Eighteen 100 point Bordeaux wine scores in a single issue of The Wine Advocate? That’s what Andrew Jefford reports on his blog on Decanter’s website. When I read that, I immediately flashed back to my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound, who told me that he’s given 100 points to only one wine in all his years of reviewing (1945 Romanée-Conti, which already was very old when Allen tasted it).
There is a theory out there, called score inflation, which borrowed its name from “grade inflation”, which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency of academic grades for work of comparable quality to increase over time.” I don’t think anyone would mind if academic grades were increasing in America because kids are actually getting smarter, but sadly, that’s not the case. The reasons why grades are on the uptick (if they are) has to do with political and social issues I don’t pretend to understand, but I do understand that grade inflation troubles many people, who perceive it as somehow bad and indicative of deeper problems in the society.
This aspect of being troubling also accompanies wine score inflation. Dr. Vino touched on it the other day, and while he didn’t exactly condemn it, he did kind of cast a mild aspersion on it, especially in his opening question: “Is inflation crippling wine scores?” The answer seems to be inherent in the question: Yes.
Okay, kids, let’s talk about score inflation. Now, right upfront I don’t think you can accuse me of score inflation, because I’m almost as stingy as Allen Meadows about 100 point scores. Ninety-nines and 98s too, and even 97s are hard to come by if I’m doing the rating. I don’t feel any pressure to give more high scores–well, maybe a little pressure, here and there–but in general, I’m happy with my scores, my employer is happy with my scores, and the only people unhappy with my scores are wineries that get low ones.
I do think that being too generous with high scores isn’t a good thing, though. To me, a 100 point wine should be one of the most uncommon things in life, like a bar mitzvah, turning 21 or having sex for the first time (which makes me think of Oscar Levant‘s crack about Doris Day: “I knew her before she was a virgin.”). Well, all right, you can only have those things once in a lifetime, whereas you can have multiple perfect wines. But it makes me wonder, where’s the line when it comes to 100 points?
To me, 18 in a single issue is too much. Granted, I haven’t tasted those wines, so maybe Parker really did find 18 instances of sheer perfection (and, as Jefford reminds us, “And another eleven with 99 or 99+ points”). But when so many wines are “perfect,” then it’s the Moynahan effect of “defining deviancy down” applied to wine. Call it “defining perfection down.” Another way of looking at it is Garrison Keillor’s closing shtick from his Lake Woebegon routine on A Prairie Home Companion: “…all the children are above average.” Obviously, all the children cannot be “above average” because then there wouldn’t be an “average” for anyone to be above or below.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly ominous about score inflation. It doesn’t harm anyone, and it makes the proprietors who get the perfect scores happy. But to me, to call a wine “perfect” (which is what 100 points means) must necessarily be rare. I’m glad I’m not as stingy as Allen Meadows, but I’m also glad I’m not as promiscuous with high scores as the folks at The Wine Advocate.
This is the second and final part of my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound. Allen is the author of a brand new book, “The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée,” available here at Burghound’s website. I will be reviewing “The Pearl” in an upcoming post.
SH: Do you collect?
Would I find all three of those regions [i.e., California, Burgundy, Oregon] in your cellar?
Would you care to name any particular producers you’re fond of?
Well, in Burgundy, because that’s always been my interest, it would take quite a while to name them all. I would say, though, that I collect producers, but I also collect by appellation. A lot of people imagine that I have only Grand Crus and that’s absolutely not the case. I collect very broadly.
You made a beautiful argument [in his World of Pinot Noir symposium] for Volnay Villages. But let’s talk about California, because I’m a California guy. Would you care to name some of your highest-rated brands in California?
Sure. There are a number I admire, but Anthill comes to mind. Rhys is another I admire greatly. I think Joe Davis, at Arcadian, is doing some really beautiful work. Some of Jim Clendenen’s stuff is really, really pretty. It’s a little austere when you start, like Davis’s stuff, but given time in bottle, it really matures. There are certainly others.
Am I mistaken in thinking that these are all lower alcohol wines, by California standards?
No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, because the whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future, if California is going to be in the eyes of the serious consumer and compete favorably with Burgundy, because high alcohol wines, in general, age less well, less gracefully than lower alcohol wines. But I don’t want to beat this to death either, because high alcohol, in certain vintages, if the wines are balanced–it’s still not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t say they’re incapable of aging.
So if I’m a California producer and my wine happens to be 15.5%, should I say, “I’m not going to send it to Meadows because he’s going to give it a low score?”
Well, chances are good it’s not going to get a great score. What I try and do is try to separate style and content, and if I think the wine is not too warm, and has at least some semblance of balance, I’ll say, “This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.
You may not know the answer to this, but over the years, how many 100s have you given to all your regions?
What was that?
