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Looking For Logic In All The Wrong Places

2013 January 10
by Mike

“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and all the wines are special.” Okay, I added the last part. But that famous line from “A Prairie Home Companion” came whistling through my ears as I sifted through the latest issue of The Wine Advocate. As you probably know by now, Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni both put on their Santa Claus suits (Parker even grew a beard) and handed out massive scores in the issue of The Wine Advocate that was released right after Christmas. Galloni awarded 95 points or above to 223 California wines, a quarter of the nearly 900 California wines that he reviewed. If you are a producer in Napa and got less than 93 points, you should seriously consider pulling up your vines and replacing them with condos. Parker, meanwhile, awarded 100-point ratings to 17 Northern Rhones from the 2009-2011 vintages. This was on top of the 17 100-point scores that he dished out in a recent retrospective tasting of the 2002 Napa vintage, and the 19 100-point scores that he bestowed on the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. In all, Parker has given out at least 53 100-point ratings since last March. Perfection is literally falling off the vine these days!

Not surprisingly, the generosity of these latest Wine Advocate scores raised some eyebrows, and true to form, Parker lashed out at those who dared to question him. In a comment on eBob, he griped that the naysaying was emblematic of the “dim-witted group think culture we live in where complete falsehoods are passed off as conventional wisdom (wines are too alcoholic, all wines taste the same, terroir is dead), and then this garbage is bounced around every social media site these knuckleheads can find, and voila, it becomes dogma in a self-reassuring circle of zombies who would make Ayn Rand’s discussion of ‘second-handers’ look prophetic, and prove that propaganda—even if false and totally unsupported by facts, is still alive and flourishing in some circles.” Got that?

(Just out of curiosity: When did the Ralph Nader of wine morph into the John Galt of wine? Does he believe the world is divided between winemakers and wine, er, takers?  Now that he has sold The Wine Advocate, perhaps he can launch a new publication called The Wine Objectivist. At any rate, the best thing I ever read about Ayn Rand was the following: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”)

For his part, Galloni gamely entered the lion’s den, as it were, wading into a spirited discussion on Wineberserkers about his California scores. Galloni suggested that he had been too conservative with his ratings in the past and said that relative to the volume of wine produced in California, the number of high scores in his latest report was not implausible. Most of the people participating in the thread seemed to think that Galloni, who started covering California in 2011, was guilty of grade inflation, and it appears he didn’t change many minds. But he was rightly praised for his willingness to engage with his critics rather than hurl spitballs at them.

I’ve already offered my opinion about what accounts for all the perfect and near-perfect scores we are seeing, and there is no need to repeat it here. Nor do I want to get into a debate about the merits of the 100-point scale. But I think one reason Parker and Galloni have encountered so much skepticism is that if you accept the 100-point scale as a quasi-objective means of assessing wines—and it seems to me that if you buy into the 100-point thing, you are necessarily accepting the idea that it is a quasi-objective standard—then the sheer number of wines clustered at the top of the scale simply isn’t credible. There are two basic ways of rating wines: on an absolute scale or on a curve. With an absolute scale, you are judging wines against the benchmark set by wines like the 47 Cheval Blanc, 61 Latour, 61 La Chapelle, etc.—the all-time greats, universally recognized as such. If Parker is grading in this manner, he is essentially saying that he tasted 53 wines in the past year that are equal to these legends. You believe that? Me neither. (But Rudy Kurniawan is undoubtedly kicking himself as he sits in his Brooklyn jail cell awaiting trial: what a business opportunity those 53 perfect scores would have given him!)

Parker, in his tirade on eBob, gave conflicting indications regarding exactly how he arrives at his scores. “There is really nothing sacred to prevent a perfect score,” he wrote. “It simply means you, me, or someone thinks the wine is as brilliant an example of a vintage, a varietal or blend, or terroir that exists.” The references to varietal, blend, and terroir can perhaps be interpreted as meaning that he evaluates on an absolute scale. But by invoking vintage, he raised the possibility that he instead grades on a curve. Let’s assume, for the moment, that he does grade on a curve—in the context of a particular vintage, or of recent vintages. In defending this latest batch of stratospheric ratings, Parker claimed that “wines are greater than ever”, ipso facto more wines are getting monster scores than ever before.

