5 questions for Robert Parker
I went to an event last night at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where their wine club (formed about ten years ago) invited me and a well-known winemaker to talk about the 100-point system. The embryo MBAs, about 40 in number, were a curious and super-smart bunch and they asked all kinds of smart questions.
I explained to them how our 100-point system works at Wine Enthusiast. Then they asked the winemaker how he felt about the point system, and he made everyone laugh by blushing and pausing and obviously having some difficulty expressing his true thoughts — obviously (I thought) because I was there. So I told him to “Spit it out!” and he did, albeit in a gracious way. He said, basically, that his job was to craft high-scoring wines, and that, if he didn’t, he could get fired. We critics, in other words, exert an undue amount of influence on his life. Then he described the annual visit that Robert Parker pays to his winery. The ordeal, he admitted, ties his stomach in knots, and actually makes it hard for him to sleep the night before. When it was question time, I raised my hand and insisted on my Speaker’s Right to ask the first one. It went like this:
“When Mr. Parker tastes with you, is it blind or open?”
“Does he make his reviews there? Do you see him writing?”
“Yes, and even though I can read upside down, he has this way of writing that makes it impossible to read.”
“Do you know if, subsequent to his tasting open with you, he then retastes the wines later on?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”
“Do you think it’s fair for him to taste wines openly, when he claims that he endeavors insofar as possible to taste blind?”
[From erobertparker.com: “When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions, (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known). The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wines. Neither price nor the reputation of the producer/grower affect the rating in any manner.”]
The winemaker knew where I was going, and on his own initiative he began to explain to the students the concept of “bias.” The winemaker said, and I paraphrase, “What Steve is driving at is that, since Parker knew that he was tasting wines he has historically given high scores to, that his mind determined he couldn’t possibly score anything lower than, say, 92.”
The winemaker was entirely correct. That is what I was driving at.
Parker has come under scrutiny many times for his tasting practices. I have anecdotally been told the same thing for years, that he tastes open. See, for instance, here, which is actually from one of my posts, wherein the famous Mr. Morton Leslie commented thusly: “We know Parker doesn’t taste blind because he comes to our wineries and tastes what we present to him. He doesn’t score them, I have watched him make notes, so we know the scores come sometime later when the whole thing is organized for publication. It’s pretty evident Parker judges wine based on who made them or who owns the operation.”
I would like to put this issue to rest by asking Bob to please come out and answer a few questions, if not for the sake of my own curiosity, then for his own reputation.
1. What percentage of your published scores are tasted blind, and what percentage are tasted openly?
2. When you taste openly with the winemaker, do you assign the score at that time, or later on?
3. Do you accept the concept of bias, and, if you are tasting openly, how do you compensate for your own bias?
4. How important do you think consistency is in a critic and, especially, in your own reputation?
5. Why do you not taste all wines blind, under controlled circumstances?
These are quite serious matters. The entire legitimacy of wine reviews rests on the premise that they are unbiased. That doesn’t mean merely that the reviewer promises not to have any personal stake in whether the wine does well or not. It also means that the reviewer cannot possibly be influenced one way or the other concerning the wine’s quality. To me, it’s patently obvious that when you’re visiting a hugely famous cult winery and tasting with the proprietor or winemaker, your mind is going to be influenced on all sorts of levels. That’s precisely why I am slowly but surely easing out of reviewing wines that way. I just can’t guarantee to people who follow my scores that such reviews from me are fair and unbiased, because they’re not. And I don’t see how anyone on earth can openly review and rate a wine at a famous winery, with the winemaker, and claim not to be biased.
I hope Bob Parker addresses these questions, which I ask with deep respect.