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Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

35 comments

 

The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”

Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”

This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.

I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:

  1. In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
  1. The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.

Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.

I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.

Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.

Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.

  1. Geez, I’ve been wine blog commenting about this phenomenon for years.

    Let’s jump into our H.G. Wells time travel machine back to 1989.

    Robert Parker is being interviewed by an English classics professor for Wine Times magazine.

    [Sorry Ron, no link. Wine Times never made it into the digital age. And apparently no one “archived” its contents for posterity. One more example that debunks the belief that “everything is on the Internet.”]

    WINE TIMES: … What are your preferences in terms of types and styles of wine?

    PARKER: I do want to taste fruit. …

    WINE TIMES: … What are your weaknesses as a taster?

    PARKER: … I don’t think these are weaknesses, just observations: I don’t like a vegetal character in wines. … I like delicate, elegant wines, . . . I also don’t like wines that are overly tart. Now that may be a weakness. I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified. … if a wine tastes like biting into a fresh lemon or lime, I think that’s an objectionable character. …

    WINE TIMES: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?

    PARKER: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. …

    … The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.

    I thought one of the jokes of the 20-point systems is that everyone uses half points, so it’s really a 40-point system — which no one will acknowledge — and mine is a 50-point system, and in most cases a 40-point system.

    WINE TIMES: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?

    PARKER: It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [ balance of ] 10 points are … simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.

    WINE TIMES: You mean when you are in the cellars of Burgundy, you look at a wine and say this is a 4 for color, a 14 for bouquet, and so on [ ? ]

    PARKER: Yes, most of the times. What happens is that I’ve done so many wines by now that I know virtually right away that it’s, say, upper 80s, and you sort of start working backwards. And color now is sort of an academic issue. The technology of color is refined and most color is fine. My system applies best to young wines because older wines, once they’ve passed their prime, end up getting lower scores.

    WINE TIMES: Your scores get 50 points added on and look like the grades boys and girls get in school, and I know that’s why you ended up with a system with 100 points, but don’t you give out too many high grades? The highest percentage of your grades are in the 80s and then some are in the 90s. Are there lots of wines you taste that you don’t evaluate?

    PARKER: Yes. I try to focus on the best wines in The Wine Advocate, or especially when I do the Buyer’s Guide, my publisher doesn’t want to take up space with 50s, 60s, or even 70s. When I’m looking for a best buy, I might go through hundreds of wines, or when I go through the wines of Hungary or Yugoslavia, I’ll never put most of them in The Wine Advocate. I could never justify taking two or three pages to publish those results. . . .

    WINE TIMES: The answer is partly to give you credibility. Right now the argument is that your average score in The Wine Advocate is in the 80s, and it doesn’t matter if its 81 or 84. If it’s in the newsletter, buy it.

    PARKER: No. I buy wines, and I buy wines that are 85 or 86, not below that. But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered “outstanding” for its type.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    PARKER: Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that a great 1985 Morgon [ BEAUJOLAIS ] is not going to get 100 points because it’s not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.

    WINE TIMES: In your system, what would be the highest rated BEAUJOLAIS?

    PARKER: 90. That would be a perfect BEAUJOLAIS, and I’ve never given one. I have given a lot of 87s and 88s.

    [Bob Henry’s comment : In 1990, Parker awarded a score of 92 points to the 1989 vintage Georges Duboeuf “Jean Descombes” Morgon BEAUJOLAIS, contradicting his then year-old statement above.

    Fast forward to 2011: the stellar 2009 vintage cru BEAUJOLAIS garnering scores in the 91 to 94 point range from Wine Advocate.]

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] “dry out,” it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.

    Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .

  2. One more excerpt:

    WINE TIMES: How do you determine merit versus value in a wine? ARE THERE WINES THAT WILL NEVER GET AN 85? How do you compare the Chenin Blancs of the world with the … [ question interrupted ]

    PARKER: I had the two best Chenin Blancs I ever tasted out of California last year, and one [1987 vintage Preston] got 87, I think, and the other [1987 vintage Pine Ridge] 86, and they were both $6 bottles of wine. Most people are looking for good values, and I have a responsibility to these readers. The scores are given based upon quality not price. To me, the best values are under $10. Double digit prices are the point where consumers pause. Wine prices are rather high right now across the board. That’s where tasting notes come in. A wine that gets an 85 and costs $4 is obviously a very good value.

