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Why a famous critic’s 100 point wine may disappoint you

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Patricia Talorico’s column in Delaware Online, describing her disappointment at a tasting of 100-point wines, is worth reading, if for no other reason than to make the point that a famous critic’s taste may not correspond to yours.

And there are some good reasons for that, which I’ll get to in a moment.

As a journalist, Patricia went to a tasting in Wilmington that consisted of ten wines, each of which had received a perfect 100-point score from either Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, James Suckling or Wine Enthusiast. So excited was she in advance (I would be, too, and so would you) that she called it “a fantasy event not to miss.”

After all, on the roster were such celebrated bottles as 2010 Leoville-Barton, 2010 Dominus, 2001 Rieussec and 2006 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino. Who wouldn’t be up for that?

But, alas, as Patricia reports, she was “Not…blown away by a majority of [the] highly rated wines.” For example, “I was less impressed” by a 2000 Krug Brut than were some of the other tasters. Then there was a 2009 Giovanni Chiappini Guado de Gemoli that, Patricia wrote, “got little more than a ho-hum” despite its 100 point score from Wine Enthusiast. She quoted others present as being highly critical of the Tenuta Nuova that Suckling gave 100 points to. “Over-ripe,” said one. “Not a perfect vintage,” sniffed another.

On the other hand, there was that 2010 Dominus, which everyone seemed to fall in love with. Still, that didn’t stop Patricia from offering readers this advice: “Wine lovers, save your money” when it comes to some of these high-priced rarities.

I couldn’t agree more. The thing the public has to keep in mind—actually, several things—when it comes to evaluating these high scores from famous critics is that the wines sometimes aren’t tasted blind. Sometimes, they’re tasted on the premises of the winery, alongside the winemaker or owner. (Wine Enthusiast has a firm policy against this, as I know well.) This has profound psychological effects, not the least of which is what we call “tasting room bias.” A wine will usually taste better under conditions of propinquity and proximity to its source of production, than it will at a distance. Put another way, if you’re an invited guest at [fill-in-the-blank] great winery, sipping the wine in the glamorous reception room with the world-famous winemaker, it’s far more likely you’ll be dazzled than if you tasted the same wine poured from a bottle in a paper bag, in a blind flight of its peers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, when these famous wine critics are tasting the wine openly, they’re aware of such factors as the quality of the vintage (which they’ve probably also pronounced upon) and their own previous reviews of the same wine from prior vintages. There is a tendency (understandable) on the part of critics to want to be consistent in their reviews. Consistency is a large part of their credibility, after all, especially among the proprietors of great wineries who invite them to taste the latest vintage. I’m not saying that a scrupulous critic will deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of consistency. But it may be that his or her sensory impressions are skewed, at a subconscious level.

This is a very large part of the reason why the same wines keep on getting the same high scores over and over again from the same famous critics. It’s also why less famous (which is to say, less well-connected) wine writers, such as Patricia, often find themselves underwhelmed at tastings like the Judgment of Wilmington. She had no skin in the game, no reputational stakes on the table, no consistency to safeguard. All she had was her palate. As, indeed, do we all.

  1. TomHill says:

    Well…..that lady got exactly what she deserved…utter disappointment. When will people ever learn?? When a famed critic awards a score to a wine, be it 100 pts or 96 pts or whatever…that perfect score applies to the wine WHEN IT’S AT ITS PEAK…be it the Parker 100-pt scale or the WS 100-pt scale or the WE 100-pt scale. Don’t these people have any understanding of these 100-pt scales?? A 2010 Leoville-Barton or a 2006 Casanova is nowhere near its peak and, therefore, nowhere being a perfect wine. THAT’S what the “public” should keep in mind…not whether the wine was tasted blind or not. I would guess most of those wines were tasted blind, not with the winemaker or at the winery.

  2. Ken Goff says:

    Actually, many of these reviewers have clearly stated that the score they give a wine is based entirely on how that wine tastes at the time of the tasting and are not forecasting the wine’s future. Sometimes the same publication will give a very different score to a wine when tasted many years later. Another thing to consider is this. I have in mind the best wine I have ever had. For a long time, I considered this the only “100″ point wine I had had since no others affected me so profoundly. A wise friend pointed out that I probably had tasted many more 100 point wines even though I didn’t like them as well. Just as Picasso may have a 100 point painting, Renoir, Rembrandt and Da Vinci, too. But I may just prefer Picasso to Rembrandt. A question of style.

  3. david weintraub says:

    So basically it’s a 100 point guess is what Tom Hill is saying.

  4. TomHill says:

    Ken sez: “Actually, many of these reviewers have clearly stated that the score they give a wine is based entirely on how that wine tastes at the time of the tasting and are not forecasting the wine’s future.”

    Au contraire, Ken.
    From Parker’s 100-pt scale definition:
    “The score given for a specific wine reflects the quality of the wine at its best. I often tell people that evaluating a wine and assigning a score to a beverage that will change and evolve in many cases for up to 10 or more years is……”
    I recall similar verbage from the definition of the WS’s 100-pt scale. Presumably, the CGCW and the WE have similar definitions for their 100-pt scales as well. But that’s what the “public” and this lady can’t seem to get thru their thick skulls…those perfect scores reflect the wines perfection when it reaches its peak down the road, with age.
    So these famous wine critics are very much in the business of forecasting the wine’s future. Because they are professionals in wine criticism and have such vast experience in watching how a wine evolves over the yrs, they’re pretty danged accurate, near infallible, at doing their job. For the rest of us mere mortals, such predictions are just simply guesswork.

