Score Emperor

Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. may end up being best remembered, for good or ill, for popularizing the 100-point rating system for wines. This is unfortunate, says Elin McCoy, author of the recently published biography The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste. A veteran wine writer, she tells me that she was "never a big fan of the 100-point system. But by the time I finished writing the book, I had concluded that it was a terrible thing for the wine world. It's completely stupid, and as far as I'm concerned, it has no virtue whatsoever. To me, it's taken over in a way I'm sure that Bob Parker couldn't have predicted. It's really counterproductive in terms of steering people toward wines that they'll actually like. You know, if a wine gets 85 points, it's as if it's not worth drinking or something. And how many rosés are up in the hallowed halls of the 95-pointers? Yet I've been drinking rosés all summer and enjoying it very much."

It's not that there aren't judgments to be made about wine quality, says McCoy. And it's not as if Parker invented the idea of scoring wines numerically -- the Davis 20-point scale easily predated him. "What I object to about the 100-point system is that it gives the illusion of a precision that is simply not possible. The idea that there is a real, qualitative difference between a 92-point wine and a 93-point wine that will be detectable by people is simply not true." Of course, a Parkerphile might argue that while it's not true for most people, most people don't have the Parker palate. Which brings up another of McCoy's objections to the 100-point system: "The idea that Parker has such a precise palate that he could register these differences has contributed to the belief that he has an infallible palate." She's not buying it, and what's more, she thinks this belief in Parker's infallibility has done more harm than good for the world of wine. She does not use the term "emperor" with much affection.

According to the book, Parker never meant for the score to be the be-all and end-all. "I thought they'd read the tasting notes," he protests, "and the score would be sort of an easy way they could see how scores ranged in a certain peer group of wines." He even fought (unsuccessfully) the wine shops' practice of advertising scores without tasting notes. But he does believe in his powers of scoring. "Though in the beginning he'd mentally added up points for color, aroma, and so on," writes McCoy, "now, in a flash of intuition, a number would occur to him, as if rising out of the glass. Sometimes he found himself contemplating a range of numbers, say 87 to 89, but often the precise score would come to him like a vision of the wine's inner meaning, the exact measure of its inherent worth. It was like looking through the lens of a camera and bringing the picture into focus."

It's either fun or scary to read the stories -- California Chards, stacked side by side in a Los Angeles wine shop, sell at an even pace. But add shelf-talkers that proclaim one wine a 92 versus the other at 84 in Parker's judgment, and the 92 outsells the 84 by ten to one. The addition of Parker scores to a wine list at a Baltimore hotel jumps wine sales 40 percent. Vanna White tells her wine merchant that all she wants in her cellar are 90+ Parker wines.

Questions of precision aside, I have some sympathies for scores, for treating wine the way Consumer Reports treats cars or Cook's Illustrated treats baking chocolate. McCoy might object that scores don't account for style or value or food-friendliness, but she still understands my sympathy. "Of course, it's a product. It's something that you drink, in the same way that you go to the farmer's market and buy lettuce; you're concerned about whether there are brown bits on it, because you don't want that on your salad. There's so much other stuff spun around wine that people forget sometimes that it's a liquid in a bottle."

But the "other stuff" remains significant, she says. It's part of the wine's surround. "There are a lot of different ways that people actually evaluate a wine over and above the actual taste. Taste is only one piece of what that wine is." How it's made, where and by whom, the farming practices involved, the bottle, the label, the price, the memories and associations with a particular winery or place or varietal -- it all ties in. (When my doctor, a fellow wine lover, asked after my favorite wine ever, he followed the question with "And did you have a pleasant evening the night you drank it?") "And even the taste itself has a surround," adds McCoy, "one that has to do with what you're going to be eating, what kinds of wines you like."

It occurs to me that "score" may provide its own sort of surround. At least one of the Parker 100-pointers I've been lucky enough to try was a disappointment. Would I have been equally disappointed if I hadn't known the score? But it's not the sort of surround McCoy thinks the wine industry needs. "I was on a panel of wine journalists for the Wine Institute's annual meeting in June. Everybody was saying, 'Oh my God, Sideways'! All the vintners were saying, 'We should have a Sideways come out every year, each one focusing on a different grape variety!' They wanted the journalists to comment. I said, 'I would like everyone to remember this about the movie: not once did Miles or Maya say, "This wine got 95 points." Instead, what drew people to rush out and buy Pinot Noir was a story. They wanted to be part of that kind of story."

In the end, thinks McCoy, scores are unsatisfying. "In my experience," she concludes, "most people who start getting really interested in wine start wanting to know all sorts of things about it. It's like a kid who collects stamps. They don't just look at the stamps -- they want to know about the countries where they're from, they get into design. People get excited about wine, and it leads to something else. They want to go to the Napa Valley, see where the grapes are grown, meet the people who made the wine. That's one of the reasons for the huge growth in wine clubs in California -- people want to be part of an enterprise they see as authentic. Think of all the ad campaigns that have capitalized on that -- the Little Old Winemaker standing in his vineyard. Wine has a much wider set of meanings than lettuce."

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