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The change has been the 100 point system, not “authenticity”

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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.

  1. Steve I agree with you – the change event in the 80s & 90s was the Parkerization of winemaking – making wines designed to appeal to a certain influential palate. The change event of the 00s was a punctuation mark – the popping of the dot com bubble and the flight of some of that capital into the winegrowing world. This resulted in a huge proliferation of new high-end brands, increasing competition for those high scores.

    But some producers just chugged along largely without hunting for scores and some of the new producers have realized that there seems to be only so many scores to go around, and that the market for and appeal of these high-scoring wines are limited. An emphasis on authenticity is the approach some are using now to differentiate themselves in the market.

    So I agree with Kramer that an appeal to authenticity is a change event – he just is mistaken about the timing. In my humble opinion, authenticity is the game changer of the 10s and 20s.

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve,

    i’m an absolute beginner compared to you and your readers, but i’ve seen lots of wines obtain very high scores from RP that weren’t that rich, ripe, bomb-of-fruit-like. Sure, many more very high score wines fit the RP description we’ve heard and read ad nauseum, but i think it’s somewhat unfair to label RP as the ripe, bombastic wine type of critic….

    We all know (sigh, that story again) how important he’s been to Bordeaux, but give him a great soft, delicate Burgundy and he’ll nail quasi 100 points too just as often.

    Or am i (that’s ok if so) wrong about it?

    Best wishes.

  3. Carlos, I think RP’s penchant for big, ripe, fruity California-style wines is well known.

  4. John, I think we need a much more precise definition of “authenticity” before we declare this is its age.

  5. I read Matts post and responded as well. To me, this whole debate is “poppycock” (to use a word from a prior generation) and can be refuted in 2 comments — People want wines that taste good and people would pay no attention to Parker / Spectator / Enthusiast if there was not a strong correlation between a high score and a good tasting wine (re: Wilfred Wong at Bevmo…who listens to him???). End of story. I agree with you that being held to a standard of making good (great, transcendent, etc) tasting wines has transformed wine making (I came into wine conciousness in the late 80s so I’ve been the benficiary of this) and that , ultimately, properly grown and vinted wines will by definition be authentic

  6. John Morris says:

    Carlos — Parker hasn’t reviewed Burgundy in the Wine Advocate since the mid-90s, when he delegated that task to Pierre Rovani. Before that, he rarely gave very high scores to Burgundy, and he said in print several times that Burgundy offered poor value compared to Chateauneuf. I think that comment revealed his palate leanings very clearly!

    And within Bordeaux and other regions, his highest scores have usually been for big wines.

  7. Carlos Toledo says:

    Thanks for the heads-up John. To live… to learn.

    You’ve done me a huge favor teaching me one more “trick” about RP and the urban legends that surround his holy name.

  8. Steve –

    Not to digress too much, but I’d like to ask you about a specific point you made. You wrote, “They had to reduce yields” to produce bigger, richer wines.

    My understanding is that if you generally take yields from, say, 8 TPA to about 3, you’re clearly going to get richer, more concentrated wines. But if you go from, say, 3 to 1 TPA, you might actually get more vegetal flavors due to lack of balance. In other words, overcropped vineyards can produce richer wines by reducing yields, but moderately cropped vineyards have a harder time doing that.

    So here’s my question: Do you agree with that general assessment? And if so, were CA vineyards once cropped much more heavily than even moderately cropped vineyards are now?

    It’s fashionable for producers to talk about “low yields” and Robert Parker loves to praise “miniscule yields” without giving any context to what that means. I view you, of course, in a much different class than Mr. Parker, which is why I wanted to make sure I understood what you were saying here.

    Cheers and thanks.

  9. Evan, good questions. I wish I had a consulting viticulturalist here by my side to answer. I don’t know that going from 3 to 1 necessarily makes for vegetal flavors. The vintners I’ve known over the years who actually have yields below 1.5 TPA (or some low equivalent) produce stunning wines, and hold their low yields with pride (although economically they might wish it were otherwise). As for yields in olden times, my impression is that they were higher. Of course, the further back you go in California, the fewer wineries and less vineyard acreage there were. In my experience, I don’t pay too much attention to yield statistics. I’ve had very great wine from high-yielding vines in Oakville as well as great wines from low-yielding vines. As I’ve written before, you can’t tell if a wine is great just by reading the numbers. The proof is in the bottle.