However, that shouldn’t be the case. I don’t want to get into Gaussian distribution and all that brainy stuff; a simple mind like mine needs to keep things simple. But even if the overall quality of wines is better, it doesn’t follow that so many wines should be receiving eye-popping scores. If the competition is much tougher now than it was 10 years ago, it shouldn’t be easier to get 96 or 97 points; it should be harder. Yet, the Wine Advocate is giving out many more such scores these days than it did a decade ago. (On Wineberserkers, Galloni said that around 500 California wines that he tasted didn’t make the cut, meaning they received less than 85 points. But even with those slackers factored in, he gave 95 points or above to 16 percent of the wines he sampled, which doesn’t strike me as a normal distribution.) Forgive the tautology, but if the bar has been raised, you need to raise the bar. You can do that one of two ways: by lengthening the scale—making the highest score, say, 110 points rather than 100—or by tightening the standards within the 100-point framework to reflect the fact that the quality is so vastly improved. If you don’t do either of those things, you end up in a situation like the one that Parker and Galloni are now confronting—with your reviews being greeted mainly with cynicism and derision.

I think the flap over the latest Wine Advocate scores is another milestone in the demythologizing of wine critics. There’s no denying that Parker and other critics have played an invaluable role in educating the public about wine and in steering consumers towards quality. But there’s also no denying that there was always a faith-based aspect to their work. You were asked to take it on faith that they had exquisitely discerning palates, never suffered palate fatigue, had total recall of the wines they tasted, and were blessed with a talent for divining when wines barely out of the fermentation tank would be ready to drink and would reach their peaks of maturity. And you were also asked to believe that there was a certain rigor to their point-flogging, that they weren’t just deriving their grades in the willy-nilly manner of the renowned professor Dr. Otto Yerass (hat tip: Charles Pierce). But oenophiles are no longer willing to take it on faith. In this instance, they demanded an explanation for the improbably large number of highly rated wines, neither Parker nor Galloni was able to offer a persuasive answer, and they have suffered another blow to their authority as a result.

One last point: it will be interesting to see how many producers truly benefit from these whopping ratings. I suspect that very few will. With so many big-scoring wines on the market nowadays, consumers are no longer easily impressed. Indeed, what might be gratifying for individual wineries could prove to be disastrous collectively—if people get sufficiently cynical about the scores, they may decide that all of these wines are overrated and not worth the money. Last year, a Massachusetts high school teacher named David McCullough, Jr.—yes, the son of that David McCullough—gave a bracingly candid graduation speech that made headlines across the country. Two sentences in particular stood out:  “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.” The same can be said of 95-point wines.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. October 18, 2014

    Currently it sounds like Expression Engine is the best blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

  2. August 11, 2014

    Woah I love your posts, bookmarked! My significant other and i adored your posts.

  3. January 11, 2013

    Great minds think alike, Dr. Vino (and your photoshop skills are impressive indeed!). Glad you liked the post, and thanks for the link to yours. I don’t know why they don’t publish negative reviews. Someone somewhere suggested that it was fear of possible litigation, but why would that be? Guy Fieri can’t sue The New York Times over its review of his Manhattan restaurant, so why would a winemaker be able to sue Parker over a 75-point score? I suspect it is just a question of time and money. Parker’s subscribers aren’t interested in reading about shitty wines–they want to be steered to the good stuff–so there’s not much incentive for Parker to publish bad reviews.

    Miguel, thanks for this additional information; it is very interesting, and much appreciated. I wonder how many Spanish producers truly benefit at this point from coverage–even favorable coverage–in the Wine Advocate. I know sales haven’t been particularly robust in recent years, despite the fact that a lot of big scores have been given out in Spain.

    Tai-Ran, thanks for the link to the Jefford piece, which was very good. But I will take issue with his comment about the “width” of Parker’s palate. Maybe Parker was a bit more catholic in his taste early on, but it seems to me that he favors just two basic styles these days: big and bigger. He claims that he enjoys a wide variety of wines, but from what I can tell, most of what he drinks in his leisure time nowadays are young, strapping Chateauneufs.

