Looking For Logic In All The Wrong Places
“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.