  10. Steve –

    Good points, and you touched on a part of my comment that was sloppy. I probably implied that a shift from something like 3 TPA to 1 would automatically result in more vegetal flavors; I’ve seen even relatively young Finger Lakes vines produce intense flavor under 1 TPA. So I should say:

    1) TPA is probably an overused and generally weak metric, and
    2) Balance is, in my understanding, the most important aspect in producing strong vines and wines.

    And I absolutely agree with your last comment; I know that I, as a writer, have occasionally fallen into the trap of relying too heavily on numbers. (Not that I don’t want more numbers – I think Calera sets the back label standard!)

  11. In fact, when RP praises “minuscule yields”, he is referring to France (or most of Europe); where irrigation is forbidden.
    Similarly, the assertion that wine quality decreases when yields are drastically reduced only makes sense for irrigated vineyards.

  12. Evan:

    Back in the ’60s in California, the good grower was defined as the one could hang the most tons per acre.

    Tons per acre is a little bit of a tricky metric in that the number of vines per acre is not a static number. Most high-end producers are getting fruit from vineyards that are much more densely planted than the 8′ x 12′ foot system that was/is popular for production vineyards and mechanical harvesters.

    We look at cluster counts and cluster weights when estimating how large or small a crop we are going to have. Consequently, it is really about how many pounds of fruit per vine that we have that will have a direct impact on the “weight” of the wine.

  13. Perhaps they’re just authentically more Parkerized.

  14. Steven, in general, though, whether yield is defined as TPA, pounds per vine or whatever, isn’t it true that at the higher end in California, yields are lower than they were 30 years ago?

  15. Pedantic alert:

    Robert Parker did not invent the 100 point system–he discovered it and then popularized it.

    WS didn’t popularize it; the magazine got on the band wagon.

    I used to know the name of the person who came up with the idea in the first place, but it escapes me now–vaguely remember him as being an Australian.

  16. Steven,

    Thanks for the explanation – quite helpful.

  17. Tom–

    Other than the Davis 20-point scale, and the bastardizations of that scale into a hedonistic scale also of 20 points, the first I know of anything beyond that is the un-named Aussie who used, as I remember it, not a 100-point scale but a 200-point scale.

    I do not remember a 100-point scale per se before Parker started using it. So, from my perspective, he gets partial credit at least.

    The scale itself is not the issue anyhow. The Davis scale used decimals so it was, at the very least, a 200-place scale. That is why Parker cannot get full credit. Ranking systems have been around forever. Each has strengths and each has weaknesses.

    When Connoisseurs’ Guide added the 100-point scores to it five-tier/three star (not puffs) system, one of our readers wrote in that he did not care what system we used, including the ten chopstick system. It was the judgment, not the score, that he valued.

    Parkerization only makes sense because people believe, and thus must like, his judgments.

  18. Steve – “authentic” is going to be even tougher to pin down than “natural.” And at lunch in a local restaurant recently I overheard some marketing types discussing strategies for “maximizing consumer perception of authenticity” for their brands – i.e. manufacturing authenticity. It was awesome.

    Evan et al. – I was in a position in the mid-90s where I was able to conduct random-block trials from grapegrowing through to cork-finished aged bottlings across several vineyards for 3 consecutive vintages. The general conclusions were that the highest AND lowest crop levels stood out in duo-trio and triangle tastings, and that neither highest OR lowest crop levels were generally preferred. In some location/spacing/rootstock combinations the range of preferred yields was wide and in others narrow.

    Peter – you have access to more numbers, but I recall doing a few analyses that showed the irrigation we applied to some vineyards amounted to less water during the growing season than Nature delivered to the vines in, say, Burgundy in an average vintage. And experiment as well as experience has taught me that here in Cali irrigation needs to be cut back when the crop is cut back.

  19. John –

    Great stuff. That squares with what I hear from Cornell and local growers; thanks for the info.