  5. Another factor that has to be considered is the provenance of the wines. When Parker is tasting at the chateau, he’s getting wine in optimal condition. When wines have been shipped halfway across the world, a lot of things – mostly bad – can happen. On the other hand, to pick up the Picasso thread. Let’s say Pablo were alive today and had just put together a show of new work for display at some chi-chi gallery. Would it be more fair to review the work without any knowledge or awareness of who the artist was? In other words, view it blind? Or does context, reputation, body of previous work, etc. do much more than just bias the observer?

  6. PaulG is exactly right. This is a topic I’ve written about frequently on this blog. The temperature in the back of a metal delivery truck can reach 140 degrees in summer, which would bake the wine. I’ve heard of palettes of wine left sitting on a dock fully exposed to the sun, all day long. A famous collector once told me he could tell when there’d been a power outage and his refrigerated wine cabinet was down for as little as a few hours. Dan Berger talks about wines being light-struck. And then of course there’s TCA, which in small amounts is barely detectible but can still tamp down the wine’s legitimate aromas. So, as Paul says, “a lot of things–mostly bad–can happen.”

  7. With all due respect to my learned friends, I fail to see how provenance plays any role in a consumable product tasted blind.

    Works of art are lucky in that regard. They are visual, not tastable, they do not change over time and they do come with a certain cachet of the artist because you know what you are looking at. But as any fan of Picasso knows, there are rightfully loved Picassos and pedestrian Picassos. Context helps those lesser works but does not elevate them to the level of his more admired efforts.

    With wine, we make individual judgments. I happen to not believe in 100 points wines because they, for the most part, require judgments about the future. Tom Hill, who is far more expert than his modesty will allow him to say, nevertheless is wrong about expert judgments. They are guesses. Admittedly, they are informed, even learned predictions, but they and the people who make them are not infallible. Otherwise, Mr. Parker would not have to change his judgments in mid-stream so often.

  8. If mostly bad things happen when wine is shipped to professional reviewers, wouldn’t tasting the wine at the Château (where the wine will taste the best for a number of reasons…) be the best solution for both the producer and consumer? Most professional critics (at least those worth their weight in salt) are not swayed by the presence of the owner or winemaker, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Ergo, pallets of wine wouldn’t be ruined in the pursuit of pleasing professional palates in psuedo-blind tastings!

    It just so happens, that two of the previous commenters (Steve and Paul) are uniquely qualified to explain the system (define 100 pts, where/how to taste, from both a professional critic’s, a maligned blogger’s and a producer’s viewpoints!

  9. TomHill says:

    Charlie sez:”They are guesses. Admittedly, they are informed, even learned predictions, but they and the people who make them are not infallible. Otherwise, Mr. Parker would not have to change his judgments in mid-stream so often.”

    Yup, Charlie…they are just guesses. But there are “educated guesses” and then there are “WAGS” (one of the terms we scientists use…”wild a$$ guesses”). You are one of the few critics who acknowledge they are just that, guesses. But other times they are often delivered w/ an air of infallibility to them. Or, at least, are annointed w/ a degree of infallibility by many of their readers.
    I, because of your experience, put a lot more credance in your “guess” than the guess of some unknown blobber living in his parent’s basement.

  10. Kyle, it’s true that tasting at the chateau is the most reliable, from a wine quality point of view. But the 2 main problems are (1) the ability of the critic to visit so many properties and (2) the “tasting room bias” I’ve referred to. I do think it’s possible for a professional to largely overcome that bias–but not entirely.

  11. Did anyone catch that Talorico referred to James Suckling as Jack Suckling (it is his son’s name…) and reminisced fondly over the White Burgundy from Imagery Estate Winery (I thought the author was confused, but no, Imagery actually calls their blend of “Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, balanced by a small amount of Pinot Meunier” White Burgundy?

    Steve, I concur with those two main problems. What about the dynamic of what 100 means and when it exists?

  12. Kyle – I wrote at length about the meaning of a perfect score when I awarded my first one a few years ago. It’s still up on my blog and if Steve will permit me, I’ll post the link: http://www.paulgregutt.com/2009/10/perfect-score.html

  13. PaulG is welcome to link anytime!

  14. Steve, thank you for writing about my article and linking to our website. It’s much appreciated. I did get the web site right for James Suckling, but not the first name. It has been corrected. Thanks for pointing that out Kyle. You can look at copy over and over and still miss something. I’m not sure what Tom means when he said I “got what I deserved” regarding this tasting. I’m a journalist who went to a $500 event at the MidAtlantic Wine & Food Festival. My newspaper paid for my ticket and wanted me to write about it, not so much as a wine writer, but as an average person. The majority of the people attending were wine lovers who can probably afford very pricey wines, but we’re not wine writers or in the wine business. My goal was to share my experience. Was it worth $500? In my opinion, no. I think others, who were not wine writers, also were surprised not to be blown away by the wines. I do hope that in the future it makes people think about spending that much on a tasting that might have seemed so promising but, in truth, underwhelmed. But, as we all know, taste is subjective. Thanks again for the mention and the link.

  15. Hey Steve,
    I’ve often wondered if I’m tasting the same wine that the critics reviewed.
    I mean, most of the wines you mention are blends of several varietals. And many wineries produce thousands of cases of any one wine. Do they have vats that can hold the blend for all those cases or do they have to run multiple batches? And wineries also have multiple barrels that go into the possibly separate batches…so how do they ensure a consistency in quality?

  16. Dear Patricia, thank you very much for writing in. You’re a talented writer and I wish you all the best!

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