Perfection is personal: why 100 points by Robert Parker is just his opinion


Old grenache vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at the heart of the Rhône, Robert Parker's "perfect" wine region

Last week, Tom Wark published an extremely interesting and enlightening analysis of wines rated 100 pts – a perfect score – by Robert M. Parker Jr. If anyone needed an argument to say that point scores are just glorified opinions, rather than actual “objective” analyses and ratings, this is an excellent one.

Out of 224 wines scored 100 points by Mr Parker, 69 (30%) were from the Rhône, 53 (24%) from Bordeaux, 45 (20%) from California, and only 3 (1.3%) from all of Italy. 68% of the wines whose maturity level (ranging from Young to Late, in Mr Parker’s system) was provided were either in the “Young” or “Early” category. The four most frequently used descriptors were: rich, intense, concentrated and spicy.

So the typical perfect wine, according to Robert Parker, is a young, rich, intense, concentrated and spicy wine from the Rhône. Is anyone really surprised by that?

It almost feels like something from Bobby Parkerchuk, the Gary Vaynerchuk/Robert Parker fusion character whose Châteauneuf-du-Pape 20007-imbibed tweets are some of the funniest wine stuff in social media.

Vineyards in the Barolo appellation, in Italy, a country that only provided 3 "perfect" wines out of 224 granted 100 points by Robert Parker

However, can anyone really assert that Rhône wines hold such a stranglehold on superlative wines? Is Italy, from Barolo to Brunello, from Sassicaia to Massetto, from the power of Sagrantino to the subtleties of nebbiolo, almost twenty times less likely to produce perfection than the Rhône region by itself? All of Spain, another huge producer of wines, with the combined firepower of Rioja, Priorato and Ribera del Duero, could only muster 8 perfect scores: should it bow in submission in front of the vines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie?

Clearly, personal taste is the only thing that can explain such a concentration of perfect scores in a single region. Meaning that even 100-point scores, the pinnacle of wine scoring, the score-heard-’round-the-world of wine reviews, are just one man’s opinion. They are the wines that he thought were perfect, not perfect wines.

In Mondovino, Michael Broadbent argued that Michel Rolland, a Pomerol man, was in many ways turning all the wines he consulted with into pomerols, turning his own personal point of view into a universal approach to winemaking. However successful that approach may have been, it remains one way of seeing things, and not gospel truth.

Of course, if you like those styles of wines, then by all means, feel free to follow Parker’s imprecations and ratings. Just don’t think – or argue – that it’s the only way to go.

Further pointless arguments

I’ve argued before against using ratings to review wines, both on this blog and in a point-counterpoint match with W. Blake Gray on Palate Press, so reading Tom Wark’s post only reinforced existing ideas. However, I find the subjective nature of Parker’s “perfect” wine selection particularly revealing of the great limitations of any scoring system, and of the problems of having a single voice carry so much weight, within the infinite diversity of the wine world. It’s only an opinion, from a singular point of view, not an absolute truth or a divine judgment, people!

That latest blow to the value of ratings, beyond its commercial impact, is far from the only one. Inspiration to deride the points system is also easily fueled by James Suckling’s video antics on perfection, and his latest video explanations as to how he scores wines. As Dr Vino put it so well in a recent tweet:

Suckling responds to critics who say he pulls scores out of thin air–by detailing *how* he pulls them out of thin air http://bit.ly/huv7Kn

Maybe it’s hard to describe one’s wine-rating analysis in a short video, but after watching that latest attempt at defending the approach, I’m only more convinced to forgo scoring. Or to put it another way, I’m 100 pts on not scoring wines.

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34 Comments

  1. Posted January 17, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    One thing about the 100 Score breakdown. The words that are looked at is only a selection. The entire body of all the reviews of 100 point wines were not analyzed for their word selection.

    Tom…

    • Posted January 17, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, it’s a good thing that you pointed out the distinction – i.e. this is not an exhaustive list of all the words in the reviews. However, I headed to the Parker web site, and even the few burgundies that make it to the 224-hundred club are described as rich and intense. Also, looking at the list, the repetition of certain wines make the impression of personal favorites even clearer.

  2. Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Check out the discussion and polls about Suckling’s score explanation video on Wineberserkers and the Wine Spectator Forums. If you can filter through the ad hominem attacks, there are some interesting arguments about the process.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      It’s true that there are some good arguments tucked in there, between the ad hominem bits. Most people seem unconvinced by the scoring “technique” displayed by James Suckling in the video.

