The change has been the 100 point system, not “authenticity”
I don’t mean to be a contrarian, but when Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, says the 100-point scoring system was not “the change agent” responsible for “the worldwide transformation of wines and winemaking styles starting in the 1970s,” it’s like Paul McCartney saying The Beatles didn’t change popular music in the 1960s.
But that’s what Matt writes in this column.
Now, stay with me here as I deconstruct this. First of all, Matt posits that there has been a change in winemaking style. His definition of that change is the word “authenticity.” We’ll get back to that in a moment.
If you were to ask me what the “change” has been in wine over the last 40 years, I’d say it’s pretty obvious: it’s been in the direction of richer, riper wines. (I’m talking, as is Matt, about wines of quality and pedigree, the upper tier, if you will, not mass-produced stuff.) And that this change has been influenced, in large part, by Robert Parker, who invented the 100-point system, and by Wine Spectator, who popularized it in the 1980s, seems indisputable. (I began subscribing to the Spectator around 1982, when it was still a tabloid published out of my home town of San Francisco.) There already had been in place a tendency for wines to be picked riper when Wine Spectator and Parker rose to prominance, but can anyone seriously question the fact that that trend accelerated hugely throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and that Parker and Spectator fueled it? To deny that P&S preferred bigger, riper, oakier wines is to deny reality. So I don’t see how Matt can say Parker and Spectator were not responsible for the change.
But then, Matt never really admits that the change has been (as I wrote above) toward richer and riper. Instead, he says “what has really driven the changes in wines is the issue of authenticity.” I can’t go into detail explaining what Matt means by “authenticity,” except to refer to his use of words such as “authenticity,” “place-ness” and “somewhere-ness,” among others of that class. He has established his reputation praising what he called, in Making Sense of California Wine, “a sensibility of place,” and so it isn’t surprising that Matt should see that “sensibility of place” as being the driving force behind the changes of the last three decades. It validates his position.
If you, the reader, had to say what the biggest change in wine has been since Parker and Spectator both arose (let’s say, roughly 1980), would it be “a tendency toward richer and riper” (as I assert) or “a sense of place”? I think it’s the former, but I also suggest that there’s no conflict between the two. In fact, there’s an inherent connection: one implies the other. To get the highest Parker and Spectator scores, winemakers had to change their viticulture to push ripening before the rains came. They had to change their rootstocks and clones, for the same reason. They had to reduce yields, boost fruity concentration, increase extract, because that’s what Parker and Spectator liked. They had to plant the right varieties in the right locations, because otherwise, the wines would taste vegetal, or stewed, and Parker and the Spectator would destroy them. They had to pay the utmost attention to every detail, as long as it was ripe.
That’s why it’s disingenuous to say, as Matt does, “if you think that scores were the change agent, I respectfully beg to differ.” Of course they were! I think even Matt knew that what he was writing was disputatious, because of all the disclaimers he issued (“I realize that invoking the term ‘authenticity’ invites ire among some observers,” “I can hear you already: Who is to say what is or isn’t ‘authentic’”?, etc.). When he writes “Forget scores. They’re just the way the message is sent,” what message is that? Is Matt saying that a 100-point Wine Spectator score is a guarantee of “authenticity”? That strains credulity. I think the message is that a 100-point Spectator score is a guarantee of richness and ripeness. Ditto for a 100-point Parker score. Ditto, I will admit, for a 100-point Heimoff score (rare as they are).
From my perspective in California, I know that the 100-point system has been responsible for almost all the changes that have occurred. Winemakers and growers, one after another after another, have told me so for 20 years. They have changed their styles because they wanted big scores from P&S. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m not saying it hasn’t resulted in better wines. I’m not apologizing for it. I’m just saying.
Hey, I respect a wine “of place” that expresses its terroir as much as anyone. (Just yesterday I was raving about Cathy Corison’s Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon and those of Far Niente.) I’m just saying that “authenticity” is in the eye of the beholder (as even Matt seems to concede), and anything that subjective and amorphous cannot seriously be said to have impacted a worldwide trend in wine. No, ’twas Parkerization, followed by Spectatorization — phenomena that were real, measurable and concrete — that killed the old ways, and brought about the new.