  4. January 11, 2013

    There is an interesting take on this topic from Andrew Jefford. This is the link to the whole article : http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/529808/jefford-on-monday-the-gang-of-100

    But I thought I would copy the concluding paragraph here :

    ” For Parker, by contrast [to the concept of perfection as a summit], perfection seems to be the Tibetan plateau rather than the summit of Everest. It is a snow-bright upland which certain wines attain, and beyond which any kind of marking scheme becomes irrelevant. That plateau, though, is within the reach of any truly fine wine, given ‘perfect’ vintage conditions and a ‘perfect’ human interaction with the raw materials. It is, if you like, a kind of democratic or practical perfection, as opposed to the almost unattainable ideal implied by the logical or mathematical understanding of perfection. It’s another aspect of Parker’s overall generosity as a critic, and of the remarkable width of his palate, too.”

    That is all?

  5. January 11, 2013

    @Mike, it is a common practice for in many instances to conduct a “pay for play” model in Spanish wine reviews and guides. While in Anglophone circles this can happen, we officially don’t tolerate it. In Spanophone and in turn, Cataphone, it’s not only tolerated, but accepted as how things how go and works as such: “Hey there winery whom I assume has deep pockets, I’m working on a new guide to your region. Inclusion is 300€ or maybe we can work out some kind of trade in bottles or a couple of nights stay at your rural house.” The wineries will then either hang up the phone or amazingly pony up. While there is no mention that paying will get good reviews of the wines, it’s generally assumed that that will also be part of the deal.

    Everyone knows that this is happening as well as the general public to some degree, but no one seems to have any issue with the conflict of interest. Coming from the US, I’ve really been quite blown away by it and this is why people often don’t take Spanish wine publications here in Spain seriously as objectivity is quite questionable and why there was so much attention given to TWA; that and again, the export factor. I personally know a number of people who are on the up and up, but by and large, this seems to be happening in a large segment of the trade, although you will most likely never see it written about anywhere.

    As to how the Campo/Parker business affected views of TWA, it seems to not really have changed anything. I can’t say for sure as while I’m working with and writing about the wines of the region, I’m not a typical consumer, so I don’t have much of a gauge. Honestly, the whole “buy local” aspect of things is taking a larger role in changing consumer preferences, especially given separatist movements such as the one here in Catalonia.

    @Derek, first the above reply is not referring to GP, but as they are moving in a more digital direction (because they have to) people are having more access to their explanations of how they rate wines and aren’t terribly happy with what they’re seeing. I’ve seen a couple of blog posts who were rather surprised in what they heard. They’re in Spanish and Catalan, so I’d have to poke around to find them again. I hear everyone in wine and hospitality constantly tell me that GP is crap and they hate it but of course they keep going along with it, and wouldn’t admit they told me that if asked for a public statement. I don’t get it.

    Personally, like you, when I’ve taken a glance at it, I do find it generally in line with my tastes.

    -miquel

  6. January 11, 2013

    Hi Mike and everyone –

    A good post and discussion here.

    Just a heads up that I posted in 2007 about the arrival of Lake Wobegon Wines after Jay Miller’s five (in retrospect, only five!) 100 pointers from Spain. Here’s the link:
    http://www.drvino.com/2007/03/05/lake-wobegon-wines/

    Please don’t think I’m trolling or trying to show off my mad photoshop skills. The comments on the post are good as they include not only a Spinal Tap reference but also a couple of interventions from Miller himself. As to the issue that critics should, ya know, criticize, he pointed to a lack of space in the print newsletter for publishing the scores of wines that he panned. Now that the print newsletter is being phased out (or is it?) by the new owners, that reasoning seems to hold even less water now.

  7. January 11, 2013

    Dan, there are clearly lots of things that Man is not ready to handle, reason and rationality being high on the list.

    Thanks, Miguel, for that information, which is very interesting. Why are local publications seen as flawed? Do people question their judgment or integrity? And did the Campo/Parker business do anything to undermine the reputation of The Wine Advocate in Spain, or not so much?