    WINE TIMES: You are arguing price versus quality. Take a $30 bottle [of] wine. To get an 87 does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

    PARKER: No. It’s one man’s opinion, but I think that 87-point [1987 vintage Preston] Chenin Blanc can go right on the table next to a Leflaive white Burgundy rated 87. They will give you different sets of flavors, but are every bit as good as each other. That’s the way the system was meant to work.

  3. Steve,

    “A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points.”

    Would a great rosé sparkling wine or Champagne ever cross the 91 point threshold for you?

    ~~ Bob

  4. redmond barry says:

    This speaks to the value of the approach of California Grapevine, which aggregates 20-point scale scores and uses true ranking stats, and the late lamented Puffs of another rag whose name I forget. Similarly useful are Broadbent’s stars and the Dude’s ABC grades, if these are somewhat undercut by his not-often-enough pithy summaries.

  5. A Nony Mouse says:

    Steve,

    Part of the issue here, as I see it, is a function of fashion. Are there excellent examples of steel toed boots? Yes. Who makes the best overalls? (Does the public care? No.) Are there garment makers out there who artfully employ, to the bane of their peers, corduroy in the most mind-blowing combination of visual and tactile beauty?

    Yes to all. But those categories do not sell. More importantly, they are off the radar of the average (and I do not mean middle of the road here) reader. The wine reader desires what? Not just a broader understanding of wine – which one can easily obtain through judicious reading and tasting – but also the highlights. The lux. The story. And all too often the story is directly tied to unobtanium, to “12 cases made” to “.2 tonnes per acre” and the like. Whether you like it or not, both the wine writing media and the consuming (liquid and literary) public equate these little tidbits with quality – and sometimes they are. Who’s to say a $3400 pair of handmade English oxfords isn’t the pinnacle of “shoe”? Does that mean that some other guy doesn’t make a 100 point sandal that happens to sell for $70? These unspoken gates of definition are deleterious, as Gargantuan put it – they exclude large swathes of vineyards that produce amazing fruit. Because like fashion, wine is subjective.

    To say that a perfect example of Right Bank focus is better than a perfect example of Etna Rosso craft is inherently a flawed debate. Therefore, the mere act of only awarding such scores to wines from only a handful of regions that, in the minds of the judges, publishers, and readers are capable of excellence is to already tip your hand to your own prejudices.

    If you don’t subscribe to the fashion/subjectivity argument, I ask you to look at how styles come and go in the wine world, and how scores follow suit. If you were poured an ’82 or even a ’90 vintage BDX – in its release form mind you – today, you’d be met with some question marks over the heads of many reviewers and writers, because that style of wine isn’t following the trend. Sure they were lower alcohol and sure you can attempt to pin a fraction of that on global warming, but there was a marked shift in style/extraction/alcohol/tannic focus that followed the voices an influential few. If you had poured any of the 100 point Aussies from the late 90’s in the 70’s, or even today for that matter, I imagine the scores would not stand up (assuming a blind judgment, of course).

    If there was a writer who championed a polar opposite style of wine, and he had whatever the tipping point value of followers/readers was, you’d see the global pendulum of winemaking begin to swing back that way. Some are trying, perhaps misguidedly, such as IPOB, who have maybe swung the pendulum too far in the name of swinging the pendulum away from where it was.
    Until another set of regions/styles/varietals becomes as popular as the incumbents, or a writer/stylemaker of influence takes a stance and presents an even vaguely supportable basis for his/her views, or some other outside force (global warming/dying of the old guard/mass vegetarianism) affects the fashion of wine, we will not see these “outliers” ever steal any of the precious spotlight from the mainstays.

    We will continue to gaze in wonder and amazement at the expensive glass of judged perfection in our hand and we will also drink in bewilderment when we encounter a perfect example of X wine from Y region that doesn’t even scratch the 90s.

  6. Late lamented puffs? Where you been? Try http://www.cgcw.com. Still going strong after all these years.

  7. Charlie,

    Are you our modern-day Mark Twain?:

    “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

    ~~ Bob

  8. There’s a similar yet opposite phenomenon in beer ratings. Similar in that only certain styles are deemed capable of greatness and rewarded with the highest scores, but opposite in that in beer it’s the “classic” styles that are treated as dull and limited.

    For example, Beer Advocate’s current Top 10 list consists entirely of double/imperial stouts or double/imperial IPAs, with the sole exception of an American Pale Ale that slips into the 10 slot, and even it is a rather hefty 6.4% alcohol.

    I suspect it’s because beer connoisseurship in this country is relatively new, and some of the older styles are considered “tainted” by their association with the dull versions put out by mass breweries.

