Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale

Even if the 100 point wine scoring system is not going away anytime soon, wine consumers are getting wise to some shameful flaws. Yet another ghastly pair of endemic faults which are seemingly never discussed?

Glass ceilings for certain wines, and perhaps more insidiously: the invisible, deleterious effects of moderation drinker rationale.

DO NOT QUESTION THE GLASS CEILING, MOVE ALONG

“Once the Wine Spectator wrote a story on Beaujolais.  The top wine had a score of 86 or 88.  I sent them a note saying I’d read the article and thought the wine might be to my taste, ‘But could you please tell me the names of people who really know how to make Beaujolais as I’d like to taste some 90+ point wines.’  They wrote back saying ‘You don’t understand. 88 is a good score for Beaujolais.’  I thought maybe there’s something wrong with their measuring scale then … where do these publications indicate the glass ceiling for various wines?” Gerald Weisl of Weimax, tellin’ it like it is1.

As Patrick Piuze noted in an earlier article, certain wines will never traverse a certain score, regardless of how perfect they are.  But it’s bigger than dry white wines. Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.

Can’t a simply perfect inexpensive rosé, or perhaps an addictive Txakolina be scored properly for what it is? Sure: they’re fleeting and won’t live weeks in the fridge once opened, and they’re under $20 … but why reproach them that? How could the winemaker have done any better?

How are consumers to know at a glance if they’re tasting what wine critics suggest is the best a region has to offer without some hidden, secret legend to translate scores?

FATHER DOESN’T ALWAYS KNOW BEST

fatherknowsbestAs if that weren’t enough: it seems moderation drinker rationale may help to explain the market’s penchant for riper, bigger wines, and it may also be driving a critical reticence to more highly score vins de soif.

I’ll never forget an evening many years ago, when I taught English to French elementary school children in Bordeaux and was invited to dine with some parents I’d befriended. I proudly planted the greatest Bordeaux red I could afford on their dinner table. Once dinner was served, a glass was poured for myself and the father of the family, then back inside the cork went, and the bottle was whisked away to the confines of the fridge.

“That’s it?” I thought. “We’re not going to finish the bottle together, laugh, and get slightly drunk tonight…?” (This predated a single iota of wine knowledge on my part, so it would be disingenuous to say I wanted to see how the wine opened up).

What did I learn that night? There are two different types of wine drinkers.

The moderation drinker: the “responsible” drinker, perhaps driven by health considerations, spendthriftness, or religious piety.

Remember that time Noah got drunk and naked? We're never doing that again.
Remember when Noah got drunk and naked in front of his kids? The moderation drinker is never doing that again.

The moderation drinker will cork their wine after a glass, put it in the fridge, and perhaps have a glass the next night.

Contrast with the gargantuan drinker, who drinks many glasses of one wine or multiple wines, in one dinner occasion. Often, these are wine collectors whose cellars are overflowing, or wine industry people gathering and all eager to share wines. (I’m not talking about winos. Non-homeless winos will throw back a box of Franzia or a magnum of Cavit Pinot Grigio and call it a night).

franzia multiple occasions

The gargantuan drinker will handily finish a bottle of lower alcohol Mosel Riesling, or typically finish a half bottle of a sturdier red wine (meaning the bottle should be finished, so long as one is following life’s instructions and isn’t dining alone). Part of the joy of drinking wine is tasting a lot of it, and bouncing it off of many different foods then watching it change in response.

The moderation drinker will more likely have a preference for high-octane wine; the bottle must show loud and fruity out the gate in that single glass, and hold up 2-7 nights given their glacial consumption pace. They’ll also regularly be tasting leftovers around 40° F when the bottle re-emerges from the fridge — a far cry from 55° F cellar temperature. If consumed somewhat quickly, 40° F can help mask a fair share of oak regimen. Honestly, though, I can’t help but wonder if deep down, the moderation drinker secretly wants to get a bit hammered by that single glass, all the while patting himself on the back for his moderation.

By contrast, gargantuan drinkers will not tolerate high-octane wines, as we’ll become hammered after a “mere” glass or two. We’re predisposed to lower alcohol wines, enabling us to continue consuming and exploring.

What happens when you push a moderation drinker too far.

The gargantuan drinker will also likely feel disappointed as there is little evolution in the immutable high-octane red after hours open, and will revel in more fleeting, potentially fragile wines which unfurl over a few hours.

