Robert Parker’s Wine Ratings Creep

Paul Blow

Is 93 the new 90? I don’t put much weight in Robert Parker’s wine scores; my palate doesn’t coincide with Parker’s much, and I don’t like to read tasting notes. But flipping through an issue of his newsletter The Wine Advocate can be casually entertaining in the way a gossip rag is: It’s fun to see which wineries will be riding high or down in the dumps. After perusing the current issue—and several other issues over the past year—there seems to be a definite creep toward higher ratings.

It used to be said that, while technically just one point apart, the difference between an 89- and a 90-point score for a wine was huge. One retailer told the New York Times that if a certain wine had scored an 89, “we would have sold a tiny fraction of what we’ll end up moving.” But because it got a 90-point rating in Wine Spectator (which also uses Parker’s 100-point system) he was confident he’d sell out his entire stock. The difference between an A and a B is drummed into us from school age, and there has always been speculation that the 100-point wine rating scale mirrors that grading system a little too closely.

The Advocate’s ratings explanation says: “As you will note through the text, there are few wines that actually make it into this top category [90–100] because there are not many great wines.” But a cursory tally of scores in the three biggest sections of the most recent issue showed that 68 percent of the wines scored 90 or higher. In Jay Miller’s survey of Spanish wines, which rated approximately 640 bottles, not counting the “best buy” list, a whopping 90 percent scored over 90 points, with half of those scoring 93 or above. Now, there have been some good vintages in Spain lately, but that’s a lot of “great wines.”

Greg Linn, owner-winemaker of Ambullneo Vineyards, told me: “Ninety-three doesn’t mean shit anymore. You’ve got to get a 96 for the phone to ring.” The Advocate rains acclaim down on a wine, and the world answers with a big, fat yawn.

The end of 2006 brought several changes to Parker’s staff of critics, with two well-known writers being replaced with relative unknowns. In issue number 175, the two new critics seem rather ratings-happy, giving the highest percentage of 90-plus scores. By comparison, Parker’s reviews seem restrained. And on many wines, Parker gives a range (e.g., “90–92”), whereas the new critics give solid, absolute numbers almost all the time. Because of this, Parker’s reviews seem somehow more human—it is actually very difficult to assign a number to a wine. Simply because of these lower, less specific scores I find myself instinctively believing more in Parker than his colleagues.

I take all this as a sign of the end of the tyranny of wine scores. They’re inconsistent, reductive, misleading, and one-dimensional. And the less the numbers matter, the less superficial and more independent the world of wine becomes.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.