  9. Steve’s post and the comments underscore, so to speak, the flaw in the expert’s single assessment. S/he is looking for characteristics that the consumer in the middle of the bell curve has little interest in. The bulk of consumers are seeking the most appealing taste–the delicious factor– irrespective of what the “gatekeepers” consider to be premium vino. This also applies to the 3 and 4 person panels at county fair competitions The professionals in this age of online interactivity will ultimately get shunted aside. Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine and I run a challenge to a ‘shootout’of Pinots, Cabs, and coming up on Sept 27th Rhones in which the People pit their palates against the wine pros, and sure enough there is seldom any overlap. I think we’ll have to add a new competition for quaffers.

  10. I don’t know much about top beer ratings–I just drink the stuff, but wine is different in its own way. It is not necesarily new discoveries that can rate tops for the majority of reviewers. In fact, many of the best wines have been the best wines forever.

    But, what affects the inability of some types to get the very best scores is the belief that they are not the best. I think a better comparison is best cars. The very highest rated cars tend not to be the best Chevrolet money can buy or the a well-made car under-20.

    But, because most pubs, other than Consumer’s Report, tend not to give point scores to cars, cars are rated by category. Thus, a full-sized luxury car in not rated side-by-side on point against a minicar.

    By the same token, the best Burgundies are not compared to the best Rose’. And it hardly matters anyhow. If one wants Rose’, then and one pays attention to reviewers, then buy the best Rose’ reviewed by Connoisseurs’ Guide. It may only get one puff, or might possibly pull of a two, but it is not likely to rate with the best Pinot Noirs because, in our opinion, it is not as interesting overall. It may well be the best wine for the situation–as Steve has so vividly described, however.

    And there is no glass ceiling. There is only reality. If a Rose’ ever presents itself as complex, deep, long, exquisitely balanced and exciting to drink, it could get top scores.

  11. Tom Merle,

    “Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine and I run a challenge to a ‘shootout’ of Pinots, Cabs, and coming up on Sept 27th Rhones in which the People pit their palates against the wine pros, and sure enough there is seldom any overlap.”

    Vox populi or the “vote” of well-educated, trained, and deeply-experienced professionals?

    If you got a stock tip from these two folks, who would you believe more:

    1) the box boy at your local grocery store;
    2) Warren Buffett.

    I have cited before and will recite here again the Malcolm Gladwell-reported “10,000 Hours Rule” to mastering a body of knowledge or a skill set in attaining world-class expertise.

    The “People” fall far short of that standard when evaluating wine.

    The “People” get you nominees that fall with +/- one standard deviation of the “average” [mean] on a normal distribution Bell Curve.

    That could be Two Buck Chuck for all we know.

    Are we willing to settle for such a “commodity”-like standard of quality and drinking experience?

    Or are we eager to drink above average wines (two or three standard deviations to the right of the mean) — which parenthetically does not intrinsically imply “higher priced” wines, as the world is full of underpublicized over-achievers?

    (Wines Parker calls out as “sleepers” of the vintage.)

    Wine writers who exhibit “discernment” revel in publicizing those discoveries.

    (Parker’s solitary efforts discovering and championing great 1982 red Bordeaux across the price continuum established his reputation and launched a publishing career.)

    And this closing comment: Vox populi got you “New Coke.” And we all know how that ended up.

    ~~ Bob

  12. When your behind the “bar” tomorrow do KJ justice by not forgetting to ask for sale. Overlooked at too many tasting rooms.

  13. Steve,

    Seconding Greg’s advice, not only “ask for the business” — but do a little upselling.

    “You are familiar with our ‘Vintner’s Reserve.’ Have you ever tried our ‘Grand Reserve’? Our Jackson Estate wines?”

    “You are selecting this wine for tonight’s dinner. What about your other needs? Do you need any wines for next weekend? Are there any special occasions coming up that you need wines for? Any upcoming gift-giving obligations?”

    ~~ Bob

  14. Dear Jim B, good observation! Not being a beerie, I did not know that.

  15. So it seems much of the criticism about the 100 point scoring scale is valid. All of you that grade on the 100 point or 50 point (50-100) should be a little more explicit. You really have two grading scales, a 100 pt. one for five varietals and a 90 pt. scale for everything else. That doesn’t seem fair to wineries whom don’t produce the the “big five”.

    What would you think if schools graded the same way, if you come from the right neighborhood you can get get an A but the best anyone else can do is a B even if they get 100% on the test.

  16. Peter–

    Au contraire. Every wine can get 100% on the test. But some are more likely to than others based on their makeup. Sort of like people.