  20. Steve Ritchie says:

    Steve:

    Great column. I too see both the necessity of a 100-pt scale (it’s simple and it emphasizes quality over pedigree) and the problems (it’s simplistic at times and very subject to the whims of the reviewer). That being said, it has been very influential and remains so this day, even if the blogosphere is nipping at its heels. In addition, it has had a positive influence in increasing overall quality. On the other hand, I agree that it has co-mingled the concept of “quality” with that of “rich and extracted.”

    I also have trouble with the term authenticity. Let’s face it, it can mean “of place” or “genuine,” but it can also mean “the same style as 40 years ago” or “the way the French/Italians do it.”

    Wine is subjective, it is hard to describe (although I applaud your efforts to create a good vocabulary), and it is fraught with normative judgments that are largely dictated to us by the French. Innovation can be good, let’s not let the perceived virtue of authenticity stop the experiments and leave us all with less choice.

  21. Steve:

    Yes, on the generally lower yield point viz. high-end wines. John’s mention of the highest and lowest being thrown out squares with our own observations especially when a sense of “balance” in the wine is preferred.

  22. Hi Steve, thanks for another thought provoking blog. Or in my case, article provoking. I started a response here and decided that I had too much to say to put it all in this little block.

    In sum, I agree with you that the 100-point system has caused some wineries to change their style. I also agree with Matt Kramer that pursuit of authenticity has done the same thing. But, I disagree with you both about either points or site-specificity being the root cause of the changes. I think both are reactions to the real change-factor. My detailed thoughts are here: http://bit.ly/cZVpPI

  23. The only people to use a hundred point tasting system before Parker were the Associazione Enotecnici Italiani and French and Italian Chambers of Commerce. Hardly important or worthy of mention. The difference with those scoring systems were they had rules by which one graded wines based on the characteristics in the wine that everyone understood.

    Parker invented a different hundred point system that consisted of pulling a score out of one’s ass based on the cellar one stood in. Much like a teacher scoring a paper and giving high scores to a favorite student and lousy scores to another with no justification except one was an A and one was a C. Hardly helpful to anyone, particularly someone wanting to learn.

    Wine changed because everyone has learned to appreciate bigger things. Nothing can be worthwhile if it is subtle. Deafing music, fast cars, loud motorcycles, big tits, heavy desserts, high alcohol drinks. Kick it up a notch! The bigger the better. The change started well before Parker.

  24. Fred, another problem I have with “authenticity” is, what does it mean? As Steve Ritchie noted, it’s a vague word. It sounds like a real word. It sounds like the kind of word a wine writer can write books about. He can then declare which wines are “authentic” and which aren’t because, let’s face it, since nobody knows what the word means, his definition is as good as anyone else’s. Even better, because few other writers are out there, making careers of “authentic” wines. Anyway, I’m glad to weigh in, and will read your blog.

  25. The vagueness of “authenticity” is what makes it so powerful for marketing. It implies a specific benefit but there’s a lot of wiggle-room in defending the claim.

  26. Fred, that’s for sure.

  27. John,
    Most studies I’ve seen confirm your analysis that extremely low yields deteriorate wine quality when irrigation levels are kept constant. In non-irrigated vineyards, on the other hand, quality is kept constant up to a certain yield.
    According to many authors, irrigated vineyards follow a truncated (on the left) Gaussian (Normal) distribution regarding Wine Quality vs. Yields; while non-irrigated vineyards display an “inverted” S-curve (Sigmoid function).

  28. RP (and the 100 PS) surely helped, but IMHO, making bigger wines (i.e. high alcohol, stand-alone, cocktail wines) was a means to adapt wine drinking to the American taste (WA, WS, WE & IWC included).
    But now, as John Kelly already noted, things seem to be moving back towards more typicity, authenticity, sense of place, variety environmental fitness, less intervention/manipulation, etc…

  29. i’m in no position to state what the root cause of the shift in wine styles over the past few decades is attributed to (multiple factors obviously, some playing a larger role than others), but i know from first hand experience (having worked in several wineries of varying sizes/markets) that some winemakers produce wines with the express goal of getting a WS or RP 90+ point score. i’ve sat on tasting panels deciding vintage blends and this is a heavy factor for some producers… root cause or not ,the 100 point scale has a large impact on the way many wines are made because it has a lot to do with how wine is sold. for a small producer a 90+ score can be a golden ticket, especially in a region that sees few such scores (i.e. most of the us outside of the west coast).

