The Wine Palate
We all do it; it is in our nature as Americans to simplify a topic by attaching significance to a straightforward point system.
Why buy a wine for $25 that only scored 89 points when there is one right next to it for $16 that scored 91 points? After all, the research and palates of professionals who taste and analyze wine every day establish those numbers. Every wine periodical that you pick up has a buying guide based on a 100-point scale and its impact is huge.
Invented by Robert M. Parker in 1978, the scale has become a true staple of the industry. Based on nothing more than a Parker-derived number, known as a Parker Point, a winery can be made or destroyed. While this system does lend itself to making a relatively intimidating topic more accessible to everyone, it also has its drawbacks.
First and foremost, the 100-point system is based on the preferred wine style of the writer.
In the case of Parker and The Wine Spectator, the two most influential sources, the general tendency is to favor those wines that are huge fruit bombs and are well balanced with the least amount of recognizable flaws.
While that is the definition of a good style of wine, there are many others. For example, the more traditional Italian wines have a tendency to have a slight bitter flavor. While this may not seem like a mark of quality, it is a mark of character. More and more wineries are hiring consultants and winemakers that promise to appeal to the palates of the big writers and achieve higher scores. Unfortunately, what these wines may gain in points, they may lose in distinction and character. In addition, the writers seem to favor the "noble varieties," such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, and do not tend to rate grapes such as Tempranillo or Albarino quite as high. This has encouraged winemakers to use the grapes that are more popular with the big magazines and show less focus on their native varieties.
The fact that the system is based on 100 points insinuates that the numbers are derived by some scientific process. According to the Parker scale, which actually starts at 50 and goes to 100, wines that are rated 96 to 100 are extraordinary, 90-95 is excellent, and 80-89 is above average to very good.
Even the writers agree, the numbers are meant to be used as a somewhat rough guide. The difference between an 89-point wine and a 90-point wine is certainly not quantifiable, but its effect on a particular wine’s sales is huge. If wines were rated on a four- or five-point scale I could see attaching a process for categorizing them that any experienced taster could distinguish.
Lastly, there are now so many groups that hold 100-point scales that retailers can just fish for the ones that get the highest points. In fact, some retailers such as Wine.com and the 55-store chain from California, Beverages and More, write their own points.
What prevents these companies from jacking up the points to boost sales? So be careful, when you are reading the shelf talkers at the wine store, check the source. While I would never recommend buying by points, if you are going to, it might be of interest to know that Robert Parker does not accept advertisements from wineries in his magazine as to not be swayed by his income source.
I encourage you to stop paying attention to the points. Instead, take the time to read the tasting notes. They will be much more expressive than a number could ever be and will guide you to a wine that better suites your palate.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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