|This essay is the latest in an occasional series that takes a critical look at some aspect of the wine industry. Previous topics
have included The Dumbing Down of Wine and The Role of the Wine Critics You will find these in the Wine Pages archives.|
These thoughts are entirely my own, are possibly the most opinionated part of this site, and are all open to argument. There are already some great responses at the end of the article.
At one time, the fine wine trade was a scene of frock-coated merchants in Mayfair and their long-established customers: gentlemans' clubs, learned societies and the odd well-heeled private collector. The trusted merchant would quietly voice an opinion on the merits or otherwise of the latest Bordeaux vintage or new Burgundy domaine, and the grateful customer would purchase on this nod and wink. That was as near as it got to insider dealing and feverish speculation.
But all that changed through the 1980's and 90's as fine wine was touted as the next great investment bandwagon. Stripy-shirted Gordon Geckos rushed to pour mountains of cash into fine wine futures (more poetically called en primeurs in France). Buying into the right wines stood every chance of making you a packet and making it fast. Fine Clarets changed hands time after time without ever leaving a bonded warehouse: this was paper trading of wine, purely as a commodity.
This coincided with wine reaching new markets around the world, particularly the Far East. Its beneficial health properties had raised its profile, even in countries were wine consumption was anathema. These cash-rich consumers took to wine in a big way and, just like Rollers and Rolexes, the finest European wines of breeding and reputation were the ultimate prizes. Tales emerged of tiger economy businessmen softening the tannic blow of their 1996 Latour by adding a generous splash of Coca-Cola.
A the same time, a young US lawyer by the name of Robert Parker Junior was setting himself up as a wine critic. Parker published his own no-nonsense newsletter, which he called The Wine Advocate. His opinions were unequivocal: as well as a more or less standard tasting note on each wine reviewed, he awarded a score out of 100. Parker had come from an academic world of such numerical ratings and understood that the average consumer would welcome a system for ranking and grading wines that supplemented his tasting notes.
Little could Parker have realised how voraciously certain investors and consumers would jump on this, the miracle they'd been waiting for: an easy to understand league table that sorted wines into a definitive ranking. It made all that tedious and difficult interpretation of tasting notes unnecessary. Gone was the need to understand the arcane language of the mealy-mouthed wine aficionado: "class", "structure" "finesse". Now we could just punch in the numbers, crunch them through a spreadsheet and come up with investment strategies based on data, not opinion. If we stuck to 95 point wines we couldn't lose. 85 point wines, on the other hand, were swill fit only for suckers. Parker was a godsend. In fact to some, Parker was God.
In the 1990's the phenomenon of the small black book shopper materialised: intent, furtive little men in raincoats and Groucho Marx disguises scrutinised merchants' shelves seeking only those wines scoring more than the magic 90. A pack of them hunting together could lay waste to a fine wine selection faster than a plague of locusts through a window box. At a pinch, 89 pointers were just acceptable, 88's only if nothing better was available. Wines scoring 87 or below gathered dust on the shelves.
The absurdity of the situation didn't seem to dawn on those gripped by the 100-point fever. That something so subjective, so nuanced and constantly evolving as wine could be given a definitive score - where 90 was appreciably better than 89 and one wine was absolutely better than another. It was as crazy as awarding scores to pieces of music or works of art. But that didn't stop them. The phenomenon of the 100 point system grew and grew. Soon, the world's biggest and most influential wine magazine, the Wine Spectator, adopted the system too and the world was awash with league tables that reduced wine to nothing more than winners and also-rans. There was no middle ground.
In time, this had a knock-on effect on wine itself. Producers who had not been sanctified by the hand of Parker found their wines languished on the shelves. Clearance sales were full of good wines rejected simply because of the Parker numbers. Inevitably, some producers responded by examining what it was that pressed Parker's particular buttons. This they identified as wines with high extraction: plenty of body, flavour, fruit, colour and a substantial dose of new oak. Overnight, producers of old-fashioned wines that were lean and austere transformed their products. They had been Parkerised and sure enough, they were rewarded with higher scores and the sales that followed.
There is no doubt that Parker's influence has been positive in many respects. A lot of these old-fashioned, dried-out wines needed to be kicked into action, but there was always the danger that the baby would be thrown out with the bath water; that some traditional and high quality wines would be lost to the world because of the tastes of one man - or more correctly his blinkered, but big-spending followers.
And that takes us back to the root of the problem. Where do we place the blame for escalating prices, absurd "trophy" wines, the loss of individuality in search of points? Although unfairly criticised in many quarters, the fault lies not with Parker, nor with his 100-point system. Neither does the fault lie with producers nor merchants. No, the fault can be laid fairly and squarely on one group and one group only: us.
[Stands, shuffles nervously and clears his throat]:
"My name is Tom and I am a 100-point chaser".
Or at least I was. Like alcoholics, I suspect once bitten you are never really free of the disease, just in control of it. I have been buying fine wines - wines that seriously stretched my resources – since the late 1980's. For a period in the early 90's I got the Parker bug big-time too. I purchased the little black book, raincoat and Groucho glasses'n'moustache combo. I stalked the shelves in search of wines that I couldn't really afford to buy, but couldn't afford not to if Parker gave them a 93.
Now, don't get me wrong: that period left me with lots of great wine that I otherwise may not have bought: fine Clarets from the 1983 to 1990 vintages for example. But there were mistakes along the way too: wines I purchased because of the scores and then, some time later, realised were not entirely to my taste; a cellar that simply didn't reflect the balance I ultimately realised I wanted; wines I passed up because something else scored five points more and grabbed my attention. Later, when tasting that "lesser" wines I found they were sublime, poised, elegant, full of subtlety.
I guess I have been free - or in remission - from 100 point fever for four or five years now. That coincides with the period when I started to be exposed to enormous numbers of wine. I realised that Parker doesn't know all the answers; that Parker doesn't have the same tastes as me; that Parker makes mistakes; that there is more to life than 95 point wines that jump up and scream in your face. Sometimes we want quiet wines, gentle wines, wines to sip as we reflect on their endless complexity.
So take it from me, a reformed 100-point chaser, that blind allegiance to the highest scoring wines - no matter how influential the judge - is not a recipe for a long-term relationship with wine. Find your own voice, find confidence to drink what you want and buy wines irrespective of this absurd notion that one can be "better" than another by a single percentage point. Taste, taste, and taste some more, always with a curious and open mind; if you truly love wine it is the only way to find long term happiness.
And remember, none of this is Parker's fault: he rounds on critics who blame him and he is right to do so. His points are nothing but a scribble in the margin. They are not the Bible.