    I am still upset that Peter P. outpointed me in third grade math, but the fact is that he was better at it than me. Eventually, he became a mathmetician and I became a wine writer. That’s because I always could count to one hundred. He was better than me above that.

    You are suggesting that all varieties be graded against themselves, and I see no reason for that. A good rose’ at 90 points is still a very good wine and one which is easy to choose when one wants rose’. Ultimately, however, it does not compare well against a great Pinot Noir when it comes to the total thrill points because it is just not as complex, as deep, etc. In point of fact, it if were, then Steve would not have loved the one he drank as much as he did for the setting.

    Final point, there are way more than five varieties that can score above 90 points, and there are rose’s in this world that can as well.

  17. Maybe there should be two scores assigned to a wine. One overall as it ranks against all varietals as is now and another score as to where it ranks within its own varietal. With the current scoring and marketing, many consumers will pass up some very nice wines just because they aren’t 90 points or above.

    The five varietals was a play on Steve’s point #2 in the post (noble varietals).

  18. Peter,

    I am a proponent that the 3 “puff” scale/5 “star” scale/20 point scale (UC Davis and British Master of Wine-adopted scale)/100 point scale (The Wine Advocate/Wine Enthusiast/Wine and Spirits/Wine Spectator)/1 million point scale (The HoseMaster of Wine– with “bonus” points for payola/graft) should be equally applied to every grape variety.

    I don’t discriminate against wines that don’t have the ability to improve with bottle age. Wines that through the “tincture of time” metamorphose into something . . . “more.”

    (Parker said circa 1989 that cru Beaujolaises doesn’t age — hence no “bonus” points. Tell that to the Burghounds I poured “single blind” a 1985 vintage Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent during a “single blind” comparative tasting of older red Burgundies. They enthusiastically embraced it as a nice Burg.)

    If that was the greatest Beaujolais ever made, then it deserves a 3/5/20/100/1,000,000 score.

    I find it inconceivable that a Krug rosé Champagne categorically can’t attain a “perfect” score.

    I find it inconceivable that a white Bordeaux like Haut Brion can’t attain a “perfect” score.

    I find it inconceivable that a Alsace Riesling like Trimbach “Clos Sainte Hune” can’t attain a “perfect” score.

    I find it inconceivable that a non-dessert German Riesling from countless producers can’t attain a “perfect” score.

    If not them, then who?

    “The best is always the enemy of the good.”

    The best DO exist. And we should recognize them with the same generosity of “perfect” scores as we do the “noble” red wines.

    ~~ Bob

  19. I part company with my wine reviewer friends on this issue: I compare wines WITHIN their grape variety category — not against other grapes.

    (I don’t ask an apple to be an orange.)

    So a Pinot Noir is not judged against the “standards” of a Cabernet.

    And I find it amusing that those who came into loving wines via Cabernet (California or Bordeaux) ultimately migrate to red Burgundy as their Holy Grail wine.

    And the single most expensive case of wine sold was red Burgundy from DRC.

    Link: http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/11/world-record-breaking-price-pushes-drc-ceiling-higher

    But how many “perfect” scores have been awarded to red Burgundies?

    By contrast, how many “perfect” scores have been awarded to California “cult” Cabernets and First Growth Bordeaux?

  20. With Steve’s indulgence, let me quote at length Jancis Robinson, M.W. who discarded her own 20-point scale and REINVENTED in the moment an unprecedented 26 point scale when savoring ethereal older bottles of Yquem.

    From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Web Site
    (Posted September 1998):

    “Notes From Attending an Yquem Vertical Tasting”

    Ms. Robinson’s prefacing remarks: “All in bottles with original cork unless stated otherwise.”

    1784
    (President Thomas Jefferson’s collection bottle, 1 tasted by Michael Broadbent, H R [host Hardy Rodenstock] and German cronies at Wiesbaden in 1985 soon after H R’s acquisition of this Thomas Jefferson collection from a mysterious “bricked up cellar in Paris” before another was auctioned at Christie’s in 1986. The bottle tasted in 1998 was much darker than that described in 1985.)

    Very dark brown syrup with copper coloured rim. Bottle stink immediately after pouring. After 5-10 minutes a very beguiling bouquet of dried roses emerged and the wine was lively, aromatic, fragrant for a good 40 to 50 minutes. On the palate the wine was very gentle, very delicate, very feminine to the 1787’s more aggressive appeal, and the sweet fruit was lovely and very, very long before fading (earlier than the 1787). A marvel of a relic rather than unmitigated pleasure.

