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Those Parker scores: Score inflation?



Quite a lot of buzz in the brouhaha-sphere over all the perfect 100s Parker have been bestowing lately. This time the commentary is from Narsai David, the food and wine critic for our local KCBS radio affiliate in San Francisco, and an old acquaintance.

The most common reaction in the commentariat has been to use the word “exponential” or a variant of it to describe the increase in Parker 100s. Wine-Searcher used it last Wednesday (“the list is growing with exponential speed”), while Narsai’s phrasing elevated the adjective to adverbial status (“this number has grown exponentially in recent years”). This naturally all gets picked up and echoed on social media; Terroirst blog quoted the Wine-Searcher article, while Narsai’s column also was reprinted, as for instance here, at the Daily Meal.

First, the numbers: As Narsai writes, Wine Advocate has given a perfect score to a total of 511 wines, but this number has grown exponentially in recent years. Just five years ago, only 69 wines scored 100 ‘Parker Points’ and in 2004, the number of perfect bottles was only 17. Narsai calls this rapid increase in 100s “a little troubling,” because it implies (to Narsai, anyway) wines that are higher in alcohol than some vintners who are “trying to satisfy Parker” would prefer, thereby leaving them in “a real quandary.”

[Fantasy segue: A conversation between a winemaker and her priest-confessor:

Winemaker: “Father, I would like to keep the alcohol-by-volume on my Cabernet under 14%, but then it would never get a hundred points from Parker.”

Priest-confessor: “My daughter, wherein lies your heart?”

Winemaker: “That’s the problem. I have expenses…”.

Priest-confessor: “You are in a real quandary.”

The word “quandary” derives from the Latin, and means “a state of uncertainty.” American Presidents routinely find themselves in quandaries during crises. Lincoln was in one after the Confederates seized Fort Sumter: Should he abandon it, or fight for it, thus starting a Civil War? FDR, a great Lincoln scholar, similarly faced a quandary after Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland, in September, 1939. Should he support Britain with materiel, even though he had an election coming up, and the majority of the country was isolationist? And yet a winemaker’s “quandary” can hardly be in the same category as either Lincoln’s or FDR’s.]

The conventional wisdom is that the pace of 100s has picked up because, as Narsai observes, “wine [technology] production in the last 25 years has really improved.” That’s undeniable. We also have had, here in California, a series of excellent vintages. My own company, Jackson Family Wines, has certainly enjoyed Parker’s largesse: perfect 100s for Lokoya and Verite (multiple times), which puts them in the company they deserve: Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Hundred Acre, among others in California. (Here’s a list of all Parker’s 100s.)

I’ve always said that, when it comes to 100-point wines, critics should be either remarkably stingy or generous. I was the former; Parker is the latter. There is intellectual support for both positions, but not for the muddy middle. To be stingy implies that perfect wines are so rare that the awarding of 100 point scores must necessarily be limited as is, for instance, the giving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. To be generous means that, once you have stipulated that perfection exists, you have to recognize that it’s more widespread than commonly thought. Both of these positions are sound. The muddy middle makes it seem like the critic who straddles the fence is simply indecisive.

So, to answer my question, Do all those Parker scores indicate score inflation? No. They suggest that wine really is better than ever, and, in California’s case, the meaning is clear: We are world class. No ands, ifs or buts about it. If certain critics can’t see that, they had best remove the beam from their eye.






  1. Interesting piece Steve.

    The argument over Parker and his ‘over-scoring’ of wines for various reasons has been an interesting one. Sensory evaluation of wine is such a subjective matter that I’ve always found it funny how people attack wine critics.

    As you mention, consistency is the key. Everyone’s palate is different, but the mark of a good wine critic, in my opinion, is her/his consistency.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Who cares? I’m sure this score inflation is somehow meant to appeal to his real market these days: i.e. mainland China. In my world, however, Parker is all but irrelevant. While some suburban retailers still care to varying degrees, among city merchants and somms, Parker at best carries no weight whatsoever or is viscerally disdained and mocked and attempting to “drop” a Parker score does more damage than good with a buyer.

  3. There is no question that there are more very good wines than ever in California, but that is not the real question about grade inflation.

    Are the wines really that much better or are the scores that much higher?

    I would contend that both are true. But I would also contend that the rush to 100 points is clear evidence of grade inflation. There have been plenty of great wines over the years, including the 1970s when Parker began.

