I’ve addressed this subject a few times in the past and for some reason unbeknownst to me, it keeps creeping into the shadows of my mind. Something happened recently that jerked the subject out of the shadows and moved me to consider another article on wine scores, wine critics and wine apps since they are all intertwined.
As most of us know, Robert Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point scoring system for wines back in the 1980s. He of course was not the first to come up with some sort of way for a wine critic to relay their take on a wine they were reviewing. Some used wine glasses, stars, or a point system that did not even come close to reaching 100. It was Parker’s system, however, that took a solid foothold and still is the most popular way to score wines today. The only difference is that now a critic will rarely publish a review where a wine scores less than 85 points. I read somewhere that there is someone who is considering a system that goes higher than 100 points. This prompts the question…How important are these scores and should you use them when making a purchasing decision?
Scores, especially high scores are most important to the wineries. When a critic scores a wine 90+ points, the winery that produced that particular wine is almost guaranteed to sell more of it. If they are fortunate enough to grab a 98+ score, they will most likely sell out of it quickly. The importance of good scores for wineries was really brought to my attention one day when I was having lunch with a winemaker/winery owner from Paso Robles. He was looking through emails on his phone and expressed frustration about not being able to get certain wine critics to give his wines solid scores (90 points or more). You could feel his angst from across the table. In his mind, his wineries future success really hinged on garnering good scores. I know he is not alone. Walk into most tasting rooms at wineries and look at their walls. Proudly posted are high scores given to some of their wines by well-known wine periodicals and critics. Basically, high scores move wine and moving wine (selling) is what makes a winery successful. I get it. There are a few wineries and I mean a few, that give no heed to wine scores. They sell their wine by developing a loyal following through wine clubs and hitting the pavement promoting their product. That’s what the winemaker from Paso Robles was doing and I was able to taste his wines and immediately became a fan. To this day, it is the only wine club that I belong to (hit me up and I will let you know which winery). So we understand the importance of wine scores for wineries, but what about their importance to us as consumers.
The aforementioned incident that happened recently and prompted me to write this article involved a customer that was perusing my department looking for wines to purchase. He was using an app on his phone that would give him information on scores certain wines have garnered by simply taking a picture of the label. He was there for nearly an hour, snapping pictures of labels and reading what others had said about the wine. I asked him several times if he needed assistance. He shrugged me off and said he was doing just fine. Finally, he started to share with me just how cool the app was that he was using and how it was helping him make decisions. I wondered silently to myself why he hadn’t asked for my help, since I was the wine specialist running the department, at least that’s what my nametag said. We talked about a few wines after that and it was then that I realized he was not a local. My regular customers, like to ask for my help. They’ve become accustomed to my desire to lead them to a wine that they will like at a price they can afford. This is because I take great interest in understanding each individual’s palate. I am certainly not perfect at it, but I give it my best effort. Scores are really not all that important to my customers. They are more interested in seeking my help (or my assistants) rather than some critic who knows nothing about their likes and dislikes. If you walk into a wine department with signs all over declaring so and so gave a wine this score and so and so gave a wine that score, my first guess is that the store does not have a full-time wine steward. Or, it is quite possible that whoever is in charge, gives great importance to scores. Like a lot of wineries, they know scores sell. Here is why I have a problem with that,
There is one prominent critic (I see his name all over scores), that is a heavy cigar smoker. I used to smoke cigars myself and enjoyed them very much. However, I noticed that it had started to affect my ability to get certain nuances out of wine. I quit (although I still enjoy one about twice a year…Maybe) so that I could get my acute tasting ability back. It worked and the nuances in many wines started to come back to me. I’m not saying this cigar-smoking wine critic doesn’t know what he is doing. Of course, he does. But, one wonders if the flavor profile of a wine he is reviewing is tainted a bit by his habit. Does the wine have to be bigger, bolder, or more tannic for him to appreciate what he is drinking? This was something that Robert Parker Jr. (now retired) was accused of, not because he smoked cigars, but it was because of the type of wines he preferred. A lot of his critics claimed he only gave big scores to hedonistic style wines. He was not well received in Burgundy and rarely gave good scores to the leaner wines of the Loire Valley. A lot of people I knew hated some of the wines that RP gave big scores. I will admit, that he was right on a lot of times. But, the point is, you have to like the kind of wines that he liked. This is where I think retail experience trumps the wine critic world. What do I mean?
Working in retail, you have to face a customer after you have sold them a bottle of wine. If you don’t work hard at trying to find out what they like, it could bite you in the you-know-what, when they came back. It’s happened to me a few times in the early days and I always felt bad. Why hadn’t I taken more time to find out what their palate was like? I could have taken the simple route and said this wine was given 93 points by Rabert Parker Jr., it must be good. What if this person enjoyed Cab Franc from the Loire Valley. Had I asked a few questions, I would have found that out and gone an entirely different direction. It really bothers me when a customer comes back and says that they really didn’t like the last wine I recommended. A critic on the other hand can slap their scores on a bottle of wine and never have to face the customer who took their advice, based on the score they gave. I suppose there is a person out there who may write them to complain about their recommendation, I’m not sure. But, overall they can wipe their hands clean and never know how people felt about their assessment of a wine. I don’t have that luxury. Scores are not important to me, the customer’s palate is and I want to put a bottle of wine in their hands that will keep them coming back for my advice.
Yes, scores have their place and will most likely never go away. However, as a consumer who does not want to spend money on something they will not enjoy, scores can be deceiving, Unless you take the time to research the track record of a certain critic, you may find yourself let down more often than you like. Find someone you trust, someone who cares about what you like and seek their advice. I’m not the only wine steward out there that has the desire to lead their customers down the road of palate satisfaction. If you choose to follow the scores of critics, that’s fine. If you want to go home with a bottle of wine that will fit your palate and not break the bank, come see me.
Stan The Wine Man