    1787
    (another dark Thomas Jefferson bottle, engraved not labelled, with a deep punt).
    Deep, deep brown with a greenish rim and, like the 1784, smelt slighty mouldy at first. There was definite life here, however, in a wine that was slightly treacly, extremely lively with marked but not unpeasant acidity. On the palate a burnt sugar start, dry finish, no great persistence. After 40 minutes there was an intense nose of chestnuts, autumnal and briary. More robust and concentrated but less charming than the 1784. Powerful, chunky.

    1811
    (the year of the comet)
    A quite amazing wine, served blind with 1831, 1911 and 1931 it was the most intense, yet least evolved of the lot.

    Deep amber with green gold rim. So vibrant and multilayered on the nose, it smelt as though it was just starting to unfold, yet was utterly convincing about the treasures it had yet to give up. Spicy and rich and so, so piercingly clean. Racy, long piercing essence of cream and spice. Very, very powerful, long and complete. After 40 minutes in the glass it took on a hint of rum toffees which is not a flavour I happen to like (c.f. the greater delicacy of the 1847) but that is the only criticism I could possibly muster. This is presumably a one-off and probably deserves an even higher ranking than the 1847. 25 points [Bob Henry comment: her 25 point score exceeds her own 20 point scale.] and still a great deal to give. I hope very much to have a chance to taste it again before I die.

    1828
    Deep amber.
    Nose not quite knit, slightly volatile. Dry finish. Less intense than the other wine vaguely in this style, the 1899 (as well it might be). 18 points and going downhill slowly.

    1831
    Wide, pale rim with a heart of deep amber. Very very intense yet subtle nose with nots of nuts and cream. A superb wine with layers and layers of flavour and richness. Angelo Gaja suggested baby powder and roasted hazelnuts. Wonderfully smooth texture. Its effect on this jaded palate was medicinal in the best possible way: a quite delicious pick-me-up. So long, yet delicate. A great, great wine that happened to be served with one or two even greater ones. 24 points [sic] and probably at its peak.

    1847
    The big issue of the day was whether this of the 1811 was ‘better’. (Both were absolutely extraordinary. The 1847 gave me more pure tasting pleasure, but apparently this wonderfully pure scent of raspberries and vanilla cream had been apparent on the 1858 and the 1869 tasted previously, whereas there is nothing quite like the 1811 for intensity and youthfulness.) Relatively light tawny-amber. Extraordinary nose, at first perfectly ripe, warm raspberries and then heady vanilla cream. Beautifully balanced. Gentle. Delicate. Perfect texture. Nothing could be finer. 26 points [sic] and probably still climbing, although the 1811 will outlast it.

    1861
    Extraordinary in every way. Looked almost like black syrup, a PX, with gamboge rime. Smelt of treacle toffee and tea and moved like a thick treacle too. Very very sweet and concentrated. Certainly not fine but, amazingly, well balanced. A one-off. 23 points [sic] and nearly at its peak.

    1893 (recorked 1996)
    Very very deep brownish mahogany; looks thick and treacly. Correct nose of sturdy deep richness. Intense flavour of a much more conventionally massive build than the 1899. Lots of ripeness and length and potential. 19 points and still a long way to go.

    1899 (recorked 1994)
    Layered mahogany. No nose to begin with but delicate and somehow convincing. Lovely dancing delicate texture on the palate. Great sweetness counterbalanced by acidity. Not one of the pinnacles of this tasting but a gorgeous and extremely satisfying wine. 19 points and still improving.

    1900 (recorked 1900)
    Fox red of only medium intensity and a yellow-green rim. Sweet and heady with a slight hint of estufa on the nose. Light in weight and sweetness with a slightly dry end. 16 points and fading.

    1911 (recorked 1996)
    Hint of dark brown (as opposed to rich mahogany) in slightly lacklustre hue. Initially slightly mouldy but underneath a gorgeous bouquet of steeped raisins. Very, very sweet at first with notable acid at the end of the palate. Slightly spindly c.f. the 1811 and 1831 it was served with. NB recorking. 19 points and ready.

    1931 (recorked 1997)
    Very clear, pale amber. Pure, clean, sharp but not especially intense nose. Quite lean and light with almost madeira-like acidity. With its less-than-usual charge of sweetness and exceptionally palate-rinsing-like crispness, this was the only wine that might have been difficult to recognise immediately as great Sauternes. It could almost have been a very old, light fortified wine. 17 points and on the way down

    1945
    Very very deep mahogany, extremely viscous. Yellow/green rim. Essence of rose petals on nose with something almost suggestive of oak. Rich. complex nose. Very intense flavour, extremely sweet – fuller and rounder than 1947 or 1949. Perfect texture, balancing acidity, and so much more than just sweet. 20 points and ready.