We are in fact two separate populations, with two completely different scorecards. Yet no one seems to wish to acknowledge this phenomenon.

I’m just going to say it: can any moderation drinker ever really be a wine connoisseur? Who could, in the face of such great passion, exercise such restraint? Luther? Short of dire health considerations, I could never imagine ending up in those tight, leather shoes.

In this spirit of delicious, balanced wine to be consumed in case denominations, here are some wines which vehemently resist recorkage and just seem to drink themselves. (The moderation drinker would probably frown upon them, and bitch about having wasted his money).

WINTER IS COMING: DRINK ‘EM DOWN

The cold, bony fingers of wintry death will soon be reaching under our coats and sweaters again, making us wistful for the return of warmer weather. With that in mind: behold! Some candidates for woefully undervalued perfect wines, all inexpensive, low-alcohol and refreshing … and each incapable of receiving scores which reflect their merit:

 

Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina.

2013 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina (chah-ko-LEENa): Once you catch the Txakolina bug, it’s over. Imagine a spritzy, minerally limeade; acid, low alcohol, fresh as hell. That’s what the Hondarrabi Zuri grape does in Spanish Basque country. The Basque pour it through a vaguely drug paraphernalia-looking porrón, or if unavailable these T-shaped plastic inserts they jab in the bottle, raising the vessels as high as possible over their mouth or glass while pouring to oxygenate the wine. It ends up even fizzier in their giant tumbler glasses and seems to call for hot days and fried seafood. The wine seems to drink itself, and you’re left saying, “It’s gone? Already?” The perfect summer refresher, one of the wines (besides perhaps Riesling or Moscato) you reach for once the temperature crawls up past 100 degrees. Or anytime, really. Even the shower. Leaves you feeling clean!

Guilhem rosé

2013 Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Pays d’Hérault Rosé VDP: I have a hard time with rosés — they often strike me as hot or bubblegum-candied once they crawl past 13% ABV, but it’s most often Pinot Noir-based, lower alcohol rosés which charm me. The 2013 vintage produced gorgeous whites and rosés in the Languedoc. This humble VDP rosé is 50% Grenache, 30% Carignan, and 20% Syrah and delivers perfection for around $10. It’s 12%, it’s dry, it’s mineral, it leaves a taste on your palate that’s somewhere between a chocolate-dipped fresh strawberry and a stemmy tomato, and it’s pretty much impossible to stop drinking. Which is why it will be gone in another week from the NYC market. Savor these last few available warm days and bottles. I’ve already sold through around 20 cases at the shop where I work, and the supplier has run out.

Becker Weisserburgunder

2010 Brüder Dr. Becker Weisser Burgunder Trocken Rheinessen: Sure, this bottle is wrapped in a Transylvanian garb, but what’s inside couldn’t be more different from the exterior. What a perfectly gorgeous Pinot Blanc! It straddles a lovely balance between chalky minerality and some fairly ripe, fleshy grapey fruit, with an exquisite measured acid on the finish. The wine somehow feels round and pointed at the same time, and ends up unbelievably drinkable. I imagine this as the ultimate hors d’oeuvre wine, working well either on its own or with an ever-changing onslaught of ‘things on crackers’. As it opens and accumulates on the palate, the chalky minerality begins to remind me a bit of a lean Assyrtiko. This may be more of a divisive wine than the previous two: some may find it too linear (read: boring) or sparse, but I find it the very definition of a vin de soif and want to drink the crap out of it. The current release vintage has probably already reached 2013, which I’ve not yet had the pleasure of trying, but the lovely Lotte Pfeffer-Müller is a skilled winemaker with a steady hand, and while there’s a lotta reasons she’s the President of Ecovin (Federal Association of Organic Wine Producers in Germany) the only one you really care about is: she does things right.

What are your favorite wines that you’ve drunk cases of but which don’t stand a chance in hell of scoring over 90 points? Pour me a glass in the comments.

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  1. Gerald, whose shop is just South of San Francisco, is one of the true old guard retailers in America, with the most adorably retro website that will make you remember AOL CDs and Compuserve. Gotta love him. []

10 comments

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Geez, I’ve been wine blog commenting about this phenomenon for years.

