Why I don’t give more perfect scores
People ask me why I don’t score more wines 100 points. Other critics who use the 100-point system are far more lavish than I am. I’ve only given five perfect scores in all these years. Parker by contrast had 19 perfect 100s (for 2009 Bordeaux) in issue #199 of the Wine Advocate.
I’m not here to criticize him or anyone else for awarding perfect scores with a certain promiscuity, shall we say. I’m here to explain why I’m stingier. It all comes down to how you view the 100-point system, wine as an esthetic accomplishment, and your understanding of the meaning of perfection.
When it comes to these perfect scores, I think there are only two valid intellectual positions. One is to be liberal in awarding them; the other is to make it extremely rare. To be in the muddled middle is weird, if not outright dishonest.
As many critics of the 100-point system have pointed out many times, there cannot be any great difference between 99 and 100. Or 98 and 100. Or 97 and 98, and so on down the line. I’ve never disagreed with this argument. On the contrary, I’ve said that a critic might give the same wine different scores on different occasions (although hopefully the scores wouldn’t be too far apart!). Once you accept the notion that anything above 96 or 97 points is in fact a very great wine, then you have to accept that–of a large number of wines falling in that range–more than a few will be disputably perfect. By “disputably perfect” I mean that it would be a mean-spirited critic who would willingly refuse to give those wines 100 points, simply because he or she did not want to appear to be a promiscuous scorer. Critics should never be afraid of anything anybody says or thinks about them.
So, by way of example, if a critic tastes 80 or 100 Bordeaux from a vintage deemed to be great, then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t entertain the possibility of giving many of them perfect scores. Perfect vintage + chateaux that know how to make perfect wine = perfect wines. It just makes sense. That’s why only Parker haters bashed him for 19 perfect scores in one issue. They have a misguided understanding of the 100-point system.
At the other extreme is someone like me. I think that, in every large tasting (“large” being at least 50) of important wines, one wine always will stand out above all the others. Sometimes it takes a long time to determine which one it is. When I gave 100 points to 2006 Cardinale, in November of 2009, it was at a blind tasting of about 70 wines organized for me by the Napa Valley Vintners. Now, when NVV arranges a tasting of top Cabernets, the critic might approach it expecting that there could be several perfect wines among them. (The question of expectations is important, I know, but I don’t want to get into it here.) For example, when Parker tasted all the 2009 Classified Growths (over what time period, we don’t know), he must have assumed (having already been impressed by the vintage) that there could easily have been more than one perfect 100 among them; he thus gave himself permission to “find” those perfect wines and reward them accordingly.
I might have done the same thing at NVV, but my mind doesn’t work the way Parker’s does. As good as the wines were (and they were fantastic), according to my approach, one of them had to stand above the crowd. And so, after five hours of tasting and retasting (with a short break inbetween for lunch), I kept on coming back to that bagged wine that had impressed me from the very beginning. I’d first tasted it at around 10:30 a.m. and it immediately blew my mind. I must have returned to it 5 or 6 times over the following hours, and each time, it exceeded my expectations. Each time I tasted a wine that was fabulous, I checked it against that wine, and each time I did, the original wine triumphed. At the end of the day, it seemed obvious to give it, and it alone, 100 points.
Might I have given 2 or 3 other wines 100 points? In theory, sure. But in fact, that Cardinale (I didn’t know what it was until I got home and looked at the folder NVV gave me) was just that much better than anything else. By “better” I mean sheer, dazzling, opulent, luxurious, structured Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The first duty of Napa Cabernet is to deliver “Napa Cabernet-ness” in the most awesome way possible. The Cardinale did.
By the way, I also gave 100 points to the Verité 2007 La Muse. Both Cardinale and Verité are owned by the Jackson family, which testifies, I believe, to the vision of the late Jess Jackson to make the greatest wines in the world. Last Fall, I gave 99 points to the David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Cabernet Sauvignon, from his estate on Pritchard Hill. Why not 100? I can’t explain it with the precision of a mathematical statement, except to say, it was perfect…almost.