    1947
    As deep a mahogany as 1945 with similar development at rim. Smells creamy with hint of something vegetal and a floral topnote. Not as overwhelming sweet as either 1945 or 1949 but extremely youthful, lively and crisp. Could be great with nuts; less so with anything very sweet. Those who know the wine better than me were slightly disappointed by this bottle. 18 points and still considerable evolution to come.

    1949
    Deep tawny/amber with pale yellow rim. Scent of raisins, not as subtle a nose as the 1945 or 1947 with only medium intensity but.. on the palate a great thwack of purest raisin cream with great length of flavour. 19 points and not yet at peak.

    1950
    Looks much less viscous and much paler than the three vintages above; deep gold with some amber highlights. Relatively lightweight on the nose but definite creme brulee. A hint of something not 100 per cent clean about this bottle. Creamy and sweet on the palate, very refreshing, long, could give enormous pleasure served in isolation; next to the heavyweights of the 1940s it looked very slightly lean. 17 points and still evolving.

    1958
    Lively, deep orange and tawny. Both grass and sweetness on the very intense nose. Very compete palate. Extremely long and complex with many reverberations. 18 points and still climbing.

    1960
    Deep tawny with brown notes. Intense nose with strong floral notes on Christmas pudding
    flavours. Full, round, rich, long but slightly brawny and drying out at the end. Not fine, rather aggressive and old, hint of maderisation. 17 points and going downhill. [Bob Henry’s comment: 17 points is a rather high score for a “Not fine . . . maderi[zed]” wine.]

    1968
    Deep tawny marmelade colour. Very slightly mousey to begin with on the nose. Palate very rich and extremely long, but a bit of dryness at the end. Not complete; a bit jagged. 16 points and probably near its peak.

    1969
    Lively colour of a ginger cat. Looks more like an Australian stickie than an Yquem. Smelt of ginger Edinburgh rock. Very unsubtle. 13 points; can’t imagine evolution.

    1971
    Deep butterscotch colour. Rich creme brulee scent. Very very full flavoured, quite brutal impact on the palate. This wine could become something splendid but for the moment is about 16 points.

    1973
    Pale tawny. Relatively simple, sugary nose. Lots of unresolved acidity on the palate. The wine may well improve in bottle but is an awkward. 14 points at the moment.

    1983 (imperiale)
    Deep apricot colour. Exotic nose of dried tropical fruit – mango? Gorgeous, full bodied, delightfully middle aged, between youthful and embryonic and fully blown. Long and powerful though a a drying hint of dried apple peel on the finish. 20 points and still a long way to go.

    1988 (double magnum)
    Very pale straw. Lovely pure botrytis notes. Youthful reminder of quite what a transformation bottle age is. Still relatively simple but very pleasurable. Sweet, uncomplicated, beguiling. 18.5 points with decades to go.

    1990 (magnum)
    Light youthful gold. Peachy smell redolent of botrytis. Also a hint of fine polished wood on the nose. Very long, firm, sleek, confident. Big and rich. 20 points and a long long way to go.

    1991
    Paler than 1990. Pale gold. Smells of very ripe pears. relatively simple and unevolved. Clean quite tart palate. Noticeably lighter bodied than 1990 — not as pure and tingling either. 17 points and developing but not a great Yquem.

  21. Bob,

    “I don’t discriminate against wines that don’t have the ability to improve with bottle age. Wines that through the “tincture of time” metamorphose into something . . . “more.””

    I agree. Maybe we should really score wines less if they must “age to reach their peak”. The majority of wine is drank quite young so you could infer a wine is flawed if it must age to be at its best. Not that I don’t appreciate a nice older Bordeaux or Burgundy, etc.

  22. I feel like every one of these discussions about ratings really comes down to a question that isn’t asked often enough:

    What is the point of ratings?

    Do they exist to evaluate the performance of the winemaker, or to educate customers? If the latter, which customers — what level of knowledge are you assuming?

    Giving 100 points to a wine that is “great — for a Beaujolais (e.g.)” but that is inferior to most or all of the 90+ point cabs and pinots is fine if the idea is probably fine if you’re scoring the winemaker’s skill. And it’s probably a great idea if the ratings are for customers who will understand the context behind that 100 score. But it’s a lousy idea if the target audience is not-so-knowledgeable consumers.

