Monday, December 31, 2012

Robert Parker and Yelp redefine perfection

Robert Parker has given perfect 100-point scores to more than 50 wines this year.

At first, my mind was boggled by the score inflation. How can more than 50 wines be perfect? Doesn't this mean mere 95-point wines are now deficient? And that 92-pointers should only be used for salad dressing?

We had a lively discussion about this on Twitter. Is Parker's famous palate memory shot, at age 65, after decades of punishing his taste buds? Is he rewarding his friends? Validating his career-long quest to see the world make better wines? Or is it just his obvious enthusiasm, unbridled at last?

Last year, Antonio Galloni gave ZERO 100-point scores to Napa Valley for the Wine Advocate (he's doled out a hunnie since). So 53 perfect scores for Parker? It's a lot.

But then I spent a couple hours reading Yelp, and realized that once again, Parker is in touch with the American zeitgeist. "Perfect" is the new "good."

I'm going to quote 4 reviews below. See if you can guess which are from 100-point reviews by Robert Parker, The World's Most Important Critic, and which are from 5-star reviews from random people on Yelp. Answers after the jump.

1: "It's light, crisp, slightly sweet, a little embodies a delightful summer day in a cup.  It's a bit pricey, but much better than cheaper, subpar Moscatos."

2: "The wine has terrific minerality, laser-like focus, and a stacked-and-packed palate that builds incrementally like a 20-story skyscraper."

3: "I'm not an expert on Cognac, but anything this smooth, silky, potent, and aromatic, is truly great stuff. It is about as ethereal Cognac as anyone could ever hope to drink."

4: "Their Fiddletown Zin is like drinking blackberry jam. It's almost a dessert wine."

Parker reviews: No. 2 (Scarecrow Napa Valley 2009) and No. 3 (Tesseron Cognac Lot No. 29 XO Exception).

Thanks to Laura S. for her Yelp rave about Ravenswood Moscato and Chris K. for his review of Rombauer Zinfandel. Did I fool anyone with those?

I spent most of Saturday afternoon reading Yelp reviews. You can get lost in there; it's like reality TV, a window into the soul of ordinary Americans. I'm sure many a restaurant server can recognize the patron who wrote this about the French Laundry: "I have been disappointed numerous times at many restaurants but this was one of my most disappointing." Hurray! Perfection in disappointment!

Bitter anger at restaurants that don't accommodate a last-minute bachelorette party aside, Yelp abounds in perfect scores. Ordinary people expect perfection, which may be why they're so devastated if the refills aren't free. Everything starts from perfection and works its way down, outrage by outrage -- unless there aren't any.

As Darlene T. says about San Tung Chinese Restaurant, "I'm really not a fan of Chinese food, but I love LOVE this place." 5 stars. I can imagine Parker writing that -- well, maybe not the first clause, but everything after the comma. He's a better writer than Darlene, but the sentiment is the same. The man loves what he loves. It's unusual in a critic, but it shows that after all these years of luxury, he hasn't lost touch with the common man's experience. In fact, he's actually getting more generous.

So 53 perfect scores from Parker for wines in 2012, even though he has drastically cut back his tasting schedule?

That's really just a sign of how weak, as a group, the wines Parker tasted were. Think about it: If the average Yelper tasted 5,000 wines, she'd give a lot more than 53 perfect scores. And Parker has basically become a Yelper (see the tweets).

Next year, especially with the Wine Advocate apparently being purchased by an ex-retailer who may still have a financial interest in selling wine futures based on their ratings, we'll see if perfection becomes even more attainable. Because we've been asking the wrong question.

It's not: What makes a wine perfect?

For Robert Parker at this point, as it is on Yelp, the question is, "Isn't this wine perfect?" When you ask it that way, sure, why not?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. The "100" as "perfection" is arbitrary and specious. It's a false ceiling. Unlike the case of school test scores, it's not a percentage. It's just an arbitrary sum, with a baseline of 50 or so. This is not a condemnation of the "100 point system" it's just to say that the notion of "nothing greater than 100" is silly; as is the false precision- that actually annoys me

  2. Moreover, the constant insistence on "best" annoys me too. Everything turns into a fucking competition. If I want competition I'll watch or play sports or a game. I don't need gustatory pleasures to be in competition
    Sorry for the rants. Rants are the BEST!

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  4. Did you know that every time Robert Parker gives a "100 Point" score an angel screams in agony while it's wings fall off and the yuan raises in value a tenth of a percent...

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  6. Kyle: Just as well, there are too many angels and the yuan is artificially low.

  7. So Blake, are you saying that China values the yuan to be in some way inversely proportional to the average of Parker scores in a given issue?

  8. As you touched on, if an ex ;) wine merchant with strong ties to the Asian wine world owned and controlled editorial output of the WA , even just timing, how much would 100 entrepreneurs pay yearly for the scores before they are announced to the public? Maybe Ch√Ęteau Latour saw this coming. Just wondering , a 15M sale looks cheap in this light…………..

  9. The guy's pallet is shot. He keeps giving 100 points to Scarecrow wines and they are garbage. All of my clients went big on the 2007 'crow, drank one bottle and then immediately sold the rest.

  10. Joe S: For what it's worth, Scarecrow is the IT wine for baseball players. Label? Point score? I don't know, but you're talking about a group of people, ages roughly 22-37, with an average income of $3.2 million. Few are college graduates and probably half never attended college. They tend to trust each others' advice, much like every other social group, and somehow Scarecrow got that meme.

  11. Is anyone else curious about Parker's top 3 movies of 2012? Prometheus and Savages, really? His 3 picks are totally watchable but in the voice of Peter Griffin "Come On!"

  12. Is anyone else curious about Parker's top 3 movies of 2012? Prometheus and Savages, really? His 3 picks are totally watchable but in the voice of Peter Griffin "Come On!"

  13. But Matt, they're 100-point movies: powerful blockbusters.

  14. If people on Yelp can correctly surmise that San Tung is a five star place, I'm down. They have the best chicken wings!

    But really, great piece; lots of insight into the new direction that wine marketing is heading. Which is to say, from consumers up, rather than the Agencies down.