  3. Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Good thoughts, Rémy. Both Tom’s thought-provoking original post and yours are inspiring me to dig deeper into the linguistics of wine communication, a little side project I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’d love to examine not just the language of wine reviews correlated with scores, which is fascinating, but the language used by wine stores in emails to sell the wines. It might even be interesting to try to examine how consumers themselves communicate about wine and see whether or not there is a fundamental disconnect – though finding good textual material for analysis might be a challenge.

    One point about the data you quoted from Tom’s analysis. Since the regional data isn’t, as far as I can tell, normalized to the number of wines reviewed per region, it’s pretty difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions. Suppose Parker simply reviewed far more wines from the Rhône than from Italy? That alone would explain the difference in number of 100-point wines. There could easily be small regions with a higher “100-point rate” than the Rhône. We can’t tell without normalization. I wouldn’t expect Tom ’s patterns to change entirely with normalization, but some surprising things might emerge. The same point can be made even more strongly for the maturity level statistics. I would expect that Parker reviewed mostly young wines, so conclusions based on this data are likely to be highly skewed, and completely meaningless without normalization.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Tom Wark’s comment on this post also pointed out that this is not a systematic analysis, which is why he was careful at reaching conclusions on the matter. I realize that, and I hope I haven’t pushed the reasoning too far. You’re right that it points to an interesting path about the linguistics of wine communication that is very much worth exploring.

      With regards to the data, you’re absolutely right to say that it is not normalized. I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to correlate the data on 100-point wines to the whole set of reviews, however. Looking at the list of “perfect” wines does immediately reveal a personal list, skewed according to what Parker is tasting and his personal preferences. In other words, going through the list of Parker-perfect wines, one should read it as a list of HIS very favorite wines, and not a list of objectively perfect wines, nor an assessment of the very best in all of the wine world, all regions included.

      That being said, I did a quick little exercise, using the advanced search function on the Robert Parker web site, to try to do a vague normalization. I checked the number of wines at different rating points for Italy and the Rhône, and the results go like this:

      Rating Italy Rhône

      99+ 13 107
      98+ 60 165
      97+ 149 204
      96+ 329 340

      As you see, when you get to wines rated 96 or more, the numbers become comparable, whereas even at the 98+ level, Parker rates almost three times more wines from the Rhône as he does from Italy.

      That does not provide a full comparison of the whole body of Italian vs Rhône wines, and it does seem to indicate that overall, Parker is tasting a lot more French than Italian wines (He has 246 wines rated 99+ from France as a whole, and 13 from Italy). But that quick sampling from the top end does tend to show that he just likes the Rhône better.

      That’s perfectly fine, by the way. He can like the Rhône and be indifferent to Burgundy as much as he wants. Tai-Ran Niew, in his comment on this post, is right to point out that this is at least as much about the consumers as it is about the critic.

      My post, in that regard, should be read more as a caveat emptor – buyer beware. I’d almost be tempted to say that I see myself, in that regard, as a consumer advocate, as a certain person once called himself.

  4. Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    The real underlying issue is not the points system, but rather a consumer’s experience and confidence in his/her own preferences. And, this is absolutely not a function of intellect or ability, but time, cost and opportunity.

    Quoting Jancis Robinson:” My somewhat vain aim has always been to elighten and enthuse my readers and viewers as much as possible, so that they can make as informed a choice as possible, based on their own tastes. But more and more I reach the conclusion that however hard I try an instil confidence in wine consumers, the great majority of them just want to be told what to buy.” Or as a friend said:” I am too busy to spend time on this, just tell me what to buy.”

    A 100pts score is neither “the truth”, nor, critically, is it irrelevant. As you say, it is an opinion. How much weight it carries is a function of the consumer and NOT the wine critic. The consumer can either treat that opinion as gospel or ignore it. Hardly anyone choose music based on scores.

    The wine merchants and commericial wine media have realised that there is screaming need from consumers for simple guidance when faced with a choice of 300,000 wines. And latched on to Parker and scores.

    If there is another way of simply, cheaply, systematically, conveying the wonders and diversity of wine in a snippet of information that can be consumed in 1 second … I’m sure the merchants and wine media will latch on to it too.

    It would be really interesting to do a survey of all the retailers in the US and ask:” If we remove the scoring system completely, what % of your customers will stop buying wine …” .

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Very good point about consumer experience and confidence – and time. I know that most people who buy wine won’t bother with the minutiae that most of the professionals enjoy so much. Still, despite Jancis’ reservations, in that quote, I don’t think she has stopped trying to enlighten and enthuse readers.