    I don’t really have a good answer to my own question, though. The people who actually buy the glossy wine magazines probably have a least a modicum of wine knowledge. But the ratings (or at least, the 90+ ones) reach a much broader audience through shelf notes and such — which I assume the glossy mags are ok with, because being seen as “authoritative” is good for their image.

    I’d be interested in Steve’s answer — who did you see yourself as writing your reviews for?

  23. For those whose passion carries over into “audiophila,” the leading British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review has a dual scoring scale for recordings.

    One score for high “fidelity.” The second score for musical interpretation.

    Let’s assume we have unearthed a rare disc from the legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson.

    The sound quality could be dreadful, given the modest recording equipment at his disposal in his day. (Score: F.)

    But the musical interpretation could be sublime. (Score: A.)

    (A 78 RPM recording by Enrico Caruso also works as an example.)

    We can take the same approach with wines.

    One technical score for “terroir”/”typicity”/”varietal correctness.”

    A second score for hedonism.

    That gives the reader greater insight into the reviewer’s benchmarks/biases — as well as the drinking experience.

  24. And on the subject of reviewer preferences/biases . . .

    Excerpts from Robert Parker on How He “Rates” Wines:

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 84, dated 12-11-92):

    “Long-time readers know that I am more critical of older wines than many other writers. To merit high ratings, an older wine must still be fully alive with its personality intact.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 90, dated 12-20-93):

    “Readers should recognize that when tasting old bottles the expression, ‘There are no great wines, only great bottles,’ is applicable. . . . Long-time readers have noted that I prefer my wines younger rather than older. Therefore, regardless of its historical significance, no wine which tastes old and decrepit will receive a good review. Those old wines that receive enthusiastic evaluations do so because they remain well-preserved and loaded with remarkable quantities of rich, pure fruit. They possess a freshness, in addition to the profound complexity that developed with significant bottle age. . . . bottles that received perfect or exceptional reviews are living, rich, concentrated, compelling wines that justify the enormous expense and considerable patience collectors invest in maturing the finest young wines from top vintages.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 103, dated 2-23-96):

    “Long-time readers know that I am a fruit fanatic, and if a wine does not retain this essential component, it is not going to receive a satisfactory review.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 109, dated 6-27-97):

    “The 1990 Le Pin [red Bordeaux, rated 98 points] is a point or two superior to the 1989 [Le Pin, rated 96 points], but at this level of quality comparisons are indeed tedious. Both are exceptional vintages, and the scores could easily be reversed at other tastings.”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (issue 111, dated 6-27-97):

    “. . . Many of the wines reviewed have been tasted many times, and the score represents a cumulative average of the wine’s performance in tastings to date. Scores however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality. Its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.’ ”

    Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002):

    “ . . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.

  25. Jim B., to answer your question, what is the point of ratings: Ratings serve multiple purposes, but one of them is something that’s rarely understood or mentioned: Ratings are often for producers! Producers are constantly looking for good ratings to use in their marketing and P.R. Indeed, if all the critics who use ratings were to die tomorrow, the wine industry would go out there and find and anoint new ones, because they need them.

  26. Steve, I was going to suggest that myself, but thought it might be unduly cynical….

  27. Steve,

    I certainly agree “Tootsie” WAS a better movie than Ghandhi and by the way “Wine Times” was the original name of “Wine Enthusiast Magazine”!

    We changed it in 1989 to Wine Enthusiast and the Bob Parker
    interview that Bob Henry is quoting from was executed by Ed Guiliano.

    Without a doubt one of the best interviews of Parker ever and he was very candid with all his remarks.

    Warm Personal Regards,

    Adam

  28. redmond barry says:

    Sir Charles,
    Sorry. My bad.

    Steve,
    Good point about the industry needing scores, and of course, the critics needing something to score. In this way positive feedback loops can affect customer decisions and winemaking styles.
    Adam,
    Hard to compare Tootsie and Ghandi, except to say Jessica Lange would have been nice as Nehru.

  29. Adam,

    I had a dim memory that “Wine Times” became “Wine Enthusiast” — so thanks for the confirmation.

    As the copyright owner of the Parker interview, care to proffer a link to its unabridged version? (Hint! Hint!)

    And “repurpose” other timeless columns and articles and interviews from “Wine Times”?

    As a “throw-away” (not recycling) society, we are too cavalier in letting our cultural and historical heritage lapse into disuse and abandonment.

    (Aside: half of all film stock-based movies have been permanently lost to posterity. Likewise an unknown percentage of our recorded music and recorded television programs.