A 1945 Romanée-Conti, and it didn’t appear in the pages of Burghound, it appeared in the book.
How many 99s?
I’d have to look, but probably 6,7.
What’s the highest score in California, if you remember?
I believe 95.
It was one of the Rhys wines. But I believe that one of the Anthill wines was, if not there, then close.
So you’re a fairly stingy rater. That’s my word.
Yes. I’d say that’s probably true, relative to many of my colleagues.
Do you think that there’s a such thing as score inflation going on?
Care to say anything more about that?
Well, I think there is unfortunately a commercial relationship between certain reviewers who give good scores and retailers who can use those scores to their benefit. So someone starting out as a critic is probably well advised to give very high scores to gain some notoriety. The problem is, those scores have to bear up in the eyes of the consuming public, and as we spoke earlier, I think that 90 points is supposed to mean something, as opposed to where you start, and a lot of wines that are submitted to me are in that 86-89 point range, meaning that they’re not technically flawed, but they’re not necessarily greatly distinguished either. But if I give something a 90 or above, I want the consumer to say to himself or herself, “I got something really good.”
Do you taste blind or unblind?
I generally taste unblind. This is not to say 100%, but the vast majority of what I taste is not blind.
Given that this is a somewhat controversial issue, can you explain why you choose to taste unblind?
I can. There are both sides to the argument, and I believe I appreciate and understand both. However, if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a second, why not taste blind, and then look at the label and bring your context and experience to the review?
There are times I do that, in particular when we do staged tastings where it’s a theme. In other words, it’s a given producer, or a given vintage, or a given terroir. Those are often done blind, and then the review is after the fact, and then you can adjust. But in a way, if you’re going to all of a sudden rate something 83 points, and you find out, Well, jeez, that’s a famous name, now it’s 93–what have you really done? To me, not much, other than you say to yourself that either your palate isn’t as fine-tuned as you think it is, or this really wasn’t very good after all. I can see both sides of it. People who taste blind and believe that’s the best way–it’s the results, ultimately, that count, and the quality of the guidance. I’m less convinced that the method by which you get there is the driving force. So I wouldn’t do it that way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to do it the way they see fit.
Lord knows I haven’t been a big fan of California Sauvignon Blanc over the years. I thought that, compared to white Bordeaux, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and even Marlborough, my state has been a distant second, or third. The wines have tended to be either overly sweet, or green, or just plain thin and acidic.
But in the past year, I noticed I’m giving some pretty good scores to Sauv Blanc. I gave a little thought to blogging about it, but the moment never seemed right, until yesterday, when, by coincidence, two things happened. First, I got an email telling me I was mentioned in a Facebook post, so I clicked on the link, which took me to the feed page of a winery, Vellum, where the poster had written: “The 2010 VELLUM White was awarded 92 points from our friends at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. A wildly high score for a white Bordeaux blend!!” (The wine actually is 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon, and was raised in neutral oak.)
At the same time, I was about to review a bunch of Sauvignon Blancs that had come in from Flora Springs, Dutton Estate and J Ludlow. I enjoyed that flight very much, for the most part, and once again found myself giving out some pretty good scores.
I checked out Wine Enthusiast’s database for my highest scoring Sauv Blancs over the past 365 days and found about 40 that got between 90 and 93 points. The four 93 pointers were Trione 2010 River Road Ranch (Russian River Valley), Duckhorn 2010 (Napa Valley), Robert Mondavi 2008 I Block Fume Blanc (Oakville) and Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch (Alexander Valley). Except for the Trione, the others are wines I’ve known and praised for years; Hall bought T Bar T from Iron Horse some years back. Iron Horse, I believe, used to jazz their Sauv Blanc up with a little Viognier, to brighten it and give it some uplifted floral notes. I don’t know if Hall still does. And then, of course, Mondavi’s I Block always is triumphant. And by the way, that wine ages.
Anyway, people sometimes ask me why I don’t give Sauvignon Blanc scores as high as Chardonnay. For example, in the past year I’ve given two 96s, to Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros) and Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley). The answer probably won’t satisfy everyone. It’s simply that I don’t think Sauvignon Blanc–at least in its California incarnation–has the depth and richness of Chardonnay.
I admire Sauvignon Blanc more than I love it. I respect its dryness (when it is dry, which too often it isn’t), its acidity, its streamlined minerality, its spiciness, its exotic range of flavors, its palate-cleansing properties. Those are all good things, especially at the table. Sauvignon Blanc is probably the most food-friendly white table wine in California. But when I’m in the mood for a cold white wine, it’s almost never a Sauvignon Blanc that I grab, but Chardonnay. That’s why they call Chardonnay a “noble” variety, but not Sauvignon Blanc. Even in France, Sauvignon Blanc never elicited the profound excitement that white Burgundy, including Chablis, did and still does.
