The fascinating thing about flipping through Robert Parker's 1987 Wine Buyer's Guide, which I bought for a song on Ebay, is the way he rated wines all the way from 50 to 100.
The wines he reviewed in 1987 are mainly from the 1981 through '84 vintages, and include the '82 Bordeaux vintage that he loved. His palate preference is already on display, with quotes like this:
"Lanessan produces wine of a big, rich, gutsy style that often lacks finesse but more than compensates for that deficiency with plenty of power and flavor authority."This is a period when some wineries released flawed wines, something that rarely happens today, and Parker dings those wines with scores in the 50s. That's admirable, part of the good role he played in helping force wineries to make improvements in hygiene.
Those aren't the noticeable scores, though. In today's world, where scores under 85 are rarely published, it's shocking to flip through the book and see so many wines with scores in the 70s, often with no comment at all. He calls 1981 Iron Horse Cabernet "acceptable" and lays a 72 on it. This is the exception, though: most scores under 75 get something like this comment about Gerin Côte-Rôtie: "Both the 1978 (72 points) and 1980 (75 points) exhibit annoyingly high acid levels and sinewy, compact personalities."
I cherry-picked that one to play into what we know about Parker today, though "light" is a frequent complaint about wines he scored in the 70s. It was a legitimate concern in a cooler era with less precise farming, particularly in France, wineries often struggled to get their grapes ripe enough. More common are comments like this:
"The '81 (Léoville-Barton) is good, but not special in this vintage." (78 points)
"Sauvignon Blanc is a winner here (Robert Pecota Winery), and if you should see the 1985, be sure to drink it within the first several years of its life because this is not a type of wine that ages at all." (79 points)The point is, wines Parker scored in the high 70s back then were wines he probably wouldn't reject at his own dinner table.
He says Foppiano Winery "never seems to get the accolades it deserves" and rates 6 wines, all between 83 and 85.
"The Fumé Blanc (J. Lohr) stood out extremely well in several tastings I did for its fresh, lively fruitiness, subtle herbaceous quality, and well-balanced, concentrated feel on the palate." -- 84 points.And what kind of score would you associate with this comment today? "Remarkably vibrant, fruity, flowery, absolutely delicious." It's a Louis Martini sparkling Moscato, which he gives 87.
Parker was more shy then about giving 100 points, and it's clear that he didn't taste blind (he still doesn't). Only the big guns scored that high: Mouton-Rothschild, Pétrus. The 100 for Guigal's La Landonne Côte-Rôtie shows his heart lies in the Rhone.
As for California, the highest score for any wine was a 93 for the first vintage of Dominus; Parker was well aware Christian Moueix of Pétrus made the wine. Just eight wineries in California made a 92-pointer. There was definitely a double standard, as wines with similar tasting notes in France scored in the mid- or high-90s. I don't know in what year Parker began to see California on equal footing with France, but it clearly came after 1987.
Parker likely scored so many wines in the 60s and low 70s because viticulture and winemaking weren't as advanced then. Today's wines are rarely released with the kind of flaws they were 30 years ago; the bottom end today is much better.
But does anyone believe today's top-end wines are that much better than 30 years ago?
Nowadays wine is much more scientific and predictable. There was a much bigger element of luck in the early '80s. I don't doubt there were fewer great wines then, but the great wines were just as great. Back then they got 91 points. Now they get 98+.
And how about those mid-range wines: would anything "absolutely delicious" get below 90 points today? We live in a more absolute era.