    See: http://www.clir.org/pubs/archives/ensuring.pdf)

  30. Anthony lombardi says:

    Someone above hit the nail on the head. The scores are there to help sell the publication & ultimately help out the retailer. Worth noting that all of the “Noble” regions, AVA’s, AOC’s etc are ones which sell the most wine.

    If Parker were completely sincere about how he gets to 100, shouldn’t German Riesling be the highest scoring wines in the world? They are lush with aromatics & fruit flavors & show the ability to age as well or better than almost anything else.

  31. Bob Henry says:

    Found this tout alluded to in the “Summer [2008] by Sokolin” catalogue distributed by that Long Island, NY retailer:

    2005 DRC Montrachet
    $5,995 bottle
    100 Points/Wine Spectator

    From the magazine’s website:

    “Both tastings of the Montrachet delivered exotic scents of apricot, pineapple, citronella and honey, still marked by oak. On the palate, it was rich and creamy, almost massive, but unfolds on the palate in waves, with fine structure and a long mineral finish. All the elements are there for a great future. As perfect a young white Burgundy as I have tasted (100/100 points, both non-blind; $2,500-$3,000).”

    [Note: this was a “single-blind” tasting. — Bob]

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/15377

  32. Bob Henry says:

    Correcting my typo:

    {This was NOT a “single-blind” tasting. — Bob]

  33. Bob Henry says:

    The “premox” problem in white Burgundies may also be a contributor to some wine reviewers withholding “100 point” scores.

    Bibliography:

    http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-articles/486630/the-curious-incident-of-the-oxidised-white-burgundy

    http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/15102

    http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/528977/oxidation-problem-makes-white-burgundy-unreliable

    http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/584876/jefford-on-monday-shedding-light-on-air

    But it is not just white wines that evince this problem:

    http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers

    In the November 2014 issue of Decanter:

    “Premox: has the crisis moved to red wine? Are the premature oxidation woes that beset white Burgundy now threatening your Cabernet? Jane Anson reports”

  34. Bob Henry says:

    The sound of the other shoe dropping . . .

    On Friday night, I attended a “Wines of the Andes” consumer tasting, “curated” by James Suckling who was in attendance.

    I arrived before the event began to buttonhole Suckling with some explanatory questions.

    The most pertinent: does he have a “glass ceiling” when he reviews certain grape varieties/wine varietals?

    For example, would a rosé ever receive a “I’m 100 points on that!” score?

    Would a cru Beaujolais?

    He said his 100 point scoring scale can be applied to any grape variety/wine varietal.

    He has never awarded a 100 point score to a rosé. But philosophically wouldn’t rule it out.

    He has never awarded a 100 point score to a cru Beaujolais — and immediately commented that their rapid and sustained improvement in quality might lend itself to such a score. (Presently, he rates them as high as 94 points.)

    He also said that he has changed his scoring orientation since leaving Wine Spectator. He has pivoted to placing a greater emphasis on “accessiblity” (read: early/earlier drinking pleasure). And observed that many wines he samples from barrel these days are immediately drinkable. (But still prizing and praising wines that can age for decades.)

    He differs from Robert Parker who does impose a “glass ceiling” on certain wines (cited examples above: domestic Chenin Blanc, cru Beaujolais, one assumes rosé) that he believes don’t improve with time in the bottle. Wines that it would not be “fair” to “equate” to a great vintage bottle of (say) Mouton-Rothschild.

    It is nonsensical to compare one wine critic’s 100 point scale score to another’s: they are not on the same page, using the same metric.

    And therein lies the fundamental flaw to services such as Wine Lister:

    “Another wine-rating system, this time based on 1,000 points”

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2016/04/15/another-wine-rating-system-this-time-based-on-1000-points/

  35. From The Drinks Business Online
    (May 7, 2015):

    “PARKER: NOT AWARDING 100 POINTS ‘IRRESPONSIBLE’ ”

    Link: https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/05/parker-not-awarding-100-points-irresponsible/

    By Patrick Schmitt

    During an interview with the drinks business earlier this year, Parker – who developed the 100-point rating system – expressed his urge to award full marks to great wines, and his dismay at those who don’t.

    “When, in your mind, the wine is the best example you have ever tasted of this particular wine, you have an obligation to give it a perfect score,” he told db.

    On the other hand, he branded those who are incapable of awarding a perfect score “irresponsible”.

    “I think the person who can’t give 100 is really dodging responsibility, because there’s no way they haven’t tasted a wine that is the best example they have tasted from this producer, the best example they could ever think of.”

    He then stated, “I think it’s irresponsible not to give a perfect score if you think the wine is perfect.”

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