If you have ever bought wine even once, chances are you would have heard of two things at least:
1 90/90+ point wines
2. Robert Parker
If you have never bought wine, there's still more than 50% chance you would have heard of Parker.
When the lawyer turned wine critic, Parker, first started the wine rating system in the late 1970s, no one (likely including him) had the faintest idea, he was starting a movement that will turn into a juggernaut, giving birth to hundreds and thousands of glamorous jobs in the wine world. Before he came along, while there were a handful of people (e.g. Robert Finigan, Clive Coates*) who were willing to stick their neck out, the world of wine assessment, simply put, wasn't standardized, wasn't being cut with the same knife over and over again across producers across locations to provide a consistent picture through the vintages of a style of wine and quality. There's still a lot of debate if it was being cut equitably even after the point system from Parker came into existence but there's a degree of acceptance, that it was being consciously attempted.
(Sorry, to say a cookie-cutter approach was being applied wouldn't do full justice to this phenomenon although some critics would like to argue that a decade down the line it did lead to standardized tastes ('Parkarization') across wine styles. This before a late nineties renaissance turned things around, especially for the wines from the traditional wine growing regions of Italy)
The 100 point system seemed simple to comprehend to the common man, to make sense of the extremely complex world of wine (remember there was no internet, and some of the big wine critics were still to be born or make their money writing (or both) and hadn't written books that you could find in your neighbourhood library or bookstore).
While as the years and decades have progressed, the 100 point rating system and many of the ratings and, the lawyer turned wine critic's wine memory have been called into question, what remains is the fact that Parker, did change the wine industry in more than one ways. The most important was establishing the status of independent wine critics as a benchmark, a standard that wine distributors, retailers and consumers could look up to and trust (and wine producers could court), especially when tasting everything was either not practical, or a very expensive option.
While Parker had a head start in establishing himself as the authority, it wasn't long before the world found other independent and equally well respected voices from across the Atlantic/Pacific such as those of the great Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, James Halliday (literally on the other end of the world) and others that could be trusted (in some cases a lot more than Parker). These were then followed by other prominent names in the late 1990s such as Allen Meadows, Stephen Tanzer, Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin, Jesper Morris (more researcher, great author than a critic), Walter Speller, Kerin O'Keefe, Tim Atkin and off late, the likes of Richard Hemming and many others.
While the advent of wine writing has provided sustainable careers to the critics, and easily 'assessable' literature that an average wine consumer can use to arrive at a reasonable basis for judging a wine, it has also left the more well read consumer, especially the one who has taken some effort to dig deep spending some time and resources a bit confused. A real bane of this writing and multiple numbering systems is to the average wine consumer the rating now means everything and (sadly) all ratings from all sources mean the same.
Some of the questions that majority of the literature and rating point systems (whether out of 20 or 100) doesn't (still) really answer include:
1. While the rating may signify quality, what does it mean when two wines at two different ends of pricing spectrum are rated the same? Is the wine critic telling us that both are of the same quality? Or is he/she telling us, that compared to the best this particular terroir/specific winemaker can produce, the tasted wine is of this quality? Or is it that the wine critic is telling us that compared to the finest one can see from a certain geographic region for a certain grape for a certain wine style, this is how the wine stands up?
E.g. How a single vineyard Monfortino Barolo Riserva made from the fickle Nebbiolo grape from say Giacomo Conterno or a Cannubi Boschis Barolo from Luciano Sandrone, differs from a straight Barolo from an average producer in Piemonte ?
2. The rating system doesn't specify, the premium a point difference should command. So when a wine is rated a 90 vs a 92 or a 94 vs a 95, what does it mean in terms of the pricing to the average consumer? Would a 20% premium justify a 2 point difference or for e.g. is the consumer better off if a 92 point wine from an average producer is available for the same price or less as a 88 point or a 90 point wine from a star Chateau?
3. Which point system to trust? How do these stack up? Is the one by erobertparker.com to be trusted above vinous.com or the one from Burghound by Allen Meadows more reliable than the verdict from Jancisrobinson.com?