  8. Derek permalink
    January 11, 2013

    @Vinologue: what do you mean when you say that the scores of Guia Penin “are often seen as flawed, as they generally are”? I rely a fair bit on scores from GP for Spanish Wine as I find them often more in line with my palate and experience.

  9. January 11, 2013

    Mike, yes, in Spain the American publications carry the most weight, especially TWA. Home grown publications such as Guía Peñin also have importance with their scores, but they are often seen as flawed, given that they generally are. The “grass is greener” attitude in Spain, especially towards the US (land of opportunity…) is quite pervasive and the American reviewers are, for some reason seen as impartial, mainly on the basis that they don’t live on the Iberian Peninsula. This, despite the whole tinge of corruption seen with Miller. There are a good number of people, both winemakers, critics, and more informed consumers who see beyond this, but it’s a smaller group that across the Atlantic for sure.

    Also, keep in mind that many regions in Spain are highly export driven. Priorat exports some 85% of its production outside the country and Rioja, more than 60% so these foreign scores are seen as a way to move the wines on the foreign market. Most winemakers see a score from a Spanish publication as not holding weight with a foreign consumer, although some still try.

    -miquel

  10. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 10, 2013

    Mike,
    Thanks. My alternate thought is that maybe the points are OK; it is just that Man is not yet ready to handle them well. Plenty of evidence aligns with that creed.

  11. January 10, 2013

    Jack, so Galloni got criticized for giving insufficiently high scores to several CA producers? Some flippers flipped out? Too funny.

    Dan, “pluperfect” works for me, but I think 101 points is too low–clearly, some of these guys are straining to put 105, even 110 points on a wine. Pretty soon, we can have 200-point cabernets and chardonnays–sort of like Dominique Laurent’s 200 percent new oak (and as we know with certain critics, there is a strong correlation between the new oak influence and the score that a wine receives). By the way, your comment on the Berserkers thread was, not surprisingly, one of the smartest takes on the whole matter.

  12. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 10, 2013

    I’d say we’ll burst through the 100 point barrier soon. Wine points are a measure of nobody knows what. We’ve been hovering at that 100 line because of the philosophic notional limit that there can be no state of ‘more perfect’ beyond perfect; but if we shift the wording to ‘pluperfect’ surely 101s and more will come into play. Pluperfect…have to be 101 on that!

  13. January 10, 2013

    Hi Chuck, great to see you (so to speak). That’s a fantastic point, and spot on. Unless you’ve really tasted broadly and have some legitimate claim to expertise in a particular region, a little restraint would probably be wise. But let’s be honest: I don’t want to accuse people of acting in bad faith, but I think the grade inflation is being driven to a very large extent by factors unrelated to the quality of the wines. Wine writers face a lot of competition for eyeballs these days, and high scores get a lot more attention than modest scores. And if you are a critic looking to do for-profit events, you are not going to get producers and regional trade associations to play ball with you if you are stingy with your ratings. I don’t think there is any denying that there are powerful incentives to bump up scores. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it.

  14. Jack Bulkin permalink
    January 10, 2013

    The absurdity of Mssr. Parker’s 19 perfect bottles scored from the 2009 Class of Grade Inflated Bordeaux can be captured in time once one reads the scores of the same 19 bottles given by famed Bordeaux Wine Critic err Ambassador Jeff Leve. The average score of the 19 bottles rated by Mssr. Leve was “only” slightly over 95 to 96. Many were below 95.
    OOOPPPPPS. What happened Jeff you didn’t like the vintage???? Leve did like the 09 Haut Brion though which was one of Parker’s perfect 19. I guess he deserves some slack for that great call.
    The funny thing is that Gallionidespite his massive grade inflation got swamped by many members of the Squires Board for his “low” scores on several loved producers wines. I guess you can’t win in Wine Criticism.

