Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Perfection isn't perfect: Parker says only 50% of his 100-point scores are repeatable

More 100-point wines when the critic is lit!
If you read that a wine scored 100 points out of 100, you think, wow, that's an absolutely great wine. A perfect wine. Right?

It turns out that perfection, for Robert Parker, is as fleeting as the beauty of cherry blossom leaves drifting softly to the ground. Today your wine is a pink blossom; tomorrow it's a bare branch, possibly covered in birdshit.

Parker gave an interview to Drinks Business earlier this year for an article that will appear in its June issue. The magazine published excerpts online last week. I find this section astonishing:

How often do I go back and re-taste a wine that I gave 100 points and repeat the score? Probably about 50% of the time.
-- Robert Parker
Parker goes on to say that most -- not all -- of the time "I can understand why I did see it as perfect at that time."

Holy crap! How did this quote not roil the Internet?

In the same interview, Parker calls other critics "irresponsible" if they don't dole out 100-point scores. Seriously, he said that.

I understand that one's opinion changes on a wine. This is exactly why most of us don't give out 100 points like so many emoji on the tail end of Facebook posts. If a wine is really perfect, then it should be great today, next Tuesday and a year from now at the very least. That's what consumers expect.

When somebody shells out for a 100-point wine, they're not thinking, "It's a nice wine and the critic got a handjob just before tasting it." They're thinking, "Wow, this is one of the best wines I'll ever have in my life and is worth spending $500 and building a display case for it in my cellar." And yet there's a 50% chance that even the world's most
powerfulenthusiastic critic wouldn't like it that much if he tried it again.

Many wine lovers have been bitching about the flaws in the 100-point scale for years. I give Parker 93 points for honesty, but still, all of those rants combined don't damage the concept as much as that quote from Parker above.

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ascholl said...

Eh, this just sounds like non-controversial common sense to me. Nobody thinks that a lesser score is some sort of inflexible, objective absolute: if a good critic scores a wine as 91 points, you expect that he or she would score it pretty similarly if they tasted it again in a month. I can't imagine that anybody would be scandalized to see an 89 or 92 on the second go. How could a higher value be any different? Maybe I'm missing something that should be obvious: I've only been seriously interested in wine for a few months.

At the same time, calling critics who don't give 100 point scores 'irresponsible' seems comically, ludicrously self-serious.

Caroline said...

Maybe the comment didn't roil the Internet because nobody cares about Parker's scores anymore. At least we can hope.

Bob Henry said...

From Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002):

“. . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.”

In other words: caprice and whim.

See this guest essay by a Caltech professor debunking 100-point scales and the inability of reviewers to replicate their scores.

From The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
(November 20, 2009, Page W6):

“A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion;
They pour, sip and, with passion and snobbery, glorify or doom wines.
But studies say the wine-rating system is badly flawed.
How the experts fare against a coin toss.”


Essay by Leonard Mlodinow

Adam Lee said...

If you believe that a wine changes, a wine evolves, sometimes even transforms and blossoms and sometimes it tightens up and pulls back into itself (and I believe all of that), then you don't have a difficult time at all believing that a wine that was rated 100 one day could receive a 98 point rating at another time. The corollary is true as well, a 98 point wine may well become a 100.

Bob can argue that it is mere caprice that leads to such proclamations, but I don't agree with that at all. In my life I've had the "perfect day" and I've met the "perfect girl" (great Cure song by that name, btw), and I've enjoyed many perfects. None of which were truly perfect, but at that moment, they seemed like it.

Let the man (Parker...or any many) express that, in whatever way they choose. There's not enough of that joy out and around. If there's a problem, in my opinion, it is that there is too adoration placed on someone else's personal perfection. But that's hardly the fault of the person sharing that experience.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Bob Henry said...


Put the same wine in the same flight.

Or in the same winetasting overall.

Does it score the same from the judges?

That's the score replication I allude to -- not the acknowledged transformation over time.

And that's the inability to replicate one's "intra"-wine competition judging scores that the Caltech professor refers to.


Adam Lee said...


Your comments about "caprice and whim" and Parker's choosing to give a wine 100 points is what I was referring to. Your example of the same wine twice in one flight has nothing to do with what I wrote or what Parker was saying.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Bob Henry said...

My comments were dashed off on my way to a wine industry project this morning.

So let me now elaborate.

Clearly I misinterpreted Adam's comment.

And self-evidently, we are addressing different things.

I criticize wine judging competitions for not "judging the judges."

Can they successfully pass the test of identifying the same poured wine consistently in a "single-blind" tasting line-up?

