About this Blog
The blog focuses on the essence of wine and food, not how many points or stars it receives. The opinions are mine and should be taken only as that, an opinion not gospel.
Like many collectors, initially I was very much influenced by wine ratings. I purchased wines based on points, even if I had never tasted the wine. And it was much worse than that. I would drink a wine with a high rating, not like it, yet since it was highly rated I’d rationalize that I did not yet appreciate the wine, or that my palate was not sophisticated enough to understand the wine. How’s that for lunacy? As a result my cellar grew in all directions while my palate narrowed. By the time I realized the style of wine that I enjoyed, my cellar abounded with wines whose styles I did not enjoy. All of these wines were very highly rated, just not my cup of tea, or glass of wine to be more accurate. Fortunately I was able to sell many of these wines to those who either enjoyed them or wanted highly rated wines. Don’t misunderstand, I am not against wines with high ratings, in fact I own many. It is just that I now purchase wines based on the producer, the style and my palate, not the rating. Nor do I shun reading reviews. I very much respect Antonio Galloni, Alan Meadows, Eric Asimov and John Gilman and read their reviews routinely. I pay attention to what they write, not the points they award.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The Numbers Game
Journalist Gary Rivlin wrote in a 2006 NY Times article, "Some fear that the worldwide influence of Mr. Parker, who has been described as the planet's most powerful critic, will eventually mean a homogenization of wines." Unfortunately this seems to be what is happening today. California, Australia, Italy (Super Tuscans), Spain, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with a few exceptions, make wines to please Parker. The only thing that distinguishes these wines from one another is the grape variety. They are all high in alcohol, over extracted and oaky. In my opinion they lack character, elegance and soul. I find them very boring.
Some friends recently attended a wine dinner consisting of wines from Mr. Parker's cellar. He himself was in attendance. During the conversation about wines and his rating system he indicated that people who don’t believe in the system (me for one) just do not have enough wine knowledge to understand what goes into it. I am the first to admit that my knowledge of wine pales by comparison to Mr. Parker’s, but his statement is about the most inane thing I have ever heard. Hugh Johnson is one of the world’s most widely recognized wine writers and has been since 1960. My friend Chris Cree holds one of only 29 Master of Wine degrees in the USA. Neither of these gentlemen subscribes to any point system, and I think it is safe to say they are, at the very least, every bit as knowledgeable on the subject as Mr. Parker.
As for his system, I believe that I do understand what goes into it and probably more so than the people who employ it to buy their wines. In my opinion it is in fact “what goes into it” that makes it so ridiculous. The system uses a 100-point scale. Allow me to explain how the system works. A wine earns 50 points for being wine and showing up in the glass. I find this interesting and puzzling. Perhaps prior to the start of a football game each team should be given 7 points just for being a football team and showing up.
The system continues with a wine receiving up to 5 points for color. What color has to do with the quality of a wine escapes me. Is darker better than lighter? Is an opaque wine that is a deep crimson red like a California Cabernet better than a translucent red Burgundy? I recently had a couple of bottles of 2010 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Pineau D'Aunis Rosé. It's color is best described as cloudy pink, not very appealing, but oh what a marvelous wine. I wonder If this component of the rating system were applied to art would the rather muted color of the Mona Lisa lose points when compared to the vibrant colors of a work by Peter Max?
Next the system rates the nose (bouquet) of the wine with up to 15 points being awarded. Call me naïve, but a wine either smells good or it doesn’t. If a wine received 7 points in this category, does that mean it smells half bad or does it mean it smells half good. I'm curious, how would you score the bouquet of these 3 items? A fresh white truffle, a fresh red rose and a freshly opened can of anchovies? 3 very different and distinct noses here and each has its own characteristics. Is one better than the other? I happen to like the smell of all three. Assigning a rating to each of them would be preposterous.
I feel the same about the palate, which is worth 20 points per Mr. Parker. Each wine is its own wine. You may prefer one wine’s palate more than another’s just as you may prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream. All that counts is what you like. There are no in betweens or absolutes.
The final 10 points in this system are for overall impression. Isn’t that all that really matters. You like the wine, you hate the wine, you love the wine, etc. Also if you scored the wine high in all other categories I would think your overall impression would be good. Then what is the purpose of the other categories?
Having said all of this, what is the most amazing aspect of his system is that he tastes (spits actually) up to 125 wines twice a week and claims that he can “precisely assess the worth of every single wine that passes his lips”. I personally find this very hard to believe. Apparently others do also. See the article on this by Tony Hendra by clicking here.
So what is the bottom line with these number systems? As far as I am concerned they completely cast aside the intrinsic qualities of the wine. There appears to be no consideration given to what they are paired with, how the wine will evolve in the glass while you drink it or how it will develop over time. It is simply pour, sip, spit and score. Amazing…no check that I think bizarre is a more appropriate word.
Consider the following review of the 1998 Fernando Remírez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva (Spain) from John Gilman (traditionalist) and Parker (modernist).
“To the best of my recollection, this is the first wine I have ever tasted from Remírez de Ganuza, which I found decisively mediocre in quality. The deep, modern and boring nose offers up scents of roasted cherries, leather, a bit of barnyard, salty soil tones, spice and a generous blast of new wood. On the palate the wine is medium-full and a bit “pinched” by its new wood, with tangy acids, respectable depth and a fair bit of uncovered wood tannins drying out the finish. Is this really supposed to be cutting edge Rioja these days? Wow, I am unimpressed. (Drink between 2011-2020). 81 points. Tasted 2011”.
“The 1998 Remírez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva was diminished a bit by late harvest rainfall. Even so, it is an elegant, savory, complex wine that has good depth and concentration. It should drink nicely for another decade. 93 points. Tasted 2010”.
These reviews could not be further apart. Here are 2 very knowledgeable wine guys with very different palates and these differences are reflected in their comments and scores. Chocolate and vanilla my friends. The message is clear to me, drink wine that tastes good to you for your reasons, not someone else’s. And when you do I promise you that a world of incredible wines from places like the Jura and Loire in France, and Liguria, the Val Dosta and Friuli Venizia in Italy await you.
So what is the point (did I say point)? It is simply this. I think there is value in the writings of wine critics, but it lies not in the scores they give to wines but rather in the information they provide about the wine and its pedigree. When I read about a wine that appears to have the characteristics I enjoy, I try it and then decide for myself if I like it or not. Points simply do not enter into the picture.
For those who are interested in learning more about Parker’s rating system and what goes into it, etc, I suggest you check out Elin Mccoy’s book, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste.