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The Point-Less Life

2012 January 6
by Mike

Alder Yarrow, Seth Long, Bill Moore, and Dan McCallum, take a bow—sort of. Alder, you got the exact scores but had the wines reversed. Dan, you had the right score for Wine 2 and were off by a point for Wine 1 until you let that tobacco note throw you. Seth, you nailed Wine 1 and were off by a point for Wine 2, and Bill, you did the opposite. Well played, gents.

So, the answer to the quiz:

Wine 1: 93 points

Wine 2: 97 points

I am not going to identify the critic, the publication, or the wines themselves, because the issue isn’t any one critic or publication. The point I was trying to make was that professional tasting notes are often just a tangle of inane descriptors and fail at their most basic duty: to convey with some degree of precision how good, bad, or indifferent a wine is. I’m not sure that I succeeded in making this point with the tasting notes I cited, because a number of you correctly guessed that the wines had received significantly different scores, and a few of you came thisclose to acing the quiz. Perhaps my preamble yesterday gave the game away, or maybe the two tasting notes were not as indistinguishable from one another as I thought they were. I have to say that I was struck by the way some of you expertly zeroed in on the use of certain words and phrases in the two tasting notes—a tour de force of linguistic sleuthing!

Despite the somewhat ambiguous result of the quiz, I am going to exercise my prerogative as the landlord of this joint to ignore the result and to reiterate a point I made yesterday: numerical ratings got to be so popular in no small part because professional tasting notes are usually such unenlightening gruel. The question now—the question that prompted this two-part post and the bonus quiz—is whether the numerical ratings dished out by wine critics are coming to be seen as equally useless. To put it in pop culture terms, have scores jumped the shark?

No doubt, lots of winemakers still care about the numbers, and many collector/investor types surely do, too. But I sense that points are losing their hold over the marketplace. Judging by the chatter in the chat rooms, wine geeks no longer seem to get as worked up about professional scores as they did back in the day (over on wineberserkers, the discussion concerning Antonio Galloni’s Napa scores was largely driven by ratings refusniks). Perhaps grade inflation is to blame; when every wine these days seems to get 90 points just for showing up and scores in the mid- and high-90s are given out like candy on Halloween, it becomes hard to suppress a yawn. Maybe the weak economy has thinned the point-chaser population, or it could be that the numbers racket has simply run its course and American wine culture is changing. The rise of CellarTracker may also be a factor.

Whatever the reason, professional scores don’t appear to carry as much weight as they did in the past, and I’m not the only one who has detected a shift. I recently spoke with Kermit Lynch, who told me that retailers and restaurants don’t seem to be nearly as preoccupied with numerical ratings as they were just five years ago (and, in fact, a number of wine shops nationwide are now point-free zones). I’m curious if your observations square with mine (and Kermit’s), or if you think I’m guilty of wishful thinking. And how important are professional wine ratings to you? Do you follow them, and do they inform your buying decisions? When you pop into a wine store, do shelf talkers still have the power to get you hot and bothered? Are you living a point-less life, or are you hooked on scores?

69 Responses leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012

    That’s a great question, Dan, and I hope Jay or another critic will stop by with an answer.

  2. Dan McCallum permalink
    January 13, 2012

    OK, back to the points.
    I have a question for Jay, or any other reviewer that may want to respond. In the process between tasting and publishing, which comes first- the points or the prose?

  3. January 12, 2012

    Will do, Mike, sorry.

  4. January 12, 2012

    Gerry, I would prefer that we not get sidetracked here with another discussion about Campo. I’ve written extensively about it already, and if Jay wants to weigh in on that topic, he knows where to find those posts. As of now, there is nothing new to say about the Campo matter, and it is a distraction from the discussion about points. Thanks.

  5. January 12, 2012


    It is hopeless.

    Parker and friends will deny everything and anything.

    I am waiting for him to tell us that he volunteered for the Wine Future events.

  6. January 12, 2012

    Dear Bill,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response and, as you know, I very much like reading your very insightful posts.

    You wrote:

    “It seems to me that the facts developed so far do not tar Jay with Campo’s extortion brush. He admits to some speaking fees, and Parker says no prob on that for himself or any of his staff. Maybe Jay ate some free meals or drank some free wine or got comped on some hotel rooms, or travel, or whatever.”

    I do not care about Jay’s eating free meals or drinking free wine (all wine writers do), except in cases like the multi-day affair at Bern’s which have raised more than a few eyebrows. Nor do I have a problem with speaking fees for wine writers when paid for their expertise (which by many eyewitness accounts at those exalted master class tasting staged by Campo and Miller, the headliner was sorely deficient).