(The readers of this wine blog would be astonished by the fact that many can't. That's what Robert Hodgson, a retired statistics professor-cum-winemaker learned -- among other things -- from his study of scoring patterns at the California State Fair wine competition. And what Caltech professor Leonard Mlodinow wrote up in his Wall Street Journal essay. One reason: wine competition are populated by too many "political cronies" and not enough "savants.")

Do I believe there is bottle-to-bottle variation that can lead to different scores over time?


Do I believe wines can change ("improve" or "close down") over time?


Do I believe that the "zeitgest" of the moment sampling prestigious wines can favorably influence a person's judgment?


(Parker doesn't sample his wines "single blind." That is a procedural flaw in his methodology.)

Do we all judge wines through the prism of our lifelong experiences -- and internalize those exposures as our reference standard?


If you like "cat pee" -- variously attributed to pyrazines and thiols -- in your New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and I like "figs" in my riper California Sauvignon Blanc, who am I to challenge your preference?

That's where the Latin phrase "De gustibus non est disputandum" comes into play.

Translation: "In matters of taste, there can be no disputes."


-- and --

Bob Henry said...

A sidebar on a "closed" wine . . .

From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
(May 6, 2009, Page E1ff):

“[Decanting:] Call It Aroma Therapy for Wine”


By W. Blake Gray
Special to The Times

Air is one of the most talked about but most misunderstood elements in wine.

We say a wine needs to “breathe” as if it just needs a few minutes to freshen itself up, releasing its seductive perfume. In fact, most wines have been waiting years just to cast off a little gas.

In the end, the result is the same: To be appreciated, a wine needs to smell its best. To do that, it needs more air, faster, than you might think -- but not for the reasons you might have heard.

People talk about a wine being "CLOSED," says Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino Restaurant Group. "A closed flower doesn't give you the pleasure a beautiful rose will give you when it's in full bloom. You want the petals of the wine, its aromas, to open up and talk to you."

But poetry aside, to wine researchers, "CLOSED" means nothing. It's just another metaphor, like saying a wine is "cheeky."

"The word 'CLOSED' does not have a physical meaning for sensory testing," says Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.

Further, Waterhouse says the implication that a "CLOSED" wine is missing something is a misdiagnosis. In fact, rather than withholding scents, the wine is actually giving you something extra: sulfur compounds that are potent enough even in tiny amounts to cover up the fresh fruit aromas you want to smell.

Sulfur occurs naturally in both grapes and the yeasts that turn grapes into wine. Sulfur forms more than 100 compounds called mercaptans. These sulfuric compounds form differently and unpredictably in every bottle of wine.

When exposed to air, they eventually re-form into something less annoying, but they need a few minutes to do so. We call it "breathing," but it's really a seething sea of recombining elements.

"I think of wine as a tier of about 100 different compounds that are either taking on oxygen or passing it on to something else," says Kenneth Fugelsang, associate professor of enology at Cal State Fresno. "When that process is finished, the wine is ready to drink."

Even if you don't smell rotting cabbage, asparagus or burnt rubber -- some of mercaptan's more noxious calling cards -- sulfur compounds are still what keep you from fully enjoying wine right away.

"These reductive compounds are excellent masking agents," Fugelsang says. "They can hide the positive characteristics of any wine."

. . .

[See next comment.]

Bob Henry said...

In a two-part front page profile of Robert Parker, the Los Angeles Times reported on his tasting methodology when he visited California wineries.

Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
(February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

“He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens; Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic. His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally, and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”

(Series: First of Two Articles)


By David Shaw
Times Staff Writer

PARKER IS KNOWN AS A FAST TASTER. Jorge Ordonez, whose Fine Wine Estates from Spain is one of the leading American importers of Spanish wines, says he has “never seen anyone able to pick the best wines out of a ‘flight’ of 50 or 60 as quickly.”

Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he spits it out. EACH WINE IS IN HIS MOUTH FOR MAYBE FOUR OR FIVE SECONDS.

If his first taste suggests that a wine is not worth at least 80 points, he won’t taste it again. “Why bother?” he asks. “You might just as well take your clothes off and say, ‘Beat me, beat me.’”

But any wine that initially seems to merit 80 points or more is tasted twice, maybe three times in succession before Parker determines its final score. He doesn’t linger or ponder. It’s as if he has a small, carefully calibrated computer embedded in his palate: Wine in, judgment out. As soon as he spits, he scribbles several lines of descriptive material in his notebook, adds a precise score for a bottled wine or a narrow range of scores (say, 88-91) for a “barrel sample” — wine too young to have been bottled yet — and moves on to the next.

[Bob’s aside: Does 4 to 5 seconds of
sniffing, swirling, sipping, sucking air into his mouth and gurgling allow sufficient time for the sulfur compounds to blow off before revealing the underlying aroma and flavors in the wine?]