      The SAQ, Quebec’s wine and spirits monopoly, set up a system of taste profiles, with four categories in whites and four categories in reds, specifically to address the consumers’ lack of time and energy to delve through these details, and thus provide them with simplified avenues of exploration. If that allows an intimidated beginner to try different wines and define their taste, instead of buying the exact same wine again and again, that’s progress. However, when people are ready to dish out one or several hundred dollars per bottle to garnish their cellar, one would hope that their reasons for buying would be more specific than “Parker gave it a 98″.

  5. Posted January 18, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Great post Rémy. The thing that irks me is when people like Suckling and Parker sip a wine for a few seconds and say, 96 pts. Boom. There is no way that any palate on earth can scientifically assess all attributes of a wine that fast. Are they telling me that with two sips their palate has told them that the acidity rated a 96, the balance rated a 94, and complexity/finish a 98? Is their palate calibrated that well? I really don’t think it is, but I could be wrong.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      It does seem like a bit of a parlor trick, doesn’t it? I’ve done competition and technical tastings, and even by those standards, James Suckling’s lightning-fast video assessments seem impossibly hurried to me.

  6. Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Our own, perhaps idiosyncratic position is…What about zero?

    We now know what constitutes 100 points. If we can afford it, we can sample it, and perhaps taste perfection. But none of these critics ever bother tasting anything below about 80 points.

    But what’s at the opposite end of the spectrum? What does a 30 point wine taste like? Seriously, how bad is zero? What’s the point of a scale where we only know the upper end?

    We spend most of our time writing about wines way, way down the scoring. Sainsbury’s Basic Red http://sedimentblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/vino-de-mesa-sainsbury.html was by far the worst. I wonder just how a 100-point critic would score that one? Then we’d really understand the scale…

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      It’s not necessarily that they don’t taste anything below 80 points, but more that the scale works mostly between 80 and 100 points, with occasional scores showing up in the 70s. Many have pointed out that the 100-point scale feels more like a 20-point scale, in that regard.

      It’s also true that tasting wines in different ranges is a somewhat different exercise, insofar as the wines are not produced in the same way or have the same ambitions.

  7. capnlouie
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Pardon the pun, but it sounds like sour grapes, to me.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I’d be hard pressed to hold anyone’s puns against them, since I tend to do a lot of that myself. However, it’s not sour grapes on my part, but rather a recommendation that people don’t take Parker scores for more than what they truly are – i.e., one man’s opinion.

  8. Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    You are preaching to the converted Remy!

    Suckling has proved that he is a ding dong with his videos. I think of him now as a wine comedian, albeit unintentional. As I commented on twitter, he pulls his scores from somewhere other than thin air! ;)

    All this junk proves why I don’t care about Parker or Spectator scores at all, except for the big problem – others do. I wish they didn’t. A wine review should be a description and recommendation, not a score.

    I score because I am forced to, and I can see how it works for competition, because there are criteria and you are comparing with other wines, but for a magazine or consumer reco, scores are a problem.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Points are a shortcut, in many ways, but too often read as the essential aspect of a wine review. Even in cases where they are accompanied by careful tasting notes, the focus tends to be on the number, which certainly oversimplifies things.

  9. Spike Stockdale
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    This may not be a popular view, but since someone brought up the consumer… What isn’t being addressed here are the alternatives to a 100 pt rating system.

    Stars, glasses, no rating at all, just an appreciation of the wine? None of these address the fundamental flaw of the 100 point scale which is subjectivity. The enlightened consumer understands that Parker loves a blockbuster (so do I, from time to time). The unenlightened consumer takes it as gospel. But that same consumer may also take 4 glasses or a glowing non-rated review in exactly the same way.

    There is no way to rank wines empirically (except by using a mass spectrometer) because our palates and moods are all different and may even change day-to-day place-to-place.

    With great respect to all the pros who are posting here, I am going to put forward the following hypothesis. Wine writers often dislike Parker and his 100 points because they feel oppressed and overshadowed by it. They want to free themselves of it and create more space (and larger audiences) for their views.

    As a consumer, with no vested interest in any system, I appreciate Parker (and his crew) and even the WS folks for all the work they do. It is a great help in guiding my wine experimentation. I also appreciate what Remy and Aurelie Fillion do, it is also extremely helpful and enlightening.

    But to be perfectly honest the debate over Parker and his scale rings hollow – if you are positioning it as a benefit to consumers. Film reviewers disagree about films, not about whether a film gets 4 reels out of 5, or 80 points out of 100, or 2 thumbs up. I would really prefer to hear how your appreciation of a wine differs from Parker than be subjected to more meta-debate about the scale.