    The problem for me is that there is no consistency from decade to decade. If one puts wines in a vertical tasting, one finds that 25 year old wines that rated in the low 90s are now rated in the high 90s yet the beauty, the refinement, the complexity of those wines are not substantially changed. And it does not matter whether we are talking about Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa or the RRV.

  4. Well……I’d have to agree w/ Charlie that the Calif wines are much better than they have ever been. Ten yrs ago, a Ribolla or Trousseau or a StLaurent couldn’t be found from Calif. Now look at what we have!! (Sorry, Charlie…couldn’t resist that one!!)
    It would seem to me that it is grade inflation. But if you listen to Parker’s defenders, the proliferation of 100 pointers is solely because of the positive influence he’s had on winemaking in Calif. Take that for what it is.

  5. Always enjoy reading your posts. But please do not compare a 100 point wine to a Congressional Medal of Honor.

  6. STEVE!
    They lowered the pitching mound so there would be more offense. They changed the rules in the NFL to make it tougher to defend so there would be more points scored. There’s score inflation at all the major wine publications.

    All three scenarios make it more interesting for the nonprofessional viewer, which drives advertising and moneymaking. Parker’s not the owner of his scores any more, except by copyright. The folks in the Far East love 100 point wines. Perhaps he’s just lowering the mound.

    As for me, I am always lowering my standards.

  7. Steve,

    FWIW, I believe Parker handed out 15 “perfect” scores in the last issue of the Wine Advocate. 14 of those come from the 2012 vintage. Obviously, I don’t know the alcohols of those particular wines, but I do know that the average harvest brix of Napa Cabernet in 2012 was lower than in 2008,07, 06, 05, 04, and 02 (and the same as 2009). While we call all debate score inflation it seems more difficult to tie a direct line to it and ripeness (as measure in brix) at harvest.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  8. Dear Kenny: I only meant in terms of rarity. Obviously the Medal of Honor is one of the highest achievements an American can aspire to. A 100 point review is meaningless in comparison. Thanks, though, for your thoughtfulness.

  9. Leave Parker alone, please.

    Like it or not, he’ll be legendarily eponymous of circa 20-21 century wine history. If you’re a critic of high fashion, you need at least to be gifted with the superb “sense of style” and be a damn good writer: I’m thinking of Cathy Horny for NY Times. But, for Parker, he only needs the addition fragment of a 3rd-grader’s math plus jotting down a few lines to get the job done. If you envy that, you’ll end up sighing endlessly for the rest of your life. It’s all about “born at the right place and commenced at the right time”.

    How much bucks do high-fashion houses pay top models to market a $3000/piece handbag? Even Kim Kardashian has made the quick millions from an who-knows-what app. In a sense, Mr. Parker is way under-rated by the global wine republic.

    The next best thing to see in our era is to have HoseMaster of Wine as the script writer for SNL(Saturday Night Live)show. Wines can bring a lot more laughter and joys than you’ve known. Ron, Bill Hader maybe a good fit for your character. Cheers!

  10. This is obviously a self fulfilling exercise. Winemakers know what Parker likes, as years go by they can keep on fine tuning until the formula is almost perfect.

    Sometimes they get it right accidentally Chave 2003 was an aberration, a result of the steamy summer in France in 2003, and ended up as a 100 point Parker wine. The fact that when we tasted it on Saturday, and it was undrinkable, is irrelevant.

  11. Interesting that here we have inserted this “new” dilemma the fictional winemaker is facing- spiritual purity (under 14%) or sell one’s soul to el Diablo (over 14%)and pick a grape when you think it’s going to make a nice wine, even if that puts you over 14.00% etoh.

    From whence comes this new false virtue (and more disturbingly, possible false sanctimoniousness)?

    Let’s be careful not to hitch alcohol levels (why not pH? or TA? or anthocyanin levels?) to any one score, camp or critic. Though alcohol level is an important contributor to style and character, under or over 14% is truly an arbitrary line in the sand (unless you’re the CFO).

    I understand the delight some have in the gradual fade-out of an erstwhile emperor (some would say dictator). But let’s not create other, albeit seemingly shinier and newer, false idols in the process.

  12. Peruse the list of wines that Robert Parker has awarded “100 point scores” to:

    Recall that Parker gives wines “bonus points” for longevity. [See interview quotes below.]