    But, given the published correspondence on the Campo-Miller-Parker Spain affair, I have to say that Miller 1) would have had to have been mindbendingly naive not to have known what was going on, i.e., that he and The Wine Advocate were being sold for something in the neighborhood (that we known of) of 164,000 Euros (about $230,000 at then prevailing exchange rates) to Navarra, Murcia and Valencia; 2) That speaking for inflated fees were just a part of his activities while he was in each region (he also took part in Wine Advocate tastings of scores of wines ostensibly to rate them and he visited wineries, which by some D.O.’s own admission, had been solicited to pay fees for such a visit by Pancho Campo); 3) according to David Schildknect’s message to me, to Mike Steinberger, to Jim Budd and to Tyler Colman, Miller knew he was “retiring” in early December.

    Does anyone believe that any of these Spanish D.O.s, who have been under heavy criticism in Spain since this story broke, would have paid out such astronomical fees (their own damned fault) if they had known that Miller was “retiring” (four days after the last “appearance” in Valencia)? Everyone knows including the D.O.s that they thought they were buying influence and now they feel defrauded and foolish. The newspaper articles are again flowing after the holiday break–the Spaniards take a two-week holiday for the 12 days of Christmas.

    Perhaps Big Jay Miller did not know what was occurring with Pancho Campo and perhaps Big Bob Parker did not either (although he had plenty of signals to go on after the Campo-Interpol-Winefuture Rioja 2009 episode), but, at the very least, that is an unenviable position to be in for people who have set themselves up as the supreme arbiters of wine quality and high ethical wine writer standards for the entire planet, if not to say our immediate solar system.

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 12, 2012

    Gerry, the entire business about Jack and myself was strictly tongue-in-cheek. How could ANYBODY boast that posting on the Squires board was ultimately anything more than a total waste of time?

    As to Jay, I am not letting him slide about anything. The facts, such as they are, are out there, and it is clear that Campo is a self-promoting con man that neither Jay, nor Parker, nor Jancis Robinson for that matter, should have had any contact with. Let them all live and learn. It seems to me that the facts developed so far do not tar Jay with Campo’s extortion brush. He admits to some speaking fees, and Parker says no prob on that for himself or any of his staff. Maybe Jay ate some free meals or drank some free wine or got comped on some hotel rooms, or travel, or whatever. That would not be to the taste of many Wine Advocate critics. We have heard a boatload of speculation on that score. Jay has taken some abuse for his palate and his work product from many quarters, including from denizens of the Squires board itself. He has borne all of the above shitstorm with grace and dignity, something that nobody will ever accuse his employer of.

    At this point, Jay is out of that business. If facts are subsequently developed that cause fingers to be pointed at him, so be it. I no longer care about any of that. My sole concern (and man, is that concern shrinking with a vengeance) is the multiple violations of Parker’s vaunted ethical standards over the years, which calls into question the legitimacy of many aspects of the Parker phenomenon. I am not Jay’s apologist or defender, nor am I this blog’s traffic cop. I am just enjoying the fact that Jay is comfortable coming to this venue, which to me is far and away the best of its kind, and sharing his views on various issues like the rest of us. I feel the same way about you and the other posters here. Jack and I are saying that this is NOT the forum for ad hominem attack, that’s all. (Unless, of course, one of us is doing the attacking! (: )

  8. January 12, 2012

    Noted, Bill, and as you have read here before I respect your opinions, but pardon me if I detect a note of irony in coming down on me like a ton of bricks for my comments and letting Jay Miller slide after his shenanigans in Spain with Pancho Campo, a subject on which I have a ton of information.

    I appreciate that you may not give “a rat’s ass” about anyone 40 years of traveling in Spain for not just wine, but food, culture, etc., but I do. And I am used to Americans not giving a shit about such an effort, but Thank God, a few Spaniards do.

    And, pardon me if I don’t give “a rat’s ass” about your adventures on the Squires board. Again, don’t you think there is an irony in denigrating the time I have put in in Spain, while you boast your “experience,” albeit negative on the Squires board? I say this with a smile, because I respect your opinions a great deal from everything I have read of your posts on Mike’s site.

    If you would like to continue this discussion on a one-to-one basis, you can always reach me at

  9. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 12, 2012

    Gerry, I agree with Jack’s admonition, but perhaps for different reasons. First, going ballistic on a single tasting note is simply off the wall in the context of this blog and the comments above. I am not interested in censorship (Mike’s, Jack’s or mine), and I do not object to “thread drift” on a blog (nor does Mike). It just seems that what you posted was done with malice aforethought, and without any attempt at relevance to the topic at hand, except perhaps to complain about the points awarded by one critic in one tasting note.

    Secondly, and without meaning to glorify or denigrate Jay’s work in Spain, your squeaky-ego whining about your credentials does not sit well with me. In the larger context of wine criticism, it does not appear that many people give a rat’s ass about your 40 years of rolling around in Spanish “vineyard dirt”. They don’t care much about Spanish wines in general (although that is changing), and they do not turn to you as the arbiter of taste in Spanish wines.