    Let’s jump into our H.G. Wells time travel machine back to 1989.

    Robert Parker is being interviewed by an English classics professor for Wine Times magazine.

    [Sorry, no link. Wine Times never made it into the digital age. And apparently no one “archived” its contents for posterity. One more example that debunks the belief that “everything is on the Internet.”]

    WINE TIMES: … What are your preferences in terms of types and styles of wine?

    PARKER: I do want to taste fruit. …

    WINE TIMES: … What are your weaknesses as a taster?

    PARKER: … I don’t think these are weaknesses, just observations: I don’t like a vegetal character in wines. … I like delicate, elegant wines, . . . I also don’t like wines that are overly tart. Now that may be a weakness. I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified. … if a wine tastes like biting into a fresh lemon or lime, I think that’s an objectionable character. …

    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. …

    … The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.

    I thought one of the jokes of the 20-point systems is that everyone uses half points, so it’s really a 40-point system — which no one will acknowledge — and mine is a 50-point system, and in most cases a 40-point system.

    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.

    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.

    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. Are there lots of wines you taste that you don’t evaluate?

    PARKER: Yes. 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 70s. When I’m looking for a best buy, I might go through hundreds of wines, or when I go through the wines of Hungary or Yugoslavia, I’ll never put most of them in The Wine Advocate. I could never justify taking two or three pages to publish those results. . . .

    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. 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? 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?

    PARKER: 90. That would be a perfect BEAUJOLAIS, and I’ve never given one. I 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.

    Fast forward to 2011: the stellar 2009 vintage cru BEAUJOLAIS garnered scores in the 91 to 94 point range from Wine Advocate.]

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. 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.

    If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] “dry out,” it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.

    Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .

    • Gargantua says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post. I was unaware of this particular interview. While this had indeed been raised in wine circles earlier, no one really seems to be talking about it on blogs I’m frequenting, nor in circles I’m a part of. At any rate, none of this invalidates the utility of my point: that is, critic-heeding consumers are in essence forced to use a map whose legend has been carelessly omitted. And to my knowledge no one has really approached ‘moderation drinker rationale’ notion (it’s bigger than high ABV wine, I believe, even if it often goes hand in hand). It just slays me that a Duboeuf received the highest score–among Foillard, G. Descombes, Thevenet … don’t get me started there. Funny enough, in searching for the details of that Duboeuf wine online I came across your comment (citing the exact text) on this blog: http://fermentationwineblog.com/2014/04/determine-perfection-wine/. I’m curious about the relation between my beloved Georges Descombes (Villié Morgon) and this Jean-Ernest Descombes working for Duboeuf: ah, here we are: http://www.bowlerwine.com/site/producers/524.html. Completely different. I LOVE Georges Descombes’ wine; I tend to hold even Duboeuf’s Bojo crus at arm’s length for obvious reasons. RE Parker’s point methodology and palate aesthetics, *big sigh*, “I do want to tasted fruit”…haha, that’s the most brilliant example of understatement I’ve seen for some time. I’ve always thought awarding or removing points for color is complete bullshit; barring a murky microbial swamp of a wine, I couldn’t care a rat’s ass about color, really. Its only utility to my mind is to infer age. And the whopping 10 points awarded to longevity is another point of contention for me. This will be the subject of a future blog post which I expect will be not only controversial but also the strangest post anyone’s ever read. At any rate: many thanks for posting this; this is perfect source material, and greatly contributes to the discussion!

      • Bob Henry says:

        Understand that the Wine Times interview (the magazine was later renamed Wine Enthusiast) is 25 years old.

        Which is roughly half a lifetime ago for Parker.

        He was still relatively new (circa 1989) to wine criticism . . . developing his palate and developing his writing style and developing his scoring system.

        (Aside: W. Blake Gray addressed Parker’s then conservative wine scores via this blog entry: http://blog.wblakegray.com/2013/06/grade-inflation-at-glance-look-at.html

        The salient question: Are scores raising over the past 25 years because — on average — the world is making better wine . . . or because of wine grade inflation?)