Hey, I’m used to getting some tough reaction from wineries over my scores, but really, this is the most violent blowback I ever got. I’m not going to identify the emailer, but you can determine for yourself if it’s psycho talk. Read it, then I’ll continue with my remarks.
A Small Man in Many Ways
S-tupid, small minded
T-atooed like a fool
E-rectile inversion, get the pump
H-omosapien, poor excuse for one
M-ean, will someday meet his maker like all the rest of us but how will he explain the…
O-ff putting, odorous, bullshit he feeds people, his malicious intent reeks
The sender followed this up with a long email the next day. It was laced with obscenities and sexual innuendo. Here’s a taste: “FUCK YOU, YOU LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT.”
What happened was, I gave one of this winery’s wines a score they didn’t like (84). This evidently led to a situation with one of their distributors that was not in their favor. The writer also disliked the text part of my review. “The written portion of your reviews reveal your lack of tact, lack of poise and expose you as a bully,” she wrote.
I want to say something here about my written reviews. I taste a lot of wine that is mediocre and some that is outright bad. Long ago, I developed a philosophy I’ve hewed to for years. It goes something like this: If a wine is mediocre, give it the appropriate numerical rating, but write the review up in more positive terms, for the sake of compassion. There’s no sense kicking a man when he’s already down on the ground. There’s always a way to say something critical in a kind way, as opposed to being downright nasty.
Some other parts of the email:
Most of the wines submitted to you had received gold medals Do you expect me to be impressed that a wine got a gold medal someplace? Should that make me think twice about my impression of it?
[A friend] said: Wow, what beef does he have with ___ Winery? I have no beef with any winery. Wine reviewing isn’t personal.
You’re one of those fame chasers, a popularity seeker Actually, it’s just the opposite. Ask around to find out how little I enjoy “fame.”
Your writing is mediocre at best. Now, that is below the belt! Give me credit at least for being a good writer, even if you don’t like what I say!
People are your ‘friends’ because they’re afraid of you I don’t know if she means my Facebook friends, or my actual friends. Anyway, if some people are afraid of me, there’s not a thing I can do about it. I tell them not to be. I hope no one is. I don’t know why they would be. I encourage people to call, email, whatever, and I tell them not to apologize for interrupting me, etc. When I’m on the road, I don’t throw any weight around. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. I try my best to let everyone know that I’m just this guy living in Oakland who’s paid to write about wine.
[You’re] just trying to get a free meal OMG! I hope all the winemakers and public relations people who know this isn’t true will write in! In the beginning, yes, I did accept every invitation to lunch or dinner. That was 20 years ago. The novelty wore off quickly. I go to about 10 lunches a year, max, and maybe half as many dinners. I do it for work, not because I want a free meal.
It’s funny how the writer uses the word “little” so much in both her emails. Yes, I’m short. So what? Do we have to resort to ad hominem attacks? She also called me “a trust fund type.” That’s a laugh, as my CPA will tell you. I’m “a bloodsucker.” An “oddity.” I “aspire to be accepted by the elitist pigs.” Really? Tell that to my friends in Occupy Oakland.
Okay, the emailer had to get it off her chest. I feel her pain. I need to vent, too, when stuff happens to me that I think is unfair. But really, have we descended so far down the etiquette chain that it’s now considered appropriate to send crap like this?
The thing about point scoring that makes some people so angry (more on this later) is that they say it represents a form of mathematical or epistemological certainty, of which something as subjective as the enjoyment of wine is incapable.
They have a point, if you assume that numbers in wine reviewing are used in the same way as in mathematics. However, when we critics–me, anyway–use numbers in wine reviewing, these numbers are employed in a different way. In math, numbers are nouns–treated as if they were real objects or concepts, corresponding to absolute equivalents in the Universe. In wine reviewing, however, numbers are used adjectively.
People use numbers adjectively all the time. “She’s a perfect ten,” a man will remark of a beautiful woman. “We’re number one!” fans of a sports team will chant. The Occupy people speak of “the 99 percent.” A political junkie will say a candidate’s odds of winning an election are “fifty-fifty.” Thomas Edison said “Genius is 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration.” Someone will says he’s “90 percent certain” of something. Running late for an appointment, a woman will call her friend and say she’ll be there “in thirty minutes.”
In none of these cases is the number in question meant to be taken literally or precisely. The speakers are speaking figuratively, trying to get a point across through the use of metaphor. In other words, these numbers are not nouns, referring to real entities in the world, the way, say, the number “32 degrees F” represents the freezing point of water. They’re adjectives, meant to communicate the approximation of a state of being that cannot be better or more accurately described. The person doing the communicating hopes and assumes that the person to whom he is communicating understands this metaphorical use of numbers. When he says he’s “90 percent certain” of something, he doesn’t expect to be grilled as to why he’s not 89 percent certain or 91 percent certain. He’s doing the best he can to express the quality of his belief, and he expects the other person to interpret it the way he means it.