  15. January 10, 2013

    Miguel, that’s very interesting–so the scores continue to carry weight in Spain? Do the producers care a great deal about the ratings they receive from the American publications (the Advocate, the Spectator)? I think scores can still move wines here in the US, but at least among wine geeks, there is growing skepticism, I think, about the reliability of ratings, which is a result of the grade inflation.

    Thanks very much for the kind words, and for sticking with me despite the long absences last year. I’m trying to get back on track this year!

  16. January 10, 2013

    Alex, I don’t like that approach, because then you end up with 99-point Muscadets and 99-point Morgons, and while I adore good Muscadets and good Morgons, there is no Muscadet or Morgon that comes close to matching the best Burgundies, Bordeaux, Barolos, etc., that I’ve had. For me, at least, the standard is a universal one–there are 15 or 20 wines on my all-time list, and they are the benchmarks against which everything is “measured.” It’s not scientific, of course, but it give some perspective to my own ratings.

  17. Chuck Hayward permalink
    January 10, 2013

    I will say one thing about the 100 point debate that often goes unmentioned. When Parker awarded his first 100 point wine back in the day, at least he had put a considerable number of years under his belt assessing and evaluating wines. Theoretically, he had accumulated enough knowledge about wines, vintages, etc. to create a vision of a perfect wine that was based on his considerable amount of experience.

    What I find more difficult to fathom is a 100 point wine given by someone who does not have that reservoir of experience, either in their career as a professional taster or as someone with an in-depth knowledge of a certain category. I think of James Suckling, who admitted that “he was just getting to know them,” awarded 100 points to two Australian wines on his first visit to Australia. I’ve been there over 25 times in my career and would be hard pressed to name more than a dozen candidates.

    It seems to me, that if you accept the concept of the perfect wine and the validity of the 100 point score, that not all 100 point scores are equal. That 100 pointers awarded by experts who have been at it for some time are more “accurate” than those given by relative newbies. Just sayin’…..

  18. January 10, 2013

    Well put and without dipping in to all that ugly mathiness I was trying to broach several articles back.

    As to who those big scores will benefit depends on the market. Most likely (hopefully) there will be score fatigue on the Coasts of the US and others will follow. In a market like Spain and probably others, the points will matter a great deal as the society here lives, dies, and hires based upon degrees, certificates, and awards…

    BTW, nice to have your articles back. I know personally that blogging isn’t the most lucrative endeavor (at least if done well), but I missed the regular articles last year.

    -miquel

  19. alex permalink
    January 10, 2013

    Mike,

    Right. But on some level, we have to ask ourselves what it would mean to not rank within the context of the region. I mean, how can you really compare a napa cab with a barolo? They could not be more different wines. So is it even useful say “i think this barolo is 95, and this cab is 94, and therefore the barolo is a notch better than the cab?” It strikes me as much more helpful to say this barolo is a 95 when compared to everything in piedmont ever, and then with the addition of tasting notes i think i have some sort of idea of whether i want to pay $120 for it.

    Not to get too mathy, but I do think that the same rating should reflect the same number of standard deviations from the mean of each distribution, and i don’t–and can’t–know if that’s happening.

  20. January 10, 2013

    Hi Alex, thanks for the comment. I agree–it just doesn’t make a lot of sense, and this is why he finds his judgment and his motives being questioned. I suppose that if one is rating purely within the context of California, and one thinks that the Parkerized wines are really good, then the huge number of high-scoring wines makes more sense. But even then, it undermines the credibility of the rating system.

  21. alex permalink
    January 10, 2013

    (by “100s” let’s say that i mean 98-100, or whatever.)

  22. alex permalink
    January 10, 2013

    I mean, let’s think of it this way. Is there any way that Antonio-freaking-Galloni likes california cabs better than barolos? I submit to you that there is no way that is even close to true. But he VERY RARELY gives a barolo 100. Indeed, there are currently only two barolos rated 100 by Galloni (’04 monfortino, and ’89 giacosa collina rionda). So given that Galloni obviously prefers barolos to cabs, I think we can safely say that he is grading on a curve, or at least within the region. So his 100s are perfect expressions of california cabernet, or whatever, and since that’s not so hard to do, there are lots of 100s. I don’t think that’s totally nuts.

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