      • Bob Henry says:

        Over on Steve Heimoff’s blog, a spirited debate arose over whether some grape varieties can never attain a 100 point score:

        http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/09/05/is-there-a-glass-ceiling-when-it-comes-to-scoring-certain-wines-hint-yes/

        I wrote:

        “I am a proponent that the 3 ‘puff’ scale/5 ‘star’ scale/20 point scale (UC Davis and British Master of Wine-adopted scale)/100 point scale (The Wine Advocate/Wine Enthusiast/Wine and Spirits/Wine Spectator)/1 million point scale (The HoseMaster of Wine– with ‘bonus’ points for payola/graft) should be equally applied to every grape variety.

        “I don’t discriminate against wines that don’t have the ability to improve with bottle age. Wines that through the ‘tincture of time’ metamorphose into something . . . ‘more.’ ”

        (Which apparently puts me in the distinct minority of wine reviewers, who have an implicit or explicit hierarchy of quality when it comes to selective grape varieties.)

        I went on to write:

        “I find it inconceivable that a Krug rosé Champagne categorically can’t attain a ‘perfect’ score.

        “I find it inconceivable that a white Bordeaux like Haut Brion can’t attain a ‘perfect’ score.

        “I find it inconceivable that a Alsace Riesling like Trimbach ‘Clos Sainte Hune’ can’t attain a ‘perfect’ score.

        “I find it inconceivable that a non-dessert German Riesling from countless producers can’t attain a ‘perfect’ score.

        “If not them, then who?”

        The “best” extant that can’t be topped is — by my definition — a “perfect” version of that wine. Judged against its type.

        In that same Steve Heimoff blog debate I cited the example of pouring a 1985 Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent cru Beauj0lais for burghounds during a “single blind” tasting of older red Burgs circa 2005. (I purposely made it the last wine in the tasting line-up so as not to throw off their palates.) And sure enough, they loved it — fully embracing it as a Burg. (I did too.)

        Disproved Parker’s 1989 assertion that Beaujolaises don’t improve with age.

        That wine is the best cru Beaujolais I have tasting. And I have no problem awarding it 100 points.

        Not 90 points (upper end of The Wine Advocate’s scale circa 1989.) Not 94 points (upper end of The Wine Advocate scale once the impressive 2009 cru Beaujolaises hit the market.)

        For an amusing subterfuge on pouring “fake” wines “blind” for seasoned tasters, see Lettie Teague’s column for Food & Wine magazine:

        http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/wine-scams-a-counterfeiter-confesses

        When Wine Spectator’s reviewer awarded that 100 point score to the 2005 DRC Montrachet, he did so knowing its identity — which violated the magazine’s policy on “single blind” tasting reviews.

        How much did the prestigious label and rarity and expense of the bottle subconsciously / subliminally affect the Wine Spectator reviewer’s assessment? (100 points beyond any doubt. Not “possibly” 99 or 98 or 97 or 96 points?)

        A telling comment by Parker:

        “ . . . 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. ”

        Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002).

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Found this tout alluded to in the “Summer [2008] by Sokolin” catalogue distributed by that Long Island, NY retailer:

    2005 DRC Montrachet
    $5,995 bottle
    100 Points/Wine Spectator

    From the magazine’s website:

    “Both tastings of the Montrachet delivered exotic scents of apricot, pineapple, citronella and honey, still marked by oak. On the palate, it was rich and creamy, almost massive, but unfolds on the palate in waves, with fine structure and a long mineral finish. All the elements are there for a great future. As perfect a young white Burgundy as I have tasted (100/100 points, both non-blind; $2,500-$3,000).”

    [Note: This was not a “single-blind” tasting. — Bob]

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/15377

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Could white Burgundies be denied 100 point scores because of “premox”?

    Now found in selective red wines. Read on . . .

    Excerpt from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”

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

    By Jane Anson
    Reporting from Bordeaux

    Researchers at Bordeaux university’s faculty of oenology have identified a potential issue with premature oxidation affecting red wines.

    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.’

  4. Bob Henry says:

    “Breaking news . . .” on grade inflation.

    From BusinessWeek magazine e-mail blast:

    “TESLA’S NEW CAR IS SO GOOD, IT LITERALLY BROKE THE CONSUMER REPORTS SCALE”

    Summary: “The new P85D is so insanely good that it earned a 103 out of a possible 100 in an evaluation by Consumer Reports magazine.”

    Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-08-27/tesla-with-insane-mode-busts-curve-on-consumer-reports-ratings-idu1hfk0?cmpid=BBD082615_BIZ

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