    That is just my opinion, I could be wrong (via Dennis Miller)

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Stars, glasses, no rating at all, just an appreciation of the wine? None of these address the fundamental flaw of the 100 point scale which is subjectivity

      Part of the argument here is to understand the context in which ratings are given. The number given appears totally objective but the context is often missing information when trying to interpret the rating. No rating at all gets around this limitation because the context is usually (if the reviewer does a fine job) conveyed directly in the review.

      Yes, the consumer has one more tool to make a correct decision, but in the end, he might not use this tool correctly because he is lacking some crucial information about the context of this note, whether it be glasses, points out of 100 or stars.

      • Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Julien makes a good point about the loss of context that ratings tend to create, as people rely on the number without paying much attention at the note. And in the case of Wine Advocate, the great difference between the palate of Robert Parker and that of David Schildknecht is a case in point: someone buying a wine on a “91 RP” note in the store (as Wine Advocate notes are often indicated – erroneously) may be surprised by a 91 scored by Schildknecht featuring high acid and mineral notes.

        Spike, the impetus to write this post was my surprised at how idiosyncratic the pattern of 100-point wines is, not jealousy about Mr Parker’s influence. I was just struck by the extent to which the score didn’t mean the very best in the world, but the ones I loved the most among the wines I’ve tasted.

        In any case, you are right about one thing: enough with reviewing the reviewers. I need to spend more time writing about wine itself. In context. Without scores.

        • brad mate
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          Yep I totally agree, we should be writing more about wine than picking apart reviewers, however i really truely believe that many scores are motivated by companies that want to sell wine. I’m sure these wine writers or the companies they represent are getting paid off to give out high ratings on a regular basis. That’s really always in the back of my mind when i see expensive wines with high reviews. I think reviews are better catered to less expensive wines, in this case the reviewer might be exposing a great wine that doesn’t have the budget for big time advertising.

          I think they could inprove the wine rating system by scoring the wine based on the level of quality it is, and then just suggest tasting notes, since everybody may taste or and smell something different.

          I rarely find that wine scores and reviews help me pick out a wine i will enjoy, but too often to i find myself purchasing wines that have been review? Wierd how advertising can trick you. and that’s all it is…advertising.

          With the internet and social networks and blogs like this, the debate is pretty much solved. now you can go to various sites or use apps on your smart phone where hundreds of people like you and me leave our wine reviews…and i think that goes a lot further than any professional wine expert that has a vested financial interest in scoring a wines.

  10. Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    To paraphrase Ricky Gervais,

    Thank Parker for making me scoring atheist.

  11. Tom Wark
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Remy:

    One difficulty with the eRobertparker rating engine tool is that there is no way to determine exactly how many wines from a particular region have been rated. If you do a search only on France:Rhone it only delivers back 500 wine ratings…I presume that’s the cut off for how many responses will result from a query.

    I mention this because it would be VERY interesting to see and compare what percentage of wines from a region rate 100 points.

    Tom…

  12. Tom Wark
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    One more thing…

    …I don’t think Mr. Parker holds any responsibility for either the focus on the 100point scale or the notion that people follow his palate too much.

    These phenomenon, if they exist, are the cause of folks reading Mr. Parker and those who use his ratings to sell wine.

    Robert Parker is merely rating wines, like anyone else who may or may not have a large audience. He has no influence over how his reviews and ratings are used and whether or not they are particularly more influential than another critic’s reviews and ratings.

    • Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Tom, I’ve seen that limitation with the search engine too: when I tried to look at 95+ scores, I hit 500 on any category. You’re right that it would be very interesting to see the percentages of top rated wines within regions. I wonder if Parker and co. would help us with that?…

      It’s true that “buyer beware” – or reader beware – applies to Parker’s ratings, however Mr Parker does have a responsibility insofar as he worked hard to tell people that he was doing his work rigorously and according to “standards”, implying an objective bottom line to the ratings. To say that he is merely rating wines is minimizing the work he has done – and rightly so, as this is is livelihood – to support his authority and influence.

      • Tom Wark
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        I don’t mean to minimize Mr. Parker’s work. In fact, I’m in awe of his abilities and his relentlessness and his tasting prowess. But also, I don’t think he gives the impression that his reviews are objective insofar as he never suggests that a wine can only be enjoyed and understood one way. However, I believe he is objective in the way he approaches the review. The result is, like every other critic, a subjective determination of quality.

