Will the tyranny of Robert Parker’s 100-point system prevail?

THE WORKING POUR

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File photo. File photo.

In December, Robert Parker, the 65-year-old lawyer-cum-wine-scoring demigod, sold a substantial portion of his bi-weekly newsletter, The Wine Advocate, to a group of investors in Singapore. And, a mere month after telling the Wall Street Journal that he would never give up editorial control, he bequeathed his editor-in-chief title to Singapore-based, former Australian wine correspondent Lisa Perrotti-Brown. Parker will retain the title of chairman and continue reviewing the Bordeaux and Rhône wines of which he’s so partial. Questions remain as to whether Parker’s shift is a savvy business move cloaked as semi-retirement, but one thing’s for sure: the wine writing campus has gotten a whole lot roomier without the big man on it.

In the 34 years that Parker’s Maryland-based consumer wine guide grew from a free rag mailed to 600 Americans to a paid subscription distributed to 50,000 people across the U.S. and 37 countries worldwide, he scored countless wines with his million-dollar sniffer. Using a 100-point scoring scale, Parker made both extraordinary (96-100 points) and unacceptable (50-59 points) pupils out of a beverage that’s main purpose is pleasure.

Of course, in America, the land of 35 brands of toothpaste, we treated these scores as our guiding gospel and bought what papa preached. Parker’s influence grew to caricatural proportions, his blessings driving up prices and demand so much that this “advocate” for consumers became an enemy to anyone without bottomless pockets.

Those producers willing to extract and chapitalize (see Winespeak 101) their way to the top began tailoring their wines to suit a palate that, by the very nature of being inundated with hundreds of wines a day, came to favor high-octane fruit bombs over balanced, elegant examples. This homogenizing trend even got a name, The Parker Effect, and Bordeaux producers started waiting for Parker’s ratings before setting the release price of their wines.

However, with the reins now in different hands and a different land (which, by no accident, is the most rapidly developing economic region in the world), will wine scores continue to find their way onto retailer’s shelf-talkers? Even though several other publications adopted the use of scoring (Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson, and Gambero Rosso among them), the practice has been falling out of favor thanks in large part to a movement toward more unique, terroir-driven wines. Two years ago, lovers of these minimalist wines, which are made to embrace the variabilities of nature rather than to ameliorate them, created an online manifesto called the Score Revolution (scorevolution.com). Illustrated by a 100 with a red line through it, their M.O. is “saving place of origin with elegance.” Though the group has yet to stage an actual revolution, they did manage to collect the signatures of 754 individuals and the support of 155 wineries and organizations, one of which is Charlottesville’s own Market Street Wineshop.

Other shops around town, like Wine Warehouse and Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet, use scores, albeit sparingly, to speak to consumers who don’t always trust their own palates.

Yet, in Bill Curtis’ 22 years since opening Tastings of Charlottesville, he’s never relied on scores to sell wine. Rather, he tastes every wine before he buys it and asks his customers 20 questions in order to learn their tastes. “My mantra from the beginning has been to put the customer in better touch with his or her palate,” said Curtis.

Accusations of score inflation have plagued Parker ever since he awarded perfect scores to a whopping 19 Bordeaux from the 2009 vintage. (In contrast, he only gave six wines 100 points in the equally hyped 2000 vintage.) And in the one spit that he expels before deeming these wines flawless and, according to his scoring system, “worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume,” their prices triple overnight.

But even if Bordeaux and the Rhône continue to fall under his dictatorship, the rest of the wine world may soon be restored to democracy—and perfection will go back to being rightfully unattainable.

Virginia wine takes flight
The numbers for fiscal year 2012 reveal that sales of Virginia wine have topped last year’s high by 1.6 percent, or an additional 8,000 cases, bringing the total cases sold in 2012 to 485,000. Perhaps more newsworthy though is that the export sales of Virginia wine grew from about 700 cases in 2011 to more than 3,300 in 2012—a more than 300 percent increase. Driving the majority of these exports are China and the UK, both regions upon which Governor McDonnell has focused, and the latter of which Chris Parker (a Brit who’s lived here for 20 years) has devoted his time introducing to our wines.

WINESPEAK 101
Chapitalization (n.): The controversial practice of adding sugar to wine to increase its alcohol content, and therefore, boost its body.

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