex, but also goes to say that he hoped these competitions would stimulate many lethargic French wine producers (into producing what, a more California-like wine, even though they produce different styles?). But this might be my favorite – you tell me, what is the difference between a 20-point scale that takes away points for wine flaws (the Davis Scale was the adopted method before his time which he highly criticized for taking away points for what is supposed to be a drink of pleasure) to his scale which only seemed to add 80 points, but ‘gave’ a wine points for having certain desirable qualities? Taking points away or awarding them to me is tom-ay-toes, tom-ah-toes.
And the mismatching of his most vehement statements with his actions don’t serve to help build any credibility. For one, he has self-proclaimed many times that he does not have any interest in the wine industry – direct or indirect – or accept any money in any way, but you tell me if lavish French lunches, luxury accommodations and hospitality to ‘learn’ about wine, a co-ownership with his brother at Beaux Freres (which he won’t critique in Wine Advocate though), a god-daughter of Bordeaux chateau owner, and having 2 critics on your staff who have ties to the wine or restaurant industry, might be a bit controversial. But rest assured, for anyone who’s stomach seems a bit upset, Robert has stepped down and sold off the majority of his stake in the Wine Advocate, to a few Singapore investors, which he claimed to have no stake in the wine industry (well that’s if you don’t consider the wife of one of them, who is a director holding a majority stake in a fine wine merchant called Hermitage Wines, to be a ‘conflict of interest’).
It goes on and on with adamant statements of how he remembers every single wine he has tried and the points awarded within a few (of those 10,000 wines multiplied by how many decades he’s done this, so easily over 250,000+ wines), even though he couldn’t even correctly guess some Right Bank wines from Left Bank wines. And how he knows certain Barolo’s better than their winemakers understand them, that was after his whole three, yes three, visits to Italy.
But let’s end on what I would give a 100-point statement of hypocrisy, and follow the words directly from Robert himself and not these senseless scores because after all – ‘However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate, nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.’ – preaches the man who has used his own personal, unique tastes and preferences to influence an entire planet’s tastes through easy-to-understand points, based off his palate.
Fortunately, the younger generations are rendering these point systems as antiquated and desiring to follow their own unique personal tastes, and hopefully we can get back to our days of appreciating wines for all their various styles and flavors, not just the easily made and marketed ones.
Don’t take my word on any of this, make your own opinions. For those interested, you many find the following books, articles, and documentaries of interest.
The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy (book)
Escaping Robert Parker (documentary)