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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.

  1. Here’s the thing:
    There a number of issues with any point system for wine; though I certainly understand the use an cultural connection (particularly in the US) of the 100 pt system
    That said, 2 things continue to annoy me
    1) Artificial precision. There is no measurement in a real sense happening. So when people debate between a 94 and 96 pt wine, my eyes roll, and I wonder if these people are remotely numerate
    2) That 100 represents perfection is funny to me; and not because the notion of “perfection” is slippery. It’s sill because, the system is ostensibly meant to model itself after the test scoring systems of mapping %s to A,B…. In the case of wine scores, 100 does not represent % (or a whole), it’s a purely arbitrary ceiling.
    I enjoy math, and the relata that one can see through measurement and comparison. For scores, other than very loose guidelines, and a bit of information on enthusiasm of a person at a time, there is nothing. The minutiae that gets debated is just laughable

  2. george kaplan says:

    I believe Broadbent, in his published notes, has given 6 stars ( out of five) about the same number of times.

  3. doug wilder says:

    Steve, That is a pretty good ratio, and I agree they should be rare. You use a different regimen to get there, but I understand and appreciate your iterative process. Because I usually taste wines in either much smaller groups, or by themselves (and non-blind), it requires a different approach essentially examining the wine in front of me. I may taste multoiple times over multiple days if I think it neccesary. That has resulted in zero perfect scores in the last 18 months and two in the last six years. When I changed my scale from 20 to 100, I realized that virtually none of my previous 20 pointers would now equal one-hundred points. They were all very good, but in retrospect were 97-98 range with the exception of one, the 1996 David Arthur Elevation 1147, almost perfect!

  4. Not sure about your 100 point system, but Parker’s was built on the premise of the wine’s ability to age and improve over time, with the expectation that because of formidable structure, a 96 to 100 point wine will be something quite awesome somewhere down the line 10 or 20+ years or so. Whether it will or won’t be, only time will tell.

    In that sense, wines that don’t age and improve significantly will never be “perfect.” So leaves out many reds, whites and pinks that for all practical purposes are “q

  5. …….didn’t get a chance to finish! Hit the wrong key!

    So, that leaves our many reds, whites and pinks, that for all practical purposes are “quite perfect” for the niche those wines happen to be in. Why can’t there be a “perfect” dry rose’?

  6. tom barras, I guess there could be a perfect dry rose. It would probably get 93-94 points, somewhere in that neighborhood.

  7. The “perfect” Pinot Noir has yet to be produced. Any winemaker will tell you that. For me, 100 points is perfection, and I have yet to experience it in Pinot Noir.

  8. What year was the WS Litton Estate 100pt Pinot? 2007? My daughter would say, ” Cray cray” to the fact that it’s in our cellar.

  9. Keasling, that was the 2007. Please send me one of your bottles, along with a $1 million bill!


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