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5 questions for Robert Parker

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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?”

“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.

  1. I will, for Mr. Lahart’s benefit, repeat what a very prominent maker of RRV Pinot Noir told me. When the critics tastes with me (and he was talking about Parker and Tanzer), I get better ratings.

    It is one thing, Mr. Lahart, to argue for giving you an honest opinion. It is another to suggest that you are getting one when the producers themselves believe that you are not.

  2. Bret Moore says:

    What an eye-opening article for me. My respects to you, Mr. Heimoff, for having the guts to face this issue. If more people in the world would be this honest then I suppose it would be a much better place. -Bret

  3. Steve, I ask this because having never worked for a wine magazine I’m not completely familiar with the processes: When you or your colleagues review a wine(s), do you write the full capsule review of the wine along with the score during the blind tasting, or do you write notes and a score and then later flesh out the description. If the latter, do you know what the wine is while writing the full review? When doing the blind tastings, do you know which wineries are represented in the group but not which bottle they are or is it completely blind aside from varietal and region? Do you know how other magazines are similar or different in these respects?

  4. Fred, I form the number in my head while tasting, and also come up with my key descriptors (e.g., raw and tannic, or lush and fruity, or something like that). Those 2 things stay: the overall number and the overall impression. Then I look at the bottle and write my full review. I usually know what wineries are in the group, but at the time of tasting I don’t know which bottle is which.

  5. Bob Rossi says:

    I’m sure no one will read my comments, because they are so late. But I was stuck in France due to the volcano, and also had a family emergency when I returned. So I skimmed all of this, and my reactions were: (1) My God, you would think this is all about something incredibly important, like the Gulf oil spill or Wall Street reform, as opposed to wine ratings; and (2) Parker should give up the ghost, retire on his well-earned laurels, and not try to pretend he has any credibility left.

  6. Bob, you’re never too late to weigh in here. I interpret your comments to mean that wine writing is a minor irrelevance, compared to the great issues of history. To which I agree.

  7. The proof or lack thereof of Parker’s credibility with the people that matter, the ones who pay his bills, is measured by how many of them subscribe to his services. If they think he has credibility, then all the nay-saying about Parker, all the criticism of his foibles and inconsistencies, all the evidence that he does not practice what he preaches, do not amount to a hill of beans.

    Retire? Why would he retire when he is is making fabulous amounts of money all of which is being paid by the folks for whom he has credibility?

  8. I have a story about Parker to share:
    I used to work for an importer of boutique Australian wines. We submitted a sample of a Barossa “old vine” Shiraz (vintage 1999, I believe). We included information about the age of the vines, which were documented to be some of the oldest in all of Australia. He gave the wine 89 points and said it was from “supposedly 100 year old vines” or something like that and proceeded to give the wine a middling review. This was one of the only reviews we received from him despite sending many samples of wines highly regarded by other publications.

    The next year, the producer switched importers and went to The Grateful Palate.

    The 2000 vintage of the wine was reviewed and gushed about. The wine was from a producer that Parker said “I have never seen before” despite the fact that the label hadn’t changed at all (and he supposedly has a “photographic palate”.) He gave the wine 97 points and called it one of the greatest examples of Barossa Shiraz he had ever seen.

    I am not a professional reviewer, but I am a wine professional. I tasted these two wines side by side at the winery. Yes, 2000 was a slightly better vintage, but I can tell you these wines were not that different. If the 1999 deserved a score of 89, then the 2000 was a 91. If the 2000 was 97, then the 1999 was a 94/95.

    But what really got me was this; in the review he went on and on about the fact that the wine was from the oldest vines in Australia and how this was documented, etc. All information we had given him too.

    So, what was the difference? I assume that he tasted the wine in person with Dan from the Grateful Palate and was able to get the “full story.” This was a courtesy he would not extend to us despite several requests to meet him in person.

    Did the relationship affect the score?

  9. Toni Ettore, Texas Sake Import Agent says:

    Wow. I am a baby in this industry @ 29, only having been in it for 8 years, and I specialize in Sake, THANK GOD. While I was in wine (and still dabble recreationally) I was appalled at the glory they gave these men (and women?) that gave scores to wines. I would watch as a product would get a great score, and run out, while a lesser known product that was stellar would sit on the shelf, crying for its release from the bottle.

    I quit reading them all. At the end of the day it is what you appreciate that matters, and all these guys (and girls?) go to bed with the wine makers so to speak, anyways.

    I wish there were transparency within the printed community, like Rodney Strong has mentioned with bloggers, etc. But the sad thing is the wineries that buy their 90+ Ratings have enough money to work their way around getting their products into their hands by any means necessary.

    I once saw a large distributor give a $100 gift card to a wine store owner for featuring his products on a large display, and to push the wines….we all see it, can you imagine what the wineries do?

    If ratings come to the sake market I will be rather dissapointed, and if it is from any of the goons in the magazines – you can count that it will be BS.
    They wouldn’t know the difference in a blind tasting between a Sanzoshu or Tokuteimeishoshu. Translation: The Rot Gut to the Special Classifications.

    Toni Ettore, Kikizakeshi
    Sake Import Agent
    Dallas, Texas

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