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Articles,  January, 2003

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            I won’t claim that this is an original idea to me, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Haven’t point scores become compressed?   

            The 100 point scoring system popularized by Robert Parker was always based on the premise that it had a visceral impact by equating to school grades. You know, 90-100 was an “A,” 80-89 was a “B,” and so on.

            But let me ask you this---don’t you consider a score of 80 to be an insult? And wouldn’t you avoid wines rated 78 like the plague? Parker at this point says he does not even recommend, and usually doesn’t even publish notes on, wines that score less than 85 points.

             Let me hasten to add that both as a consumer and reviewer I have fallen into the same trap. A lot of inexpensive wines that I like that get 85-88 points (from me, Parker, or whomever) are I suspect, in a saner universe, really wines that should be in a 78-84 range, i.e., C+ and B-.  The problem is, these are inexpensive wines I like, speaking for myself. Giving them a lower score seems insulting. Yet, giving them 88 points leaves them trolling in the same range as more serious wines that did well but just didn’t excel in the context of the vintage or their own reputations. So, it seems like the point score range has become compressed, particularly in that critical range of, oh, 78-88, where wines should range from good value cheapies, to things that are starting to become more serious. Instead, they all clump together in the mid to upper 80s.

             Let me give you a theoretical example---any “real” world example will undoubtedly provoke someone to fight the hypothetical and claim undying affection for the cheaper wine.  Let’s say we have a good value, inexpensive wine that sells for about $8, has flavor, even some distinctiveness, and will drink well for at most three to five years. It’s a bit light, but tasty and well done.   Then, let’s say you have a more serious wine, by which I mean something that can age for 12 to 15 years, has more weight, depth and complexity, and in every sense seems more complex. Yet,  it falls short of exceptional and I can't justify giving it an "A," or 90 plus points.  The latter is instead a B+, appropriately getting, depending on close it comes, 87-89 points.  Yet, what now do we do with the cheapie? The cheapie might play in the same ballpark for 18 months, but it really is not attempting to compete on this level. That it comes close is a feather in its cap. That you might like it better for the first 12 months of its life is a compliment.  Does this cheapie get 86 points? 87? Does that mean both wines are more or less equal? Well, I suppose I could justify that result, depending on what weight you give to a variety of factors. I suppose in certain instances the cheapie might be SO charming in its early life that it deserves extra recognition. But in reality, most of the time, shouldn’t that cheapie get something much lower, clearly distinguishing where it should be? Maybe more like 80-84, depending, again on how well it does its job. Less distinguished cheapies might even get 78s and still be deemed worth buying for mass market consumption.

             Yet, if I or Parker or anyone else gave either type of cheapie a 78 or even an 83,  wouldn’t everyone consider it an insult, the equivalent of a “don’t buy” recommendation? Parker more or less says this explicitly for wines rated below 85 points. Certainly, when I am in my consumer mode, this is something I don’t look twice at unless I have tasted it and disagree with the evaluation.

             So, we see clustered in a logjam in the mid to upper 80s (and particularly, I think, 86-88) a bunch of wines that I often think are not that comparable at all.  Like I say, I am just as guilty as everyone else, as both a consumer and reviewer. We have really gotten away from the grade point analogy, wherein 80 points, say, would mean “B-,” and would still indicate a wine that is pretty decent if the price is right.

             Identifying the issue is easy, actually. The harder question is…..what to do about it? I have to say….I’m reluctant to change my methods.  When I find a $10 wine that drinks well and I appreciate and I think people should give a chance, I just KNOW that if I give it a 82, I will in effect be saying to most folks, “This isn’t worth your time. Pass.”

             So, if you are expecting any great revolution from this article, don’t. Let’s just all ponder the subject. At least, maybe, I can commit to trying to make notes clearer. (although even now you’ll find plenty of notes I write that go something like “Loses points for lack of ageworthy qualities, but tastes great now…..)  I do think eventually, somehow, we need to uncompress this point scale, and return it to its original meaning. I may not be brave enough  to take the first step, though.


Copyright Mark Squires, © 2003 all rights reserved.