4. How the vintage stacks up against the best vintage for the producer? Though some wine critics bring this out in terms of drinking window (a great vintage from a great producer would need at least 10 yrs of cellaring for e.g. for a good red) and reflecting the same in the tasting notes, not many would go too far in comparing the vintage (although to be fair most great critics do provide a generic vintage report on their website). In fact, it is quite common to see star Chateau wines consistently rated in high 90s even for mediocre vintages.
While at the top end of the wine buying, this information on quality of the Vintage will be sort of available (and consistent most of the time between respected critics) and/or provided to the buyer voluntarily, for most value wines, this information will have to be scoured from the internet or sourced 'involuntarily' from the respective distributor or retailer.
So, why do we need these critics? Especially in the age of internet and social media and information overload, where almost all of that you could possible need including, the history, the geography, the math and the science of it (pun intended) is available at your fingertips?
The answer actually is quite simple. We need them precisely because of this information overload.
We need them to help us sift through the mountains of literature to tell us what's worth a read and what's a cheap regurgitation of established writing overly simplified to serve a hidden agenda-A very critical component in developing your own understanding and benchmarks
We need them because no one (including big retailers and distributors, except perhaps the likes of Berry Bros) have the financial wherewithal to taste the multitude of wines and styles and famed producers with their own money. The privilege accorded by the producers to a select few who are unafraid to use the pen to say like it is, can sometimes help you save some pretty big dollars (especially if you are a small time retailer)
We need them because there are too many 'wine experts' out there, some still pretty wet behind their ears (and a large majority aren't willing to admit this).
We need them because we sometimes need an authoritative figure to pass the verdict authoritatively!
We need them to help us sift through the zillion regional and international wine awards now in circulation for every category of wine pricing and every wine producing region (to tell us a large majority of these is basically junk).
We need them because we need someone to stand up and (rap on the knuckles if needed) to the financial might of some of the largest producers to put the truth bluntly.
We need them to strike up a debate, or question the governments for questionable practices to bring about the change in laws, viticultural practices or plainly driving sanity on pricing!
We also need them to help the industry grow, to help identify the new passionate producers who have willingly chosen the long grind through endurance, took nature's rude jokes on the chin to emerge on the other side of the tunnel with high quality fruit and pioneering wine practices.
And as you make use of the great reads from the likes of Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Tim Atkin, Antonio Galloni, Kerin O'Keefe, Richard Hemmings and others into your wine journey, here are a few practices you can consider adopting in your wine journey:
1. Acquiring this knowledge is a journey where you are bound to stumble even when the path is fully lit and absolutely clear. So be humble and accept (unless you are a MS (Master Sommelier) or a MW (Master of Wine) most of the time what you don't know is a lot more than what you do know
2. Spend a few minutes tasting and assessing the wine (every time). There's no one in the world who can taste it better than you for the wine style you like. If you are in the company of good friends who share a good drink, ask the price (or if you want to be discreet, look up wine-searcher.com)
3. Try different wine styles. Different countries, regions and different grapes (please stick to the native grapes for each of the regions if you are still in early stages of your wine journey)
4. Consider spending a bit more and pick up a $50 bottle every now and then (do ensure you pick up from a value supplier or check the prices on wine-searcher.com). For people in Singapore make that $70
5. Buy from the retailer, who isn't afraid to share the knowledge or admit his ignorance. They are also probably on a similar journey and hopefully further ahead.
6. Follow the big names in wine writing on social media such as twitter. You would be absolutely amazed the amount of great free literature that becomes accessible and right there on your mobile.
7. Learn to slowly build your producer dictionary. I would always recommend starting with the producer, then the wine style/vintage. Have faith, there are a lot of great producers who are still as passionate about wines as their great grandfathers. (I personally would always chose a small time producer over a big negociant- (wine merchants, bulk buyers of fruit/large growers) even if I have to pay a slight premium.)
8. Take time to understand the wine critics. It won't be long before you will start forming an opinion on who you can rely on. (The ones I rely on or my guidance are part of this blog)
Wishing you a happy week. Wine is best enjoyed in company of good friends. Drink responsibly. Share the glass, share the love.
If I have mixed up the history on which wine critic came first and who later, then my apologies it was unintentional. If I have skipped some very prominent names who are prominent wine critics in today's wine world, I must admit it is either ignorance or purely intentional :) !
*added post publishing. Clive Coates was a genuine miss.