That’s how I use numbers. If I rate something 94 points, I mean it’s around 94 points, meaning (I’m quoting from Wine Enthusiast guidelines): A classic wine. Truly superb. Highly refined. Superb harmony and balance. Great complexity. Great finesse and refinement. Memorable.
Could the 94 be a 92 or a 96 on another occasion? Certainly. I’ve been straightforward about that on my blog ever since I started writing it in 2008. The score can vary due to any number of reasons, bottle variation chief among them. Any critic who claims otherwise is in a state of denial, or simply fibbing. As I’ve said repeatedly, a wine review is that particular critic’s impression of that particular wine at that particular moment in time.
I don’t see what’s so difficult to accept about that. I think consumers get it. At the extreme are those critics of point scores who are so driven (consciously or not) by psychological factors, they fly into an ideological fury. It’s impossible to have a conversation with them, as it always is with ideologues, so I no longer try. But I do welcome legitimate conversations with people who are genuinely curious how my numbers come about. I hope this post has begun to explain it. Let me know, please, if you’d like more on this tomorrow, or if it’s getting stale.
I somehow found myself once again in the crosshairs over at Dr. Vino’s blog the other day (and what a great job Tyler Colman is doing there). Tyler was writing about “wine score inflation” (his term, not mine, and I’m not sure those words even refer to anything in the real world). Citing the writings of others, Tyler suggested that scores from the best known critics have been on the upswing, a fact (if true) he finds worthy of investigation. He didn’t exactly accuse the critics of anything nefarious, but the smell of “something’s rotten in Denmark” wafted over his post, as if from a nearby swamp.
I wrote in: “…if scores are rising for certain categories of wine, it’s because quality is improving. Critics are simply perceiving that increased quality, and rewarding it with higher scores.”
That seemed pretty innocuous to me, a statement so logical on its face, no one would even bother to dispute it.
But, wham! It hit the fan. The insults, I’m used to, especially from the usual tedious suspects. What did interest me, though, were some more thoughtful remarks that raised interesting questions. For example, Keith Levenberg (I don’t know who he is) wrote: “Steve Heimoff’s claim that ‘if scores are rising for certain categories of wine, it’s because quality is improving’ and ‘[c]ritics are simply perceiving that increased quality’ has also been Parker’s refrain for years, and it’s a complete fallacy.” Keith bases this statement on an assumption that seems highly questionable: that “critics are the worst-situated of any of us to make the determination whether quality is in fact improving, because the wines they are tasting are deliberately made to elicit their approval.”
I replied: “Are a thousand wineries in California deliberately ‘tinkering’ with their wines to match my ‘personal preferences’? I think not. That’s real conspiracy theory stuff. Instead, wineries are crafting their wines to what they perceive is a genuine shift in the consumers’ palate, of which I’m just one little part.”
The claim that winemakers are deliberately appealing to certain critics’ palates has been around for a long time. I suppose it’s true, in a way, but what’s so strange about that? A winery is a business, just like the movies or automobiles. Spielberg makes the kinds of films he believes Americans want to see. Detroit makes the kinds of cars they think Americans want to drive. If a winemaker decides to go counter to prevailing consumer preferences, chances are he’ll go bankrupt. The reason I have an impact in the sale of wine is because I reflect the general consumer preference in America. I don’t manufacture it and I don’t lead it. I like these wines because they’re good, made in a style to appeal to the wine-loving American, which includes me. When they succeed, they deserve the high scores I give them.
Then Daniel wrote (I don’t know him either): “Steve, Is every wine that you have reviewed 95 points better than every wine that you have reviewed 94 points?” I answered: “Yes.” Short and simple. Daniel replied: “So, a 97 point, $50 Calif PN, is a better wine than a $300 95 point Napa Cab?” Again, I replied: “Yes.” But, slightly troubled by something, I added, “’better’ is a complicated concept. I may blog on this soon, to better understand it myself.”
Is a 97 point $50 California Pinot Noir “better” than a $300 95 point Napa Cab? To begin with, let’s forget about the prices. They’re irrelevant. In what respect is a 97 point wine (at any price) “better” than a 95 point wine (at any price)? After all, it earned two points higher; it had to do something for those extra points, no?
This is a great question, raising profound issues that, frankly, haven’t been thoroughly explored by any critic I know of, including me (which is why I said to “better understand it myself”). For some reason, a lot more people these days care about these things than used to be the case–which may be due to an Internet generation coming of age that demands the utmost transparency and explanation. So I thank Daniel for asking this question. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll attempt to answer it, and if readers seem interested enough, perhaps the conversation will last through the week.