  13. Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Scores are completely unnecessary other than for competition (and I’d prefer rankings there over scores). If I choose to review a wine in print, it means I think it is worthy of drinking. No score is needed. I rarely (VERY rarely, and only to make a specific point) waste print on wines I don’t think people should drink. The reader then goes through the description, and what situation I think the wine is appropriate for, and they either choose to try it or not. A score serves no useful purpose for consumers who are truly interested in wine. Scores are solely for status seekers. That’s alliteration, homes!

  14. Posted January 19, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    Okay, we give the debate…94 points

  15. Economist
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    What the scoring system of the wine writers have given me is the courage to try wines of different regions and discover for myself which ones I like the most. Jancis Robinson seems to be the most balanced in her approach and as her wine selections are difficult to find where I reside, this has forced me to look for wines in the same region in neighbouring vineyards and try them for myself, an interesting and most enjoyable persuit as well as a good education. Robert Parker on the other hand likes for the most part wines that are high in alcohol which I have discovered I don’ t like so I stay away from his selections but try to find alternate wines in the same region that more suit my taste to try. All in all, the wine writers are educating me in my palate which after all is what they there to do.

  16. Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s fine for those of us in the industry to debate this issue, because we have the knowledge and experience to understand the ratings and how they are done. But for wine consumers, especially novices, there is a need for a tool they can use to learn how to understand wine ratings.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Points are not necessary for anyone, but the lazy.

      We don’t need them to choose the cheese we want at the cheese counter. We have mouths for that. Meaning we open them and ask the cheese monger, what is good based one what I like. We use words to converse and discuss and debate about what we want to eat.

      Why do we forgo conversation and words when it comes to wine? Yes there are many choices, but so are their on a menu in a good restaurant. Yet we don’t buy food based on numbers. The grocery store I was in last back in Minnesota had 20 apple varieties. Not one was scored, but somehow I was able to find a way to figure out which one to buy.

      Scores are a simple way to avoid exploring. Buying a wine you will like is not guaranteed simply by buying a higher rated wine. Ratings are subjective and mean no more to me than my friend saying he enjoyed x, y or z wine that he tasted last week. I can only weigh what I know about him against his recommendation, and then decide if I might agree with him.

      Great post. Wish I could add to the debate, but in the end I’m just waiting for the debate to be over, and welcome in a new age of people buying wine based on conversations, not points.

  17. Wineguy16
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Google Tim Hanni, for those of you that do not know him, and see a potentially better way to judge wines and understand as a consumer what wines or wine types would most appeal to you–

  18. Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    “smells the carcass of well beaten dead horse”

  19. Tom Wark
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Hey Ryan:

    I think it needs to be noted that most ratings from Robert Parker also come with a written review of the wine, many of them very substantial.

    Neither Parker, nor the Wine Spectator nor Wine & Spirits, etc are simply offering up numbers. That said, the Points are informative if you want to know how the reviewer compares the two in terms of their view of quality. Having a sense of what Robert Parker likes in a wine, I can glean a certain amount of information when I see he gives one Green Valley Pinot 84 Points, another 90 Points and another 96 points.

    Cheers,
    Tom….

  20. Posted February 15, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Scores… nothing wrong with ‘em.

    But they get rampantly abused, and the response from the vast majority in the biz is to continue to promote the rampant abuse by advertising the hell out of any half-decent score that is given to just about any wine, anywhere.

6 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Perfection is personal: why 100 points by Robert Parker is just his opinion [...]

  2. By Terroirist » Blog Archive » News Roundup: Points! on January 19, 2011 at 6:05 am

    [...] of points, Remy Charest writes a nice piece on wine scores — concluding, get this, that points are entirely subjective. [...]

  3. [...] RemyCharest New on The Wine Case – Perfection is Personal: why 100 points by @robertmparkerjr is just his opinion. http://winecase.ca/l6o [...]

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mascuisine, bh 67. bh 67 said: RT @BillZacharkiw: 100 point madness. Way to go Remy. http://winecase.ca/2011/01/17/personal-perfection-by-robert-parker/comment-page-1/ … [...]

  5. [...] nombreuses critiques, parfois assez dures, que j’ai formulées à son sujet, sur Twitter et sur un billet de mon blogue anglais, à propos de l’échelle de 100 points. Après avoir discuté de la chose, l’entretien a été assez sympathique, au total, et il a [...]

  6. By 91 WA…Should I care? — Teach Us Wine on April 7, 2011 at 10:46 am

    [...] thinking about this whole point situation I found some very cool articles. Perfection is Personal and Profiling Robert Parker’s 100 point [...]

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