Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Grade inflation at a glance: a look at Robert Parker's 1987 Wine Buyer's Guide

Chateau Le Pin: 81 points. Ridge Vineyards Cabernet: 75 points. Heitz Chardonnay: 55 points.

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.


Back then, when Parker gave a mid-80s score, it was a pretty good wine. "I have liked what I have seen from this winery and will continue to pay close attention to future endeavors," he writes about Thomas Fogarty Winery, which he gives two 87s, two 84s, a 75 and a 72. Today, that group of scores would mean: "Give up and brew beer."

He says Foppiano Winery "never seems to get the accolades it deserves" and rates 6 wines, all between 83 and 85.

He writes,
"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.

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10 comments:

Keith Pritchard said...

I have that 1987 copy from when I managed a wine store and that was when I noticed I really didn't care much for the style of wines he promoted. I actually prefer the lower rated wines that were made in a traditional style rather than the new world sort of style he pushed. As for climate that is not that much different what has really changed are cultural methods and harvest parameters. That was so wine producers could attain scores from Parker that would help sell their wines. I really wish more would have ignored that as I actually prefer the traditional style wines more.

Jonas Landau, everydaywineguy said...

Very interesting post and it points up the fact that nowadays reviewers, including Mr. Parker himself, wouldn't publish such negative comments about wines, I guess for fear that their access would be damaged. You're right though, whether your preferred style of wine jives with Mr. Parker or not, he did have an impact on the drive toward higher quality product.

DAPZ said...

Playing Devil's Advocate, I suspect Parker would counter by claiming that it just proves how his influence and his work helped improve overall wine quality in the world. Including high end wines.
I personally think that he was a positive force in the wine world. After his influence became so overwhelming, it stopped being positive as it is often the case when that happens.

Matt Mauldin said...

DAPZ, in fairness to Blake he said as much in the post.

Tim Atkin said...

Fascinating, Blake. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I'm 100 points on that.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Excerpts from Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview
with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate.

Wine Times: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator's?

Parker: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it's a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ABILITY TO AGE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob] . . .

. . .

Wine Times: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?

Parker: It's a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [balance of] 10 points are . . . simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. THIS IS SORT OF ARBITRARY AND GETS ME INTO TROUBLE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

. . .

Wine Times: Your scores get 50 points added on and look like the grades boys and girls get in school, and I know that's why you ended up with a system with 100 points, but don't you give out too many high grades? THE HIGHEST PERCENTAGE OF YOUR GRADES ARE IN THE 80s AND THEN SOME ARE IN THE 90s. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob] Are there lots of wines you taste that you don't evaluate?

Parker: I TRY TO FOCUS ON THE BEST WINES IN THE WINE ADVOCATE, OR ESPECIALLY WHEN I DO THE BUYER'S GUIDE, MY PUBLISHER DOESN'T WANT TO TAKE UP SPACE WITH 50s, 60s, OR EVEN 70. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob] . . .

Wine Times: The answer is partly to give you credibility. Right now the argument is that your average score in The Wine Advocate is in the 80s, and it doesn't matter if its 81 or 84. If it's in the newsletter, buy it.

Parker: No. I BUY WINES, AND I BUY WINES THAT ARE 85 OR 86, NOT BELOW THAT. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob] But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered "outstanding" for its type.

. . .

Wine Times: Do you have a bias toward red wines? WHY AREN’T WHITE WINES GETTING AS MANY SCORES IN THE UPPER 90s? [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob] Is it you or is it the wine?

Parker: Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It's a sign of the system that a great 1985 Morgon [Beaujolais] is not going to get 100 points because it's not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.

Wine Times: In your system, what would be the highest rated Beaujolais?
[ Highlighting added for emphasis. ]

Parker: 90. That would be a perfect Beaujolais, and I've never given one. have given a lot of 87s and 88s.

[Bob Henry's comment : In 1990, Parker awarded a score of 92 points to the 1989 vintage Georges Duboeuf "Jean Descombes" Morgon Beaujolais, contradicting his then year-old statement above.]

Wine Times: SO IT’S THE AGING POTENTIAL THAT IS THE KEY FACTOR THAT GETS A WINE INTO THE 90s. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

Parker: YES. [Capitalization added for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure -- wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure. . . .

W. Blake Gray said...

Good stuff, Bob, thanks. I wonder when Parker gave up on ageability as a standard?

Of course, he has never acknowledged that the low-acid fruit bombs that he likes best generally don't age well.

Kent Benson said...

Whether he still follows it or not, I'm not sure, but his website has always claimed that his system assigns points to various assessment categories, just as he described in the interview. I have never heard anyone refer to these details when discussing his point system. I've often wondered if he now uses or ever used a standard form with blanks for the individual scores for each category, which would then be added together for the total score. Or, does he do it Suckling style - I'm 90 points on that?

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

BLAKE,

RESPONDING TO YOUR COMMENT ABOUT LOW ACID (AND VERY RIPE) WINES . . . SEE THIS DECANTER ARTICLE.

I WONDER HOW LONG AMARONE AGES? COMMENTS, ANYONE ?

~~ BOB

Excerpt from Decanter
(May 24, 2013):

"Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux esearchers"

[Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers]

By Jane Anson in Bordeaux

Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told Decanter.com, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules - ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness)."

. . .

‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

KENT,

ON THE TOPIC OF ROBERT PARKER ASSIGNING POINTS TO INDIVIDUAL "COMPONENTS" OF A WINE.

~~ BOB

Excerpts from Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview
with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate.

WINE TIMES: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?

PARKER: It's a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [ balance of ] 10 points are . . . simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. THIS IS SORT OF ARBITRARY AND GETS ME INTO TROUBLE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

WINE TIMES: You mean when you are in the cellars of Burgundy, you look at a wine and say this is a 4 for color, a 14 for bouquet, and so on [ ? ]

PARKER: Yes, most of the times. What happens is that I've done so many wines by now that I know virtually right away that it's, say, upper 80s, and you sort of start working backwards. And color now is sort of an academic issue. The technology of color is refined and most color is fine. MY SYSTEM APPLIES BEST TO YOUNG WINES BECAUSE OLDER WINES, ONCE THEY’VE ;PASSED THEIR PRIME, END UP GETTING LOWER SCORES. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]


THIS DIFFERS FROM WINE SPECTATOR'S APPROACH:

From Wine Spectator “Letters” Section
(March 15, 1994, Page 90):

Grading Procedure

In Wine Spectator, wines are always rated on a scale of 100. I ASSUME YOU ASSIGN VALUES TO CERTAIN PROPERTIES OF THE WINES (aftertaste, tannins for reds, acidity for whites, etc), and
COMBINED THEY FORM A TOTAL SCORE OF 100. An article in Wine Spectator describing your tasting and scoring procedure would be helpful to all of us. [Capitalization used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

(Signed)

Thierry Marc Carriou
Morgantown, N.Y.


Editor’s note: In brief, OUR EDITORS DO NOT ASSIGN SPECIFIC VALUES TO CERTAIN PROPERTIES OF A WINE when we score it. WE GRADE IT FOR OVERALL QUALITY as a professor grades an essay test. We look, smell and taste for many different attributes and flaws, then WE ASSIGN A SCORE BASED ON HOW MUCH WE LIKE THE WINE OVERALL. [Capitalization used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]