    Of course, I have an agenda, worn clearly on my sleeve, that wine criticism in America is largely snake-oil sales to the insecure by a bunch of amateur tasters who have declared themselves to be professionals, and, in Parker’s case later in his career, to be wine’s frigging Oracle of Delphi. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that Jack and I are new to this civility thing, having spent too many years in the trenches of the Squires board, so I will apologize in advance for my own lack of social graces, if any…

  10. January 10, 2012

    Gerry, this is Mike’s site and I won’t speak for him here, but you are over the line. Jay is a guest here and so are you. The fact that you don’t like or respect Jay is well known. Many of us are familiar with your blog and the Campo references. Please use your site for attacks and not another’s (Mike S) site. Jay is welcome here and has been very civil. You can tell by my comments that I don’t agree with some of his or other’s notes at WA, but civility is the least you should practice when a guest.

    Jack, with all due respect, you are presuming to speak for Mike and you are giving me lessons in your idea of proper etiquette. Mike will let me and anyone else on the site know if he does not want them to express their opinions. And what you term as attacks might just be reporting on what has happened in the past couple of months in Spain, much of which was reprehensible behavior. Again, I respect your opinions, but don’t you see the irony in your dressing me down on someone’s blog? After all, as you point out, I am guest here and so are you.

  11. José permalink
    January 10, 2012


    Another possibility is that the critic uses some of the written material from the winery/importer and integrates it on his tasting notes. There is so much you can write when you taste a couple hundred wines in one sitting!!!

  12. January 10, 2012

    Howard, thanks for stopping by. You make the essential point: wine changes in the barrel, bottle, and glass, and our palates are fickle. A score is just a snapshot in time, capturing how one wine tasted at one particular moment to one person. I think that one can consistently rate wines within a range of scores, which is why I’m okay with using letter grades (which are equivalent to a range of scores). But I don’t think it can be done with single-number ratings. And I agree with you that the numbers game is up–we’ll all continue to keep score in our own way, but professional wine ratings are clearly diminishing in importance.

  13. January 10, 2012

    Zack, sorry for the belated reply. You make an excellent point about the similarity between tasting notes and how wineries describe the same wines. One possible reason for that: critics taste with the winemakers, and I suspect it is often the case that what a vintner says about his own wine influences what the critic later says about it.

    Betty, great to hear that you are living a point-free existence. Expert advice is always helpful, but it doesn’t need to come with a score attached.

  14. Jack Bulkin permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Gerry, this is Mike’s site and I won’t speak for him here, but you are over the line. Jay is a guest here and so are you. The fact that you don’t like or respect Jay is well known. Many of us are familiar with your blog and the Campo references. Please use your site for attacks and not another’s (Mike S) site. Jay is welcome here and has been very civil. You can tell by my comments that I don’t agree with some of his or other’s notes at WA, but civility is the least you should practice when a guest.

  15. January 10, 2012

    Jay, thanks for answering all the questions and comments; this is a terrific discussion, and I appreciate your taking part in it. I appreciate, too, all the other comments. I will jump back in later this evening, after I return from my son’s basketball practice.

  16. January 10, 2012

    No, we do not agree on Spanish wines more than I might imagine. You have been playing on artificial turf and I have been in the trenches where the vineyard dirt is. And don’t mistake me for a curmudgeon, I am an out and out, toe-to-toe, foe of everything that you and your bosses represent in wine and I have been for a long, long time. And my suspension of social graces especially comes into play when dealing with the likes of you. You actually have the gall to talk to anyone about “social graces?”

  17. Jay S. Miller permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Hello Gerry
    We probably agree on Spanish wine considerably more than you might imagine but you enjoy playing the role of curmudgeon without social graces and that’s OK with me.

  18. January 10, 2012

    “Any aspiring collectors should add a case of this to their stash. The 2004 Numanthia comes from a different terroir with a different clone of Tinta de Toro. The vines for this cuvee range from 70-100 years of age with tiny yields of 1 ton of fruit per acre. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation in barrel followed by 19 months in new French oak before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. The wine is a glass-coating opaque purple with a killer nose of mineral, pencil lead, wild blueberry, and blackberry liqueur that roars from the glass. On the palate the wine is full-bodied, dense, and already beginning to show complexity within its layers of spicy black fruits. There is immense power, well-concealed ripe tannin, and the well-delineated finish lasts for over one minute. This is a sensational effort which in a perfect world should be cellared for a decade and enjoyed over the following 25+ years. However, the elderly among us should not feel guilty about opening a bottle now.”

    Importer: Jorge Ordonez, Fine Estates from Spain, Dedham, MA
    (GD: Now a Louis Vuitton-owned wine.)

    If I read this note and had no idea where it came from, I would think the wine was ghastly. Having been to Numanthia and having seen some of the old vines that are actually estimated to be up to 130 years, I see that it has gotten even more ghastly since I was there. Jay Miller and I agree on very little about Spain, maybe because my judgement are based on 40 years of travel on the wine roads of Spain, conversing for hours with winemakers in Spanish, without Pancho Campo as my guide and benefactor and without the influence of a guru who thinks “oodles and oodles and gobs and gobs” is a virtue instead of a liability in a wine.

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