  30. Daniel, you’re right. And it’s ironic that Matt Kramer is poo-pooing the importance of the 100 point system, given his employer!!!

  31. Morton, I like your description of the RP 100-point system development.

    In any case, authenticity, natural, etc. etc. etc…All I can glean from this penchant for labeling various processes and then scoring the results is to gain marketing prestige.

    Let the lower gods of hucksterism worry over such stuff. Most people seek good, solid wine for dinner or for sipping. Produce it and they will come.

  32. Is it possible that the occurance of Parkers ratings and the emergence of Wine Spec are part of an equation that also should include the growing and self educating wine drinking public ? Can it be that these factors are more synchronous than cause and effect related?

    When did the term Classic Napa come into being?

    There was a time when the standards of comparison were made of XX wine to French (or whatever)?

    YES!!!! The Producers changed how they made wine! Remember the old Chianits, Piedmonts, Rhones, Burgundies? Remember to older bacony Australian Cabs? They all changed to accomodate and expanding market and part of the expansion IS the media, hence the magazines and the ratings. Puffs or Points, there had to be a way to advise consumers of the then aknowledged experts opinions. Are the ‘experts’ always correct?
    No, but that is beside the point of the entire publication of each respective media. We do not have to follow them.

  33. Hear!! Hear!!

    Listen to this man. This industry has always been about change. It has always been about getting more out of the grapes. The wines of 1855 in Bordeaux bare no resemblance to wines a hundred years later, and the wines of the 2000s in Bordeaux are different again.

    The same is true here in California. The media are reporters of trends. Sure, there have to be some wines that have been constructed to follow certain palates, but for every serious winery here that uses tannin powder and mega-purple, there a dozen that do not.

    Two stories as illustrations of the trend to ripeness–both from a decade and more ago. Several years ago, at a tasting of wines from Rutherford, one of the winemaker-commentators told the assembled scribes and his fellow producers that the day had passed when grapes were going to be picked at lower sugars because CONSUMERS wanted soft, open, easy to drink wines, and aside from his $100 bottling, the other reds in his line were going to lush, easy to drink and immediately useful without extended cellaring. It mattered not that some people rolled their eyes and complained that Cabernet only reaches nuanced greatness with age. He was in the business of selling wine. Fortunately, his excesses were not completely followed by others.

    I got something of a similar response from Kent Rosenblum when I asked him why his Zinfandels had become increasingly higher in alcohol. He said that the wines became more intense and concentrated and that his years as a winemaker had always been about depth and richness.

    Neither of this producers had given up on acidity or underlying balance, but both of them changed formulas to make their wines deeper and immediate. The media had nothing to do with it in either of those cases.

  34. I might be out of my league here, but nobody mentioned technology. How about new yeast strains that can handle the higher alcohol levels and other advanced technologies being used in the winery and in the vineyard? I wouldn’t go so far to say this is the one “vehicle of change”, but is it not significant enough to mention?

  35. Ian, you point out the difficulty in defining “authenticity.” It’s in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the definer.

  36. 2010 is the year that forced wineries to make “elegant” wines. With significantly higher acids and lower sugars than normal, these wines will be, in my opinion, some of the very best in recent history. The Q. is, will RP and WS appreciate Mother Nature’s gift, or will it be a 87-91 point year?

    One must take a moment and think about the thousands of tons of grape rotting on the water-drenched vine because the winemaker’s were looking for those all important corporate scores. It didn’t have to be this way. The flavors would have been awesome. Serves them _ _ _ _ _.

  37. Randy, an interesting way of putting it! Rest assured that as I taste through those 2010 Cabernets I’ll be looking for elegance!