    Will the riper, less tannic, lower total acidity modern style red wines make “old bones” (a Parker-ism)?

    Do they have the “stuffing” (another Parker-ism) to last decades?

    If not, then they can’t attain a score of “100” — which implicitly denotes a red wine that will live long enough to earn all of its 10 bonus points.

    Individuals like Bill Haydon would argue “No.”

    Dan Berger through his columns in the Napa Valley Register, argues “No.” (Or perhaps more accurately: “Not many.”)

    Charlie Olken has been reviewing California red wines for decades. What has been your experience if you conduct decade interval retrospective tastings — do California’s new style wines age?

    Bill Dyer has been making California red wines for decades — do the new style wines age?

    (Anecdote: California Cabernet collectors inform me — admittedly an unscientific sampling approach — that many of their 1994s are “falling apart.” Their words, not mine.)

    EXCERPTS FROM WINE TIMES (September/October 1989) interview with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate.

    [Preface: Wine Times magazine was later rebranded as Wine Enthusiast magazine — Steve’s former editorial forum.]

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

    PARKER: . . . 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. . . .

    . . . 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 T WINES THAT HAVE THE ABILITY TO IMPROVE IN THE BOTTLE. This is SORT OF ARBITRARY and gets me into trouble.

    . . . MY SYSTEM APPLIES BEST TO YOUNG WINES because older wines, once they’ve passed their prime, end up getting lower scores.

    . . .

    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 [ cru 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: 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.

    . . .

    EXCERPT FROM 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.”

  13. I one remember hearing the editor of Wine & Spirits say that the longer he judged wines, the more comfortable he felt giving out 100-point scores. Parker has been doing this long enough that he probably feels like 100 is the new 90.

    I’m curious to hear about your relationship with scores now that you work at a winery. Do you think about them differently than you did when you were a critic?

  14. Alison,

    Good to hear your voice here, and you are very polite. I need to learn that virtue. That nonsense about alcohol reminds me how much “great advice” I got about how to raise kids from folk who never had any. Anyone involved in wine production knows that in a duo-trio tasting it is almost impossible to tell apart a wine with 13.5% alcohol from one with 14.5 % but this forum is not about absolute truth and reality. It is about wine.

    Steve, since you are now part of an innovative winery with great resources, I would highly recommend you ask the winemaking staff to prepare for you a few duo-trio flights of the same wine in alcohol levels between 12% and 15% and let us know your impression. Maybe I just have a crappy palate.

    Let the flames begin…

  15. On Wednesday I attended the LearnAboutWine-organized Cabernet trade and consumer tasting in Beverly Hills.

    One of my faves was from the Jess Jackson wine empire.

    Quoting the northern and southern California wine merchant K&L Wines’ website:

    2009 Anakota “Helena Dakota” Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

    95 points Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (10/ 2013)

    “An extra special wine, the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Helena Dakota Vineyard possesses full body as well as a terrific bouquet of blue and black fruits, crushed rocks and spring flowers. A super-muscular, rich, powerful Cabernet built for long-term cellaring (which may explain why it has not yet been released), I would not touch a bottle for 5-7 years. It should last 30-50 years. Made by Kendall-Jackson’s Bordelais winemaker Pierre Seillan, these wines represent the pinnacle of what they hope to achieve in high elevation sites in Knights Valley, an area increasingly being utilized by Napa producers given the great success Peter Michael and Kendall-Jackson have had in this region. These limited production 2009s and 2010s made at high elevation vineyards (Helena Dakota is at 750 feet, and the Helena Montana is at 950 feet) have not yet been released. These highly extracted, rich, full-bodied wines may have limited appeal given their aging potential and broodingly backward characters. All of these offerings are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that were aged in 100% French oak for 15 months prior to bottling. The alcohols came in between 14.2% and 14.8%. I gave slightly higher scores to the Helena Dakota cuvees, perhaps because they were showing more accessibility. (RP)”

    I part company with Mr. Parker on this assessment: the wine was commendably elegant, not muscular or powerful or tannic — drinking beautifully today.

    But I can’t see it lasting upwards of (and I quote) “50 years.”

    (Aside: 95 points? Where are those Parker “bonus” points for longevity?)

    Only “Outlier” wines last that long. It is more likely that the cork will fail before that fourth or fifth decade comes around.

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