In Defense of the 100-Point Scoring System. Kind Of.

Want to get a serious wine lover’s knickers in a twist? Just ask him what he thinks of the 100-point scoring system. Nothing is quite so controversial — and ubiquitous — as the 100-point scale. Popularized by Robert Parker, the World’s Foremost Wine Critic or the Scourge of the Wine Industry, depending on whom you talk to, Parker had the clever idea to rate wines according to the 100-point system. This grading tool, familiar to anyone who’s ever passed through the American school system, has guided many a wine shopper — and pissed off more wine professionals that you can imagine.

Look, I don’t pay any attention to Parker points. I find the people who follow him slavishly a little off-putting. But my occasional annoyance at Parker and his acolytes is dwarfed by my chagrin at people who love nothing more than to complain about him. Why so much rage, you guys? It makes me make feel like I need to defend the 100-point system. So here’s my attempt to refute the most popular anti-Parker arguments:

1. Wine is beautiful, magical, transcendent, something so special that it can not be reduced to a mere number. I love wine. I have had my share of magical experiences around great bottles that count among the happiest moments of my life.  But for most of us, wine is an enjoyable beverage. The vast majority of consumers who don’t know a ton about wine are looking for a good bottle that won’t break the bank, and, every so often, a splurge that lives up to its price tag. If the 100-point scale system is helpful in those pursuits, who am I to judge? The world of wine is vast and diverse, and there’s enough room for those of us who take it very seriously, and those of us who just want to have a good time. Imagine if the movie industry operated the same way. It would be like going around to people waiting in line to buy tickets to Eat, Pray, Love, telling them they are boors for seeing the movie just because their local critic gave it three-and-a-half stars, all while waving the latest issue of Cahiers du Cinéma in their face.

2. Robert Parker is evil. Therefore, the 100-point scoring system is evil. If I remember correctly from my 10th grade ethics class, this is what’s called an ad hominem argument. Attacking the man instead of the issue at hand. If we only read books, watched movies, or embraced innovation and technology created by likeable people, the structure of our DNA would be undiscovered, the iPhone wouldn’t exist, and our only entertainment would be an endless loop of Sandra Bullock movies on TBS. (Although don’t get me wrong, I love Sandra Bullock.) This argument is illogical, annoying, and childish. Next.

3. I’m OK with assigning numerical scores to wine, but the 100-point scale is arbitrary. This is the most reasonable of all the arguments out there, even though I don’t quite buy it. Yes, the 100-point scale is imperfect, and damned if I know the difference between a 91 point one and a 92 point one. There’s a certain Scholastic “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” nature to a 100-point scale, but that arbitrariness is inherent in any grading or evaluation system. Does the fact that it’s numerical annoy people? Or does 100 seem like too large a range, in which case does that make Jancis Robinson’s 20-point system only 1/5th as stupid?

4. The 100-point-scoring system is the Worst Thing to Ever Happen to Wine in the United States, if not the WORLD. This is my favorite. We should be so lucky! I can think of plenty of things that are much worse for the wine industry. Insane wine mark ups at restaurants. The U.S.’s anti-consumer three-tier distribution system. French wine subsidies. Anti-alcohol crusaders. Confusing labeling laws. Shall I go on?

5. The 100-point system is the reflection of one man’s tastes. This one is pretty accurate. It’s no secret what kind of wines Robert Parker likes (big, bigger, and biggest), and that he’s not one for subtlety. But I don’t think that’s a huge problem, and here’s why. First, he’s representative of the American palate overall. Yes, we eat too much artificially flavored, oversweetened crap that has wreaked havoc on our taste buds and makes us crave more flavor, more sweetness, more stimulation, more, more, more. But as Americans, we have access to a greater variety of good, intensely flavored food from around the world than pretty much anyone else in the universe. Inhabitants of even a moderately sized U.S. city can probably find some good Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian and BBQ within half an hour of their homes–not something you can say about the average European. (But if anyone can tell me about some great Vietnamese and soul food  joints in Rennes, Turin, or Stuttgart, I’m all ears.)  I’d argue that all of these cuisines can work well with bold flavors, so we’re not morons for gravitating towards these big wines.

Second, the problem with Parker’s palate isn’t its existence, but its primacy. Since the 1980s, his palate has been the only one that’s mattered, and the 100-point scale has been the dominant wine rating point of reference. His stamina and talent for self-promotion, among other characteristics, have kept him on top and made it tough for other voices, palates, and evaluation systems to emerge.

But this is America, gosh darn it. We don’t wring our hands about the other guy’s success. We tip our cap, come  up with something better, and work our butts off to steal market share away from him. This is actually happening, albeit incrementally. Wine bloggers are gaining a little traction, although probably not as much as we’d like to think. Some folks are doing interesting stuff with wine badges. Wine retailers are working harder to educate their customers, writing their own shelf talkers instead of relying on Parker points, offering more tastings, and organizing their selections around what foods to match them with or their taste profiles. Olive Garden, the restaurant chain that sells more wine than any other in the U.S., lets patrons try wine for free and organizes its wines by flavor profile, with nary a Parker score in sight. Granted, I don’t eat at the Olive Garden and this is a boring list, but it’s well priced, with accessible wines that probably complement the food they serve.

These may be baby steps, but they’re definitely steps. The quality and variety of wine available right now on the U.S. market in unparalleled. Is the 100-point scale the ideal way to get consumers to drink the best, and most varied, selection of wine out there? Of course not. But let’s move on.  Give the guy his due and come up with something better.

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