  38. It is wholly inappropriate to castigate everyone the way Randy does. Sure there were folks who were waiting for the grapes to wither on the vine to make the wines that suit their palates and will have lost the bet.

    But for every one of them, there is a winery that was looking at grapes around 20 Brix and acidities that had not dropped. Making wine with those grapes was a sure way to make ugly, acidy, lemon juice with alcohol.

    2010 has been a very difficult year and unusual year. For Randy to suggest that anyone who does not think like him deserves to be tarred with “Serves them right” is the height of arrogance and shows an unfortunate nasty streak.

    This is agriculture we are talking about, and Mother Nature has been very kind to California over the years. Unless it turns out that global warming is leading to coastal cooling–a distinct possibility that has been suggested both here and in my own rag–the wineries that have lost crop will just have to suck it up and adopt the Brooklyn Dodgers strategy of “Wait Till Next Year”.l

  39. Charlie, I agree that global warming is leading to coastal cooling. It would be great if we could get this essential message across. I am going to try and taste as many 2010s in the barrel as I can, because right now, I’m confused.

  40. “i’m here to cultivate the authentic!” Jean de Florette.

    ************

    some more 2 cents and a different take on the conversation….

    i say it’s because of CORN, this big shift in wine. here’s why:

    a/ sweetness and the American palate: to hell with nuances, just give us full-on sweet, dammit!

    i imagine Americans’ palates have been changing ever since the introduction of corn and sugars in our fast-food nation in the ’70s (no, this message is not endorsed by Michael Moore). as a result, sweeter is better and it shows; just look at how fat we are collectively as a nation.

    b/ if you can’t make money with corn, now what?

    one can’t deny the profits of a high-value crop like grapes, compared to the not-so-glamorous (yet incredibly historical and relevant) grain product, corn. i wonder, how many acres were planted over (not just corn, but other crops, too) for grapes? add the collective, commercial spirit of our country and the proliferation of wine labels in the last decades, plus that good old American, don’t-tell-us-how-to-do-it spirit, (follow rules from europe and cultivate the authentic? no frickin way!). couple that with the inherent seventh sense of the few, the (marketing) hustle that entices legions of followers, and you’ve got the scene set…

    c/ let those farmers figure it out themselves, i’m gonna lead my people, dammit!

    tired of defending corn huskers and then some, some Maryland Farm Credit lawyer finds his moment. with the scene well primed for his coming, America’s wine heathens can now look to the 100 pt-score system to help them live their lives.

    see? corn.

    don’t give a crack about this corn theory? i don’t care.

  41. Steve
    You are 100% correct. Wine writers have little understanding of wine production, because wineries don’t want people to know how they produce wine: the things they do, the stuff they add. Wine is less authentic now than ever before, and no winery will abandon all the additives and technological production mechanics that they think help get them higher scores, Anyone who claims wine is more authentic today is ignorant or duplicitous. Spectator is both. Go with this- there is a huge untold story about the devious production and dishonest marketing of wine. The king is buck naked, but no one will say so. Wine is bullshit,, and wine drinkers are being played for suckers. I suggest you all switch to beer and booze and watch the pathetic spectacle of pretentious avaricious wine industry giants cry like little children whose candy has disappeared.

  42. chris forest says:

    I find the 100 point system very interesting. High scores always move wines. I sell wines and if it gets a high score my rep tells me about it. I used to love points and the ratings of wine. I’m beginning to dislike the 100 point system and any system for that matter. I think it’s useless in many ways. My sister for example hates red wines. I brought a very fine Bordeaux over one day. It had a score of 95 or something like that. I thought she would like it being that it got a high score. After a sip she looked like she wanted to vomit. She thought it wa just plain nasty. So much for that 95 points. I’m begining to think that wine should be judged in two ways. Do I like it? Would I pay the price their asking? If so then I’m a happy camper, and the price of a wine is meaningless, as well as the score. I doubt that anyone can tell the difference between a 95 or 94 any ways. I always say bad wines don’t exist. Corked wines being the exception. I may like a certain wine, while someone else may hate it, and vice versa. Does that mean the wine is crap. Absolutely not. People should spend more time drinking than analyzing. Just some food for thought.

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